INTERVIEW: Dato’ Maw on Pushing Cina-Rap, His Stage Name & Being Levi’s Music Project Finalist

You can’t deny that the Malaysian hip-hop scene has been accelerating ever since the 2010s. While some local rappers are getting highlighted in the mainstream – there are still tonnes of cool underground kids to listen to.

Unfortunately, you also can’t deny that the scene has been dominated by just one ethnicity – be it producers, rapper and even collectives. In the underground scene, Malaysian-Chinese rappers are often overlooked but Dato’ Maw is ready to change ALL OF THAT unapologetically.

By starting a wave of “Cina” hip-hop music, a genre that utilises Malaysian Chinese slangs, Dato’ Maw seamlessly infuses multiple languages and dialects into rap music – redefining the sound and direction of the genre locally.

Recently, Levi’s Malaysia chose him as the finalist for Levi’s Music Project alongside MAYABAYU, Alien Lipstick Fire and Margasatwa.

Thanks to them, JUICE got to have a quick chat with Dato’ Maw where he explained how he’s pushing for more Cina-music, where he got the idea for his name and, being the energetic performer he is – how he broke his kneecaps…

What is the story behind your stage name ‘Dato Maw’?
A MV director in Taipei – Afei kinda gave me that stage name. Do you know the animal ‘tapir’ (anteater)? In Chinese, it’s called 马来 貘 (Mò), then we replaced that “mo” word into 魔 (Mó) which means devil/monster but almost the same pronunciation.

Then I came back to Malaysia and it occurred to me that the majority of Malaysians don’t understand Chinese so I decided to localise it but keep that Maw (Mó) part of my name and I decided to use Dato’ instead of Lil or Yung.

At what age did you start rapping and what inspired you to?
To be honest I’ve been trying to rap since primary school, year four. That’s when I tried to write lyrics and in between, I tried to breakdance and I tried doing graffiti as well. I was very into the hip hop culture. Rap resonates more with me but at that time I didn’t have the confidence to do it. So I jumped around many things and put more effort into street basketball. And then I thought, f*ck it, I’m going to start rapping.

If you’re talking about legit-ly making music then I would say when I released my first single, which was four or five years ago. I was probably 18 or 19 at the time.

I noticed that you have Ban Huat SDN BHD on your IG bio, can you tell us what that is and what you want to achieve with that platform?
It’s a label and our focus is on Cina music, not just rap. We’ve got pop artists as well. We basically cater to anything related to Chinese music. The Malay scene already has established collectives, music labels, and such. But on the Chinese side, there’s nothing at all.

When I came back to Malaysia, I had to figure out how to set up my own collective for like-minded individuals who share the same vision as me. Day one of mine Franco.$ decided we should do something and that’s when Ban Huat came to life. Our goal is to change the landscape of Malaysia’s Chinese music industry.

For us, we feel that that scene is outdated and still stuck in the past and that’s what we want to change.

I’ve watched you live before and your live sets get pretty crazy. Since there’s no live show at the moment – do you miss performing live and why? Bonus: Any crazy stories regarding a show you performed at?
I really do miss being able to perform live because that’s one of the reasons why I make music. I don’t know why but I just love being on stage and going crazy with the audience.

I’m the kind of person who’s unsure on how to cast negativity aside, I’m not really a zen person. I get frustrated easily. Getting up on stage to perform allows me to get rid of those negative energy and go crazy AF, and then it’s back to being able to function and be normal until the next live performance.

There was this one time I jumped off the stage and I injured my kneecap, and it’s still messed up until today because I’ve yet to raise funds to get it fixed. The injury on the tendons requires surgery and I still can’t afford it right now.

Your top three local rappers?
Recently listening to forceparkbois, Chronicalz, and Orang Malaya. For the Chinese side, it’s Point blanc, ManHand, and SAC.

What were you doing when you found out that you are one of the finalists for LEVI’s Music Project and what was your reaction like?
I was in the midst of recording a song and then I got a call to tell me I got in. That was a bit of a surprise because I didn’t think Jennifer Thompson and Jin Hackman were familiar with Chinese or Hokkien. Shoutout to Levi’s for recognising Cina rap.

(source: Levi’s Malaysia)

Are there any upcoming projects we can look forward to?
I’m releasing a new EP, which is the first part of my album that is slated for release before the end of 2020. MV might be out soon. The title is 熬过来 but it basically means “going through it”. It refers to going through everything and anything.

This year has taught me a lot and the pandemic gave me a lot of time for self-reflection. I didn’t have enough shows to help me with my anxiety so instead of the stage, I channelled that into my music. This is probably the first time I am making music of that nature and it’s probably going to be my last, too. I’m not a big fan of getting personal with my music but during this period, I just needed to.

Catch Dato’ Maw and the four other finalists LIVE by watching Levi’s Virtual Showcase, premiering on 22 December at 9 pm!

More info on Levi’s Music Project here

Get updated with Dato’ Maw’s music by following him on Instagram too!