By Dimithri Wijesinghe
Hamdaan Hassan, known professionally as Hustler Bhai, is a Sri Lankan rapper who has built a name for himself as an artiste who incorporates both the Tamil and Sinhalese languages in his music. Rapping in both languages, the rapper is unique in the spitting of his verses, paying no heed to which language he chooses to convey his message, which has allowed him to stand out against the backdrop of Lankan rap.
The founder of Media Squad Productions and Media Squad Music (distribution label), Hamdaan is also an entrepreneur who put together one of the biggest worldwide cyphers (a hip-hop term that means semi-friendly, semi-improvised rap battles) featuring 22 artistes from eight different countries, rapping in 10 languages called ‘A23 Worldwide Cypher’.
Brunch spoke to Hamdaan about his journey, and how he came to be known as Hustler Bhai – a stage name which originates from his love of wrestling and his childhood hero John Cena, whose motto was “Hustle”.
Hamdaan maintains that he is not just a rapper, but someone who embodies all the roles that go into music, music production, and music video direction; he is always wearing multiple hats – a songwriter, video director, actor, etc.
However, as a rapper, he has embodied a unique style that he shares to be his very own, stating that he has never limited himself to one style of music and never shied away from making music in genres outside of his immediate domain, unafraid to flavour in some hip-hop, RnB, metal rap, and numerous other genres. “My music is a blend of traditional and international music, seasoned with the right instruments,” he explained.
Speaking about his early life, Hamdaan shared that while he was certain that music was something he was going to pursue and he felt that it was what he was meant to be doing, he was in need of some guidance, he needed a mentor.
In 2015, he finally met someone who believed in him and encouraged him to do better: Harsha Fernando (aka Black Hunter). Harsha was instrumental in introducing him to the industry. Hustler also mentioned that he owed his gratitude to Amila Wickramasingha of Jaya Records, who mastered his first mixtape recordings, which eventually led him to his first single, ‘Sallalayo,’ produced by Ayeshmantha aka Month Beats, who has remained a significant collaborator over the years.
Hamdaan has had the opportunity to work with multiple producers as his career took off and the Lankan youth began to resonate with his music. He has worked with Aki Vish and Nishal Janith Silva of Gloomy Beats, both incredible producers, and also with Azim Osman of Young Melody Records. In 2020 he also worked with Indian producer Ebin Augustin.
A rap artiste in Sri Lanka
Hamdaan also shared his experience as a rap artiste in Sri Lanka, noting that since he started his career he has had to rely on private means and platforms like YouTube to reach his audiences as the traditional media did not often offer mainstream support. He shared that it was an uphill battle but he had managed due to his own personal drive and perseverance.
Despite the difficulties, Hustler has gone on to achieve great heights as an artiste and a particular career highlight is his contribution to the Indian Kannada language film ‘K.G.F: Chapter 1,’ which recently had a sequel due to its immense popularity.
Speaking about his involvement, he stated: “‘K.G.F’ is a movie about motivating people. In 2020 I did a song called ‘KGF – Monster’ and it went viral in the Kannada music industry in India. After ‘K.G.F: Chapter 2’ was released, it went viral again, on Spotify, JioSaavn and other platforms.”
With an interest in sharing a message through his music, Hustler also made note of his latest audio song titled ‘Diyawara Sena’: “It is a song about the immortal ruler the world is expecting in 2024. Sri Lankan people call him Diyasen, Indians call him Kalki, and Arabs call him Mahdi. The full lyrics are a message to the people.”
Being a Kandy-based performer he stated that he was particularly proud of his most recent video production ‘Vera Level Kuththu,’ which was the first Sri Lankan Kuthu song. “It is the biggest video performed by myself and the team. The shooting was done in Mahaiyawa, Kandy with some 2,000 people,” he said.
Rap scene in Sri Lanka and bilingual artistry
Hustler Bhai is in an interesting position in the Sri Lankan music industry as a bilingual artist. He is a rapper who writes his music both in Sinhala and Tamil, which is a rather unique element in the Lankan rap scene as many artistes often tend to rap exclusively in their mother tongue and make slight English language representations.
Speaking about his experience in the industry from his very unique perspective, he said: “When it comes to Sri Lanka, from the beginning there is a good audience around the island for hip-hop music. We mix-up Tamil, Sinhala, and English languages. In one song, we use two or three languages so that everyone can understand the lyrics and enjoy the music.”
Hustler also spoke of some of the more notable differences he has experienced when it comes to rapping and making music in those two languages. “There are some differences with the flows we make in Tamil. We have more punch words in the Tamil language. In Sinhala, it’s nice to add in chorus lines and it has power for rap songs,” he said.
He also shared that while the majority of the people speak Sinhala in Sri Lanka, it is inherently a trilingual country and there were many who could resonate with at least two languages at any given moment. He noted that this language consideration did not only factor in when writing music but also when directing music videos. “I am not only a video director, I direct my own music too. When we are doing music in Sri Lanka, we give more priority to the Sinhala language and then Tamil, after that we add an English part – that is the process,” he explained.
Hustler noted that the willingness to perform bilingual art had been an advantage in his line of work: “There is an advantage. People are power for an artiste; if we need more power, we need more people. We can go through different playlists. As an artiste, my Tamil songs are hitting the top on the Indian music streaming service JioSaavn and the Sinhala ones are hits on Spotify. As a YouTube content creator, I have both the crowds in one hand.”
“One of my main goals is to grow the Sinhala audience globally. When someone is hearing the music in Tamil, they will get the Sinhala part in that as well. They won’t understand but if they love the song, they will love the flow in Sinhala. When someone loves the flow in a language, they will search for more songs in that language, which will be a great support for the other Sinhala artistes too,” added Hustler.
Hustler stated that as an artiste, he preferred to pave his own way: “I am my inspiration. I want to give the audience a new experience with every track. Music as a business – we do it in a new way with our marketing teams located in Sri Lanka and India.”
He shared that while the pandemic has had a devastating effect on local artistes and the music industry, he still maintained a positive outlook: “Sri Lanka is going to come to a better place. As I say in the song ‘Diyawara Sena,’ I will fight for my country as a proud Sri Lankan.”
Finally, touching on future plans, Hustler left it largely a mystery. “As a young guy who came to the field through difficulties, I stand on solid ground,” he said, recounting how he was improving day by day, loved by his fans, and – as is the nature of his line of work – criticised by a few as well. However, he noted that despite the ups and the downs, he had embraced his journey to pursue his dreams and all that he could be sure of was that he would continue to put in the effort and there will always be more to come from Hustler Bhai.