Phone lights look like stars against the darkened venue. Dozens of arms suspended in space uphold the cosmos.
And below it, chaos.
The first beats of Waka Flocka Flame’s trap masterpiece “Hard in Da Paint” blare from the overhead speakers. As the song builds, so does the energy.
With the drop, a mess of heads and bodies collide across the crowd. It’s a sweaty, adrenaline-induced bounce underscored by a semi-rhythmic chorus of “ayes.”
Looming over the crowd, Tyler Dharamraj, better known by his moniker $onoma, watches as anarchy ensues. With a subtle smirk, he flips his blond, teal-tinted shoulder-length hair.
The same smirk slides across his face as he reclines back into a black leather office chair at his producer’s studio, the Beat Creeps, off Southern Avenue in Tempe. Now doused in purple and pink LED lights, he sits clicking a pen in his hand.
“Kids like to rage,” he said.
In the last five years, Dharamraj, now 21, booked and performed alongside some of the biggest names in rap music. Amassing a social media following and notoriety in the SoundCloud scene, Dharamraj continues to promote and perform around Arizona.
“I find myself as an empath, so I’ll feed off their energy but they’ll also feed off mine,” he said.
He’s soft-spoken in person, subtle on stage but exerts a clear control over a crowd. Dharamraj, in a few words, is the maestro of the mosh.
Dharamraj’s Instagram story highlights show the peaks. Crowds of hundreds jump in unison and hands uphold one crowd-surfing rap star or another. In one particular video, he stretches out his arms crucifixion-style and splashes two full water bottles onto the mob below as the beat drops.
“The reason I really like music is when I go to a concert, I look at (the artist) and I’m like, ‘Wow, I want to be them,’ I want to make people feel that way.”
He recently opened for Azizi Gibson at Aura Nightclub in Tempe on Oct. 19 and performed at Ski Mask the Slump God’s after-party at The V on Vineyard in Mesa on Nov. 2.
At both shows, he performed in a boot after tearing a ligament while playing basketball. Though on stage, he told the crowd it was from a black widow spider bite.
In the underground hip-hop community, Dharamraj, or @thatboysonoma, is a bit of an enigma.
He said he’s vegan, or occasionally pescatarian. He’s sober. He’s big in Turkey, Russia and Sweden. And he’s worked behind the scenes and on stage with some of the biggest rap and hip-hop artists.
“I’m definitely not a promoter, and I’m definitely not a DJ,” Dharamraj said, “Pop? Pop maybe. Because pop is a mixture of everything.”
With his own new musical projects in the works, Dharamraj continues to make waves across the state.
Though Dharamraj saw most of his influence take shape in Arizona, he’s not native to the state. He grew up in Michigan, and his interest in music was built there.
Around the time Dharamraj started middle school in 2010, he and his family made the move to Anthem, Arizona.
By the time Dharamraj hit high school, he started making his own music.
“Freshman year I made a freestyle over a Flatbush Zombies beat on YouTube and people hated it,” Dharamraj said. “Which was obviously because it was really (bad).”
Despite this minor setback, Dharamraj continued. He created a new persona junior year, which he declined to mention due to it being “corny.”
But finally, following a lacrosse tournament in Sonoma County, California, he donned himself $onoma. A nickname he’s stuck with ever since.
“Alright, bet. I’m just gonna throw a dollar sign in front of it,” Dharamraj said.
After messing around with hip-hop and rap music, Dharamraj found his way into the promoting sector, or rather, it found him.
While taking photos with friends at an In-N-Out Burger one night, some SoundCloud rappers asked Dharamraj and his friends to photograph their upcoming show.
“At the time, SoundCloud was like nothing.”
Only 10 people turned out to the show. On top of taking photos, Dharamraj ended up doing a DJ set and more importantly, found his “in” in the concert promotion business. He got the promoter’s information, borrowed $2,000 from a family friend and booked Lil Uzi Vert and Felly for a show at Club Red in 2015.
Lil Uzi Vert missed his flight, and consequently, the show. Despite this mishap, his first gig still proved to be a strong first step for Dharamraj.
A lot of now prominent SoundCloud artists were on the rise in 2014 when current ASU students were in high school. He said the presence of underground rappers and artists in Arizona expanded around 2015, and this was the same year that Dharamraj entered the music scene, both as an artist and a promoter.
And it started with a simple thought.
“Why don’t we do this with upcoming SoundCloud rappers?”
His first step into promoting was in time with the emergence of a number of up-and-coming rap artists. He sent out emails, met with rising artists and networked with the budding SoundCloud rap community.
From booking underground artists like SeshHollowWaterBoyz and Lil Pump, to mainstream hit makers like Migos and Travis Scott, Dharamraj quickly became a notable promoter in the local hip-hop community.
The music video has accumulated over 8,000 views.
Dharamraj’s instrumentals typically stick with trap-style beats, but he’s varied in tone. His most recent release, “Drain The Sun,” takes on a softer, more mellow vibe.
Dharamraj follows a process when it comes to making music. He starts with the beat and improvises through the rest of the process, similar to Migos, in the studio.
“I just mumble a bunch of bullshit, and then if some of that is slightly good, then I take the original vocals and I copy it and delete it as I go on,” he said.
Bryan Pino, $onoma’s producer and engineer at Beat Creep, chimed in, “Like a Pac-Man game.”
Shifting from rap, Dharamraj said he also wants to focus on rock and indie music. He said he’s learning how to play the guitar and the drums.
Pino previously worked with Asking Alexandria, a heavy-metal rock band. With a rock-oriented production background, Pino brought something new to the mix.
“He probably wanted someone to challenge him,” Pino said. He said he works to bring Dharamraj’s songs together. “With any artist I work with, I strive for them to create their own voice.”
Dharamraj expanded his discography, and shortly after, he direct messaged Jordan Carter of Culture Only Management on Instagram, and the two started to build a professional relationship.
“I was kind of wary at first, but after staying in contact through social media and FaceTime, I got a feel for his music and if he was into music for the right reasons, not just for the money,” Carter said.
Carter is responsible for booking, paperwork and contracts. With connections to labels, Carter also helps with promotion and organization.
“You need a team, you need a group of people around you,” Dharamraj said.
Dharamraj builds his audience through his Twitter and Instagram accounts. He grew his following to around 10,000 on each platform.
He started by building his Twitter through connections with influential accounts, growing both his domestic and international following.
“I put a good amount of work into keeping it looking cool, like aesthetically pleasing, but I don’t really try too hard on it,” he said.
Dharamraj plans for the future. With a festival, music videos and a new album in the works, he’s keeping busy.
Through his work, though, he keeps a few things in mind.
“Don’t do negative stuff, but just do what you want,” he said. “Follow your dreams, music is dope, clothes are sick, be peaceful, recycle and stuff, vote if you can, drink water, wear protection during sex — if you’re at ASU especially.”
Kiera Riley is a managing editor at State Press Magazine. She also interns at the politics desk for the Arizona Republic