Keeping It Real: Mumbai Rappers Share Their Style Evolution

The ubiquity of ‘Apna Time Aayega’ T-shirts. A necklace on Amazon listed as ‘MC Stan Style Cuban Link Chain’. Street vendors on Linking Road persuading you to check out their assortment of baggy jeans. What’s the common factor here?

The impact of gully rap and desi hip-hop on the Indian fashion landscape is inescapable. Wherever you turn, all the cool kids are dressed up, or ‘dripped out’, as they say, in oversized streetwear that has pretty much become synonymous with youth culture. But as gully hip-hop has grown bigger, so has the fashion cred of its artists. In an industry as public-facing as that of music, and in a genre where the fashion is intrinsically tied to the music, appearances matter. A lot.

Saloni Mahendru, one half of a stylist duo named Dos Two that counts DIVINE and Raja Kumari as its clients, chimes in: “Desi hip-hop is coming from the gully, it’s the voice of the Indian streets. And fashion comes along with it. The way and the pace at which desi hip hop is evolving is giving room to budding Indian streetwear designers to express a lot through their art. It’s beautiful how some Indian brands are mixing Indian textiles and prints in streetwear clothing. Or even as an audience, the youth in our country are really enjoying Indian hip-hop and as a result, they are also interested in hip-hop fashion, whether that means buying from Indian streetwear designers, or copying the way hip-hop artists are dressing.”

We delve into the style evolution of three Mumbai-based rappers as they open up about how they’ve made universally popular aesthetics their own.


Growing up as a fat kid, Chaitnya Sharma, better known as SlowCheeta, only felt comfortable in oversized clothes: “I felt self-conscious about how I looked and I didn’t want anything to stick to my body. Incidentally, I also discovered rap when I was 12 or 13 years old. I loved old-school hip-hop tracks by artists like Tupac, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, and Eminem. I saw how rappers wore loose clothes, and that was considered cool. Growing up in the 90s, being fashionable meant wearing tight fits. But hip-hop was one culture that was doing quite the opposite. The reason they were dressed in baggy clothes was that most of their clothes were hand-me-downs. They were people from the ghettos, wearing whatever they could get their hands on, so obviously, they couldn’t get the perfect fit. But because they were so real with it, because they were so honest with their intent, it became fashionable, and it actually started looking good.”

From being judged for his oversized clothes to discovering a culture that confidently owns the style to becoming a part of that culture, SlowCheeta has come a long way. He says that this aesthetic has “almost become part of me eventually”. But it’s not the brands and logos that appeal to him. Pieces with personal significance form the most priceless part of his wardrobe, especially his accessory drawer: “My wedding ring is something that I couldn’t wear on my finger because it was pretty bulky. It has the coordinates of Delhi and Mumbai as my wife is from Delhi and I’m from Mumbai. Below that, it’s engraved with a secret nickname only I use for her. It’s a pretty special piece, so I put it on a chain and I wear that chain out often. Recently, my dad also gave me one of his first high-end watches and it is beautiful. Just wearing my dad’s watch means a lot to me.”


MC Altafimage
The densely populated suburban neighbourhood of Dharavi is known to be the birthplace of gully hip-hop. One of its natives, Altaf Shaikh aka MC Altaf says, “I consider myself very blessed as I wouldn’t be who I am today if I didn’t hail from Dharavi.” He was majorly influenced by the crews of young dancers mushrooming on his block during his teenage years. Inspired by the likes of Lil Wayne, these b-boyers provided an accessible entry point to hip-hop culture that MC Altaf embraced with open arms. “They used to wear baggy pants with high-top sneakers. They’d style this with lots of chains and baseball caps, which I used to find really fly. I was equally inspired by the boys in my hood as I was by international rappers. We used to have this sense of competition among us in terms of who had the coolest dressing sense. This is also where I picked up on the mindset that as a hip-hop artist, you always have to look top-notch regardless of how much money you’re making.”

In the pursuit of drip, MC Altaf and his buddies would save up money and travel to Colaba Causeway market to purchase export surplus T-shirts in styles sported by the biggest names in rap at the time, like Tupac and Biggie. Many years and recording deals later, he has the means to purchase all the branded clothes he’d like, but he’s impervious to hype. He says, “Streetwear means clothes worn by people on the streets. So it doesn’t make sense to me when ‘streetwear’ brands mark up a simple T-shirt and sell it for INR 15,000, making it inaccessible for many. I believe in smart shopping. If you have an eye for fashion, you can cop the coolest things at very low rates.”

Dee MCimage
On the other hand, Deepa Unnikirishnan, better known by her stage name Dee MC, only got into fashion after her career took off. She shares, “I was always a tomboy and it annoyed me that boys could just wear whatever and show up, while girls were expected to put a lot of effort into their appearance. My defiant attitude meant that I avoided the topic of fashion for the longest time as I didn’t want to do it for society. I finally got a wardrobe refresh in 2017, before leaving for my UK tour. I purchased make-up for the first time as well. For me, it was all about doing things at my own pace.”
Dee MC’s style is majorly inspired by R&B artists such as H.E.R. and Jhené Aiko, and she lets her inherent dynamism take its natural course while picking looks for everyday activities and major public appearances alike. 


Jewellery is a huge part of the hip-hop look, originally meant to assert the success artists found in their rags-to-riches trajectory. Diamond jewellery, more popularly known as ‘ice’, manifests as sparkling tennis chains and cushion-cut diamond rings. And there’s a growing demand for this sort of ostentatious jewellery in India.

Raghav Goyal and Aaditya Fatehpuriya were in the 11th grade when they really got into hip-hop and started their jewellery label, Zillionaire, during the lockdown. “These rappers were wearing gold and diamond grillz, which we were very fascinated by, and wanted to get something similar. But we couldn’t find it anywhere. Since Aaditya’s family background is that of jewellery, we started manufacturing from there,” says Goyal. The young entrepreneurs have had a spate of celebrity clients since then, but one of the most memorable pieces to date is a custom 4 kg pendant they created for MC Stan. “After MC Stan bought his custom pendants, a lot of other rappers approached us. We never really listened to Indian hip-hop music, we were always into the American hip-hop scene. We had no idea who these people were. But a lot of them have purchased their ice from us, and Zillionaire is definitely an important part of the hip-hop culture in India.”

MC Stan sporting his custom zillionaire pendantimage
As a watch enthusiast, MC Altaf says, “A great watch is an important part of our drip as we hold the mic in our hands on stage.” He also loves his trusty tennis bracelet, a style that has proven to be versatile, time and time again.


As a South Indian, Dee MC holds traditional gold jewellery close to her heart, while going for steel or diamond jewellery on the stage.
When it comes to clothing, she also prefers to buy fabric and get one-of-a-kind pantsuits, co-ords, and dresses stitched by a trusted tailor instead of purchasing from mass-produced labels. She came into her own through this DIY approach, and well, her hair.

Dee MC in her signature braidsimage
 Wielding a long silky mane, she tells me that a good hairstyle is all she needs to feel confident on stage. “Everything gets amplified when I have a great hairstyle. So my hair is very important to me, especially when it comes to hip-hop, where you have the scope of doing so many different styles. But I always make sure never to cross the line of cultural appropriation while doing so,” she says. Amid the mainstreaming of the oversized streetwear aesthetic, she believes that hairstyles and accessorising are a few ways in which you can make the style your own.

Her stylist, Tee J, gives us more context: “I’m a professional dancer and teacher. As a part of F.A.M.O.U.S crew, my journey as a self-taught stylist began when we created a lot of content and I styled my mates in 2014-15. Our crew always believed in being Internationally Indian as we travelled and represented India on multiple stages. Hip-hop is an adopted culture and we had to bear in mind what our teachers suggested: Bring an Indian touch to it. That’s when the journey of blending our culture with hip-hop started for me. I was doing street style with ethnic wear. I try my best to place Dee MC within that essence.”

While differences exist between Western hip-hop and its desi counterpart, the parallels are far greater. SlowCheeta weighs in, “The circumstances that they came up in were very similar. In the West, it came out of the ghetto and here, it came out of the gully. Both arose out of the need to raise your voice and share your story with the world. But initially, desi hip-hop started out only in English. It wasn’t long before rappers realised that English wasn’t a necessity. When we share our stories in our language, it resonates with people much more. We made something that belongs to us. The way a lot of rappers rap is similar because the beats are the same, but their swag is desi. Brodha V did a digital track in a lungi. DIVINE has done a track wearing kurta pyjama.”

Mahendru inevitably brings up Raja Kumari, adding, “She has been the queen of mixing the East with the West. Whether we talk about mixing Indian jewellery with a NoughtOne outfit or wearing a NorBlack NorWhite printed saree with sneakers and paranda in her hair, she carries herself with grace in the most experimental looks. Other rappers like Yung Raja, Dhee, Madame Gandhi, and Shan Vincent de Paul have incorporated the essence of Indian culture in their work. They express a different style of music and fashion with small elements like using bright reds, yellows, and greens in their music videos, and mixing streetwear with gold accessories. I love how some Indian rappers are supporting local designers instead of only wearing international brands.”