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Hip-hop’s swift ascent in status from niche subculture to cultural domination in Singapore is all thanks to a new generation of artists with no designs on imitating, or even emulating, their stateside counterparts. Today’s Southeast Asian rap stars are all about finding their authenticity and owning it. They rap in native tongues, represent the communities they came from and wear their respective cultural identities like badges of honour.
Spurred by the genesis of Yo! MTV Raps Asia (a spin-off of the iconic US show which showcases local talent) and the YouTube rap-battle series 16 Baris (which helped launch the careers of many of the scene’s brightest stars), artists from once fragmented rap scenes throughout Southeast Asia are today mobilised.
In the city-state of Singapore, hip-hop has been embraced with open arms. It’s here that Def Jam Southeast Asia – the newly launched regional outpost of hip-hop’s most hallowed record label – has its headquarters, and where some of the region’s most unique artists call home. Faris Mustafa meets four of the leading lights of the Singapore scene.
Fariz is a gifted 23-year old hip-hop artist who raps in Malay and English. Part of the newly-formed Def Jam SE Asia label, Fariz is also part of producer FlightSch’s homegrown artist stable alongside close friend Yung Raja
Key track: Ape Sia – Jabba’s searing Malay-language hip-hop tour de force.
“My older brother that got me into 2Pac as a kid and I immediately fell in love with his music. The first song I memorised fully was 2Pac’s Hit ‘Em Up. I was nine years old.
At 17 I went to an open-call audition for a Singaporean movie called Ah Boys To Men 3. They were looking for a ‘cool Malay boy’. It was there that I met Yung Raja. It was a mainly Chinese film, and Raja and I ended up being cast as the token brown boys. But we kinda bonded because of that. That and the fact that we both loved hip hop.
We encouraged each other to start writing our own music. My early lyrics were way too complicated. I wasn’t being me. I decided to try rapping in Malay, as well as English, because that’s my culture, it’s who I am. You know, Asian artists overcompensate sometimes because the bar is set so high by Western rappers. But sometimes it’s just all about simplicity. I took out all the long, unnecessary words. And I just kept it real.
It wasn’t long after that I met FlightSch and he signed Raja and me to his label. I’m making a lot of music right now. And all kinds of stuff too. Rap tracks, R&B, trap stuff. I like it all. But I’ll always be rapping in Malay and English. I believe in speaking my own language.”
Singapore hip-hop’s most colourful character is a 24-year old bilingual rapper who alternates between English and his native Tamil. Raja is also the host of showcase television show Yo! MTV Raps Asia.
Key track: Mustafa – an ode to the iconic 24-hour Singapore dept store Mustafa Centre.
“I grew up in a small flat in Little India. No English was spoken in my household and I listened to nothing but Indian music until I was about eight years old. Then I discovered hip hop.
In my teens I set up a Soundcloud page where I’d upload cover versions of all my favourite US rap songs. I guess I knew had some kind of talent but I didn’t know it could ever become something until I met Fariz Jabba. I was inspired by his authentic creation process. When he creates his music he’s so natural. He’s so himself. I needed to build my own identity, and having that realisation was when things started to fall into place.
When I released my track Poori Gang [a Tamil-take on Lil Pump’s Gucci Gang – poori is a deep-fried Indian bread snack], and I started to see the response online, that was when I knew things were really taking off. Since that point on it’s just been non-stop.
Asian hip-hop is on the rise right now. Everybody is trying to do their thing, with their own flavour. And there’s a lot of support. Especially for people who are perceived as unique, and that are doing something new. Nobody’s trying to beef out here. Everybody just wants to see you win. That positive energy is what’s fuelling me and it makes me want to become an even better artist.”
The Lion City Boy aka Kevin Lester is one of Singapore’s most respected rappers and an elder statesman of the scene – even if he is only 35.
Key track: Halimah – an infectious trap single named after Singapore’s first female president
“I grew up in a Eurasian household. Both my parents are of mixed heritage so, in Singapore, a country that categorises race by CMIO (Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others), we are the ‘other’.
I first got into hip-hop in the late 90s and when Youtube started to blow up around 2008, I began putting out videos of myself rapping. Soon after I got picked up by a label based in LA and fronted by Apl.de.Ap of the Black Eyed Peas. They flew me out to the US and signed me on a talent development deal.
I got to work with a bunch of great artists and producers and I performed at SXSW in 2013. Around that time I also started to feel more in touch with who I was. Being out there somehow made me feel more aware of my identity. And so I started to go by ‘The Lion City Boy’. Singapore calls itself ‘the Lion City’ and I decided I wanted to be this person who was going to hold on to where he was from and to the stories that were immediately around me.
I felt excited when I came back to Singapore. And I’ve really built my career since then. For the first time in Asian hiphop it feels OK to just be you. To own your culture. Music is globalised and people nowadays just want a good story.”
In 2017 producer FlightSch signed up-and-coming artists Fariz Jabba and Yung Raja to his own independent label. Two years later he agreed a significant joint venture with the newly-formed Def Jam Southeast Asia.
Key track: Fariz Jabba – Masa. Few tracks show off FlightSch’s irresistibly slick production style as well as this.
“By the age of 16 I’d signed on my first record deal as a producer. I was working with artists in Singapore, Malaysia, and then in Taiwan – for Sony Music – before I got snapped up an American label, After Platinum. I spent a few months out in the US, where I got some big production credits to my name, including one for Sean Combs’ (Puff Daddy) Bad Boy Records. As a young kid from Singapore that was amazing to me.
When I came back to Singapore it really felt like the music scene was dead. I was seriously thinking of moving abroad. But then I met The Lion City Boy. We began working together and I started to feel like I had a reason to stay in Singapore and build something here. After four years I decided that I want to start my own label, and my first signee was local rapper named Louie Indigo. The next artists to sign would be Yung Raja and Fariz Jabba.
At no point did we did we ever think things would move as fast as they have with those guys. In the space of four months, things blew up and Fariz and Raja became household names. People here have really responded to those guys because they can relate. They’re humble, they have no air about them, and they give young people who want to follow in their footsteps hope.”