Interview: Figure of Speech

Self-proclaimed “bastard child of globalisation” Figure of Speech is half-Japanese and half-Chinese, but speaks neither language.  It was a chance encounter with DJ Classick at Echo Park in Sungei Wang Plaza that eventually saw him recruited to drum ‘n’ bass crew The Works before becoming a member of Rogue Squadron. Since then, Figure of Speech has appeared on the official theme song for Malaysian basketball team KL Dragons and will also feature on The Rebel Scum’s LP The Time Has Scum this year. With his new release The Veil taking cues from heroes Gil Scott-Heron, Rakim and Nas, this fast-flowing MC describes himself as a writer more than a rapper. If you like your rap politically or socially motivated, Figure of Speech is a winner. Here’s the unedited interview with the man himself.

How would you describe yourself as a person?
I am a bastard child of globalization. My dad’s Japanese, my mum’s Chinese, and I can’t speak either language. I was born and raised in Kuwait, and I was 10-years-old when the country was invaded by Iraq during the first Gulf War in August 1990. I was brought up on CNN and the BBC. That was my family’s idea of after-dinner entertainment. This daily diet of war and violence definitely influenced my world view, eventually my music, and made me the loud-mouthed and opinionated guy I am today. I was in the UK from 18-25, Malaysia’s the place I call home for now, and my girlfriend is Scottish. As I said, I’m a bastard child of globalization.

How did you get started in the scene?
I’d been in Malaysia for three months; I was wandering round Sungei Wang like your typical tourist, when I bumped into DJ Classik, who was working at Echo Park. We got to talking about hip hop, and I ended up rapping for him there and then. Thanks to Classik, I was eventually introduced to, and recruited by drum ‘n’ bass crew The Works. I really clicked with these guys, and it was with this crew that I paid my dues as an emcee. We performed alongside everyone from Fort Minor’s DJ Cheapshot, to Amit from the UK’s Metalheadz label, as well as Charlie Dark, who was on a Ninja Tune release called Xen Cuts. Morgan Zarate, who has produced beats for Ghostface Killah, Slum Village and Raphael Saadiq, also shared the stage with us during the Charlie Dark gig. I started out in drum ‘n’ bass, but I’m now concentrating on hip hop and totally immersed in the thriving Malaysian hip hop scene. I’ve maintained close ties with The Rebel Scum, and I’m a member of The Rogue Squadron, whose members include Jin Hackman, Shazet the beatboxer, SSK and many other talented individuals.

Who were your early influences?
Gil Scott-Heron influences everything that I try to do with my music. Not only is he known as ‘the godfather of rap’, but he’s also a multi-instrumentalist who was rhyming and speaking over a beat, long before hip hop or emcees even existed. He really was ahead of his time. Rakim is another one of my heroes. If you’re a hip hop fan, then your favorite emcee was probably influenced by Rakim, or someone else, who was ultimately influenced by Rakim. It’s that simple. I also have to mention Nas because he’s a writer first and foremost. No matter how much commercial success he’s had, he still puts a lot of effort into his lyrical content, and I really respect that.

In the Malaysian music scene, I look up to The Rebel Scum for being such a creative group of multi-talented multi-taskers. Vandal, a fellow foreigner in Malaysia, makes every country his home turf. That’s not easy to do. Then there’s Kraft. He’s an excellent battle rapper and live performer. The hustle and worth ethic of Jin Hackman and Shazet is amazing! They’ve proven that if you’re willing to work hard, then you’ll be rewarded for it.

Name us some projects you’ve been involved with.
Recently I’ve appeared on the official theme song for the KL Dragons. The Dragons are part of the ASEAN Basketball League, which was set up by none other than Tony Fernandes. I’ll also be appearing on The Rebel Scum’s debut LP, The Time Has Scum, which will be released this year.

What can we expect from your release?
Expect music with a message. Forget club bangers, bling and battle rhymes. Forget generic hip hop. I deliver songs that are politically and socially motivated. I’m taking on everything from Islamic extremism, to the media, to the affects of capitalism in the developing world, to the flawed concept of masculinity, as well as teenage pregnancy and abortion. Pick up the album if you’re a fan of Public Enemy, Rage Against the Machine, Bob Dylan, The Sex Pistols, The Clash or any kind of political music that places an emphasis on lyrical content.

Who are the people who worked on the album?
Cliq from The Rebel Scum – he’s one of the best scratch DJs/beatmakers in Malaysia, and his production work is featured on 2 of my tracks. Zalila Lee, who most people know from Reza Salleh’s Moonshine event, is an extremely talented singer/songwriter/guitarist who is also featured on 2 tracks. I am also thrilled to be working with Hannah Howes, a singer/songwriter/guitarist who has been getting a lot of attention in New Zealand.

What has been your highlight of your career so far?
Performing solo at the Esplanade in Singapore was definitely one of the highlights. The crowd reaction really proved to me that my political style appeals to a wide audience. At Wayang Kata, a local spoken-word/poetry event, I got the chance to display my writing and performance skills to a totally different crowd. The good response on the night showed that I could impress without a DJ or even a beat.

How do you separate yourself from the other emcees out there?
I’d describe myself as a writer as much as an emcee. When I write it’s a slow and painful process because I try to make every line count – I don’t believe in cutting corners. Combining lyrical content with a fast flow is what I aim for. Each track deals with something that is important to me, whether that be a world event or social problem. It’s difficult to do justice to such large topics, but the challenge of covering all sides of the story in a way that is accessible is what motivates me.

What’s your plan for 2010?
If you have something important and different to say, then you have to make sure that your message is heard by the largest possible audience. That’s the only way to change people’s perceptions of hip hop as a violent, misogynistic and blinged out form of music. That’s my plan for 2010.

The Veil by Figure of Speech is now on sale at all Rock Corner outlets. Check him out at now!