Malayalam music's massive growth: What's driving this phenomenal rise?

Spotify playlist Hip Hop Malayalam grows by over 300 per cent over the last one year

155-Sushin-Shyam On song: Sushin Shyam, whose work as music director bridges two streams of Malayalam music―film-driven work and indies.

In the 2012 Malayalam blockbuster Thattatthin Marayathu, the protagonist is a hopeless romantic who makes desperate efforts to woo a girl. At one point, he and his sidekick encounter a slender youth in dark glasses who delivers the bad news that they have competition―a stud named Imthias is also trying to woo her. “He is gonna screw you guys,” the youth warns them.

The growth spans several local languages, with Malayalam being the fastest-growing [Indian language] for music consumption worldwide, growing more than 5,300 per cent since [Spotify's] launch. ―Dhruvank Vaidya, head of music and podcast, Spotify India

The youth was played by Sushin Shyam, who is now a rockstar music director in the Malayalam film industry. Two years after Thattatthin Marayathu, he began churning out hits―from soulful melodies to straight-up headbangers―that have been heralding excellent news for the Malayalam music industry.

Sushin is a member of the thrash metal band The Down Troddence, popularly known as TDT. As music director, he has come to be an important bridge between two streams of Malayalam music―film-driven work and indies. Songs composed by him have helped obscure artistes achieve mainstream recognition. They have also been attracting millions of listeners across the globe every month on platforms like Spotify.

Sushin is a standard-bearer of the Malayalam music industry’s remarkable rise in recent times. Recently, on the fifth anniversary of its launch, the streaming giant Spotify unveiled some intriguing statistics about how Malayalam music has been performing well despite its financial limitations. “Since the launch, the consumption of music from India on Spotify has grown significantly globally, with 85 per cent year-on-year growth in 2023 alone,” Dhruvank Vaidya, Spotify India’s head of music and podcast, told THE WEEK. “The growth in consumption spans several local languages, with Malayalam being the fastest-growing [Indian language] for music consumption worldwide, growing more than 5,300 per cent since launch, followed by Telugu, Tamil, Punjabi and Hindi.”

156-James-Thakara James Thakara

Vaidya says Spotify’s flagship Malayalam language playlist, ‘Hot Hits Malayalam’, has grown by more than 200 per cent in the past one year. The playlist ‘Trending Now Malayalam’ is apparently the most listened-to playlist among south Indian languages.

156-MC-Couper MC Couper

Sushin has become, arguably, the chart-topping Malayalam artiste. His nine-track album for Aavesham, the Fahadh Faasil mobster-comedy that recently became a blockbuster, was third in Spotify’s global list of biggest album debuts in the April 19 weekend, just below Taylor Swift’s The Tortured Poets Department and Pearl Jam’s Dark Matter. For the album, Sushin collaborated with many indie artists, including Dabzee, MC Couper and HanuMankind. In Sushin’s words, “the audience of Malayalam music has evolved”. “The new generation is into hip hop,” he said.

156-Vedan Vedan | instagram@vedanwithword

Spotify numbers show this shift. “Our playlist Hip Hop Malayalam has grown by over 300 per cent in the last year alone,” said Vaidya.

Streaming platforms like Spotify, JioSaavn, Gaana, Wynk Music, Amazon Prime Music and YouTube, as well as social media platforms, have been transforming music consumption in India, democratising music distribution and making independent music from various languages more accessible. The surge in Malayalam hip hop is linked to this shift, and to the increased reach that Malayalam films have now outside Kerala.

156-Baby-Jean Baby Jean | instagram@ thebabyjean

Malayalam had its first taste of hip hop in 2004, when singer-composer Jassie Gift mixed reggae and rap for his chart-busting album for the film 4 The People. In 2009, artistes Rajeev M. and Haris Saleem founded the alternative hip-hop collective Street Academics, which fostered the fledgling Malayalam rap scene. In 2019, the mainstreaming of Malayalam hip hop gained momentum with the success of songs such as ‘Pani Paali’ by actor-singer Neeraj Madhav, ‘Voice of the Voiceless’ by Vedan, and ‘Malayali Da’ by Thirumali. Spotify commenced its India operations the same year.

Dabzee | Instagram@dabztories Dabzee | Instagram@dabztories

The pandemic was a golden opportunity for indie artistes, especially hip-hoppers. With the film industry ceasing to churn out music, these free-spirited artistes could showcase their work. Shambhu Ajith, aka MC Couper, a hip-hopper from Thiruvananthapuram who is a law graduate and former sports journalist, said he and other artistes could break into the scene during this period. “I had been writing verses in hip-hop style since my college days, but it wasn’t until I quit my job in 2019 and returned to my hometown that things started to change,” said Couper. “Collaborating with my music-producer friend Parimal Shais on a track (‘Nerchappaattu’) gave me confidence to take music seriously. As I delved into music in 2019, I realised the power of social media and YouTube. When Covid struck, more people turned to social media for entertainment, including discovering new music.”

Only a few such as rapper Fejo could establish themselves in the mainstream before the pandemic. But the lockdown-related surge in online activity led to an influx of new artistes. “The indie scene exploded, with its ripple effect becoming evident in both films and music festivals after the pandemic,” said Couper.

Filmmakers began weaving indie works into their films. The 2022 blockbuster Thallumala, for instance, had the hit track ‘Manavalan Thug’ by Dabzee and SA, which blended hip hop with elements of the Mappila Muslim culture in Malabar. Hip hop even became a narrative tool, as seen in director Krishand’s police procedural Purusha Pretham (2023), which has a rap battle unfolding along with the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist. The battle features tracks composed by Ajmal Hazbulla and sung by MC Couper, Fejo and J’mymah. “The fact that our audience has embraced hip hop marks a significant change,” said Sushin.

The scene is evolving fast. Within Malayalam hip hop, Malabari hip hop has become a sub-genre with the success of tracks such as ‘Malabari Banger’ by the collective Manushyar, and ‘Kaayi’ by Baby Jean. “Ultimately, hip hop is about embracing one’s identity,” said Couper. “Audiences crave authenticity and originality. These artists have embraced their unique style, doubling down on it and presenting it in a refreshing manner. Just as hip hop evolves globally into various subgenres, we are witnessing its evolution in the Malayalam hip hop scene as well.”

James Thakara, frontman and lead singer of the band Thakara, which blends folk, funk, pop and progressive and alternative rock, told THE WEEK that Kerala is witnessing the “golden age of indie musicians”. He could well be right: Early this year, the Malayalam film industry had its biggest pan-India hit ever, Manjummel Boys, which had an album imbued with indies.

Sushin, who composed music for Manjummel Boys, told THE WEEK that he treated the whole project “like an indie album”. The four-track album had him collaborating with rapper Vedan, lyricist Anwar Ali and singers Pradeep Kumar and Urmila Krishnan.

“These are not cinematic songs,” says Sushin, “and people are embracing this change.”