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Interview: Breakthrough Malayali Emcee Dabzee On His Historic Mass Appeal Partnership, ‘Manka’, The Fearless Art of Protest Rap & Folklore

Photo: Mohammad Sagar

Ahead of his historic debut with Nas’ marquee record label Mass Appeal India, Culture Haze spoke to Dabzee. Born Mohammed Fazil, the prolific emcee, record producer and songwriter has risen to unprecedented prominence in Southern India’s burgeoning Hip-Hop scene and is recognized for brash rap records about social activism, the cinematic southern grandiose and human rights.

Read our far-reaching conversation with the “Manavaalan Thug” about his major label debut “Manka”, his debut mixtape “10 Gully” featuring some of the most impactful southern artists, the fierce Hip-Hop collective “Manushyar”, the rapper’s evocative point of view on conserving folklore and Malabar’s glorious musical heritage and its vivid metamorphosis into rap music, & even British Drill as his Thudwiser-produced single with Mass Appeal suggests, and more.

Dabzee, man how’s everything? We’ve been covering your music & southern rap music for a while now and have keenly documented your extraordinary rise to the top. Whether it’s the Malabar heavy singles or your most recent mixtape, people seem to truly resonate with your music and now, it’s time for your Mass Appeal debut. How does it feel & how turnt the southside is right now? 

Man, it’s massive out here. It’s loud and bustling and has never felt this way before. Rap music is everywhere. Personally, I have been really really busy. Besides studio sessions, I’m travelling and performing everywhere down south. Just me & my boys travelling town to town. So yeah, a whole lot of travelling, recording and a whole lot of performing. 

Before we discuss at length about your Mass Appeal debut, I wanted to first take it back to the earliest days of your career. Perhaps, everybody knows by now that ‘Manavaalan Thug’ really put you on the map. It’s the one breakthrough track that everybody has asked you about. How was life before that track… before you turned into the Malabar rapstar that you’re today? 

I’m always with music. I mean, I’m always either producing music or writing it. I was strongly inclined towards music in my school and years at college. However, it was more of an escape for me… a leisure. After I finished my degree, I went to Dubai for work but I continued to make a lot of unreleased music which is still with me. It was just a matter of time before I realized that this was something I seriously wanted to do. 

My resolve became even stronger when I came back to Kerala during the pandemic. I worked in Dubai for six years as a travel consultant and I lost my job as massive lay-offs were happening at the time. So yeah, I came back to India and planned on staying back for 28 days. It was during that time that I learned a thing or two about myself with the biggest one being that I have to pursue this artform. 

So yeah, with Section 144 everywhere, I wrote more than 18 to 20 tracks at that time and I went outside with them… and look what I’ve done within two years. I think ‘Manavaalan Thug’ was the 13th or the 14th track that I wrote at the time. I had no clue that it would turn into such a major phenomenon and entertain so many people. 

How did that happen, though? For the track to turn into such a massive breakthrough not just for you but for Malayali rap music. We’re sure you would’ve asked this to yourself too.

Oh, man! Glad you asked me that and yes, I often ask myself that question too. Haha! Well, I think it’s because the track has the original Malabari ingredients. I’m from Malabar and we have such vibrant cultures and even subcultures. I have a lot of stories to tell and I think people abroad or even in the rest of India don’t know about it.

We, in Malabar, have diverse musical art forms and when I sincerely attempted to observe my identity, I found inspiration in everything and such good rhyme schemes just came about naturally. So yeah, while the breakthrough of ‘Manavaalan Thug’ wasn’t instinctive, it was an honest step in that direction… an avenue to truly represent where I came from and people loved it. 

I’m influenced by two cultures. One is folk… my Kerala roots and the other is Malabar. It’s from there that I’ve learned and observed Middle Eastern cultures and we know Arabic… that helps too. You’ll be further surprised by the subcultures we’ve in our coastal areas. Whether it’s Hyderabad… the art of Qawwali travels from there and ends in Malabar… or Coke Studio too.

Everything finds its way back to Malabar and it has enabled me to have access to so many ingredients. From Arabic to Qawwali… even my single “Khalbum Katti” has a lot of Arabic words. Nobody knows that until now, brother.

Back in Dubai, did you make music by yourself or had a community of fellow rappers & record producers to do it with?

Ah! It was mostly me and Beats on YouTube. Whatever the type of beat I want, I would just skim through it on that platform. It was a very interesting process for me… to create something from bare scratch and I do it even to this day. I think it has also helped me a lot as a musician. 

Now, I can make a track within two hours on a good day and it’s cause of the things I learned back then. Besides YouTube, I’m an avid fan of Spire. It’s much easier to get the full package in there. Within two or three days, I can link up with good record producers and get it done with.  So yeah man, that’s how it was. Now, I have producers though. That’s changed. 

Are there any rare Soundcloud rap records or a bunch of unreleased Dabzee tracks that we may find today?

Oh, I couldn’t be so sure of that. But I would tell you one thing. I’ve made a lot of genres because I don’t want to be stuck in a room. I want to fly and it’s only fair for an artist to keep on trying and seeing new things. Music is life for me and I am still very curious… almost like a small baby when it comes to this art form. For me, creating something resembles cultivating a barren land. I’m always involved in music… it drives me.

So majorly, it was your own deeply personal hustle in Dubai. While you didn’t put out music at the time, you would go back from your job to your home just writing music. I think it was COVID which changed everything for you and you wondered, ‘Holy shit man, I ain’t got a job so I’ll do music. What do I have to lose anyway? I’m just gonna put my music on Spotify’. Was it so? We’re just trying to connect the dots here.  

Oh yes. That’s exactly what happened. I just didn’t want to give up on music, you know. It saved my life. It has saved everyone’s lives at some point in time, I think. 

And then, magic happened you know. One day I thought “Okay, let’s go. I have to do something with music.” That’s the only intention I had but I never thought that I’d reach Mass Appeal and I’ll debut with them too. Brother, I have already collaborated with one of my favourite artists KSHMR. Just yesterday, I released a soundtrack for a movie with Sushin Shyam – one of my all-time favourite artists. 

For Kerala and southern rap music, the collaboration between me and Mass Appeal is deeply rooted in history. For more than a century, people have listened to this folklore and it serves as a legacy for all my Malabari people. Even in Kerala or the Middle East, people know and sing this folklore. It’s my grandma’s favourite track. Can you imagine? So yeah, this folklore has so much of a legacy behind it and I get to release this and relive it for my people with Mass Appeal. I feel so honoured. 

Mass Appeal’s Ranbir ‘KPR’ Kapoor: If I may, originally, we weren’t going to do that track because the first time I spoke to Dabzee, he didn’t have plans of doing this track altogether.

Stream ‘Manka’ by Dabzee & Thudwiser via Spotify as you continue to read our exclusive interview.

Haha yes. This track, “Manka” also involves samples from a very huge South Indian record “Malarkodiye” by Peer Mohammad. Sadly, Peer Mohammad Sahab is no longer alive and it was a massive challenge for us to get that sample cleared. As Ranbir said, it held me back from releasing this record. It took us seven months to get the track and all the clearances together.

I was further hesitant because people love “Malarkodiye” with all their hearts and it’s a cultural phenomenon. For me, to bring my flavours into it, which are heavily inspired by classic British drill, I always wondered whether people would resonate with the record or not. It’s a huge responsibility on my shoulders to do justice to Peer Mohammad Sahab’s extraordinary composition.

While I was hesitant, I think it’s my responsibility as an artist to push the boundaries of Malayali rap music too. So yeah, here we are. With all due respect to Peer Mohammad, the track is yours now. I can’t wait for you to listen to it and tell me how it feels. 

Please speak to us about your collective ‘Manushyar’. Through that massive consortium of southern rappers and artists, you often speak against social injustice and about southern politics & human rights. What inspired you to lean towards protest rap quite early on in your career?

Well, I wouldn’t say just protest rap because I feel that my knowledge about Hip-Hop is forever evolving. I don’t listen to rap music as much as you may think I do because I’m listening to diverse genres and art forms. As far as expressing through protest rap or political rap… I think that while politicians or leaders may influence people, art is something else.

For 10 politicians, I think just one artist is enough and of course, as an artist, I have a responsibility to do so too… to help my people. Even “Manushyar” means “human”. The first letter of “Manushyar” is “Ma” or mother, and the first letter of “Malayalam” is “Ma”… it’s just so pure. So yeah, I think my music, or for that matter anyone’s music, serves a deeper purpose besides entertainment. For me, my music reflects the story of my life. It’s a huge part of what I go through.

I’ve spoken to a lot of protest rappers. In Bombay, we have the Swadesi Movement, in Kashmir there’s Ahmer… they have often faced a lot of flagrant threats for the type of music that they have made. Have you faced such incidents in your career in Southern India too?

I’m always receiving threatening messages… but see, even if you are doing or saying something right, people will still criticise you. However, it doesn’t affect me. I’m here to say my side of the story and what my people go through. 

Can you speak to us briefly about your debut mixtape ‘10 Gully’? Nine tracks, features stacked. Please talk to us about that project.

“Manushyan”, “Maarijan”, “Oora”… everything I wrote during the pandemic. I guess because they were written around the same time, it felt coherent enough to me to put it together on a project. 

When did you record it and gather all the artists together?

Oh, it was very seamless. Soon after writing the mixtape, I surfed through my phone to see who would be interested in this project. At the time there were very few artists in the southside. One was Street Academics… there were Parimal Shais & Hanumankind, ThirumaLi, Fejo, MC Cooper and a few others. So, I was just sitting back and listening to their discographies, remarkable as I must say. However, the true essence of Malabar was still missing from trap music, that ingredient wasn’t there.

“Manavaalan Thug” was one such track which came out. Even if it’s trap on the surface, there are still two to three genres mixed within that track. So yeah, I just tried making something more in sync with our times, you know trap & Hip-Hop, but with more Malabari influences. 

Even “La Vida” with KSHMR was one such effort too… and I wrote “Oora” to express support for the farmers’ protest in Punjab. “Oora” in Malayali translates to “backbone”. I firmly believe that farmers are the backbone of this gorgeous country of ours and I had to say something about the incidents which were happening at that time. They are the real kings actually and we are nothing without them.

I’m aware that the track was vehemently political and I received many threats because of it but it didn’t discourage me. A lot more tracks are on their way this year which will reflect my personal stories and opinions. 

We now gotta talk about your historic career breakthrough with Mass Appeal. There’s an entire legacy involved… whether it’s top-tier East Coast Rap in New York… we got Nas, Dave East and so many influential affiliates as part of its roster to Indian rap music now with Divine, Karan Aujla, Raf-Saperra and more setting standards for South Asian rap music across the world.

How does it feel to be associated with a remarkable record label such as Mass Appeal for ‘Manka’? 

Like you said, it’s a pivotal moment in my rap career. What more can I say, man… I’m very grateful. Moreover, I want to give Ranbir his flowers. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without him. It’s rare for an executive, and I’ve dealt with a lot of executives in my career, to go out of his way and help artists such as me.

This partnership with Mass Appeal has brought a lot of hope in Southern India. Young kids, artists, rappers and record producers are now sincerely motivated to create more art. Previously, it wasn’t like this. We barely had the resources to reach Mumbai and partner with a label such as Mass Appeal. Now, we’re in the middle of a revolution is how I like to put it.

We did have a far-reaching conversation with Mass Appeal through Ranbir ahead of this interview. We spoke at length about Mass Appeal’s foray into Southern India and how distinct the scene was there from the rest of India, or I must say Northern India which is often considered the bastion of Indian rap music.

How difficult was it for you, personally, to introduce Ranbir, someone who has an association with a label which catered to a Northern Hindi Punjabi speaking audience until now, to introduce him to your art form and your lifestyle and be like, ‘Yo, this is what we do. This is how huge it is. And this is what’s up like’… how difficult was that?

I guess it’s about a choice, you know. Every person has a choice, right? I met Ranbir, an executive from the Mass Appeal label, during my Spotify Rap 91 debut in Mumbai. We interacted there for a short time and that was the beginning of it. Eventually, he took that risk and we welcomed him to the Southside.

It’s rare, man. To date, I haven’t had a music exec visit me, or I would say live with me, and foster that relationship on a human level first. That’s what led to this single. It’s a gift from God to me and my people.

What were the conversations with him at the time? If you could speak to us about it since it was your first formal interaction with Mass Appeal?

Dabzee: Well, I’m a very selective person myself. I’m always creating, that’s just how an artist’s brain is wired, I guess… I mean, it’s easy for me to separate fakes from the real. I also had this perception, which every artist has I guess, that this is an A&R from a major label… he might be here and just care about business and everything… you know the usual impressions.

However, Ranbir stayed here for almost two weeks and was genuinely interested in the Southern culture and why I make music or do what I do. That helped both of us with breaking through that practical ceiling, you know and here we are. 

And what’s interesting is how Mass Appeal started from scratch. It chose Kerala… from where Malabar starts. It’s now reaching other states too and I’m so glad to see that happen for my people in Tamil Nadu and other southern states as well.

We gotta speak with you about ‘La Vida’. We’re certain that your association with Mass Appeal, which was announced ahead of ‘Karam’ must have paved the way for that collaboration between you, Vedan and KSHMR, it’s also the second-highest streamed track on that album after ‘Haath Varthi’. It’s interesting because the album features many influential Northern artists such as Raftaar, Seedhe Maut, Nazz & more. Did you foresee this impact? 

Man, I firmly believe… I want to sincerely thank the audiences behind me, Baby Jean, Vedan, ThirumaLi and my other fellow Southern artists because they’re always listening to it. We just have one playlist… that’s a lifetime playlist. Haha. The playlist would have “La Vida”, “Sambar” and every track which gets released and ends up on that playlist and my people won’t stop listening to it… and I must tell you, the playlists are not about capturing a trend… it’s cultural and deeply rooted in people’s lives. Whether on a public bus, a restaurant or even a wedding… every southern kid is listening to “La Vida”.  

Besides these unbelievable fans, the art matters equally. I feel, and it’s something that I’ve learned in my career, that if done honestly, art just makes a home in people’s hearts.

KSHMR’s efforts on “La Vida” reflected that so much. Through Mass Appeal, I got a great chance to work with KSHMR. I’m aware of his contributions to the music industry. From sample packs, which have helped so many producers to his music through Dharma, I was aware of it and for me, it was a dream come true. So, when we saw that opportunity coming, me and Vedan gave it our all and people just loved it. 

When we listen to your music, we hear two distinct artists. There’s one who is brash with lethal choppa bars and there’s one… 

Oh, I listen to a lot of Rock & Grunge. You know, Mother Jane, Avial, Three Doors Down, Limp Bizkit & more… 

Yeah, so we hear this Dabzee and then there’s another Dabzee who is so melodic and draws inspiration from Southern Folk. Even your recent track ‘Ballaatha Jathi’ with Baby Jean & Neeraj Madhav was quite melodic too. How did you get that falsetto? 

Man, glad you asked me that. I always used to train my vocals with Sufi songs. Besides being an emcee or a singer, I want to be a good composer too. So, I think, in fact, I firmly believe now that people have begun to appreciate my vocals, the falsetto comes from my experiences with Sufi, Qawwali and Malabari while growing up. 

Shortly after Mass Appeal announced its partnership last summer, you joined forces with Thudwiser, ThirumaLi & Fejo on ‘Sambar’. How did that collaboration come about? It was a major career breakthrough and for many, a result of the sprawling announcement by Mass Appeal India. 

So, ThirumaLi hit me up to do this track with Fejo and Thudwiser. We’ve worked together before too… it was quite natural and easygoing for us. If you ask me, it’s their track and I was happy to support them in any way that I can. It did make noise at the time for certain.  

Since we’re talking about your partnership with Mass Appeal and ThirumaLi getting signed to the label too, what did you think about ‘Kadha’ by Vedan? It’s a conscious rap record… something that he is best at. Does that make you proud and at the same time, push you to release a Mass Appeal debut which is the best in the game too? 

Well, everyone is doing their thing. While that does push me, there’s no competition. In fact, I and Vedan are often producing and writing music together at each other’s homes. I’m so proud of what he does and the respect is mutual. 

How’s the energy in the room when perhaps you, Vedan, ThirumaLi and Baby Jean sit in a room together just writing music? Do you guys help each other out and at times, even criticise each other at that time? 

Well, if you ask me, and I hope the boys don’t come after me for this, we never create when we’re together. Haha! Whenever we’re in the same room, we’re just having a good time, listening to some Urdu ghazals, Malayalam, or Hindi tracks. We never create. It’s a big no no. 

We are very blessed to be together and we cherish that time. We’re aware that we have a big responsibility on our shoulders but we can’t be perfect every single day, you know.  Also, we’re so distinct from each other. Vedan’s way of creating music is completely different from that of Baby Jean’s. Jean’s way of doing so is different from mine. So, while there is that responsibility, we fulfil it in our own ways. We all respect what is going on inside… I strongly believe if an artist has an ego, it won’t work. 

We want to speak with you about ‘Manka’ now. Talk to us about it man, we can’t wait.

“Manka” is a soul. She’s very powerful. She’s very brave. She’s intelligent. She’s very responsible. It’s a story about a bride. That’s what “Malarkodiye” is. It’s a traditional song sung at southern weddings. It’s so pure that I can’t break that ingredient and neither I intend to do so. I can’t write to it any further or do anything because I honour the traditions of my people. So, I did have that limitation. However, the story is so pure that the limitations don’t bother me much. I just hope people love it and appreciate it. It’s a heartfelt story. 

You’re singing this southern folklore over British Drill. 

Yes! I was just listening to various British Drill instrumentals and it just struck me. Suddenly, this one week, I started singing “Malarkodiye” over a classic South London sound and asked my friend to film it for me. “Aye Aye Aye” and we just posted that on Instagram. Next thing we know, we’re sitting at millions of views and we locked the track in. “Manka” is gonna change everything for Southern rap music. 

Mass Appeal shares a close relationship with Divine – one of the greatest Indian emcees to ever do it. In the earliest days of Divine’s career, Mass Appeal helped push his discography and has been there ever since. Did you perhaps speak to Divine about your music? 

Oh, I haven’t yet but Divine continues to be one of my favourite Indian artists. I further admire Emiway Bantai’s early discography and MC Stan’s records without autotune… then there’s Seedhe Maut for their rawness… I admire that.

You recently performed in Western Europe. It was a massive one for Southern music. Besides music, it’s quite interesting how you express yourself through clothing. It’s quite distinct and we were curious to know about your influences in fashion. Perhaps, any live performers that you look up to in that realm? 

For sure. As I said previously in our conversation, I’m deeply influenced by rock music. Even before rap, I thought of making a rock band… a six-piece or a four-piece band. I trained myself in growling too. So yeah, The Down Trodden has heavily influenced how I present myself onstage. Besides that band, Avial has inspired my style as well and you would often find me headbanging or growling during my concerts too.

Since we have discussed so many records, can we briefly chat about your most recent single ‘Ballaatha Jathi’ with Baby Jean & Neeraj “NJ” Madhav?

Yeah, of course. Neeraj Madhav contacted me to do this track with him and Baby. He’s one of the biggest southern actors and briefed me about this single “Ballaatha Jathi”. When I listened to the production on that track, I was immediately in the zone. You know, oftentimes, whenever a new beat or song comes my way, I listen to it with my eyes closed and feel it. It helps me gauge the mood of the track… whether it’s fresh or calm. I loved R. Zee’s composition on it and I sent Madhav two demos. He went with the one which you’ve heard. 

Your Mass Appeal debut has stirred many conversations about Hip-Hop/Rap in Kerala and as you said, has pushed rappers to take this art form as a career. What’s your message for those underground rappers and record producers who look up to you and see you as an example?

Yes, my partnership with Mass Appeal is the beginning of a platform for these artists to build their craft on. Previously, it was naturally assumed that even if you take your art seriously, you will never get a good income out of it or sustain yourself. After my partnership with Mass Appeal was announced, I’m getting offers for films… from various filmmakers, music producers and more. Even the collaboration with KSHMR happened through that. So, that has encouraged a lot of artists in Kerala to pursue their art whatever form that may be. 

Any message for your ardent fans who will be reading this interview when it comes out?

I’m very grateful to my fans. Your admiration is a result of my prayers to the Gods above me. You hold a very special place in my heart and are my only people.  Thank you for supporting me. Manka. Mass Appeal. We’re coming!