How A.R. Rahman Makes Hit After Hit

The composer breaks down why chart-topping success doesn’t tell the full story of the magic behind his music.

Kavya Srikanth

August 3, 2022

How A.R. Rahman Makes Hit After Hit
(Getty)

The year was 1984, and 17-year-old A.S. Dileep Kumar was hunched over a newly-released Yamaha CX5M synthesizer, one of the first synthesizing computers to hit the Indian market. In 30 years, Kumar would become Allah Rakha Rahman, one of the top-selling musicians of all time, winning six National Film Awards, two Academy Awards, and two Grammys, earning the moniker “the Mozart of Madras.” But first, the budding musician needed to learn how to painstakingly punch each note, octave, and piece of data into his new device. “I was too curious and I said, ‘let’s buy it and see what happens,’” said Rahman. “For each note, there’d be like eight commands to type.” 

The CX5M might not be the most advanced synthesizer out there, but the world of music owes a lot to the humble machine that solidified Rahman’s signature style. While predecessors like M.S. Viswanathan and Ilaiyaraaja adapted tunes from traditional Carnatic or Western classical music, Rahman drew heavily from several genres, including Qawwali and Hindustani music, and incorporated synthesizers and electric arrangements. These choices were pivotal in establishing him as the soundtrack of a generation. Within the next decade, Rahman would go from devising catchy jingles for products like Titan watches to breaking into the film industry with 1992’s Roja.

Rahman is currently on his “All Access” tour. As he plays hits like “Chaiyya Chaiyya” and “Urvashi Urvashi,” audiences across North America dance and sing along to his memorable tracks. For someone who constantly takes musical risks, the artist has had unprecedented success. But for Rahman, these technical instruments are just tools. The essence of his music, he stresses, is humanity and spirituality.