Anatomy of a diss track. Sikander Kahlon ‘Sunny Milton EP’ review
The best thing about this EP is that we can see Kahlon maturing as an artist.
With diss tracks dominating the last few months in the desi hip-hop scene, let us understand what makes an engaging diss track, by looking at Sikander Kahlon’s latest EP, the Sunny Milton EP, a project with 5 songs directed to rapper Sunny Malton, who’s affiliated to producer Byg Byrd’s Brown Boys crew.
Full disclosure, Punjabi is not my first language, I just picked it up in school, growing up in Delhi, and through Punjabi music and films. So there are chances of me misquoting or misunderstanding certain bars in the EP.
The word “diss” in a diss track is short for disrespect. When a rapper talks trash about his opponent on wax, we call it a diss track. One of the most important things to making a worthy diss track is the context and story behind the track. Almost all the legendary diss songs have an equally legendary back-story that goes with it. Be it Ice Cube’s 1991 song 'No Vaseline', or Raftaar’s 2018 Emiway Bantai aimed track Awein Hai.
In the “golden era of hip-hop”, diss tracks were exchanged over money/royalty issues, fights between gangs, or fallout between rap groups. Some rap beefs even took ugly turns with rappers getting shot at and even murdered. Things were “intense” back in the day. But in the Instagram era, people have dissed each other over the pettiest reasons. For example, when Drake didn’t like Joe Budden’s views on his fourth studio album Views (pun definitely intended), Drake sent cryptic shots on Snapchat which resulted in Joe Budden dropping multiple diss tracks with little to no response from the Canadian superstar. Or when the Philly rapper Meek Mill went off on twitter about Drake not posting about his album.
Any old-school rapper involved in “real” beefs would laugh at the stories behind most of today’s rap feuds. But since everything else has moved online, so have rap beefs.
Sikander Kahlon is an OG in the Indian hip-hop scene. Known for his punchlines and brutal attacks when dissing someone, the story behind his and Sunny Malton’s beef is as follows:
Sunny Malton and Byg Byrd have been associated with Punjabi artist Sidhu Moose Wala for a long time. Credit for developing Sidhu’s sound should be given to Byd Byrd. Trouble started when Byg Byrd posted a teaser for Sidhu’s upcoming track, which was produced by Byg Byrd himself. Gold Media, the company that owned the track, claimed the teaser and threatened to take action against Byg Byrd for “leaking” the song. The tension escalated on Twitter when Sikander Kahlon spoke in support of Sidhu, ending up in a back and forth between Malton and Kahlon. Malton then leaked screenshots of Kahlon wanting to collab with Brown Boys. This triggered Kahlon to not only diss Malton on a track, but to make a five-song EP dissing him.
No war can be fought without proper ammunition. The arsenal required depends on the level at which the war has escalated, the firepower of the opponent, and the things at stake. But most importantly, it depends on the period in which the war is being fought. The technology of weapons dictates the level of ammo used. Swords and sickles were the main weapons of choice in the tribal times, while sophisticated weapons like napalm were used in the Vietnam war.
For the parties involved, a rap beef is no less than a war. Careers are at stake, shots are being fired in all directions, and there is great collateral damage. In this case, rappers need the perfect ammo to fight against their opponent. Ammunition here means the number of talking points a rapper has against his/her enemy. This too depends on the era in which the beef takes place.
In the 1987 track, ‘The Bridge Is Over’, aimed at MC Shan and other artists from Queensbridge, KRS One resorts to basic lines about Shan being fake, gay, and stealing Boogie Down Productions’ style. It worked at that time because the level of rhyming and storytelling was limited to single-syllable rhymes and personal jabs.
If we compare that to Pusha T’s 2018 response to Drake, ‘The Story of Adidon’, we notice that both the level of rhymes and the subject matters explored are way more brutal and hard-hitting. In the very first lines of the songs, Pusha says, “Drug dealing aside, ghostwriting aside, let’s have a heart-to-heart about your pride”. It’s much more personal and exposes aspects of Drake’s life that fans weren’t aware of. He doesn’t refrain from going way below the belt and makes fun of terminal illnesses and takes shots at family, something that was considered a big no-no back in the days. But since the level of competition in rap is so high, the old school style of calling your opps names just doesn’t work. You need to dig up facts and have solid themes on which you can construct your songs.
For the most part in the EP, Sikander Kahlon is limited to 3 major recurring themes,
1. How Sunny Malton is a snitch for leaking screenshots
2. How he lives in the shadows of Sidhu Moose Wala and Byg Byrd and
3. How he isn’t fluent in his mother tongue Punjabi.
Now keep in mind, all three of these are pretty solid points to diss someone over. But I don’t think they were strong enough to sustain a 5-track EP. Had they been explored in depth over a single track, it would have surely been a GOAT contender. Although, he does deviate from these three points and goes deeper on some tracks. On Rann, he references a video in which Sunny Malton allegedly slaps his fiance.
3. The music
Let’s face it, most rap fans don’t think about the context of the fight or the depth of the subject matters explored. All they care about is the music and overall playability of the song. This is why, when Eminem clearly had the better diss track objectively, in terms of rhymes and technique, many people liked MGK’s ‘Rap Devil’ more, just because it was a catchier song with a banging beat produced by Ronny J. One rapper who has made good use of this fact is Drake. Almost all of his diss tracks have topped the charts and are playing in clubs and Spotify playlists even to this day. There’s nothing that can hurt your opponent more than a song against you playing everywhere you go.
It’s because of this reason only a lot of rappers diss each other on beats that are already famous and well recognized. Case in point, Remy Ma’s Shether (Nas - Ether) and The Game’s Pest Control (Young MA - Ooouuu).
Sikander Kahlon, using the same strategy, has used well-known beats for this EP. Being a fan of west-coast music, the influence is apparent in the tracks 'AA-52 Bars', 'Dick Grayson' and 'Screenshot Snitch'. The track 'Rann', which is one of the best tracks on the EP, Kahlon spits over the Pen Game 2 instrumental. Overall, the beats used in the EP bang hard and give an additional edge to the punches.
One of the most important aspects of a diss track is how the rapper uses his pen game to talk about his enemy. Rappers use double entendres and references to make their rhymes more interesting and outbar their opponent. There are hundreds of examples where rappers have used dope punchlines to make their point, but some that come to mind are,
That sh*t was the worst rhyme I ever heard in my life, cause the greatest rapper of all time died on March 9th; Canibus - Second Round K.O.
Even a lot of Indian diss tracks have displayed an exquisite use of wordplays. For example, the "bantai" scheme is Raftaar’s Sheikh Chilli. Or when Kr$na packed his verses with complex rhyme schemes and punchlines in Seedha Makeover.
On this EP, Sikander Kahlon served us with a fair share of slick punchlines and wordplays. On the track Rann, he weaves a complex scheme with the words "May", "June", "July", and "August". Kahlon has mastered the art of taking various disconnected references and linking them to a central idea. Throughout the EP he sprinkles references to popular TV shows like Game of Thrones, Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah, and Sony Aahat. On Screenshot Snitch, uses double entendres like my "way-maiovey" (Punjabi slang). Overall, the EP is packed with punchlines. Not all of them work perfectly but it’s enough to keep a casual fan interested for long.
In conclusion, a good diss track is an adequate combination of a worthy reason to beef, topics that are relevant according to the time period, a catchy beat and interesting punchlines. The absence of even one of these things can make a diss track fall flat on its face and make no sense whatsoever. For example, by the time Emiway Bantai released his track Khatam, all the possible points he could have used against Raftaar had already been used, plus by that time, there wasn’t a strong enough reason to continue the battle, as Raftaar had already decided to not reply to songs any further. Hence, the track wasn’t as impactful as his earlier disses.
Judging the Sunny Milton EP on these standards, it’s a solid hit at Malton, with enough shots to shake him up. I’m not sure if dissing him in a full EP was the best thing to do, but thanks to the Dr. Dre and Eminem beats, the tracks sustained and worked as standalone freestyles. As always, Kahlon brings his best punchline game on the mic, but considering that this is an EP full of disses, one expects sharper punchlines from an artist of his caliber.
The best thing about this EP is that we can see Kahlon maturing as an artist. He’s the same rapper who has had the reputation for shooting below the belt in lyrical combats and sparing no one when it comes to taking shots. But this time we can see him being a lot more witty and a lot less abusive and petty, just for the shock value.
Diss tracks, being an important part of hip-hop culture, are often misunderstood by the general public, especially in India. As the culture grows, I hope the level of diss tracks does as well.