Broadening Hip Hop’s Horizons
THERE was a time when our local independent rock scene was all about being different to what was already out there. It was reactionary, and most of the bands were coming out with their own sounds.
Well, that was then. The days when listening to demos and EPs would make you go ‘wow’ or ‘f**king hell! This band is really good’ on a regular basis are over.
The local indie rock scene today is swamped with too many bands that desperately want to be heard. And in order to be heard, these bands have even tried to sound similar to the bigger bands out there.
For a local music enthusiast, this can be frustrating – when one can’t hear anything exciting from music made below the radar.
But try listening beyond indie-rock and you’ll find something worthy in its distant cousin, indie hip hop.
For the past few years, the local indie hip hop scene has been developing rapidly, be it in terms of its sounds, direction and perspectives. And more and more envelope-pushing and indie-rock-minded hip hop acts, DJs, beat makers and scene movers are popping out like mushrooms after the rain.
Again, like its indie-rock cousin, no one really makes the effort to listen to what it has to offer.
The music being produced by these indie hip hop acts as can be heard on releases like thebazement.com’s (one of the important scene-movers in the development of local hip hop) and Malaysian Fusion X and Johor Baru-based Wicked Mindz Productions’ Switch-Tapes Vol. 1 will only fall on ears of those involved with it.
But all that seems to be changing. Tune in to Xfresh FM and Red 104.9, and chances are you will be blown over by ‘WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction)’, a unique sounding hip hop track that is racing up the charts.
To local indie hip hop enthusiasts, it is a huge relief to finally hear a non-pop-rap act making its way to commercial radio.
To local hip hop enthusiasts in general, it’s an eye-opener as nobody would have thought hip hop would sound that way.
“It’s not something new. It has been around for ages. It’s only new here. I think it’s accepted because a lot of people are getting more and more open to what music has to offer.
“At the same time, I believe that a lot of people have been listening to that kind of music that we’re trying to do – backpackers rap,” commented Wordsmanifest, one of the members of The Rebel Scum, the group responsible for the ‘WMD’.
The rest of the group – Micwrecka, Illson, HQA and K-Netix – nodded in agreement.
“For a hip hop scene that can come out with a platinum selling hip hop group and be endorsed by major companies, I think it’s about time for us to broaden our horizons a bit more. And we’ll contribute towards that in whatever way that we can,” he added.
No, it’s not PR talk, these guys truly know what they’re talking about. Each of the members is no stranger to the local indie hip hop scene.
Wordsmanifest and Illson were part of the Teh Tarik Crew that released the Are We Rap Stars Now? EP back in 1999. After leaving the group, both went on to form their own group – Illson with Illphonics whom K-Netix was also a member; Wordsmanifest to form Sicksiderz. Both groups were featured on the overlooked Message for the Masses compilation back in 2001.
Micwrecka, meanwhile, used to be one half of Verbal Assault, also one of the respectable names in the local indie hip hop scene.
HQA is the only one without any musical experience but he makes up for that with his active involvement in the Internet forum scene. As a group, The Rebel Scum was formed in 2000. Initially known as The Rebel Alliance, the collective first started out with a 16-member lineup who shared the love for off-kilter hip hop popularised by artistes like Company Flow, A Tribe Called Quest and Jurassic 5.
Today, after some years of honing and perfecting their skills and going through a lot of member changes, the group is now ready to bring its music and beliefs to the masses with its debut EP, An Urban Distaste for the Concrete.
“It took us a very long time because we were trying to look for money to fund this project,” Micwrecka said.
Why not go to a record label then?
“Realistically, it’s difficult for anyone to digest any form of ‘new’ sounds, not only in hip hop music but also in other genres. It’s hard to find anyone to invest in a venture like that,” Wordsmanifest explained.
“So, rather than hope and wait to be picked up by a label, we decided to go on with whatever we have and do it on our own,” he added.
Listening to the nine-song EP, you would agree that no sane record label would want to invest in such a project. With no club-banging hits, mainstream crossovers or thought-provoking rhymes with complex beats, the EP is bound to be a commercial disaster.
But then again, the content is no surprise, especially when you trace back the group members’ musical preferences and their previous works. They have always been on the ‘other’ side of commercial hip hop.
“Well, I wouldn’t say that we’re doing the exact same thing that we did then. I mean, back then we were soul-searching. We still do that now. I’d say that what we’re doing now is a collection of what all our groups were trying to do then. When we mix and match and compare the contrasting styles, something new would always come from it,” Wordsmanifest said.
“Instead of going for the current masses, we’re trying to create something that’s going to be for the masses in the future. It may not be a popular form of hip hop music right now but we could see this style growing day by day in the forums, the Internet and the people we met. Hopefully in the future, backpackers rap will be accepted in Malaysia,”
To those who are unfamiliar with what backpackers rap, it’s an extension of hip hop that doesn’t focus so much on party music as can be heard in commercial hip hop. Initially, it was a form of music that was popular among the suburban white skater kids but not so among the African-Americans.
It’s still music that you can dance to but the content and the message would normally not be about glorifying crime and bling-bling. Instead, it focuses more on igniting debates and questioning things in life.
The other big difference between backpackers rap and commercial hip hop is the technicality of the music and the syllables. Because of that, some even call it nerd rap.
Some of the biggest names in the backpackers rap scene include Company Flow, Atmosphere, Sage Francis as well as artistes on Definitive Jux’s stable like Murs and Cannibal Ox.
“It’s a form of music that caters to aggressive people like ourselves,” Wordsmanifest said.
“That’s why we call ourselves The Rebel Scum. We’re not rebelling against anyone or group of people or anything in particular; we just think that it’s time to change. It’s always time to change.
“All of us agree that it’s inappropriate to say that the Malaysian hip hop community or the hip hop scene is still in its infancy. It has been around since the ‘80s and to keep on saying that will not do the scene any good.”
Speaking of the scene, the group collectively agrees that it’s about time for people outside the indie hip hop scene to start giving it some attention if not appreciation.
“Apart from the obvious obstacles – funding and getting a deal – the fear that no one will listen to their songs is what’s been stopping these indie acts from coming forward,” Wordsmanifest said.
“For instance, I’m not going to profess that The Rebel Scum is the only group doing backpackers rap in Malaysia or is the most radical or extreme. No. There’re a lot of other people who have been doing the same style as ours in the underground. They’re either too young or still very young or are afraid that if they come out with a product, people wouldn’t buy it.”
“We felt that instead of joining the group of people who have been waiting for things to happen, we thought we might as well come out and do it first.”
“I won’t be surprised if after The Rebel Scum there’ll be a lot more MCs or rappers coming out,” Micwrecka added.
“Yeah! That’ll definitely make our day, to be a form of encouragement to them.”
The group not only hopes that what they’re doing will inspire other indie acts to come out; they’re also looking forward to helping these acts via their resources at Archetype Creative Solutions.
“When we first started out, we didn’t know where to go or where to record and stuff like that. We want to provide these young guns with guidance and as much help as we can. We won’t impose our style on them, we just want to help them come out with their own sound. Anybody who wants to get the job done, that’s the one we want to work with. And we’ll never forget to remind them that’s how we started,” Wordsmanifest said.
Now that they’re gearing up to step up the game, what is it like for the group to adjust to the mainstream?
Wordsmanifest came with the best answer: “Before we hooked up with Yaniz International for publicity, the mainstream media for us is like an uncharted territory. We had no idea on what to do and where to go.
“It’s quite difficult compared to rock music. I mean, a lot of people grew up listening to rock music, so rock acts would kind of be like kindred spirits with the media. Hip hop is different. You don’t meet with reporters that will come to you and say that they grew up listening to hip hop.
“But now we appreciate the mainstream media attention we’re getting right. To work around it is something that we need to learn. It’s part of the process if we want to broaden hip hop’s horizons here.”
If we may add to that, we – the music enthusiasts ourselves – also need to broaden our horizons as well. If not, groups like them will never stand a chance.
*Originally published in The Malay Mail, March 30, 2005