The way the hip-hop artist Kunal "Kaly" Patel tells it, he never knows whether his vocals will appear on a track by Indian musical composer and Oscar winner A.R. Rahman until an hour or two before its official release.
“He will literally call me when I am on New Jersey Transit,” Patel told NBC News. Rahman, who is known for his exacting style and attention to detail, recently told the Times of India that he did 14 different versions of the new song "Sachin Sachin" before deciding to use the one featuring Kaly on the soundtrack for the upcoming film “Sachin: A Billion Dreams,” which traces the life of retired cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar.
The song marks the second time this year Kaly has appeared on one of Rahman’s soundtracks. The first, in which he has a verse on the soundtrack of the comedy “Oh Jaanu,” came about after he was introduced to Rahman by mutual friends.
“It was the most random thing. I have a friend and his dad is really cool with A.R.,” Patel said. When Rahman was in New York City last year, they arranged to meet.
“It was nerve wracking,” Patel recalled. “But I guess I’ve learned to treat everyone I hang out with the same.”
They ended up playing music and talking about lyrics together.
“He really respects what I’ve been doing,” Patel said. “He had me rap for him.”
The fact that the 31-year-old rapper is starting to carve a niche for himself in the Bollywood music industry is particularly poignant because it was a genre he grew up listening to.
“It was in sixth grade that Bollywood put me on to this idea that I could write poetry and that would get girls to like me,” said Patel, who was born in Englewood, New Jersey and grew up near Princeton. While the poetry did not work at the time, it did inspire him to start putting his verses to music. He then began seriously working on his tracks while in college.
“I remember hearing in a marketing class that you should think of three words [to describe your product],” he said. “Mine would be ‘intelligent rebel music.’ I don’t make rah rah club music.”
That’s part of the reason Patel said he is sometimes surprised at the success he’s found among Indian listeners compared to his audience in the United States. “I’ve done a lot of things both here and there,” he said. “They don’t really mess with rap there.”
Despite that, Patel said that his impromptu meeting with Rahman last year along with the popularity of his indie album “Letters from Agrabah, Vol 1” online has helped him find new fans in both countries and even directly led him to another celebrity collaboration, this time with rapper and actor Utkarsh Ambudkar.
“The album was me interpreting Aladdin and it had a lot of Indian samples. I made a BuzzFeed article [of rappers every Indian should check out], and he saw it,” Kaly said. “He reached out to me and I called him, but he said ‘I am at a wedding, but I will hit you back.’”
As a result of that conversation — in which they expressed mutual admiration of the other's work — Patel flew to Los Angeles from New York to collaborate on a track together. The result was their song "Don’t Care," which was released in February. “I wrote the hook at the first verse, and he wrote his verse,” he said. “It was really simple.”
Kaly says he often thinks of the fact that his two big collaborations probably would not have happened if not for social media and personal networks.
“Last year was a really good year for me,” he noted. “But in the grand scheme of things I don’t have that many followers. I think it’s amazing who is watching when you don’t even realize it.”
CLARIFICATION (June 1, 2017, 11:50 a.m.): An earlier version of this article referred imprecisely to the town in which Patel grew up. Though he was born in Englewood, N.J., he was raised in other towns across the state.