The President goes Joe Flizzow takes leave of his presidential duties to wreak a little Havoc in the form of his second solo effort and hard-won merger of Kartel Records with Sony Music. The spunky hip-hop star shares with Winnie Yong what Havoc says about him, his ambitions for Kartel and still having to play defender of hip-hop for now Gold-plated Medusa medallion with threetier chain, gold-plated ring, shirt and painted jeans by Versace
“I believe I have broken the mould on how we rap in Malay with Havoc. I’m certainly taking risks with this. The album’s first single, for example, is very minimal in sound and far from the melodic pop formula Malaysians are so used to but the response has been tremendous. I performed it at the recent Shout Awards and the entire stadium was singing every line! Even the radio stations are picking it up.”
ess safe, more me.” Could be lyrics to a song, these words. But then again, a lot of what Joe Flizzow utters could be lyrics to a song, if they aren’t already. It was five years ago when Joe Flizzow, the country’s first and foremost hip-hop star, released his first solo and full English album The President. A milestone step in his career after having been one-half of the hip-hop duo Too Phat with Malique Ibrahim in the 90s. The official release of his highly anticipated second album followed in December 2013. Havoc, its title may be, and approaching 34 years old Joe may be, but the artiste has pretty much been creating havoc since he was 19 when he, all bright-eyed and steely-willed, poured his savings – all of RM5,000 – into a hip-hop concert that got canned one day before show time. Now, 15 years on, his eyes are just as bright and his will just as steely as he slickly manages his way around the music industry as hip-hop star (not “legend” yet please, he insists), and founder and head honcho of Kartel Records which includes among its businesses a record label, TV production, talent management, merchandising, and just to throw a twist in the works, a pizzeriacum-barbershop in the form of Joe’s Kitchen & Barbershop. With a wink, he calls Kartel Records his way of infiltrating the music industry’s massive machinery and messing it up from the inside. The reasons behind the pizzeria-cum-barbershop are less sinister – just a great place for a good cut, a shave and a pizza all at once. In Joe’s world, nothing is ever strictly on the straight and narrow. There’s always something a little off-kilter and every once in a while, something big that will alter not only his role as artiste, composer and entrepreneur but that of the industry as we know it. We catch him right on the cusp of big plans with Havoc and bringing Kartel Records into the big leagues. Along the way, true to his spunky noholds-barred nature, Joe doesn’t disappoint with his thoughts on the egg-pelting detractors of hip-hop, the narrow-mindedness of the powers that be, the curse of overnight reality TV stars and how it’s time for good old-fashioned touring to make a comeback.
Havoc is your first full Malay album after the English effort of The President. Would you say that it’s a more accurate depiction of who you are than your previous works were? “Yes, it’s a more concentrated effort that I feel is more ‘me’. Prior to this, every Malay song I did was very safe and formulated. For instance, I’d do a sample of an old song or try to infuse some traditional proven sounds into the track. I always had two to three singles in Malay just to secure sales and airplay while the rest of the album would be in English.
What does this album tell us about the real Joe Flizzow? “Havoc is a little synopsis of my life. I talk about Too Phat, how we started, where we are now, how we developed the hip-hop scene, how it’s grown, the good and the bad. I also talk about how I feel, how people don’t take rap seriously and how I’m sometimes prosecuted for no reason. It explains who I am, where I come from and what I stand for. I don’t expect everybody to like what I do, but it’s who I am.” You’ve been called a “legend” and you are all of 34 years old. Do you feel it’s too big, too soon? “I don’t look at myself as the leader of hip-hop, but as the leader of my company and my label. I have a few more things to do before I deserve to be called a legend! “That said, to be labelled a legend comes with a lot of expectations but at the same time, it comes with a lot of support. With Joe’s Kitchen & Barbershop, for instance, we enjoy a lot of support. The Subang community has always supported us; if they didn’t, then we have no right to be in this business. Nine months later, we opened our second outlet.” Having been in the spotlight for so many years, particularly as flag-bearer of the often-misunderstood genre of hip-hop, do you ever get used to the controversy and criticism? “I don’t mind being criticised if it’s a subjective matter such as whether you like a song of mine or not. What I hate is people criticising hiphop as a genre when they don’t even understand what it is. Hip-hop is rap. What I do is rap. Rap is rhythm and poetry. It’s just one of the many components of hip-hop. There’s also DJing, dance, beatboxing, graffiti, even fashion. When people criticise out of ignorance, then it’s disrespectful and I take a defensive stance. I will go all out to defend hip-hop if you don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s what I’ve been doing since 1998 when I brought down DJ Fingers for my first international gig. The day before our show, DBKL revoked our licence. I was 19 and I’d put all my money into the show. With just one snap of their fingers, they took it all away. The cancelled concert made the newspapers the next day. I fought it all the way and demanded for a page one apology. The apology came out on page four. I still lost all my money and my show never happened.”
Checker coat by Prada; goldplated Medusa medallion by Versace
Gold-plated Medusa ring by Versace; bomber jacket and knit turtleneck top by Gucci
Studded leather biker jacket and leather pants by Versace
Medusa ring, doublebreasted suit and pants by Versace
Do the controversy and criticism still ring strong today after so many years? “They banned Havoc a few days ago on RTM on grounds of it containing bahasa pasar (slang language). RTM bans songs for the most ridiculous reasons. Once, they banned a song for purportedly having a guitar on it that wasn’t tuned right. Nobody listens to RTM anyway, so we don’t care, but it’s just sad that they’re trying to stifle creativity this way. “The bahasa pasar accusation holds no water. What if I’m Sarawakian, Kelantanese or from Negri Sembilan? Does this mean I won’t make it on your radio? What constitutes bahasa pasar anyway? Rapping is my canvas. You cannot tell me what colours to use, how to draw or that I cannot draw circles. If you keep banning songs, you will deprive people of something they might have liked. Imagine if we banned Sharifah Aini in the 70s for being too sexy or wearing bell bottoms. We wouldn’t have her music today. “A generation is defined by only a few things – fashion, art, music and movies. Take these away and you will deprive an entire nation in ways you cannot imagine.” Looks like you won’t be hanging up your boots as defender of hip-hop just yet. “Compared to pop or rock and roll, hip-hop is still a very new genre. It only became mainstream in the early 80s and we haven’t had a rapper die of old age yet. While hip-hop is becoming increasingly mainstream and pop these days, it still suffers from stereotypes. It’s quite funny whenever hosts introduce me in Malaysia. They’re speaking normally the whole evening but the moment I come on, they start going, ‘yo yo yo’. I don’t get why people feel like they have to change who they are when they meet me. I can’t tell if they are complimenting or ridiculing me!” Let’s talk about Kartel Records, which you founded in 2005 and subsequently expanded to encompass talent management. “Aside from being a record label, Kartel Records also manages the careers of mainly Malaysian acts while collaborating with artistes from around the region. Our stable of artistes includes Altimet, SonaOne, Il Damiaa and Zamaera, as well as actress Nabila Huda, Chef Anis Nabilah and other performers.” What can we expect to see from Kartel Records this year? “2014 is going to be very exciting for us because after one-and-ahalf-years of negotiations, Kartel Records has merged forces with Sony Music in a milestone move that will allow us to grow beyond music to include other fields that require talent management and development such as sports, film and arts.”
Will this collaboration change how things are run at Kartel Records from now on? “Nothing will change. This merger is a win-win situation because with Sony Music, we now have the structure, the team and the backing that come with a major label. We can do so much more. Sony’s presence in the region makes it a lot easier for us to crossover and release an artiste in another country. It’s an ambitious but entirely necessary move. “This merger also gives us the backing we need to grow the talent management side of the business such as signing on new artistes, providing legal advisement, management services and more. I want this business to grow because it has great potential. We haven’t grown as big as I would like, and this may sound corny, but it’s because we really care about the artistes whom we take under our wing and we want to do right by them. “I want us to grow but not in the way other talent management companies in Malaysia do. Look at reality shows like Akademi Fantasia where all the winners get signed. After five seasons, there are just so many artistes to handle. I feel it’s unfair to give them hope and then, not develop them. That’s their livelihood, their career. Some of them drop everything to become a singer, so it’s really crushing when it doesn’t happen. Reality shows create overnight stars but without substance or a body of work, they will eventually fade away." The big merger aside, what’s up for Joe Flizzow this year? “I fantasise about taking a backseat from my TV shows and doing nothing but rapping for the next five years, but that’s impossible I guess! I’m now putting together a tour to hit every single state in the country as well as some neighbouring countries. I want to go back to old-school touring – meet the fans, do concerts at night, do sound checks, all that jazz. I feel that we don’t tour enough in Malaysia. Most times, we just sit back and wonder why people are not buying our CDs. It’s important to get out there, meet the people, make yourself relevant in their cities and win new fans. It’s a challenge to organise your own concerts of course, and companies would rather sponsor the big US acts, but now with the cancellations of international concerts, it makes sense to also invest in local acts.” How do you plan to change all this? “I won’t claim to know how to change this but for me, I need to infiltrate this machinery and mess it up from the inside, right from the CEO’s office. I’m in a slightly better position because companies will take a meeting with me but it’s tough for up-and-coming acts. That’s why many resort to the internet. The internet is great but that human touch and presence are important too when it comes to engaging with somebody. So yes, touring is high on my priority list. We’re looking at February or March, with about 12 shows nationwide.” TW @flizzow FB officialjoeflizzow
Photography CHINTOO Styling CALVIN CHEONG Hair RICCO CHENG Makeup CAT YONG