Get ready for the new generation of local hip-hop artists

13 April 2016 / 6 months 1 week ago
Eddino Abdul Hadi
The Straits Times
April 13, 2016
With his distinctive blond-dyed mohawk, colloquial viral hits and performances at National Day Parade celebrations, home-grown rapper Shigga Shay has become one of the most prominent faces of hip-hop in Singapore.
One might even call him the LimPeh, or father in Hokkien, among rappers here, after his popular song of the same name.
But the Singapore hip-hop scene is a lot more than just about him.
Over the past few years, a new wave of hip-hop artists has emerged, churning out a steady stream of recorded music and playing shows, alongside the old guard.
The last few months alone have seen significant releases by rising acts such as Mediocre Haircut Crew, Mean and Young.
While figures are hard to come by because no one keeps track of the releases across the many platforms, those on the scene agree that there has been a flurry of activities among new acts recently.
"The scene is more vibrant than when I started out eight years ago," says Shigga Shay, whose real name is Pek Jin Shen, of the home-grown hip-hop scene.
Besides his solo works, the 23- year-old is also a co-founder of prominent hip-hop collective Grizzle Grind Crew, which celebrated their third anniversary with a show at Zouk last month.
With recording technology and music-making equipment easily within reach, more rappers and hip-hop producers are making high-quality tracks in their bedrooms.
Shigga Shay says recording sessions were expensive when he was fresh on the scene and equipment such as microphones and an audio interface for recording on a computer have since become more affordable.
"It's all very DIY now and I feel that everyone has an equal opportunity to participate in or be part of the hip-hop scene," he says.
"Back then, it wasn't that simple, you had to find the right producer, the right recording studio."
His sentiments are echoed by producer, rapper and hip-hop activist Muhammad Izaril Ismail, better known by his stage name Azrael.
Says the 33-year-old, who is an active member of home-grown crew The.XS Collective: "Singapore hip-hop has evolved from being just passion-based, where people come and go, to having people such as Kevin Lester and Shigga Shay, who are doing it full time." Azrael holds a day job as a visual communications designer.
Unlike Shigga Shay's mainstream presence, many hip-hop acts operate under the radar, dropping tracks via online music platforms such as Bandcamp and SoundCloud.
Whether the material released goes mainstream or underground, what matters is that more people here are into hip-hop, say artists.
For rapper and producer Lineath Rajendran, a member of Grizzle Grind Crew who raps in English and Tamil, the rising number of new rappers and hip-hop musicians can only be a good thing, even if not all of them are producing quality works.
Lineath, who is doing his national service and makes music and plays shows in his free time, says: "The Singapore hip-hop scene is bustling and it doesn't matter that the quality might not be there.
"Right now, quantity beats quality. If more fellas say, 'I wanna try and do it', it makes the community bigger. When more people are doing it, the gems will come."
Prolific producer Syed Muhammad Fayk Alaydrus, better known by his stage name Don M, says that the new generation is putting out shows and songs and keeping it "100 per cent" - a slang term that means to stay focused and real.
He adds: "The music is always evolving, the trend is always changing."
The 31-year-old, who has more than 250 songwriting credits to his name since starting in the hip-hop scene in 2001, picked up the Young Songwriter award at the 20th annual Composers and Authors Society of Singapore (Compass) Awards last year.
One of his latest works is #Gojer, a song by hip-hop duo Komrad which became a hit on local Malay radio stations.
While many beginners copy American hip-hop stars such as Kanye West or Jay Z, the contemporary crop of rappers here are finding their own voices by rapping in their mother tongues.
Don M and Komrad, whose song #Gojer refers to an English-Malay colloquialism that means "just do it", is an example of this trend.
Another is Singapore rapper Akeem Jahat, 27, one of the rising names in the underground Malay hip-hop scene here and in Malaysia.
He is a self-professed "method writer" and says that all of the stories told through his raps are based on his experiences.
One of his popular songs, Duit Rokok, chronicles the lives of his close friends whose choices set them on vastly different paths in life.
Akeem, who is acclaimed for his lyrical dexterity, says: "It's really important for me to understand the conviction of every single line, even before writing or saying it."
Growing up, he noticed that his friends sang Spanish phrases in reggaeton songs without necessarily knowing the meaning of the words.
It inspired him to rap in Malay, at the same time hoping that the music itself would transcend the language barrier the same way reggaeton music does.
He adds: "I want to do full- fledged Malay, but I wasn't well- versed in it. The only language I could speak fluently is the street language, but at the same time, I didn't want to cater to just one demographic. My demographic is anyone with ears and a common sense."
Rappers such as Shigga Shay are hopeful that Singapore hip-hop will gain wider acceptance among the mainstream community.
"Hip-hop is a genre that can tell a lot of stories and get through a lot of messages and reflect where society is at a present moment," he says.
"Regular people still don't know what hip-hop is. After I performed at the National Day Parade, I get people who come to me and say, 'Oh, I never knew there were rappers or that hip-hop existed in Singapore.'
"I believe it will change and we're working very hard for it to change."
Almost a decade after they formed, hip-hop crew The.XS Collective are one of the Singapore scene's most prominent group of rappers, producers and musicians.
The collective, which operate as an independent music label, have been actively putting out music recordings, music videos, online video series and live shows for their 20-plus members.
Last Saturday, they dropped their latest release, the sophomore full- length album by rap-rock act Young.
In November, they released another album, NSFW: Not Safe For Work, by one of Singapore's underground hip-hop scene's rising names, Mean.
One of The.XS Collective's most prominent members, Muhammad Izaril Ismail, 33, whose stage name is Azrael, says: "We laid the foundation for how a collective work, how a collective can put all their talents together."
While their overall genre is hip- hop, the music they make is diverse.
What ties them together, according to Azrael, is "kinship" - they are friends who share a love of hip-hop and make music together.
While the collective boast many talents, Azrael, who has a day job as a visual communications designer, is the glue that holds them together. He is not only a rapper, but he also produces music, DJs, books shows, designs artwork and handles the administration work for the other acts in the collective.
Azrael, who has been actively involved in the home-grown hip- hop scene since 2000, says: "We're more than just about the music, we're like a family."
For member Young, his new album, Full Circle, is a work three years in the making. The 27- year-old rapper, whose real name is Naufal Gani, released his debut album, Love.Soul.Desire, in 2009 under The.XS Collective.
The hard-edged sounds in his latest release are a far cry from his early days as a solo MC and he now fronts his own seven-piece live band.
The title Full Circle, he says, refers to how his friends in the collective have inspired and helped develop his music.
"My music has evolved from hip- hop to a more nu-metal, rock band, but the roots are still hip-hop, which you can hear through my raps and my lyrics. The album is me going back to the beginning of how and why I met these people through music," says Young.
With his band, he has performed at major gigs such as Baybeats music festival and 100+50 Bands Festival last year.
Another The.XS Collective member, Mean, whose real name is Nur Ahmad Muhaimin, 27, was Young's polytechnic classmate. Having had stints in bands playing other genres of music such as ska and screamo, he says Young's work inspired him to get back into hip-hop as a rapper and producer. He released his debut album, In Flight, in 2013.
Mean has been making his mark outside of the Singapore underground hip-hop scene - he performed at one of the biggest music festivals here, St Jerome's Laneway Festival Singapore, and at Malaysia's premier hip-hop event, Raising The Bar Festival, both in January.
He also collaborates with non- hip-hop artists, including electronic acts .gif and blankverse as well as indie band Pleasantry.
He says: "Most of my listeners now are not from the hip-hop scene, they're more from the electronic music community. I guess that's because of my approach to production, it's not solely hip-hop."
Over the past few months, rap trio Mediocre Haircut Crew, or MHC, went from nobodies to rocking the stage at some of the biggest music festivals in Singapore, including St Jerome's Laneway Festival Singapore in January and SingJazz Festival last month, as well as the Singapore Writers Festival in November last year.
In January, they also did their first performance outside of Singapore, at Malaysia's premier hip-hop festival, Raising The Bar Festival, in Kuala Lumpur.
The flurry of major gigs is quite an achievement for a group which put up their debut single online barely a year ago.
The trio comprise polytechnic classmates Omar "omarKENOBI" Amir, 19; Fahim "mickeyLEANO" Fazil, 19; and Aditya "daniKIDDO" Mirchandani Rodrigues, 20.
The group have principal collaborator Fauxe, a prominent name in the underground electronic music scene, to thank for their high- profile exposure.
The enigmatic electronic music producer, who hides his real identity and face behind his stage name and a mask, started producing music for the trio and bringing them on for his gigs late last year after seeing one of their music videos online.
Their first performance together at Zouk's Velvet Underground in August last year was a hit.
Omar recalls: "That night, we had the whole club chanting our name."
Rodrigues says: "They were singing along to the chorus."
Fauxe, who performs with the group at their live shows, adds: "It was the one night that changed everything." Gig offers started pouring in after that.
The three members of Mediocre Haircut Crew spend their weekends making music at Fauxe's home studio. Their output to date includes several mixtapes and singles released on online music platforms such as Bandcamp and SoundCloud.
Their official debut EP, THE MHC EP, was released in December. Music website Bandwagon named it one of the Top 10 Singapore EPs released last year.
Says Fauxe, who makes music full time: "I'm like their friend, their dad, their mentor and their producer."
Fahim says: "He even cooks for us."
The three members of Mediocre Haircut Crew are waiting to enlist in national service in July and September. They plan to continue producing music and work on a full-length debut album when they book out of camp on weekends.
Rodrigues says: "We're going to try to work on the album or whatever we can, as best as we can. It's a new challenge."
Rapper and producer Lineath stands out in the home- grown hip-hop scene as he is one of the few who rap in Tamil. While the 22-year-old, whose real name is Lineath Rajendran, raps mostly in English, he says fellow Singapore rapper Shigga Shay encouraged him to rap in his mother tongue.

Lineath is a member of hip-hop collective Grizzle Grind Crew, which count Shigga "LimPeh" Shay as one of their founding members. Lineath became part of the collective after he offered his tracks to Shigga Shay in a studio in 2012 and they started making music together.

Lineath says: "When the crew started gaining traction, Shigga told us to do our own thing and stand out in our own ways."

Spurred by the success of Shigga Shay's 2013 viral hit LimPeh, in which he raps in Hokkien, Lineath started to rap in Tamil in Grizzle Grind Crew's single Grizzle Grind Anthem, released in 2014.

He brushed up on his Tamil to improve his lyricwriting skills and also raps in the language on Shigga Shay's 2014 single Lion City Kia.

"I keep it natural, I am no poet. I cannot be philosophical or write metaphorically. My lyrics are simple and easy to understand. It might sound super complex, but that's probably because I am rapping so fast," he says.

He is making a mark not only through his words, but his music-making skills are also taking him places.

Besides making beats for Grizzle Grind Crew acts, he also co-wrote and produced the theme song for director Jack Neo's movie, The Lion Men (2014), and has collaborated with home-grown hip-hop pioneer Sheikh Haikel and Malaysian rapper SonaOne.

A fan of pop acts such as Michael Jackson and hip- hop artists such as Jay Z, Lineath started making beats at the age of 14.

"I've never been to any production or audio technology school. Everything I know is self-taught and learnt from the Internet and through every mistake I make - that's how you learn what to do or what not to do."

He started rapping at 16 simply because he could not find other talents to rap over his own beats.

His first live performance as a rapper was at the ChildAid concert in 2012 organised by The Straits Times and The Business Times. He released his debut EP, Ground Works EP, in 2014.

He is keen to do more raps in Tamil if he gets a chance. "Right now, there is no Tamil hip-hop scene here. I'll see where the wind takes me, if more doors open for me to rap in Tamil and to perform for the Tamil community."

This article was first published on April 13, 2016. 
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