Unmarried, no kids. What are you doing? This Tamil hip hop trio answers family pressure with bangers
For All Mixed Up, rap is a family affair: 'Dirty 30 is basically a diss song to every parent that asks this'
It's a sultry June evening; the weather in Toronto feels more like a sizzling day in Colombo. Tamil hip hop trio All Mixed Up and their three-person entourage are crowded around the coffee table in the home studio of Stokley McDonald, one of the group's producers.
As the electrifying dusk slowly gives way to buzzing streetlights, each one of the trio at one point disappears into the recording booth unleashing their spitfire bars. They rotate turns: while one records their verses, the other two sit out on the patio furiously scribbling on notepads.
When the group hears strains of the first mix — comprised of Tamil melodies with English verses set against an Afrobeat rhythm — drifting out of headphones on the coffee table, they start to bounce in their seats.
"This is a hit right here," Rocky Jeyam, 37, the group's manager says enthusiastically.
"This is it, this it, cuz," says Barath Jeyam, 31, giving Geerthanan Thiviyarajah, also 31, a dap. Meanwhile, Naveeni Athanosious, 29, beams from her seat. She hums along to the Tamil lyrics she'd come up with just two hours ago.
The song is part of an EP the group plans to release this summer, says Rocky. He predicts the group's ability to play with different musical genres will appeal to a larger audience beyond Tamil-speaking Canadians.
Making music is a family affair for All Mixed Up. The trio — made up of cousins Barath and Thiviyarajah along with Athanasious, who is the sole female performer in the crew — go by their rap names Question416, Geeth and Navz respectively. Rocky Jeyam, Barath's older brother, was part of Toronto's music scene more than a decade ago, releasing three albums under his label Meditating Minds Entertainment.
The Jeyam brothers and their cousin Thiviyarajah have generational musical talent and interest: their grandfather and uncles used to organize stage performances in Sri Lanka in the '50s and '60s. That legacy continued on in the younger generations who left the island nation. After a civil war broke out in Sri Lanka in 1983, many Sri Lankans fled to Canada. The Jeyams' father arrived in 1984, and the rest of the family followed in 1987.
My father was more like a social worker — our home was an open house.- Rocky Jeyam
From the beginning, the Jeyam family primarily lived in Rexdale, a Toronto suburb known for its low-income high-rise residences that became home to a multicultural community. Six people lived in their three-bedroom apartment, but their home was always a welcoming spot of warmth for other Tamil newcomers. "My father was more like a social worker — our home was an open house," says Rocky.
Rexdale was also well-known, more unfortunately, for issues like gang violence. Music was a means for Rocky to keep both himself and Barath out of any potential trouble. Rocky was 13 when he first heard the then relatively unknown (before it became a hit) song "Chinna Chinna Aasai" by Tamil musician A R Rahman's for Mani Ratnam's classic 1992 film Roja. (Rahman would go on to become famous in India and abroad, particularly because of his music for Slumdog Millionaire.)
During this time, Rocky, recorded a Tamil remix album called Wicked Slam 3 after hearing a radio commercial for an affordable Toronto studio called Audio One. He followed that with original albums: The Beginning and Harmony, followed by Project Freedom. The former two records took a more commercial approach with songs about breakups and dreams for a better future, while Project Freedom dealt more heavily in reality about the brutal end of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009.
Rocky included his younger brother on these projects. Barath was starting to become known among his peers for spitting rhymes during schoolyard ciphers, inspired by the likes of Tupac, Biggie Smalls and Nas.
"When I was 14 or 15, I used to be part of these rap battles in the middle of the street, outside 2757 (Kipling Ave.) I will never forget that building at Kipling and Steeles," Barath says, as Thiviyarajah nods along. "I'd win the battle and it was like, 'OH! And he's BROWN! He can rap AND he's Tamil.'"
Thiviyarajah's parents were also heavily involved in the arts. His father has released five albums and a movie in Tamil, while his mother currently teaches Bharatnatyam, a classical Indian dance. Thiviyarajah himself is a gifted mridangam drum player and has been performing on massive stages in Toronto featuring famous South Indian singers such as S. P. Balasubrahmanyam, Chitra and Shankar Mahadevan.
When I was 14 or 15, I used to be part of these rap battles in the middle of the street. I'd win the battle and it was like, 'OH! And he's BROWN! He can rap AND he's Tamil.'- Barath Jeyam
Since Barath and Thiviyarajah are the same age, the two cousins used to just hang out and write songs. "It started out with me playing on a bucket, drumming out beats with Barath singing and recording on a phone. We made a song when we were in grade nine," recalls Thiviyarajah. Barath jumps in: "It was for my ex-girlfriend. Cousin here is doing his A R Rahman thing, bringing in the Tamil vibes, or his [famous musician] Ilaiyaraaja thing. He's singing Kadhal aaaa. And then I come in with a 'gurrrl' cause this was the '90s. That's how I chopped my girlfriend," he says as both cousins start rolling in laughter.
When the pair got older, their jam sessions began taking place at family get-togethers. "Any Christmas or birthday party, we have a program in the basement. It's serious business — there's a whole line-up of performances. There's a waitlist. You're calling your uncle for a slot in the middle," says Barath.
One day, during a party, the two cousins snuck out to listen to some beats in their car. They soon came up with a song and recorded it on their phone. "I'll admit we were a little drunk that night. But we listened to it the next day and it sounded dope," says Thiviyarajah. They reworked the song, roping in Barath's younger sister, and performed it at an annual Toronto summer concert show called DesiFest.
It wasn't until their next two songs, however, that they started to make music in earnest and consider the enterprise much more seriously. "Dirty 30" was inspired by all the nagging both cousins had to hear from their parents, aunts and uncles.
"We'd turned 30 and my dad is like, 'What are you guys doing with your lives? Why don't you do something useful?' And all the aunts and uncles are like, 'You are unmarried, you have no kids. What are you doing?'" says Thiviyarajah, who also works as an engineer with the Independent Electricity System Operator, a crown corporation. "'Dirty 30' is basically a diss song to every parent that asks us this."
We want to show the fact that three young people from Toronto can make world class music. We don't need to go to India or anywhere else to make it.- Geerthanan Thiviyarajah
"Even before 'Dirty 30,' there was 'Tamil Trap.' We wanted to make a trap song but with Tamil lyrics in it," says Barath. When Barath and Thiviyarajah played the songs for Rocky, he instantly knew that his brother and cousin were on to something. They uploaded the songs to YouTube and started getting messages from people across the world, especially from people in Europe. While brainstorming for a name, someone threw out the idea that the group's vibe was all mixed up.
"That name stuck. All Mixed Up. A. M. U.," says Jeyam.
A few months later, Barath ran into Athanasious at a friend's birthday party. Athanasious had been asked to perform at the party because she was known in her friend's circle for playing the guitar and composing original songs in Tamil. As soon as Barath heard her unique voice, he knew she had to be a part of All Mixed Up — but she needed some convincing.
Born in Colombo, she moved to Canada when she 12, first living in Montreal and then to Toronto when she was 21. Although her mother was a Tamil language radio announcer in Sri Lanka, and her father used to tinker around a guitar with his brothers, Athanasious never considered becoming a career or interest in music or public performance. She says she first picked up a guitar after the death of a close friend as a means of coping with the grief.
"I remember I told my younger sister that I wanted to buy a guitar, but I had no money," she says. "She went to her closet and handed me this big plastic bucket of change. I don't know how long she had been saving up that money for, but she told me use it. When I went to the bank teller, she rolled her eyes, but counted the money. It was $450. I went to a Long & McQuade and bought a black acoustic guitar."
"I didn't have a job. I wasn't at school. I picked at the guitar until the tips of my finger turned black. YouTube helped. Practice helped."
The first time she hung out with Barath and Thiviyarajah, the trio came up with "Ithuthaana." That was soon followed by "Kathali," which Barath describes as a breakup song.
"We'd all gone through breakups, losing someone close to us," he says. "When we were in grade nine, we made a make-up song. When we turned 30, we wrote a breakup song."
But when it comes down to it, the group want to shake things off a little, and get people moving. "We just want to make music that's us, that's fun," adds Thiviyarajah. "We want to show the fact that three young people from Toronto can make world class music. We don't need to go to India or anywhere else to make it."
"Plus it helps people relate to our culture more," says Barath. "You're not a stranger anymore. You can be yourself, and that's cool."