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The Awakening of Malaysia’s Bedroom Producers
Some of the most forward-thinking, innovative sounds to come out of Malaysia in the past few years have been created at the very spot where bedroom producers sleep. We speak to some of the country’s rising bedroom producers about the current state of the scene.
To explore the explosion of bedroom producers in the country – and the recent rise of the new(er) breed of musicians in Malaysia – one must first begin with a definition with which one comes to consider the term “bedroom producer”. The following is generally valid: a bedroom producer is a producer who has the know-how, the skills, and the will to create music via computer programs within the confines of his or her own room, or bedroom, if you will. But this description would need endless qualification, given today’s bedroom producers’ extraordinary versatility and enormous wealth of resources.
“In the music industry of modern day, a bedroom producer does it all: arranges and composes on his own, records on his own, and mixes and masters on his own,” says Dae Kim, a Korean-born, Kuala Lumpur-based electronic musician-producer and sound engineer."
Dae Kim should know. When the 24-year-old released his eight-track debut </3 in 2015 as an electronic artist and producer, he was still largely known as a hip hop beatmaker, circling the cliques of Jin Hackman and co., while repping hip hop collectives Raising The Bar, Rogue Squadron, and The Bat Cave. He has since proven himself to be one of Kuala Lumpur’s most multi-faceted, multi-talented producers: along with Yang Ariff, he makes up one-half of the hip hop duo Home Court; he produces for singer-songwriter Jocelyn Stemilyn, even going so far as to direct the music video for her single Pedicure; and he recently announced that he has begun work on a full-length record that will be released under electronica label mü-nest (label to the likes of Tokyo-based award-winning audio visual artist okamotonoriaki and the KL-based electro-acoustic maestro euseng seto, formerly known as flica).
The times have changed; the Internet has made a lot of the artists one listens to. The process of production has changed, too. Artists – more specifically, bedroom producers – can now make music alone in their homes, and make a living, however small, without a label. Cheaper, inexpensive equipment and software have broken down the barriers of electronic music and production in Malaysia. It’s easier than ever to produce these days: you’d need a computer or a laptop, instruments, and headphones and microphones, and you’d be on your way.
Alextbh is the poster boy for producers in the age of the Internet. The 21-year-old is an engineering student by day, electronic bedroom producer by night. In 2016, he released a four-track experimental, electronic-meets-R&B EP alive, following his first formal debut and feature on electronic/hip hop collective HOAX Vision’s HOAX Wishes You Well mixtape.
He uses, like many of his fellow bedroom producers, Ableton Live, though he used to make music on Logic Pro – these are just two examples of Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs), programs and software that producers use for music production and performance. “As for hardware, I have an Audio Technica AT2020 microphone, and an APC key25 MIDI controller that Noh Salleh – from Hujan – lent to me,” Alextbh says.
“I believe in owning as little equipment, synths and software as possible, and maximising them to their fullest. Expensive equipment is worthless if you don’t have the knowhow,” he continues.
Alextbh is an example of how the Internet – integral to the bedroom producer culture – can kickstart one’s musical career; his debut track tbh was released on SoundCloud in mid-2016, but he’s seemingly struck a high note with the scene in Malaysia and beyond. His most successful single so far, Stoop So Low, has over 512,000 plays on Spotify. A recently released track Wayfaring Stranger, meanwhile, was broadcasted on BBC Radio 1Xtra. He’s also played at Raising The Bar’s Welcome To Heartbreak set, sharing the stage with Malaysia-based Indonesian producer (and frequent collaborator and friend) Emir Hermono and Singapore’s Sam Rui, as well as HOAX Vision’s 005 show and TapauFEST, among others.
Some of the most forward-thinking, innovative sounds have been created at the very spot where bedroom producers sleep – sounds existing far beyond the four walls where they are made and molded, existing in an entire ecosystem where the light of the mainstream cannot reach and label restrictions cannot breach. Platforms like Bandcamp, SoundCloud and YouTube are a bedroom producer's heaven and haven, but they’re inevitably saturated with similar sounds. As is the shtick of genres, electronic music has a tendency to place artists in a certain group or collective; ie, artists feature on each other’s tracks, nurture each other and certainly churn out tracks that sound similar.
As a bedroom producer, music making in Malaysia is cheaper than it used to be – and collaborative. Above all, it’s accessible; readymade loops, samples and sounds on the Internet mean that it’s much easier to make music today than ever before that fits within the current au courant sound, or to replicate styles that are remarkably similar to that of successful artists. With that freedom to make the music one wants to make, comes the flipside: the oversaturation of sound, and with it, the pressure to stand out in a sea of producers, bedroom or otherwise.
The restlessness within the realm of electronic music – or even the realm of music – in Malaysia stems from the fact that there’s simply not enough originality in the scene. To stand out, one has to create and cultivate one’s own distinctive style and sound. Shelhiel is, according to his Facebook page, “a music superhero who is lost in an architecture school”. The Johor Bahru-based electronic artist and producer is also a part of the local electronic music collective and label Akhyla (think acts such as Kain, Vmpymyth, and Yahna). Listen to Baby on the KL-based beat cypher Midnight Oil’s Vol 3 release; “a mixture of jersey club” and energetic-sounding bass, drums, keys and synths, it was the first that introduced and solidified his reputation as a bedroom producer. While concurring that “everything can be art, and everything can be music”, he maintains that “a distinctive, unique sound” makes a distinctive, unique artist, or a producer.
“No one’s going to follow you or follow what you’re doing if you’re following trends. Be a cultural curator; be an artist; create,” he says.
The year 2016 was a year of many firsts for Shelhiel: he curated for JB Arts Fest, in which he also taught music production workshops; he produced for local artists, and he played 11 shows in total (including in Beijing, Singapore, and Taipei). This year, he’s looking forward to release more tracks and a music video, under This Way Up.
“Ideas, first. Ideas, over expensive gears and skills and the latest software. HOAX Vision’s Viktoria produced her track Come Around on Garage Band – there was no big budget, no high-end production team, but the outcome was so good. The barriers of music are broken down by artists, not gears. You can use the cheapest mic or a low-end mix, but a good song is a good song,” he says.
Orang would agree, though he opines that there’s a fine line between being original and “being different for difference’s sake”. The alt-pop artist and producer – whose debut five-track EP Everyone was released to critical acclaim in 2016 under BOTANIC Records, and who is also one-fourth of the post-punk outfit LUST – makes music out of his bedroom using “a drum set, a couple of old mattresses to stop sound from echoing, and other bits and pieces of equipment and instrument”. “I spend my money on other stuff,” Orang says, by way of explanation. “I’m not much of a gear guy too, so I try to make full use of what I have and what’s on Ableton.”
It’s a sort of double-edged sword, being a bedroom producer and – usually, though not always – making a living without a label. According to Orang, he wouldn’t even have come out with Everyone had Tim Sharp and Zulamran Hilmi of BOTANIC Records not approached him in the first place. “It was the push I needed to feel ‘legitimate’ enough to take my music more seriously,” he says. Listen to the bright, guilelessly beautiful R U Down With It, which topped year-end lists; it was the first song he initially lined up for the EP, even if it ended up being the last song recorded.
“There’s this line I like, someone said that music is kind of like radiowaves in your head, it’s perpetually there and you just have to set your frequency right and tap into it,” Orang says.
Malaysian listeners are key to the success of the Malaysian music scene – and this goes beyond attempts to support local for the sake of supporting local. The rise of bedroom producers in Malaysia has given rise also to exhilarating consumption of electronic music with endless malleability, informed by the tenor of the times. Perhaps we can find solace, for now, at the accessibility of music production tools and the ability to use these tools; we’ve still got some ways more to go, but the important thing is to keep going.
By Ng Su Ann
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