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Today in Hip Hop History
Many would trace Malaysia’s embrace of hip hop back to the ’90s. Far beyond the country that birthed it, hip hop has become a mainstream commodity even here in Malaysia, a cultural phenomenon playing a crucial role in establishing youth identity.
Hip hop, as it stretches itself across the world, far beyond the country that birthed it, is shying away from themes typical in its American entirety – such as lyrics about gangs, gun violence and racial discrimination. Instead, hip hop here in Asia adopts themes prevalent in its particular region: think raps in local languages, and the use of Malaysian traditional instruments.
Enter Malaysian hip hop.
Many would trace Malaysia’s embrace of hip hop back to the ’90s. The genre, from its birth in the Bronx, New York City, has always strongly resonated with the marginalised, the minority, and the oppressed; today, in an emerging movement that has been gaining momentum over the past half a decade, a new wave of emcees raised on memes are riding the SoundCloud wave to success. Hip hop has taken over the mainstream.
Jin Hackman, the multi-hyphenate co-founder of Raising The Bar and rapper, has started his own record label, This Way Up, tucked inside the Zhongshan Building. The first artist he signed to This Way Up is Airliftz, a rapper from Kajang on the up-and-coming who, in the past year alone, has released a critically-acclaimed debut EP Bagel, toured Asia with electronic artist-producer alextbh and rising rapper Zamaera, and played Good Vibes Festival alongside headliner heavyweights Dua Lipa, Phoenix, and The Kooks.
“It’s a fun learning curve and it’s been so for the past one year-and-a-half, running the record label. Stuff I didn’t know before, I know now. Similarly, when we first started Raising The Bar, we had no idea how to run events; I think it’s just learning from your mistakes, picking one thing up at a time,” says Hackman.
“We’re working with [singer-songwriter] LUNADIRA as well. It’s not a hip hop label, necessarily; I’d sign bands if I had a big enough studio space, but for now I suppose [we sign] more rappers, vocalists, or more self-produced singers.”
Hackman is well-known for his annual Rap Up, so-named because at the end of the year, he wraps it up with a track that recaps highlights of the year. In 2016, he released the standout single Banana; catchy and tongue firmly in cheek, the song is about “a Chinese who can’t speak Chinese? / Yo, the struggle is real”. True to his brand, his flows always seem to skew towards social commentary, instead of about celebrity hardship or the hustle.
“For the longest time, I was trying to figure out what to rap about. What makes a rapper is his viewpoint; what sets one rapper apart from another is content, the subject matter. I can’t rap about, y’know, the hard life, the struggle, because I don’t come from that background. Banana was a one-off; it’s personal to me, and I felt like no one has addressed it yet,” says Hackman.
“Before this, Malaysian hip hop was in a very awkward place, it didn’t know what it wanted to be, or do. Back in the day, everyone – because ultimately, American hip hop is the reference point – would try to sound like their American counterparts,” he says.
“Now, if English isn’t your first language or if it’s not your strong suit, then you’d rap in Chinese or in Malay – and it’s not just that, [hip hop artist] W.A.R.I.S raps in his Negeri Sembilan dialect, rappers from Penang – like Dato’ Maw – make music in Hokkien, and so forth. I think hip hop in Malaysia is starting to find its voice.”
The rising wave of Asian hip hop – especially with the popularity of 88rising, Brian, Higher Brothers, and even Psy – is significant; Asian artists have previously struggled to break into mainstream hip hop. Fast-forward to today, celebration around Asian cultures, representation, and visibility is welcomed in an age of growing global racial tensions.
A-Kid, for instance, is a Chinese Malaysian rapper who switches, almost effortlessly, between English and Malay raps. His debut single, Apa Lagi Kita Mau featuring Klash and K-Main, was one of 2016’s best local releases – one part social satire, and equal parts deadpan, on-the-nose humour. It’s a tirade against racism in Malaysia, riffing off Utusan Malaysia’s divisive headline asking “Apa lagi Cina mahu?”.
“To be honest, I was quite shocked that people liked the song. I thought it would be cool to speak about current issues, about stereotypes, but not be too preachy,” says A-Kid.
“This is the funny part though, people always being surprised that I can speak Malay: ‘Eh, kau boleh cakap Melayu ke?’ People are too quick to stereotype, ‘kalau Cina, tak reti cakap Melayu’; I mean, it’s Malaysia, it’s open culture.”
Since the success of Apa Lagi Kita Mau, A-Kid has gone on to release a string of singles such as Ada Awek and Gaji Masuk, and played Kartel and Rocketfuel’s 16 Baris Live event at The Bee, spearheaded by Joe Flizzow himself (the night famously drew thousands of fans who flooded Publika). In July, he’ll once again play at Good Vibes Festival, this time featuring headliners Lorde, HONNE and The Neighbourhood.
“I listened to a lot of rock when I was younger, until my older brother introduced me to ’90s hip hop: A Tribe Called Quest, NAS, and so on. In fact, for some time, he was actually active in the local hip hop underground scene; he was with The Rebel Scum,” says A-Kid. “He didn’t tell me much about it, but he kept repeating: ‘tak boleh cari makan’.”
“It was tough; Malaysia wasn’t much into hip hop, it wasn’t our culture. Now here I am. I could never imagine that I could get up here.”
Since entering the spotlight, A-Kid admits it’s been exhausting, yet exciting. He’s not about to rest on his laurels just yet. “It’s about whether you want to do it [put in the work], because everybody can rap but not everybody is made for it. I figured I’ll just see how it goes, and so far, it’s been going well.”
Women in hip hop receive little recognition, and at worst, are assumed to be window dressing for men-driven or -dominated projects with contributing harmonies or hooks. Hip hop is generally and historically a genre defined by hypermasculinity and the sexualization of female bodies – but Zamaera is breaking boundaries.
A rapper and R&B sensation from Subang Jaya who cites Aman Ra and SonaOne as her influences, her breakout single HELLY KELLY in 2017 blew up online and was probably one of the year’s best releases; it flexes with bars upon bars that “hit hard / you will get a toothache” with “punchlines comin’ harder than Mike Tyson”. It takes cues from classic rap culture, while subverting the classic rap narrative simply because she’s the antithesis of a “gangsta”, tough man rapper.
Photo by All is Amazing
Zamaera’s single, Wanita is an anthem for the modern, 21st century Malaysian woman – and its delivery is in Malay, a language brimming with lyricism, playfulness, and sensuality.
“At the time, I was away from home. I was reminded of the responsibilities a woman carries with her as a friend, sister, mother, daughter,” says Zamaera about the song. “RAMENGVRL from Indonesia said she doesn’t want to be labeled as a rapper in order to not limit herself to the medium of rap. I agree with her to a certain extent: rap is only one form of medium to express ourselves, but the idea of combining rhythm and poetry to me is a feeling that is unexplainable; it’s deep within the core of my heart, the back of my brain and within the lyrics of my music. It is ultimately a feeling; it demands to be felt.”
“The beauty about music is that it brings people from all walks of life together. Our stories may be different – especially with our ethnicities and upbringing – but our emotions remain the same.”
At 17, Zamaera was signed to Kartel; now, about five or six years later, she’s an independent artist.
“Although we went our separate ways, [Kartel] remains supportive of me to this day – that is really the most important thing. The support from friends, family and fans, aid in the growth of any aspiring artist,” she says. Buy an album, instead of downloading it illegally; go to gigs and shows, and pay for the tickets; share the artist’s work if you enjoy it – these are some of the ways that a Malaysian can support local artists. There are also government grants: CENDANA (Cultural Economy Development Agency), which advocates for the arts, aims to transform Malaysia into a cultural destination by energising the arts and empowering the communities. Its recent Emerging Artist Incubation Funding Programme gave out grants up to RM30,000 to successful Malaysian applicants across the independent music, performing arts and visual arts sectors, covering expenses of the creation and development process, while its current Mobility Funding Programme looks at covering “small to mid-scale touring” fees from Malaysian artists up to RM30,000 per application.
To quote Zamaera, “Hip hop is an evolution – as the music changes, so do the people that make it. [The freedom it gives us], to feel that we can speak up for ourselves and not succumb to the pressures of society may be one of the reasons why hip hop is so celebrated, and so much more accepted in Malaysia.”
“Breaking boundaries isn’t only reserved for the West.”
By Ng Su Ann
Photos by Teoh Eng Hooi
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