When rapper Joe Flizzow released his last studio album Havoc in 2013, his goal was to elevate the sound of locally-produced rap songs.
“I wanted to reintroduce Malay rap. At that time, I felt that Malay rap was going towards a dangerous sound that I call ‘rap kapak’. Local rappers were playing it safe with Malay-sounding music and the chorus which sounded like Malay rock songs,” he said during an interview in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.
He added: “If you compare that to international hip-hop, it feels that we’re not evolving. Havoc was about breaking the mould by using urban-sounding beats.”
The 38-year-old rapper’s vision for Havoc earned him widespread acclaim. The most notable was Apa Khabar, the collaboration with rapper SonaOne that won Joe a Anugerah Juara Lagu and the Anugerah Industri Muzik (AIM) award for Best Rap Song in 2015.
Most people would be happy to stick to the same formula for success but Joe is not one of them. He would hate to see himself being complacent.
“Back then, I wanted to prove myself as a Malay artiste. Now, I feel that it would be too easy for me to release another Malay-language single.”
His new breezy English-language single Drop is miles away from any of the offerings in Havoc. He described it as one his most “heart-to-heart” singles to date.
This time, Joe is looking to step out of his comfort zone and go beyond what the Malaysian music industry has to offer.
“I used to want to compete with everyone that I tell myself that I have to win Best Album at the AIM. Now I just want to compete with myself.”
Joe is using Drop to break into the music scene in the United States: “Whether Drop takes off or not, it doesn’t matter. I’m in a good place where I don’t want to regret not trying at all.”
Learning From The Past
It seems that regret is one thing the artiste has learned from his past. Before Joe came into his own, he was part of hip-hop duo Too Phat with Malique.
Formed in 1998, Too Phat set the local hip-hop scene ablaze with hit songs like Just A Friend, Anak Ayam and Jezzabelle. After three albums together, Malique and Joe went their separate ways in 2006.
“I wanted to do that Bad And Boujee (a popular song by American hip-hop trio Migos) kind of stuff and he wanted to do (something more spiritual). It’s cool and there is nothing wrong with that.”
Their last album together Rebirth Into Reality was a clear indication of how different the two had become.
“It was a double-CD album with 15 songs each from the both of us separately. He represented Rebirth while I was Reality,” Joe explained.
Looking back, Joe said he would have done a million things differently with Too Phat.
“If I were the boss of the label (EMI), I would have put money where my mouth is and spent it on bringing Too Phat up. I mean, with some of these major labels – you’re just a statistic. You’re just money in, money out. There is no love,” he lamented.
Joe went on to say that he would have travelled more and pushed Too Phat into doing shows outside of Malaysia. He was inspired by how Los Angeles-based Yuna had the courage to forge her own path to make it as an international artiste.
“I would have flown us to the US. We had the money and the following. I would have travelled to do more festivals instead of chasing that same cheque in Kuala Lumpur. But it’s cool. I just wish I hadn’t relied on the label too much back then,” he added.
However, Joe believes that the chapter on Too Phat is now closed. He hopes that it’s something fans of Too Phat could also come to terms with.
“I feel that until today, people can’t accept that. That’s why I did Apa Khabar. I needed to address that history I had with Malique. And that song represented closure.”
Bringing Up New Talents
While he is setting his sights on an international breakthrough, Joe is also keen to help up-and-coming rappers in the local scene. He started by setting up Kartel Records in 2005.
He talked about how he signed SonaOne, a Kartel Records intern who eventually won AIM awards for his debut effort.
“I took a risk by asking Sona to help me with nine out of 15 songs in Havoc. People in the industry were like ‘This kid is unproven’. You got to believe in the new blood and let them take over. I’m happy that Malaysia has recognised him,” Joe noted.
He is also producing a YouTube series called 16 Baris in which local rappers get the chance to prove their lyrical prowess against each other.
Hip-hop has gained a wider acceptance today with rappers like Waris, Altimet and Juzzthin all ruling the local music charts. Even actors like Zizan Razak and Syamsul Yusof have released rap singles. Then you have actresses like Nora Danish and Amyra Rosli featured on local hip hop tracks.
The situation today is a far cry from back when hip-hop was blamed for all sorts of social ills happening among local youths. Joe knew what it was like coming from the underground with Too Phat and not getting accepted right away.
“I like how Malaysian hip-hop has evolved. It’s ironic right? I have written a new song which says, ‘Bukan salah mereka, mereka tak kenal, mereka tak cinta…’.”
Ultimately, Joe is also creating a competitive environment for himself. He is determined to never become too comfortable.
“I’m not being cocky but I didn’t come here to be average. It’s very important for me to be on top of the game.”