Tamil hip hop artist Aaryan Dinesh Kanagaratnam is a name that needs no introduction. Having worked with established music directors in the Tamil film industry on songs like Athichudi, Magudi Magudi, Thalli Pogathey and Mun Sellada, ADK as he is fondly known, has also released numerous singles with singers from all over the world. Known for his distinct rap style, the Sri Lankan rapper is a true global music citizen, thanks to his unending determination.

We catch up with ADK, and talk to him about his journey in the musical industry in this exclusive interview with the Varnam team.

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Varnam (V): Music only entered your life when you were a young adult, tell us about that.

ADK: At 23, I was working in an IT company in Colombo, and there was a musician called Shri, whom I got to know. He was close to a big Sri Lankan musician called Bathiya Jayakody. I got an opportunity to do some design work for their CD cover, as I was a designer too. One day, I mustered up the courage to ask them, can I also try my hand at music?

there I was, this guy with zero musical knowledge, no training, nor any background in the field.

It was interesting, there I was, this guy with zero musical knowledge, no training, nor any background in the field. It took me about 2 years to groom myself before I began my career as a singer. I used to just sing hooks and choruses for my friends’ rap songs, but I wasn’t doing a good job.

V: So you weren’t doing rap back then?

ADK: Rap music-kum ennakum samanthame illai (I had no connections with rap music at all). All of that changed in the year 2007. My friends and I used to hang out in a saloon called Raja Saloon in Colombo. There, for the first time, I heard Yogi B and Natchatra’s tunes.

This was my first time hearing these Malaysian rappers rapping in proper Tamil, and I was blown away. Instantly, I wanted to try my hand at it. My hurdle was that I didn’t know how to read and write Tamil at the time. But I persisted, and began writing what I felt, and it developed from there.

V: From not knowing how to read and write the language to working with Vijay Anthony within two years, how did that happen?

ADK: That’s a crazy story! After hearing Yogi B and Natchatra for the first time in 2007, I made my way to Malaysia. It wasn’t easy, but I was determined to become a rapper. I hustled and came up with the funds to get to Kuala Lumpur. That’s where I met Yogi B and Natchatra for the first time.

I somehow pooled my resources and began working on an album in Malaysia. I even collaborated with Villainz on one of the tracks. Unfortunately, I was cheated by the certain parties, and I could not release the album.

Dejected, I returned to Colombo, where I worked for fourteen days straight to create a new album. One of the songs on this album was called Suranganee. This was a remake of a Sri Lankan folk song by the same name. It became an overnight hit in Sri Lanka. Suranganee touched about USD 75,000 on ringtone purchases alone, at the time.

Soon after, I heard that Vijay Anthony is remaking the tune Suranganee for an upcoming film. This rattled me. I mean, I created a good song, and here is this music director who is remaking the same tune. So I decided to get in touch with him.

I managed to get a hold of Dr Burn, who was doing well in India at the time, and he told me that he only had Vijay Anthony’s wife’s number, as she was scouting around for talent. Dr Burn graciously helped me out by passing on her number. I gave them a call, and sent my songs over.

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There was no response for a while, until one night, I received a call, and it was Vijay Anthony’s team. They wanted me to come to India to work on the song together. Initially, I thought the song was going to be Suranganee, but then he suggested we work on another song, Athichudi. The song became an overnight hit.

Those were the days, you know. There was zero media support, and I was left on my own to hustle and make my way up. It was completely my hard work.

V: There seems to be a lot of Malaysian rap influence in your life – from Yogi B and Natchatra to Dr Burn and even Villainz.

ADK: Malaysian rap culture has played very heavily on my music and my life. I envy you guys so much, sometimes. Your music industry, especially the Tamil hip hop industry is strong, and people are immensely talented over there.

V: Athichudi was your entry point into Tamil film music, but AR Rahman’s Magudi Magudi really propelled you to fame. How did you make that happen? 

ADK: You know, at first, I thought that to even meet Rahman was a far fetched idea.

But when I began my career in music, I used to tell myself, “You are an established artiste. You will work for AR Rahman someday,” Perhaps it was this that pushed me to do my best. I managed to get his email address, and I sent him some of my work. It took me two years, but I finally met him in 2011.

Life wasn’t going well when I finally heard from Rahman. My marriage was in troubled waters, and life was taking a toll on me. But his call was the light at the end of the tunnel. Soon after, I flew down to India and I worked on Magudi Magudi from Kadal.

The thing about Rahman is that I feed off his energy. Every time I see him, I feel this overwhelming urge to show him what I’m made of. And he’s said, “This guy is really confident. That’s good, stay this way,”

V: Your rap style is very unique and doesn’t sound anything like the traditional hip hop we are used to listening to. Tell us about that.

ADK: Because I was not exposed to American hip hop early on, I don’t sound like the western rappers. My flow, my style and my lyrics are very different from theirs.

I am also against a few of the norms of hip hop and rap. I don’t like dissing people, vulgarities, the objectification of women and endorsing drug use.

I think it was because of my upbringing. I grew up in a rough area in Colombo, known as District 15. During the civil war, a lot of those involved used to live there, and notorious deals involving weapons and smuggling used to take place.

I don’t like dissing people, vulgarities, the objectification of women and endorsing drug use.

I had witnessed all this and I didn’t want to replicate that in my songs. It became my policy, my principle. So I started doing commercial content. And for the first time, I came out of that hardcore life.

V: Your latest tune, ADK Diss, is a diss song (a song intended to verbally attack someone, common in the hip hop genre) meant for yourself. What made you do this?

ADK: It’s no secret that I’m a short tempered person. As a result of this, I have fallen into a lot of trouble, even on the wrong side of the law. When my son was born, that began to change. I had gone through a divorce, and a year later, I met my girlfriend, Debha.

After that, a group began attacking me on social media. They were putting me down and even came up with a diss song for me. This infuriated me. I was ready to retaliate with a diss song for them.

At that time, Debha sat me down and spoke to me. She said, “I know you’re hurt. But remember, the person you’re going to diss also has a family. You shouldn’t be doing this,” she said. “You should be doing something different. Be a good influence. When people look at you, they should feel happy and respected,”

It was because of her that I came up with the idea for ADK Diss. I thought, why diss someone else, insult and humiliate them? I myself am not perfect.

When you admit your mistakes, others cannot say a word about you. That was my idea behind ADK Diss. Whatever your hear in this song, it is completely true.

V: What advice would you like to impart to our Tamil youngsters and to the many aspiring rappers out there?

ADK: Let your personal life stay personal. There is no need to publicise it. Don’t jeopardise someone else’s life just because you feel like yours has been ruined. If you are alive, breathing and have control over your limbs, that is victory enough.

To the aspiring rappers, forget about dissing. If you are blessed enough to be given the opportunity and means to create music, why waste a song just to humiliate someone else?

If you are blessed enough to be given the opportunity and means to create music, why waste a song just to humiliate someone else?

V: I like how you said “waste a song”

ADK: That’s exactly what it is! A song is money. You’re recording and producing a song to attack someone, and this tune will probably never be played at an event because of how nasty it is. What is the point?

V: Brilliant! What’s next for you, ADK, what can we look forward to in 2020? 

ADK: I am dropping a new song early next month, called Budhi. After that, I’m releasing another tune, Maranam, which is actually about suicide and relationship failure. I want to pass this message on; the end of a relationship should make you powerful, not a kolai (coward).

I may also be dipping my feet into directing. My passion project for a long time is to make a movie about Tamil hip hop. I might make my directorial debut in 2020, if all goes well.

V: Your success has taken an incredible trajectory, and it is because of your sheer determination..

ADK: I wouldn’t call this success, it is merely a stepping stone. I have never thought that I am a successful person, and that I have achieved something in my life.

In fact, I’m very greedy to be noticed for my talent. I am not interested in being famous for any other reason. I want my work to do well enough to speak for me, full stop.

I hustled, I chased, and I am still doing so.

Hard work isn’t something new to me. Nothing fell on my lap. I hustled, I chased, and I am still doing so. And to be honest, I don’t want to be labeled as Rahman’s singer or Yuvan’s singer, I want to be my own artiste, ADK.

V: You already are one of the most popular Tamil rappers across several continents. Do you identify yourself as an international artiste?

ADK: I feel like that you can only claim yourself as an international artiste when the world recognises you, not when the Tamil audience across the world recognises you.

Gangnam Style is a good example. It’s a Korean song that was featured on the billboards, and has won awards. That is international recognition.

I am blessed that people across the world know me, to a certain level.

Having the Tamil audience across the globe recognise you is not growth. It is an identity for yourself. I am blessed that people across the world know me, to a certain level. But it doesn’t feel sufficient. I know that I deserve more for what I’ve done, and I am fighting for it.

V: And you won’t stop fighting for it.. 

ADK: Never, as long as I’m breathing.

ADK’s next single, Budhi, will release on the 3rd of December. Keep up with his journey Instagram here. If you’re on Spotify, follow him here.