In a slick video montage of bustling markets, a silambam performer and a man doling out flaky parottas, Madurai the city is introduced. Three rappers pay tributes to their home turf with a few spirited, spunky verses, against the backdrop of the Meenakshi temple. A well-honed and effortless flow, their Tamil enunciation glides through without a stutter.
Madurai Souljour is the pet project of Syan aka Shaheerul, Spice aka Senthuzhan, Robin and Nowshadth Ali aka Nowsa G (the group’s producer). In 2007, cousins Syan and Nowsa discovered ‘Madai Thiranthu’, a song from the movie “Vallavan”. Malaysian artist Yogi B, an emerging name in Tamil hip hop and rap at the time, was putting Tamil music on the map after his big break with “Vallavan”.
The two were hooked, knowing little about the form’s name, and nurturing a strong fascination for the style. “We didn’t know it was called rap or hip hop. We loved the extremely fast tempo and the way it went with the beats. And we wanted to try,” says Syan.
Syan is a native of Sellur’s slums, where a parai (a kind of drum) was the most recognizable instrument back in the day. Rap was viewed as a Western import and ridiculed as an American contraption. “Everyone thought this wouldn’t fit in. Their unfamiliarity with the form naturally meant we had to face raised eyebrows every day,” he says. Syan and Nowsa were undeterred, and began to jam at Nowsa’s gaming centre. “We would jam at tea shops, at the backs of grounds, just anywhere we could. But everywhere we went, nobody really understood our sound,” he explains.
But Senthuzhan and Robin joined them in time. “I played football with him, and one day I was resting on a bench, humming an Eminem song. Syan hears it and picks up from where I left off, and the next thing I knew, I was in their world,” says Robin.
Senthuzhan, was a regular customer at Nowsa’s gaming center at Sellur. His fascination began as the rare visitor who connected with rap during their many jam sessions. After what they consider a divinely ordained series of connections, they formed Kaiser Base.
They jumped from tea stalls to small recording studios across Madurai, lurking around audio sessions and slyly taking notes. “We learnt it all in our own time. We dealt with the pressure of family, money and the fear of our pursuit of music amounting to nothing,” says Syan. One night, Syan knew it was time to turn to their Guru. He messaged Yogi B on Facebook with their first video 'Powercut', expecting little or nothing in return.
“And he replied! It was a whole new journey from there,” says Syan ecstatically. After a heady 2 weeks of recording, their first scratch album emerged as a sample for Yogi B. Their stomachs churned on reaching Chennai and meeting producers, where they got their first taste of performing live. The group was only used to rapping verses and rhymes in packed tea shops, where customers would look up from their newspapers and cheer at them. Proper critique only emerged out of introspection.
Yogi B took them under his wing without any second thoughts. “One day, we were talking branding and promotions and he brought up our name. He wanted something that conveyed our roots and rolled off our tongues easily.” And hence, the group was christened Madurai Souljour – Madurai the operational term, and Souljour short for Soulful Journey. Here’s their latest video – what they call a tribute to Yogi B.
For Madurai Souljour, hip hop is the best possible medium of expression. “For us, our roots and our authenticity is best conveyed through hip hop. We meet so many who try to define it as a Western trope or as an imitation of American rappers because we aren’t comfortable with our own culture,” Syan says. Robin joins in. “But that’s where they’re wrong. We are so proud of our culture that we want to adopt hip hop as a template and make a Tamil rap scene possible. We want to give our own language a fresh kind of music,” says Robin.
Does Tamil rap need more mentors ike Yogi B? “It’s more in the promotion and less in the mentoring. As an independent scene that does not depend on the Tamil film industry, we find it harder to promote ourselves,” says Syan. Madurai Souljour’s big plus is its professionally made music videos – cutting edge cinematography, editing on point. “Sometimes, no matter how great your rap or flow or beats are, it all comes down to how pretty the package looks,” he says, adding, "Despite our humble beginnings, we have come a long way."