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Interview: KSHMR Opens Up About Debut Indian Rap Album ‘Karam’ With Mass Appeal India, Tour Life & Navigating Through Mumbai Streets

Picture: Lost Films: Tirth Dodia & Avadh Gajjar

When global EDM, Trap & Bass pioneer KSHMR, born Niles Hollowell-Dhar,  announced his debut Indian rap album ‘Karam’, it breathed fresh air into India’s thriving Hip-Hop scene. While millions of KSHMR’s avid listeners see his upcoming LP as the biggest rap album of the year in India, for many artists and record producers, ‘Karam’ is the much-needed cultural push which might go down as one of the most revered Hip-Hop albums in history.

We caught up with KSHMR, the superproducer behind ‘Karam’, for a far-reaching conversation about his debut Indian rap LP as he provides the most intimate account of how it was built from scratch. Besides the LP, KSHMR opens up about his key influences, the affecting legacy of the late Sidhu Moose Wala and his extraordinary tour life which recently made its foray into India.

How’s everything, Niles? You’re in Los Angeles right now and left Mumbai just a few days ago. What’s good ahead of ‘Karam’?

Yeah Bro, it’s been, it’s been amazing. I’m here in L.A. and just been workin’ on now getting back to a little bit of dance music because I’ve been so focused on this Hip-Hop album ‘Karam’. I’m just excited for the world to hear the music.

We surely have a lot to catch up on. However, first, why is the LP titled ‘Karam’?

So, I went through so many ideas… I had a list of like 50 ideas. In the album, we tell the story through the interludes and this was something that I came up with very early on. I wanted, in each session with the musician… with the rappers, to tell them about the story I had in mind. Then for the song that they record, to put themselves into the perspective of the character at that place in the story. So, yeah. We pick a place in the story, and then we tried to make the song embody it.

So, when it comes to the title, I wanted it to symbolize the character’s journey. Our hero, our main character, is this kid who comes from the slums of an abusive and impoverished home. However, he has dreams of more… of having more for himself and forms a gang with his friends. Then, by the end, you know, he’s turned into this big gangster but he can’t escape his own fate… he can’t escape his own Karam. Everything that he’s done along the way catches up with him.

And I liked the resemblance of the word Karam to Karma, of course, you know, and they’re very related for this character… everything that he does, ends up catching up with him by the end of the story. So that was the idea with it… and each song embodies his Karam because it tells a different part of his story and the things that he was doing at that time.

For how long has this Indian Hip-Hop album been on your mind? Everyone’s aware that you started off with ‘The Cataract’ and the rap influences go way back. Further, you have your roots in India. The dots connect and I’m guessing that ‘Karam’ must have been in your thoughts for a long time.  

Well, like growing up… So, hip hop was the first genre that I fell in love with and it was the reason I started making music. In the very beginning, I was even a rapper. So, I was just making beats for me to rap on. And, you know, I would often come and visit India and visit my grandparents in Delhi and I would never believe if they told me that there would be a Hip-Hop scene here back when I was young.

So, when I found out about it, I just got really excited. We had ‘Gully Boy’ playing in some theatres in the States and I went to go see it not expecting much. However, I was just blown away. So, I hit up my people in India, and I was just curious like, “Yo, what is going on with this Hip-hop scene?”… and they introduced me to the different players in the game. Starting with Divine, Raftaar, Kr$na and all these guys who just got me really excited as a lover of Hip-Hop. As somebody of Indian heritage, to see that this scene was blossoming, it was just unbelievable to me.

How did you begin to write the first pieces of music for this album? You have had an extraordinary run as an EDM superproducer and toured across the world. However, this is an Indian rap album. Did you come back to your roots and do a deep dive into Indian rap music? Perhaps, study the genre further before actually deciding on making an Indian rap album?

You make a great point. So, I did a lot of studying. I studied everybody that I was hoping to work with… I have a playlist on my phone of like 20-30 songs from them that I would just listen to over and over again. In the month leading up to the album, I put together 50-60 beats… some of it was older stuff that I touched upon and a lot of it was new.

So yeah, I was just thinking specifically about an artist and thinking about the track that I think would be perfect for them if we did a track together. So yeah, I would say it was probably the month leading up to my trip to India. When I came to India, I spent about two weeks or so and we got most of the recording of the album done just in the span of those two weeks.

While you were thinking about the ‘Karam’ LP, you still were and continue to be one of the biggest EDM superproducers across the globe. So, how did you transition from performing EDM for a massive crowd and just sit down with say Seedhe Maut’s discography after the show? Did it get stressful at some point?

It was actually quite fluid because I had just gotten done with my sound pack ‘Sounds of KSHMR, Vol. 4’, and while making the sound packs, what I do is I create so many little loops, like little melodic loops and because the packs are now used so widely across genres, I’m already thinking a lot about Hip-Hop. So, I’ve already gotten into this mode of writing loops and Hip-Hop is, you know, mostly about just a loop and then the drums you put over it.

So, I had so many ideas, because you know, the pack was… it’s probably like 4000 sounds or something. I had so much material to work with. Honestly, compared to producing a dance song, producing a Hip-Hop song is relatively simple. If I find the right loop, the right melody only for two or four bars… all I have to do from there is put drums and 808s to it and it comes together. I’m lucky that I have really talented guys… they do the hard part which is to rap and write a song to it.

That’s dope. Were there any footnotes that you made, perhaps as a producer, after listening to the artists that you’ve worked with on the album now? How did you decide that this is a production which would, perhaps, go with the sound of Seedhe Maut or that one would go with MC Stan or Raja Kumari?

Well, I listened to what they’ve done and then I tried to think of what they haven’t done. That’s not such a departure… that feels natural. As I’m listening to the beat, I hear them in my head and you know, you start humming. For me, I think a big part of making music is that you listen to something and as you get more and more experience, you start imagining the things that aren’t there but would sound good.

So, yeah… if you’re familiar enough with somebody’s voice, you’re listening to the track, and you’re picturing them in it, you know, it’s just gibberish but you hear their tone, you hear the kind of flow that they have and you can picture it. For the Seedhe Maut record, which I did with Karan Kanchan who was in the studio with me that day, we just made something on the spot. So, that’s another part of the magic… being open in the moment to create something completely new. That’s an important part of the process as well.

Glad that you mentioned Karan Kanchan. I wanted to speak with you more about the record production on ‘Karam’. As you said, you’ve worked with Kanchan and Phenom is on ‘Haath Varthi’ too. In fact, a lot of emcees on your album such as MC Stan or Calm are truly fine producers themselves. Did you learn and probably take notes during your conversations with these young record producers?

Yeah, actually, being younger is a big advantage. I think when it comes to Hip-Hop, I have some old-guy tendencies because my golden era of Hip-Hop was the 90s and 2000s Hip-Hop. So, I definitely listened and they had a lot of advice. When we’re doing the Seedhe Maut record, they had ideas for, you know, changes to the beat… times when the beat would drop out completely and would make the raps sound just awesome. Everything they suggested worked.

Honestly, Stan had his suggestions for adding some Indian drums to ‘Haath Varthi’ towards the end which worked out great. And also Yungsta… Yungsta was really involved in the track that we did together. He had all these sound effects in mind, things that would sort of complement the story that he was telling. He had a lot of production ideas and there’s not really one case where somebody would advise something that I didn’t agree with.

Stunnah and I worked on a track together and of course, Phenom… he’s like a master of the Bollyfunk sound and so, for ‘Haath Varthi’, I asked him if he would help me produce it because I knew if he did those drums, they would feel authentic and that would be right. So, yeah, he did things with the drums that I look at and think that I would have never thought to do that… the timing of them being sort of early and off the grid. That was very surprising to me. But when it works, it works.

Because you had such a limited time in India, was it in and out recording sessions and deep work for hours? The musicality on ‘Karam’ is immensely diverse. You got Yashraj, Karan Kanchan, Phenom, Stunna, Seedhe Maut, Hanumankind, Rajakumari and many more artists. As you said earlier, you wanted ‘Karam’ to be this one cohesive project. How did you get them together on that single perspective?

It didn’t take much convincing. Honestly, I think, creative people like to have a starting point, or at least the ones that I worked with. I think it’s useful to have context for what you’re going to write instead of just… here’s a beat, figure it out, do something, you know… and I do understand where it’s coming from because that is oftentimes the case with Hip-Hop…  you’ve got a beat and you’re starting from scratch. But when you start from a story, and pick a part of a story that you want to embody with the song and you want to tell from that perspective, it’s kind of a fun exercise in getting outside of yourself and getting into a concept. They were really open and welcoming to it.

I’m very thankful that just about everybody had an easy time getting into the story and everybody had their different take on it. So, that was easier than I thought. I thought it would take more convincing, honestly. However, everybody was very receptive to this story idea and I think that it brought a new element out of them, you know, like a new perspective that people might not normally get from their songs, which I’m happy about.

Then, in terms of the schedule, I would start in the middle of the day, maybe one o’clock or noon, and I would just go till 8:00 or 10:00 P.M. and sometimes there’ll be two different people coming in on the same day… I just wanted to make sure that I got as much material as I could in those two weeks because, after that, it would be hard to get everyone together, it was already hard to get so many people together. I wanted to make sure that I got all the material and all the vocals that I needed on the trip that I had.

Earlier in this conversation, you mentioned Divine, Raftaar and Kr$na and the vision you had for ‘Karam’ in terms of its storyline and musicality. In terms of scale or impact, did you tend to use Divine’s discography as a vantage point from where you navigated your album?

Perhaps, even used his discography as a benchmark that you would want ‘Karam’ to hit? Even though you make it sound easy, the LP is still massive in scale and perhaps, the biggest Indian rap album this year.

Yeah, I mean, I was hugely inspired by Divine. In terms of individual songs that were particularly inspired by his production, I would say ‘Mirchi’ a little bit for ‘Haath Varthi’ and that was another reason that I thought of having Phenom on that one. Besides that, I love the drums on ‘Kohinoor’… and there is a track that has more breakbeat acoustic style drums and I was definitely listening to the drums on that one a lot. They’re just not ‘normal in your face’ drums… they grew and they make you feel like you’re running and… you know he did the video where he’s running the whole time and it works so well with his flow.

As a producer, you tend to want to make everything really in your face. However, I’m so impressed by that song because the drums have a groove that is not just one snare or kick in your face. It’s all sort of one… the drum groove and that just really is beautiful. It flows and it gives so much space to Divine to just rap the whole thing. I don’t think there’s even a chorus, right? It’s just him rapping and you know, I’m a fan. I don’t know if it made its way into like… a bar that I was trying to hit. But of course, just Divine as an artist is definitely a bar that I think anybody would love to hit.

What do you think about his most recent album ‘Gunehgar’?

Oh, I Loved it. I mean, obviously ‘Baazigar’ was an absolute smash. ‘Gunehgar’ the track was super dope too… Hit-Boy just killed it. I think Hit-Boy brought in a style of production that you’re not used to hearing Divine on… It’s like this grimy New York sort of vibe. So yeah, I thought that was awesome and also ‘Akela’, the Phenom track… I thought that was a beautiful sample that he flipped. I think those were the real standouts to me and I’m probably forgetting some because it’s been a second since I listened to it but it was on repeat for a minute. So yeah, he’s just an incredible artist.

I want to talk to you about your journey into Mumbai while preparing for this album. You have visited India numerous times before. However, because you’re working on a full-length LP, I’m assuming you must’ve kept a keen eye on the Hip-Hop scene here.

Mumbai is extremely rich in Hip-hop right now and has become the epicentre of rap music alongside Punjab and Delhi. In your observation, how do you think Bombay has evolved in terms of rap music over the years? I’m sure that this was the time when you were thinking real hard about Indian rap.

I’m really not an authority on how it’s evolved. I’m pretty new to the scene altogether. So, I don’t know if I can comment on how it’s evolved but I find it really interesting… obviously, he’s a Pune guy but Stan being in the same generation as Divine… like both of them are at the height of their success right now… and it’s really cool to see that you can have a guy who’s so new school and so irreverent in a lot of ways… Stan’s coming in and breaking all the rules, like autotune, cursing, and profanity… he’s like this wildcard that represents the new generation.

Yet, you have guys who are traditional lyricists, traditional Hip-Hop guys, like Divine or Kr$na at the same time… and it’s really cool to see that in India, these can coexist within a single generation and both be equally appreciated. Whereas in America, it is separated by generations.

I mean, the Tupac generation is years and years before the Migos generation and that’s the sort of comparison I would make between Divine and MC Stan. Where they would be so separate in America, they’re both dope out here… and in India, they’re taking in so much Hip-hop… the Indian Hip-hop scene is inspired by the whole spectrum of Hip-hop in America. So, you’re getting so many flavours that previously you would think of as very unrelated within a single generation.

I think for that reason, the Hip-Hop scene is more exciting in India than even the one in the States I would say. It’s bursting with new inspiration and with new guys doing completely new things… and then also the lyricism which is why I fell in love with Hip-hop to begin with.

Has this generational cohesion in Indian rap music made things easy for you?

Yes, it makes it much more exciting, certainly. Because the rules and the things that have sort of moulded into place in America… in India, people are just inspired by creativity. So, you’re getting just a fresh breath of air is how I would put it. In India and across ‘Karam’, you have so many different styles and so many different energies. Yet, it all just comes together So, it keeps it from being monotone, certainly yeah.

While you were in Mumbai, how did you navigate through the never-ending traffic here? I’m certain Mass Appeal execs would’ve assisted you.

So, in the beginning, we hadn’t signed the deal with Mass Appeal. It was only after I had all the music ready that I brought it to them and then we did the deal with them. So yeah, I was just taking autos everywhere and even still, if I come to India, the auto rickshaws are more convenient and let’s just say that I’m not in a Maybach or anything when I’m here. (laughs)

However, it’s alright, man. Delhi is where I actually spent most of my time growing up in India. My grandparents live in Delhi. Anyways but, regarding autos, yeah, I can just Uber it now and I didn’t find it difficult. Delhi’s traffic is next level, though. Probably even worse than Mumbai, I would think.

As you said, you got your records to Mass Appeal after the album was finished. Why would you choose Mass Appeal? Is it the legacy that the record label has in rap music? There’s Nas, of course, one of the greatest to ever do it. Even in India, it’s making a solid impact on the rap culture. What encouraged you to approach Mass Appeal for ‘Karam’?

I mean, yeah, you mentioned Nas and he is one of my biggest inspirations. Like, Illmatic… I could recite the lyrics to every song front to back from the album. However, to be honest, it wasn’t because of Nas or anything from the U.S. that Mass Appeal has done.

It was because of Divine that I really wanted to do it on Mass Appeal and he’s a huge inspiration for me… and then I met the team and the team was just solid. Sandeep, Ranbir and Nav (referring to Mass Appeal Execs Sandeep Patil, Ranbir ‘KPR’ Kapoor and Navjosh Singh)… they shared a deep understanding and love for Hip-Hop and once we got all the numbers together and everyone was happy, it was good to go.

You mentioned that Mass Appeal India and its team, Sandeep, Ranbir & Navjosh have a solid grasp over the Hip-Hop culture here. Were there any things about Indian Hip-Hop that you learned from Mass Appeal that you weren’t aware of before?

Well, yeah, I’ll tell you, one thing is definitely… the politics of Indian Hip-Hop. There are some guys who don’t get along with other guys, or there are certain sensitivities. I won’t go into detail but through… making the music was very straightforward but then, everything afterwards… to really finalize the songs and push it through or get it all done… the paperwork and everything, that’s when I got more familiar with certain sensitivities.

However, you know, we were all friends until you have to do the business part. You would have people who, perhaps, have things they want in the contract and everything. But it’s the usual stuff and you get through it. The important thing is that the music is amazing and I’m just happy for the world to hear it. But yeah, if you’re asking me what are the things I learned… I learned that it’s just not, it’s not all happy and let’s hold hands. I mean, there’s the paperwork which comes into it and there’s some politics on that side.

However, for me, the most important thing is, I don’t care really about getting a big split and getting this and that. I just want it to be fair for everyone, for everyone to be happy and to get the music out. I’ve had a long career of putting out a lot of songs. Some of them are hits, some of them nobody cares but I love making music. I’ve done well enough with my career in pop music and dance music, it’s not about the money to me anymore. It’s about the love that I have for this scene and keeping music exciting for myself… and when I see something that’s so inspiring and so exciting, I want to be part of it and I want to see what I can give to the community.

Hip-Hop has been a hypercompetitive genre for as long as we know it so I wouldn’t disagree on the politics of it. Besides the serious politics behind Indian rap music, did you go out much and had a good time outside of work? I saw a photograph where you’re getting a haircut at a local barber shop. That was dope.  

Yeah, I mean, going out in Mumbai, you know, it’s a really happening nightlife. I’ll be honest though… when I was working on the album, I didn’t go out that much. I mostly just went back to my room, I was so tired, I’d order room service and, you know, pass out and try to get enough sleep for the next day because I had to do it all over again, you know, 10 hours or however long.

But yeah, in this most recent trip, we came with not a busy schedule as such. We had to shoot the music video, I had a couple of shows. So, we’re able to go out and yeah, it’s a beautiful scene. There’re some really nice nightclubs, bars and everything. You asked me about that haircut… we’re doing a photo shoot just going around the city and I go into the barbershop. And you know, he just trim me up a little bit and we got a photo. (laughs)

It’s truly inspiring how connected you are to your roots. Since you’re making a rap album, we have to talk about the late rap pioneer Sidhu Moose Wala. Raja Kumari is on this album and she has worked with Moose Wala on the ‘Moosetape’ LP. Divine has a feature on ‘Moosedrilla’. While you were here in Mumbai, did you have conversations about Moose Wala with these artists?

Yeah, his impact is definitely huge. I can’t honestly say that I had a specific conversation with Divine or Raja about it. It just didn’t come up. But you know, it made you realize that your favourite artist could be gone tomorrow and the need to appreciate the people around you. On the song that I worked on with Raftaar, we talked a little bit about Sidhu… but, also just in general, people passing away and not getting the love that they deserve until they die… it takes them dying to really be appreciated. You saw that in the American scene with Tupac and Biggie. Everybody finally hops on social media and loves you up after you’re dead.

It also makes one realise the importance of letting people know that you care about them and giving people the respect they deserve while they’re still here. There’s that competitive nature in India too where people are sometimes a little bit hesitant to give credit… and give flowers to people because it’s so competitive. So, I don’t know, hopefully, the lesson to be learned there is to just have more love and more collaboration.

Would you have collaborated with Moose Wala if he was alive?

Yeah, of course. Of course, man. I got Riar Saab on the track and the Punjabi energy that he brings to the table is… it’s crazy what he does to the track once you hear his voice… and Punjabi music in general has this crazy energy. So, yeah, of course, if I had the opportunity, I absolutely would have done a song with Moose Wala. I wish I had become familiar with the scene earlier… maybe there was a chance earlier on.

Rest in Peace to the Greatest to Ever do it. Alright, movin’ on from rap. You’re also one of the world’s top-selling DJs and are fresh off performing at Ultra Music Festival alongside Afrojack in India. For a lot of EDM listeners that I’ve talked to, that was ‘The Headlining EDM Set’ in India after a very long time. How did that go for you?

Man, it was great. I mean, from front to back, the energy was amazing. I, of course, played my classic dance records, ‘Wildcard’, ‘Secrets’, ‘Bizarre’… but I also fit in some mashups of Bollywood tracks and some remixes that I had done. I always spent a lot of time on my shows in India and make sure that I’ve done something special specific to India.

So, there were some remixes and mashups I did and then, of course, I previewed the album. I played three tracks and then I sort of mashed up the moment to see that they might also like a dance version before finally playing ‘Haath Varthi’. I think after ‘Haath Varthi’, I went into ‘Basti Ka Hasti’ and I even did a remix of that… which is like a dance version of the original track. That was really cool.

Besides the extraordinary live sets that you’ve done across the globe, I loved your intimate set in Srinagar, Kashmir.

It was so long overdue, bro. We talked about doing it for years and years and years. And then finally, one day I get a call from Sunburn. They’re like we’re gonna make it happen. They had to get approval from… I guess he’s like the general or somebody high up in the military there and yeah, he approved it. The only stipulation was that I had to go meet him and have tea with him and his wife and it was really sweet, man. It was such a beautiful experience. The surroundings were incredible.

Thank you for the truly humbling conversation, KSHMR.

Thank you. Likewise.

Watch KSHMR’s extraordinary journey through Mumbai here.

Listen to the lead single ‘Haath Varthi’ featuring MC Stan from KSHMR’s debut Indian rap album ‘Karam’ here.