The apocalyptic anxiety is understandable. Unprecedented bushfires in the outback, return of large-scale earthquakes in Eastern Europe, and Sumatran islands disappearing with rising sea levels; the new decade has not been off to a great start. Add a global pandemic to the equation and quips about the end times start to carry a wry undertone.
We’re on the final day before the official closure of entertainment venues islandwide. The new phase of tighter measures Singapore has introduced against COVID-19 towards the end of March inherently filters into the conversation about gratitude.
“Just to see how Singapore is handling it,” Yung Raja, 24, says, “is really something to be thankful for right now.” Most would agree with the rapper. The worldwide recognition of the local government’s efforts to contain the situation has made the nation an exemplar case study for other countries.
The fastidious contact tracing, strict quarantine protocols and straightforward communication meant a significantly low statistic of deaths, with recovery outpacing the infected. Even Barbara Streisand acknowledged this in a tweet.
“My parents had other options like Saudi Arabia and Dubai when they were looking for a place to move to from South India, but they chose here,” Raja reveals, much to the surprise of his fellow rapper and friend, Fariz Jabba, 23.
The pair riff on the possibility of his automotive skiing and pet cheetahs before returning to the chat. “Gratitude is the whole theme of his life,” Fariz chimes in, “to talk about what we’re grateful for, we’ll be here the entire day, man.”
“If we have to narrow it down, it’s really the fact that we get to do what we love and be able to support it,” Raja takes over, emphasising that it’s a shot at life not freely available to everyone. “There are people who spend half their lives trying to find that one opportunity, only for it not to work out. Being able to feed our passion and have our passion feed us is one of the amazing things I’ll never take for granted.”
Building a house
From the mother tongue remixes of ‘Gucci Gang’—‘Kunci Gang’ and ‘Poori Gang’—amongst other rap covers uploaded online to over a million views of their official songs, the pair have made a name for themselves by signing with Universal Music Group’s Southeast Asian arm, Def Jam Recordings.
Looking back, there was no definite moment that convinced them making music would enable them to make a viable living, only the decision to properly try. There was no grand plan, only no plan B. “It’s like building a house, right?” Fariz throws me the first of many analogies to come. “You don’t really know if you can build it until you start laying brick by brick, seeing what you like and removing what you don’t that it slowly takes form.”
Though seemingly casual, the viral videos were not a one-take wonder. “A lot of thought went into the consumer perspective. Takes were deleted because it felt like we were trying too hard,” Raja states unabashedly.
But navigating uncharted waters the first two years was harder. Without a scene to monetise from, the career path was hardly a first option, even if it was what they wanted to do with their lives. More so when this little red dot does not have a community of eminent artists to endorse or introduce you to the masses.
Raja tells me that while there are successes of the genre in the region, there was nobody to show them the ropes locally. “It was being on the ball all the time to learn from mistakes and bounce back quickly. That whole approach and process just put us on a spot to develop the mental and emotional fortitude required for this.”
Balancing the spontaneity while remaining level-headed was no easy feat. They watched numerous interviews in lieu, especially Tupac Shakur’s, which Fariz is more obsessed with than his songs. “He explains how you should be as an artist, a great leader and owner of your identity so you don’t sway with money and fame.”
And so they wrote a list of rules to abide by, reminders like ‘Never lose respect over familiarity’, whether for the industry or the people you admire. Raja recounts the first time he performed in Chennai, where his parents are from, and being blown away not just by the fans who were under the show’s age limit and still turned up to see him, but also that the top dog of the South Indian rap industry was in attendance. (“It was a ticketed show so he paid cover charge!”)
For Fariz, a career highlight was when he made his live R&B debut with ‘Masa’. He recalls with amusement how the crowd was initially confused to see him with back-up dancers at Sundown Festival, but performing his own song and choreography was everything he had envisioned. “It felt like I was atop the face of the Earth. I couldn’t see anyone. The cheers I heard were synonymous with the cheers in my head. It was ecstasy.”
A probability game
Yet, we don’t see many chasing that high. The nation’s majority are undeniably caught in the express lane towards the life of a pen-pusher.
“I think the problem is that people are not creating enough. People need to stop being scared because that’s how culture is fostered.” Fariz expresses it in colloquial tongue; we aiyah too much. Being zealous is perceived to be uncool and enthusiasm is often met with the Malay lingo, “relak ah, don’t fanatic”.
The rapper addresses both sides of the coin. “The audience should stop putting down things that are apart from the norm. And at the same time, the artist should learn to accept criticism. Look at it constructively and not bitterly. It’s how you flip it.”
“It’s deeply embedded in the culture to care what people think about us and to follow the system. Just the thought of going against the grain puts everybody off,” adds Raja, pointing out that because outliers are generally frowned upon until they find public success, people are not vocal about their ventures.
“It’s not that the crabs in a bucket mentality applies to the whole society, but we just have to be less concerned about what people think when it comes to approaching our passion,” he opines. “People are generally sensitive about their art. They treat it like their baby and don’t want to hear anything negative about it. But even if you’re bad, out of the 20 bad songs you make, one is going to be all right.”
“We don’t feel enough here. More often we gotta go, ‘Look at that, damn!’. Be inspired! Express yourself!” Fariz effuses. “That’s what it means to support local talent. You are a local talent. Support yourself.
“I’m nobody. I didn’t even finish school, was a security guard, but somehow by the miracle of god I got famous, and I took that opportunity and held on to it. That’s what people need to realise— it’s a probability game. You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”
Fortunately, in the age of the Internet, more social conversations are happening. People are realising the avenue they now have to create a demand for themselves utilising social media. A free-for-all where calling the shots no longer demands having the most amount of money or merit, but often, the loudest mouth.
Granted, motivations behind selling records isn’t the most altruistic. Talking on beats and having people listen satisfies the ego, but there is a bigger picture involved. A message that, regardless of platform or genre, they’re looking to deliver. A change to effect.
Why not have 100 eggs?
“Nothing you do is original. Trillions have lived and died before you,” says Raja, maintaining that all output is nothing more than what we’ve been exposed to and loved as we were growing up. “Every ideology is shaped from experience. It’s about making it your own and understanding your identity.”
“Culture can really change if everyone brings out their inner artist,” adds Fariz. Eyes agleam, he shares his theory about how fan culture differs overseas because fans are all artists in their own way. How the hip-hop scene in America thrives with the multitude of rappers across the states. Bringing out the inner artist simply means to find a form of expression of yourself and celebrate it.
“If you want to make real change, you have to ensure you do it tactfully,” Raja adds. “It’s our responsibility as an artist. Talk about what you want but when it’s done right, people listen. If you must be a rebel, be a smart rebel. No dumb rebel will live to see the second day.”
Loopholes do exist. Subliminal messages can be crafted, context is usually understood and audiences are readily rallied with. But in a game of numbers, what fraction of good justifies the bad?
“If we have 10 eggs; five are bad, and out of the remaining decent ones, two are extraordinary, why not have 100 eggs? Why not increase the quantity to filter out the quality? To generate a ripple effect that can be felt, you have to pump up the numbers.
“Then the extraordinary ones can be role models for the bad eggs. Bad eggs are not going to be bad eggs forever,” Fariz continues positively, mentioning some of their fans who are now in the industry. “We didn’t start it but we found a way to sell it. Our lyrics and the way we relate to our culture and identity.”
“Singapore celebrates our food, our tourism, but art has remained a niche. What can we talk about when we talk about art?” Raja says. “There are grants for EPs where there used to be none, but it has to be much more to motivate people. You’re not going to be so blessed that your parents are like “You know what, son? Here’s SGD50,000. I believe in your trap album”.
“So that’s the ecosystem we’re working towards. If we construct an infrastructure to provide the art with the tools necessary to grow, gives you chances and room to explore and fail, I really feel that there will be an explosion of culture worthy to export overseas.”
“Man, that’s the dream,” Fariz interjects. “Have people from some weird corner of the world love my music. Imagine going to Iceland or Estonia and they start singing ‘Masa’ yoooooo. You’ll really remember why you did it in the first place. You’ll say ‘I want to make music forever! For you’.”
For that one dude in Ukraine.
It is possible with the Internet, I remind them, and music is universal. Just look at the sturdy reign of K-pop.
“You understand the ideology that it’s possible, but it’s a whole other thing experiencing it,” Raja reasons. “I don’t think we’ll ever get to the level of K-pop’s impact. They’ve been preparing for it since they were kids and it can get a bit scary how manufactured it is. That’s unique to them.”
What’s unique to Singapore is being multicultural and diverse, an aspect he is confident will appeal to the global market. And what he preaches, he practises. The rapper’s 2019 release ‘Mad Blessings’ garnered international attention when featured on Hypebeast. We can’t claim to understand the Tamil infused in the song, but we nod along to the addictive chorus anyway.
Everybody has something funny to say in hip-hop
So what is the mark of a good rapper? Would it be the ability to freestyle, a skill Fariz and Raja are proficient at?
“That’s a party trick. I know plenty who can freestyle but don’t make a profession of it. There are so many other things that come into play,” Raja replies. “It’s not about thinking of rhymes off the top of your head. It’s how well you write, your cadence, your style.”
“It can come down to the texture of your voice,” Fariz joins in. “Good diction and finding a good voice is half of the work done. Honestly, words don’t matter to me. Snoop Dogg could rap the alphabet and it’s fire. Tupac never used much double entendres; it was pure storytelling. It’s conviction in the delivery.”
“Every individual has certain things that they stand for and they keep these key substances in their brand,” Raja says, offering a contrasting stance with another rapper whose length of career and volume of work he’s thoroughly impressed by. “Drake has been fighting allegations regarding ghostwriters for years now. It’s such a big deal because hip-hop is about your life.”
“Okay, that’s actually the coolest thing about rap,” Fariz adds, sounding like he’s clearly converted about lyrical weight. “I listen to a lot of rock as well and the feelings emoted are quite generic. Whereas rap is so literal and personal. But so creative in how rappers casually slip humour in. Everybody has something funny to say in hip-hop.”
He compares the timeline accuracy of hip-hop discography to a movie, where the listener follows the rapper’s personal journey of accolades and frustrations of that particular year the music is produced. There’s truth in their parley and I wonder how the two have evolved in their own journey. So far, we’ve only been acquainted with a mix of their on-screen swagger and spirited sides.
“We were learning how to separate between the brand and the person,” Raja admits, “We had these strong brand names and got signed so fast, so it took us a while to fill those shoes and figure out who is this person that we created.” Understandably, it’s only human to carry your highs with you and fix your identity there.
“You start acting like a diva and you don’t even realise that you are doing it. We talk about staying humble in interviews and we think it will manifest because we say it so much, but no,” Fariz confesses. “It was emotionally breaking because everyone looked at me like I was a dick and that’s not who I am. No one sets out to be an a-hole.”
“You can never retract what you do,” Raja credits his team that has been there since day one, including producer Flightsch, as the group of accountable people who have kept them grounded through the good, the bad and well, the interventions.
“My music circle is my support system,” Fariz attests. “When you have people endeavouring alongside with the same interests, you see humanity at its finest. They don’t have to care about me, but they do. It’s beautiful.”
Almost like doing this married
Naturally, they are getting better at this. Fariz has never considered an alternate vocation. Although there’s his former job selling sneakers, which he got fired from because he was taking too much medical leave to see his then girlfriend.
Raja would have been a graphic designer. Or delved into photography. “And be a money changer on the side, just for family tradition,” he adds, cracking up at the stereotype. “I have uncles who are money changers.”
“Of course you do,” his friend accedes.
One thing is sure. They wouldn’t be where they are without each other. Like yin to yang, the two characters vary on the spectrum of personalities. One would think that the jovial Fariz with rabbit trail responses is not the one inclined to worst-case scenarios. But he calls the reserved Raja, who faithfully circles back to the questions asked, the optimist between them.
Stranger then, when each had a different learning curve growing up despite being the youngest of their respective families. Fariz was coddled from young, with his older brother, comedian Fakkah Fuzz, and older sister holding the fort down. On the other hand, Raja had to face the pressure of the family’s expectations as the only son amongst four children.
It inevitably set the frame for their music. Fariz was cruising the streets, Raja was speeding on the highway. “It’s crazy how driven he was. He would have done anything to be successful,” Fariz describes emphatically, “but he showed me how to be motivated because I was too relaxed.
“If I didn’t have him, I’d be an arrogant, talented has-been. I’ll keep thinking I’m the best and don’t work for it, blaming the industry when I don’t know how to handle it. But he was toiling away blindly and I think that without me, he would have been some hardworking guy with loads of money but at the end of the day ask ‘Who am I’?”
“I would be so unhappy because I won’t know what I’m doing,” Raja agrees. “It’s been unintentionally implanted in me to figure this out quick because I had parents to support and can’t afford to mess around. Without him, I would grow old and never know why I put in so much effort.”
Both have seen the Fariz without the Raja or the Raja without the Fariz—shiny products of the industry that have no soul. The dynamic duo, who met at the Ah Boys to Men 3 audition, found a common love for hip-hop and a teamwork that set the foundation for their career. The mutual help to appropriately slow down and speed up became a symphony of perfect synergy.
“Some friends you have to spend x amount of time to really understand, this one don’t need,” Raja says, affirming the chemistry right off the bat. “And you can’t fake that. To have a buddy beside me to figure it out one step at a time together suddenly changes the whole paradigm. Without a pillar to lean on, a lot of things would be scary, sad and not handled well.
“I have no other friends like that. It’s incredible because we don’t tell each other what to do. Unless it’s something really bad, 95 percent of the time we influence by example. We take turns learning, it’s almost like doing this married.”
“We’re never gonna be apart. Even when we didn’t talk for three months, there’s the connection and you know he’s not cheating on you,” Fariz jokes. “This is the true platonic soulmate love.”
It’s that cliché about the journey over the destination. There’s no need to ask what the next big project is. As they once brilliantly declared, the most exciting thing for them is what is happening now.
“We’re focused on freestyling. What we want is what we want next month. You can plan five years ahead, but things can take a turn. Virus outbreaks can happen,” Fariz remarks. They’re right. We’ve already seen several thwarted plans and rerouted paths this quarter, underscoring that nothing in this world is certain. It may even be ending. But it takes a tilt shift to see the good in terrible times; to stand for the principles we live by, to better the people we love and to appreciate the beauty in chaos.
Photography: Gabe Chen
Styling: Eugene Lim
Grooming: Sha Shamsi using Boy de Chanel and Keune.
Photography assistant: Halid
Styling assistants: Donovan Quek, Maria Khoo
Location: Serene Garden at Gardens by the Bay
For more stories like this, subscribe to Esquire Singapore.