Thursday, December 10, 2009

Being True To Yourself: Achieving Emotional Depth In Your Lyrical Subject Matter

This is from my weekly column in Malaysian Today, 'MC Master Class with Zain Azrai.'

10 Dec 2009

A lyric’s emotional impact is proportional to the depth of emotional truth it expresses and how clearly this truth is communicated. An MC must be honest about who he is, what he wants, and why he wants it, his flaws and worst character shortcomings, and understand how his experiences and decisions make him who he is, and communicate this without inhibition to achieve emotional impact.

For example, in ‘Dear Mama,’ Tupac raps, ‘I hung around with the thugs…they showed a young brother love,’ showing one reason why he joined gangs was to get the love and sense of belonging missing from the void left by his father’s abandonment. This openness about fulfilling his emotional needs as a key motivation behind his action makes the song elicit raw emotion.

His language was straightforward, and rhyme structure simple, so it did not distract from his content, smoothening the storytelling.

MCs must also avoid hypocrisy, self-disillusionment and the pretentiousness because this destroys the sincerity necessary for lyrics to grab the heart. How can we empathize with Malaysian rappers who talk about suffering tsunami victims if we know their only experience of the tsunami is from the news and not from personal experience?

Tune in to this blog for a more comprehensive article on how to write rhymes that elicit emotion.

'Writing Emotionally Powerful Rhymes: A Comprehensive Guide.'

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Dose 2 Interview: Dope Over Dose

Dose 2 is a Malaysian rap duo consisting of Trix and Naqib, and part of international Hip Hop collective, Flow Fam. Dose 2 are one of the illest hip hop groups to come out of Malaysia in recent years, armed with impeccable rhyme schemes, thoughtful subject matter, and well crafted production work built from a wide range of musical influences.

Their debut album, 'Ordinary Heroes,' is due for release this year.

Fellow MC, Zain Azrai's interview with Dose 2 is their most informative one yet. They address issues like the value of education for MCs, rhyme construction and communication in rap lyrics, and the cultural attitudes that limit the growth of Malaysian Hip Hop outside the country's borders.


Both of you have university degrees. Naqib has a degree in Finance from Northumbria and Trix has a BSC (Honors) in Media Innovation from Multimedia University Malaysia.

However, many top rappers like Eminem and Nas dropped out of High school and lack a formal education. Do you guys feel it is important for MCs to have a university education? How has your education influenced you as MCs?


Education is vital, formal or not. Applied knowledge is power. We feel it doesn’t really matter how or where you attain that knowledge –but the more one knows, the further one can go. Having a degree doesn’t guarantee success, and not having one doesn’t equate to being a failure or an underachiever.

We all have different dreams with different destinations, our journey makes us who we are, and for emcees, what we say defines us. Not the qualifications. With that said though, we do condone proper education, we need more wise men, not wise guys.


Malaysia is a very insular country. The majority of the population has not been outside Malaysia. Only a small handful of Malaysian MCs have been to Hip Hop scenes outside Asia. How do you think that affects the attitudes of Malaysian MCs, and by extension their lyrical content?


Musically, I think the internet has broken down all borders – I think it’s safe to say Malaysian Hiphop enthusiasts and rappers do explore different sounds out there. But in terms of attitude, I think Malaysian emcees should elevate beyond being village heroes /jaguh kampung.

We’re all so competitive with ourselves, out to impress the local market, but on a global scale, we’re a peck of dust. Instead of showing love, different sets are still talking and it’s really unhealthy. We need unity, learn a little from out Singaporean counterparts. Everyone is so obsessed trying to be number one, they forget to be themselves and personally, lose out on respect. Eg – Just look at the praise-fishing statuses on FB by these rappers.


You guys have a very comprehensive vocabulary and use a lot of multis, like in your song with Sona One, ‘Paradise.’ Can you explain the role a wide vocabulary plays in communicating your message, and talk about how you guys work when you structure your rhymes?


When you have more ingredients, there’s more ways you can cook. It’s simple as that. We read a lot, like a lot. So the choice of words comes out naturally. In terms of structure, it starts with really having something solid to say first, then just letting it slide and fry whatever’s comfy.


You guys describe yourselves as ‘2 Malaysian emcees bred on good ol’ mo-town music, jazz, soul and the widest spectrum of musical genre.’ Can you give examples of your influences and how they influenced your Emceeing in terms of style and content?


We listen and absorb everything Zain. I really don’t think we’ve shun off any form of music, we are huge music critics though. It is however pretty annoying to hear Nirvana in clubs, sandwiched between Florida and “somebody call 911”….Kurt must be rolling in his grave. DJs… some integrity and respect please?


The global market for Hip Hop is saturated by imitations, self proclaimed pimps and gangsta posturing, which you guys do not want to associate with. Does this make it more difficult for you to market and distribute your brand of Hip Hop?


Definitely. The mass perception of hiphop in Malaysia is already distorted and disfigured. With MTV blasting away Florida and Soulja Boy-like disposables, local artists emulating these personas does not help. Further more when the industry is so minute and everyone knows what you’re like IN real life.

Kids are growing up, shoving rap aside because of these jokers, blatantly make-believe lyrics, or on the other side of the spectrum, ‘deep dark nonsensical dictionary raps that no one understands (or believe). We’re just here to make good honest music.


Your upcoming album, ‘Ordinary Heroes,’ is based on the concept that ordinary everyday people can do their share to make the world a better place. In the present global economic down turn poverty is rising.

Do you think this will lead to an increase in cynicism in people and affect how they respond to the positive message in your music?


We wrote and recorded the whole album - Ordinary Heroes 3 years ago. Times were slightly better then and we wanted to create a sense of optimism sandwiched between these radio-catered tracks we’ve done. Now that the album is due for release, we feel the positive message would be more relevant in these times, plus it’s not like we’re singing ‘Heal the World’ (RIP MJ), it’s a little bit more closer to home. There really is no local hiphop out there catered for the ordinary people, that’s when ordinary heroes comes in.


Word on the street is Ordinary Heroes might just be a second album? There’s something else before that?


Dose 2 is currently recording a pet project with a certain producer. It’s a thematic conceptual album. Since recording Ordinary Heroes, we haven’t really worked on a project as a whole. It was always one off tracks and collabos here and there. So the hunger to create something bigger, fresh and current prevailed and we just reacted to it. It may drop before Ordinary Heroes, but we do hope to drop one or the other this year.

Details are hush hush for now.


In Malaysia, it is illegal for Malaysian artists to produce & commercially distribute content that condones premarital sex, and use of Marijuana and other drugs for the local market.

Tell us how Malaysian censorship affects your working practice and how you guys feel about censorship.


Ha Ha Ha. Can’t we just implement the ‘Parental Advisory’ sticker thing? It’s ridiculous that we’re still practicing so much censorship when children are growing so much faster than before, and you can literally find anything online! But we understand the concern and our responsibilities as artists though, so yes, we do practice a certain level of self-censorship – our music covers a range of real life stories and depending on content and manner of the song, we try not to limit ourselves in expression, but we do try not to be crude also.

For further information on Dose 2 go to:

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

International Standards: What Does It Mean?

There are many misconceptions in Malaysian Hip Hop and Malaysian music as a whole. One of which is what a so called 'International Standard' means. Many Malaysian artists say they want to 'reach international heights' without defining what it is. It does not mean:

a) Featuring a famous American artist on your song

b) Performing in other countries

c) Selling limited units in other countries

So called International standards is effectively sales achieved according to notable publicized sources such as Billboard, Nielson Soundscan, or UK Top 100. The reason is that the source of statistical data from these organizations is based on sales from their respective retailers. 

For a sale to filter through the system and make a mark on any of these marketing organizations means that they have achieved a substantial sale due to a big demand in THE WESTERN MARKET. Unfortunately, many successful records sold in other parts of the world outside the statistical sources of the marketing organizations will not be listed and often misunderstood as being unknown. Amazingly, many records sold in India or China may exceed most of the top 10 on Billboard!

The local consensus of a song of International Standard is one that appeals to them and they think should be of International Standards because of artistic and stylistic representation. These are not based on objective principles but purely on subjective likes and dislikes. 

The most damaging expression is the idea that it sounds like 'a top hit.' The curse of such a concept is that they are encouraging local musicians to imitate Western artists rather than creating original content which is far superior due to our cultural heritage. Hip Hop is American in origin and has become a genre over the last 30 years. However, Malaysian Hip Hop artists can contribute to the genre by looking into their own cultural heritage to exploit the local style of music, colloquial language and expressionism, rhythm and political and cultural issues.

Invariably, the language most commonly used is English and like World Literatures in English we are restricted to by the metropolitan centre for not writing in a language that is not our own. This is the main argument against political correctness that if we rap in Malay it will only appeal to very few people in the world market because nobody else in the world understands it, even the Indonesians.

Malaysian MCs should not be insular in terms of the subject matter of their songs but to reach out to the globalized youth culture. 

If a Malaysian MC or rap fan goes to some Hip Hop scenes in other parts of the world and shouts 'I think so-so Malaysian rapper is of an International Standard!' he would be laughed at, or worse, have his brains blown out.

The angry young man from the Empire, strikes back!