Singaporean born and Toronto raised Masia One is no stranger in the hip hop community. Having been in the game for 10 years, well-known rappers like the Wu’s Abbot RZA , Pharrell, and The Game have acknowledged her as a representative of Southeast Asia rap to the western hip hop industry. Masia One came back to Malaysia for the launch of Cypher Sundaze’s Hip Hop Karaoke and JUICE managed to catch this vibrant rapper for an interview and got envious of her carefree life and her cool pastel purple highlights.
First of all, congratulations on sweeping 3 awards at VIMA ’13, especially the Thank You For Existing category. What were your thoughts and emotions when you won?
Oh wow, when I was coming back to Southeast Asia for the first time since 10 or 12 years ago, it was like a reentry to my country and now that I won those awards, it’s amazing to know that someone out here recognised the work that I did more than anywhere else. It was a real honour, I was really happy for it.
You’ve come a long way representing Southeast Asia in Toronto. Tell us how did it all begin.
When I was 8 years old I had Chinese New Year money and I went to a marketplace in Singapore called Bedok and found a Public Enemy bootleg tape. I fell in love with Public Enemy after that and then when we moved to Canada, I was like “Oh! I’m closer to New York and the Mecca of hip hop,” so I kept seeking out more stuff. I started out being a graffiti artist, did a bit of breakdance, then quit after I got hurt too much. My whole life I’ve been a bedroom rapper, I was just too shy to perform in front of anyone but one night my roommate had an all-female showcase, I told myself let me prove to myself that I’m not too shy. And then from my first performance, I got a commercial for MTV Canada and it just kept going from there. So it’s all about luck, talent, and the right timing.
What was it like working with Pharrell last year? That must be such an experience.
Another blessing in life. I met this Aftermath producer, Che Vicious, who produces artistes like 50 Cent and Dr. Dre. Then one day he called me up and said he heard my song ‘Return of the B-Girl’ and he thought I’m really good but I just had a wrong production and beats behind me. So he called me to fly me up to LA and he tested me and the first beat we did was ‘Warriors Tongue’, so I ran it and he was like “Okay, we can work together.” So I passed the test. But I didn’t meet Pharell in person though, it was over studio exchanges. But I had a catch up with Pharrell though, he loves Southeast Asia.
We detect different variety and cultures in your music. What was your inspiration on your latest album Bootleg Culture?
Two things; first off, I’m a mixed up person. I was born on this side of the world, my dad worked in the islands of Indonesia, then in Philippines, Malaysia – spent a lot of time in Penang. So, I have that in my roots and then I moved to Canada and was raised by Toronto’s hip hop scene, which was very cultural with indie rockers jamming with rappers. Then I went to LA, worked in Hollywood so I started to learn writing pop songs more. After a while in LA, it felt too ‘fake cultured’ for me. So I went to Jamaica, finished a record at Bob Marley’s studio, got to work with some of the old school Jimmy Cliff’s players, old Rasta musicians there. So when I was putting up this record, I thought “I am bootleg culture”. For a lot of people in my career, they’d be like “Masia, you could make it you know? You can make it into a really big star but you gotta package yourself like this and make people understand what your one style is and sell yourself in that one lane.” But when I’m real and honest to myself, I can’t help it that I am mixed up and I don’t feel like in this stage of age, people need to be in one stream. Everyone is a lot of things. You find doctors that are drummers at night; everyone is allowed to be mixed up, even how we buy our music.
Why bootleg though?
People always look down upon counterfeit handbag, this and that, but one time I was in an Indonesian market and I saw a kid buying a counterfeit Photoshop, you never know if that kid will break his poverty cycle and might become a graphic designer. We can look down on bootleg culture but it’s reality, the world runs on bootleg. And I came from a bootleg tape because that was how I found hip hop and if I didn’t found that bootleg tape, no way would I discover Public Enemy because at that time Singapore censored a lot of things coming in, so Public Enemy was not something I would find in a regular record store.
A lot of below the radar folks have something to say about hip hop as it is now. What’s your take?
My only concern in music now is that the message is so negative. They forget how powerful music is. They’d say, “Oh, don’t take it so seriously, it’s only entertainment,” but music is spiritual, it grips your soul. When you hear Bob Marley singing about certain things with simple lyrics, it changes people’s lives. But now instead of changing people’s lives, we’re listening to stuff that are forgotten easily and it’s also glorifying a lifestyle that never ends in something good. So, I’m just concerned on how disposable the music is now and the lack of concern that is put into on how it’s affecting people. We’re gonna grow up in a generation with negative a$s kids that wants b!tches and hoes. But don’t get me wrong, I love the production and there’s definitely good artistes that are coming out like Drake, he’s a brilliant writer and Azelia Banks, I like her skills.
Gotta hand it to you, you’ve established as a female rapper. But there aren’t many Asian female emcees in the market though. Why do you think so?
Because what comes out in the industry is what mould that they want Asian females to be, might not be a rapper but more of an r’n’b artiste. I think it’s changing now but you have to also look at the pressure on Asian women, like traditionally, girls shouldn’t be seen and not heard. Then when they hit on a specific age, you could either be at home, taking care of your family or at a bar arguing with the promoter on why he’s paying you with beer tickets instead of cash. Most girls are gonna pick the easier and comfortable route, so I understand why being a rapper isn’t a desirable career for Asian women.
Do you have any advice to struggling underground rappers?
I would say it that you gotta know what you want. Do you need to be Kanye? Do you need to be Rihanna? Or can you make a living if you’re a teacher or whatever you get out of your music and still live good and able to do a lot of things. So I think that the idea of this Hollywood superstar artiste that were always sold… yeah, everyone wants to get there, everyone wants to blow up but I’ve been able to do music for almost 10 years now, eat well, travel across the world, hang out with friends and I really love my life. So, maybe concentrate on what you want to do, learn how to be independent and not have this pipe dream of superstardom. It’s good to have that dream but you can still be very happy as an artist living the life. Be authentic, do what’s true to you. If you’re not true to yourself, you’re gonna end up hating the music you perform, and you have to perform over and over again. It’s gonna take away the joy of performing.
So how was Hip Hop Karaoke Launch?
It was really good, it was so much fun. I was a bit disappointed that there are no females that participated though.
Was the Malaysian audience any different from others?
They were awesome. I felt like they weren’t as conservatives as I thought in this side of the world. What I like the most about Malaysian audience is that after they like something they saw, they’d come up and interact with you. If they’re an artiste, they’ll talk about how we can creatively work together, they’re very open. There are a lot of cultures, where after they watch the show even if they like it, they’ll just stand there. And if they’re an artiste, they’ll see you as more of a competition. At the end of the day, hip hop is community and building that vibe with people.
So you must have met Malaysian acts during the launch?
I met Altimet and a singer named Liang, he was really good. He sounds like Anthony Hamilton, I’ve never heard that voice coming out from an Asian dude before. I love working with Lethal Skillz, he never heard my set before but we just worked it. I also met a guy named Reefa, and I also met Salam, he was so gracious and so wicked, man. First thing he did is “How much is your record?” When an artiste says that, they recognised what it feels like to be an artiste. He bought 2 records off me!
What’s next for Masia One? What can we expect in the near future?
I’m about to drop a single called ‘Make Up’, which is a more dance pop single and there’ll be a video. Then I have 20 remixes with sounds ranging from electronic to dubstep. I’m dropping the Tuff Gong record later this year, I’m a bit shy by it because in this record I’ll be doing more singing with a live band. And also, I’m going to come back here in Southeast Asia and set a base here, network, and collab with Asian acts. I’ve already collaborated with American and Jamaican artistes, and now it’s time to bring back my unique brand of music and learn the brand of music here.
Masia One performed at Cypher Sundaze’s Hip Hop Karaoke Launch at The Venue, Pavilion KL on the Sunday 17 March 2013.