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How Shillong’s ‘Dr Dre’ Went From Painting Houses to Pioneering Hip Hop in the City

How Shillong’s ‘Dr Dre’ Went From Painting Houses to Pioneering Hip Hop in the City

Inspired by Gospel music his grandparents would play at home, Lamonte Pakyntein (aka D-Mon) was among the pioneering members of the Khasi Bloodz, who stand at the vanguard of the Hip Hop movement in Shillong. Today, he's offering a platform for young talent across the city.

Lamonte Pakyntein, a 30-year-old Hip Hop and R&B producer from Shillong popularly known as D-Mon, is the man behind the music that preserved my sanity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Growing weary of self-isolation and sending condolence messages to friends who had lost their loved ones on a near daily basis, I was fortunate enough to find D-Mon’s music marked by beautiful chord progressions, soulful melodies and messages of resilience.

The song ‘Don’t Stop’, featuring his bandmates Big-Ri (Ritik Roy Malngiang) and D-Bok (Donbok Kharkongor) from the Khasi Bloodz, who stand at the vanguard of Shillong’s Hip Hop movement, and the supremely talented Meba Ofilia, begins with these words of fortitude:

Here’s to the heartaches that pulled you through.
Here’s to the walls you built to stop them coming back to you.
Here’s to the bad times you’ve been there before.
And oh your feet are sore and you can’t do it anymore.

Don’t stop, keep going, and don’t stop.
Don’t stop, it’s working, don’t stop.

D-Mon composed it at a time when he contemplated giving up music altogether. Like most struggling independent artists around the world, his music wasn’t paying the bills. Not coming from privilege, he didn’t know whether he could continue pursuing his life’s passion.

“Like many independent artists, that feeling of giving up has always lingered in my mind. But it’s the sheer passion for our craft that drives us. When the final product is done, it automatically becomes worth it,” says D-Mon, in an exclusive conversation with The Better India.

Cutting a long story short, he found a way, and more than a year later released ‘Done Talking’ featuring Big-Ri and Meba Ofilia, who won the Best India Act at the 2018 MTV Europe Music Awards.

In the same year, he managed to save enough money to finish constructing the studio for his label Mix & Flow Productions, which ranks among the best in the Northeast today.

Sounds of Shillong

Born on 17 December 1990 in Shillong, D-Mon was raised by his grandparents as his mother, a government servant, worked in Kolkata. Struggling with epilepsy in school, he was surprisingly not very fond of music early on, although it was all around him.

“At a very early age, my uncles made me listen to a lot of rock music. On Sundays, my grandparents would play gospel music, which had a massive influence on me, for the whole household. In fact, the first time I ever performed in front of an audience was during a Sunday school church service. Folk music was introduced to me through the radio every morning before school. I consumed it like it was a part of my breakfast. Also, many members of my family played various instruments — grandma played the piano, my grand uncle played the accordion and my uncle played the guitar. One way or another, all these elements played a role in helping me develop a love for music,” says D-Mon.

His ear for music came from listening to international artists like Bon Jovi, Scorpion, Steely Dan, Jimmy Reeves and Robert Cray, while there were local inspirations from Shillong as well which include R Waroh Pde, Donbor Rynjah and Amio Lyngshkor.

Hip Hop, however, found its way to D-Mon later on in high school, listening to albums from the 1990s like Tupac Shakur’s ‘All Eyez On Me’, Warren G’s ‘Take a Look Over Your Shoulder’, ‘Ready to Die’ by The Notorious B.I.G. and Dr Dre’s ‘The Chronic’. He would play these albums on his uncle’s cassette player in his room or outdoors with his friends.

“I started writing rap verses around 2004. It’s a funny story because I started writing raps as a way to remember my answers back in elementary school. So, I would rhyme stuff like important historic dates and significant names and it would work. As I grew older, I started to realise I had a knack for writing and it gradually turned into crafting verses. In the beginning, I struggled a lot but as time progressed and with practice, I got better,” he recalls.

Hip Hop
Lamonte Pakyntein, aka D-Mon

Khasi Bloodz

It was during high school at a neighbourhood cyber café where he met Big-Ri through a mutual friend JCK (Jason Kharchandy). Bonded by their love for Hip Hop, the three of them would meet at the internet café, which became their default hang out spot.

“D-Bok, on the other hand, came to one of our school concerts in which I was performing a rap song, which I dedicated to Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. There was a mutual love we shared for those artists, which led to our friendship. D-Bok then began joining the three of us at the cyber café regularly. It started with us listening to some rap music at the cafe which then turned into us rapping over beats. After rapping popular songs for a while, we realised the potential within us to write our own verses and began working on our craft. On 19 September 2009, which is Big-Ri’s birthday, we formed the Khasi Bloodz. He came up with the name,” recalls D-Mon.

One of the first songs they wrote was ‘Rising Stars’ in 2009. However, they only officially released the song in 2013 because they felt that the quality of production wasn’t up to scratch. “We wanted better quality on the production. So, we took time and earned some money, which we could pay to record our song at a professional studio,” he adds.

Each member found their way of earning some money on the side as they began studying in college. For instance, D-Mon would paint houses after exams, sell posters and work at his uncle’s coffee shop and a friend’s restaurant during his free time. All their side hustle, however, wasn’t enough to pay for a recording session at a professional studio.

Hip Hop
From L-R: D-Bok, D-Mon, Big-Ri. Today, the group is represented by Big-Ri and D-Bok

“So, I dropped out of college to find more ways of reaching my goal, which my family wasn’t happy about. But I soon had the good fortune of meeting Mr Bari Khonglah, who was a renowned sound engineer back in the day. He ran a studio called Basement Studio, and I sought a chance to work for him in exchange for some studio time. I would help out with carrying speakers for outdoor events. And instead of paying us a salary, he provided us with the opportunity to record our songs and helped us mix and master them,” recalls D-Mon.

Released in 2013, the song and the official video for it put them on the map. Even though Hip Hop had always been around in Shillong, there weren’t any artists truly representing the city and Khasi identity in this particular space quite like the members of the Khasi Bloodz.

“Khasi Bloodz was officially the first artist/group to represent it for the town. It’s one of the biggest honours that we hold dearly to this day,” he adds.

But the hustle never stopped. Even as late as 2017-18, D-Mon and D-Bok were making sandwiches and burgers and selling them to offices, cafes and canteens in the city. The money they made was spent on buying instruments, recording equipment, etc. In many ways, the Khasi Bloodz exemplified the do-it-yourself (DIY) ethic of Hip Hop. Starting out in 2009, there were six members in the group. Today, however, it’s just D-Bok and Big-Ri.

Shillong’s Dr Dre

Beyond writing verses, D-Mon realised that he had an ear for music when he made the beat for ‘Rising Stars’. He stumbled onto a trumpet-like sound on the Yamaha DGX-500 keyboard, which ended up being the melody for the song, following which the drums and the rest were added.

As the Khasi Bloodz began to make their mark not just in Shillong but the entire Northeast and beyond, D-Mon came together with his best friend and sound engineer, Ardon Samuel Rumnong, to launch their label Mix & Flow Productions in 2016. As he continued to make music and perform for audiences, the next two years were also spent constructing the studio.

“The total cost for setting up the studio was approximately Rs 10 lakh. To get here, it took years of saving, building and investing. I can’t forget to mention the incredible role my grandparents played during this journey. The main drive behind setting up a studio was to primarily help and provide opportunities for untapped talent in Shillong. As soon as the studio was established, I was able to put all my focus into music,” he says.

As a producer, he has worked closely with and given a platform to young talents from Shillong like singer/rapper/songwriter Meba Ofilia, Reble (Daiaphi Lamare), Dappest (Dapher U-Na-Ki Laloo), while collaborating with other talent from the Northeast.

He adds, “Ever since I knew I had an ear for production, I fell in love with the art form. By 2018, I had fully transitioned to production. Big-Ri and D-Bok were always supportive and knew that one day I would make this transition. Today, while I produce for other artists, revenue for the studio comes in through clientele appointments and other musical projects.”

Hip Hop
D-Mon working his magic in the studio

Vikramjit Sen (a.k.a Feyago), an indie rapper and producer based out of Kolkata, says, “D-Mon is my favourite producer from the Northeast—the ‘Dr Dre of Shillong’. He’s a perfectionist, who does not compromise on his craft or artistic integrity. His music is an acquired taste unlike say Stunnah Beatz (Rajdeep Sinha), a popular Guwahati-based producer, who delivers guaranteed hits. But if you want to break the boundaries of your artistry as a rapper or an R&B singer, D-Mon is the man for you. His work is as good as some of the most soulful jazz, blues or rock music that have come out of India. In order to enter his studio, you have to be all about the music. As a rapper, you’re not going to get away with tone-deaf bars.”

“D-Mon is usually fun and laid back, but his music has to be perfect. I’ve learnt a lot working with him. He is honest when it comes to telling me what’s good and what’s not,” says Reble.

Feyago adds, “If I were to make a food analogy, his work is like caviar, which is also an acquired taste. You may not enjoy his songs in the first few seconds and pop open some champagne. His music is more like sipping a glass of fine wine with a book in your hand.”

What also makes him stand out is his emphasis on using live instruments. “I was always fond of live instruments like drums, keys, bass, guitars, etc. The natural and organic sound that a real instrument brings to the table is important to me. My production style is a merging of two genres like Hip Hop and R&B, mixing old sounds and new and bringing my signature. I have taken inspiration from acclaimed producers like Jimmy Iovine and Hans Zimmer,” explains D-Mon.

“His approach to production follows the mantra that analogue is the meat, and digital is the gravy. Beat production is music, but it’s a little different from musicality. If you drop a hard 808 beat, put hi-hats on it and rap, you may impress the Hip Hop crowd. But D-Mon makes music for people who have never listened to Hip Hop before or aren’t into it. Compared to most Hip Hop producers, he makes music not just beats. There is a key difference between a beatmaker and a musical composer. D-Mon is an outright composer who happens to be into Hip Hop. I can count the number of Hip Hop producers in India who do this on one hand,” observes Feyago.

Even though Hip Hop artists and producers around India are racking up hits and massive online views, D-Mon doesn’t feel the pressure to fit in. “Fitting in doesn’t concern me because I’ve always been focused on working on my own sound. The aim has always been to support young talent who haven’t been discovered yet. That’s what drives me.”

“D-Mon is always on the lookout for new talent and wants to give them a platform. He has been one of the biggest factors in pushing the hip hop-R&B scene to its glory in Shillong and the Northeast since his time with the Khasi Bloodz. Today, he provides young artists with immense support to carry out their art,” says Reble.

While the pandemic has proven to be a struggle for his label, spirits remain high. Suffice to say, D-Mon transmitted that spirit to listeners like me who grew weary of the pandemic.

“I don’t know what the future holds for us but I’m positive that we’ll keep putting in the effort ‘2 Produce And Create’ quality music,” he says.

(Edited by Yoshita Rao)

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