Record Labels

Label Look: Why Mumbai's Azadi Records Seeks Out Artists With a Message

Azadi Records
Courtesy Shiv Ahuja/Azadi Records

(L-R) Mo Joshi and Uday Kapur, founders of Azadi Records.

MUMBAI — Since forming the Mumbai-based Azadi Records in 2017 as a platform for “music that critically engages with the pressing issues of our time,” founders Mo Joshi, 38, and Uday Kapur, 29, have stayed true to their manifesto. For four years, the pair has consistently showcased work that holds a mirror up to India’s underbelly — its artists address everything from addiction and unemployment in New Delhi to violence and oppression in Kashmir.

That kind of authenticity has helped Azadi Records' acts take off: Swadesi contributed to the soundtrack of the landmark hip-hop-themed 2019 Bollywood blockbuster Gully Boy, while Prabh Deep wrote the track “Toofan Mein” for the 2020 Amazon Prime Video show Paatal Lok. In March, he became the first artist from India for Apple Music's expanded global Up Next initiative.

"It was always about providing that support structure for artists to say what they want to say," says Joshi. "We were both aligned in terms of the ethics of the label, and what the goals needed to be."

UK-born Joshi, who had been involved in music intermittently, moved into India in 2014 to work at a data processing company but soon after landed a gig running a hip-hop site. While looking for writers, he was introduced to Kaupur, then a journalist covering India’s independent music scene. “He did five reviews of upcoming tracks, and just murdered them. I was like, ‘I can’t publish this, but let’s stay in touch,’” says Joshi who was also part of the short-lived British hip-hop band People Unknown as a teenager and later worked at soul singer Joss Stone’s label Stone’d Records.

Kapur continued to send Joshi recommendations of upcoming Indian rappers — including Prabh Deep, who later became the first act signed to Azadi Records. In 2017, Joshi quit his job at the site and that same day called Kapur to pursue something together. By then, as Joshi says, “we'd essentially done two years of A&R,” covering the country’s emerging hip-hop scene.

Azadi Records' roster currently includes a dozen artists who collectively perform in eight Indian languages and English. When it comes to signing an act, Kapur says they look for one thing: “Their story and [whether] the issue or the community they’re [talking about is] fairly represented. Do they have sufficient space in our cultural conversation?” That guiding principle is why Azadi took on hip-hop duo SOS (Straight Outta Srinagar), since the act offers a different perspective of life in Kashmir than its other two acts from the region (rapper Ahmer and singer-songwriter Ali Saffudin). “Ahmer and Ali are the generation from the 90s who can speak about the changes within Kashmir in a much more nuanced way,” says Kapur. “SOS, who were born way later, have only known the harsh occupation that exists, so their narrative is a lot less centered around conflict [and is more] about their hopes and ambitions.”

Previously, Azadi was also home to Sez on the Beat, arguably India’s best-known hip-hop producer, as well as rappers Siri and Full Power, all of whom left the label citing unfair treatment. Joshi and Kapur say that each of these acts parted ways with them for different reasons, ranging from differing priorities to “ego clashes,” but they also admit to “taking on more work than they should have” at one stage. Looking ahead, though, they affirm that their “conscious is clear” — and so are their goals.

When launching Azadi, Joshi and Kapur were equally motivated to ensure that Indian acts were receiving more equitable contracts compared to major label deals. Azadi’s artists, who are signed to 360-type deals, receive 50% of the royalties and earn back the rights to their masters five years after recoupment. In return, the company, which also offers bookings and artist management services, takes a 20% cut of live performance fees and brand endorsements (recent high-profile collaborations include Audible, Budweiser, Puma, Red Bull and several Indian companies).

However, in a country where a stand-up comedian was jailed for a joke he didn’t make, working with artists presenting politically-charged material has its own set of complications. “We did a project with an OTT platform and Ahmer’s content ended up getting dropped because we didn’t want to censor it as much as they wanted us to,” says Joshi who added their legal team comb through all of Ahmer and Saffudin’s recordings before they’re released and place lawyers on standby at their concerts. However, he makes clear how proud he is to support an artist with a message, saying that Ahmer's lyrics were often quoted on posters during the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act and farmers protests.

To date, Azadi’s catalogue of 200-plus releases has collected over 120 million on-demand audio streams, according to the label, and 25 million YouTube views. Somewhat surprisingly, given the few English releases, 15% of these plays are from outside India, according to Joshi, in countries such as the U.S., UK, Canada, and the UAE with a large Indian diaspora.

In October last year, Azadi closed a deal with Spanish distribution company Altafonte. This February, the label announced its merger with Mumbai-based artist and event management and production company 4/4 Experiences to create 4Z4DI Entertainment. “Now we’ve got money to fund the label,” says Joshi. “From a management and brand perspective, that’s an opportunity for us to scale and do more cool stuff, and let the label run its own profit and loss, which we’ve never really been able to do because it was loss-making every month.”

As for the label’s roster, Joshi and Kapur plan expand beyond hip-hop with a focus on punk, hardcore and post-rock. Current signees, too, are eager to explore, from English-language rapper Tienas’ upcoming rock album to Saffidun’s debut full-length that blends punk with traditional Kashmiri folk music. The idea, says Kapur, is “to really broaden the horizons of what Indian hip-hop sounds like.”