First and foremost, it should be made clear that Raising the Bar (RTB) is not a hip hop crew. They – Jin Hackman, Al Caponey (née Adriana Saleh), and Dan Shiv – organise and curate a series of live hip hop shows. However, the misunderstandings is forgivable as these three people often go hand-in-hand with RTB, but the misconception also illustrates that not many people in the scene or otherwise truly understand what RTB is all about. Sure, there’s the evident and most important aspect – their unrelenting championing of local hip hop music and talents. But Jin in particular has always had an ambitious vision for RTB, and it’s evidenced in the various ideas that have materialised into various shows, festivals, and tours.
Do not let their semi-defunct website fool you either (it’ll launch soon enough) – Jin laughed out loud at our inquiry regarding the state of it and exclaimed “You noticed!” – the team has had a slew of exciting nationwide gigs where each of the show’s bill featured 50% hometown heroes and the other half consisted of KL acts. These smaller scale concerts acted as precursors to the forthcoming Raising the Bar Festival ’16, the second iteration of the only (so far) hip hop festival in Malaysia. The objective here, of course, was to spread awareness of talents outside the periphery of the urban capital. As for their actual web content, focus is now firstly placed upon social media where one can expect curated music and interviews with local and international artistes. “If there’s enough budget, we’re looking to start RTB radio – an online radio that curates 24-hour hip hop and black-orientated music,” added Dan.
In fact, radio is a topic that Dan has spoken about in an interview with Gumball two years ago. In these current times, where bedroom producers and other aspiring talents are so reliant on the virtual connectivity of SoundCloud and other similar online platforms, contrary to popular opinion, Jin, Adriana, and Dan still stubbornly remain their position that radio is not a dying medium. Dan spouted a few well-familiar facts in the study of mass communication, such as territorial radio’s reach in communities with no access to internet. But we’re still befuddled by their stance and support for its role in disseminating hip hop music. “I’ve dropped two mixtapes on the internet, and no one has given a shit about them!” Dan bereaved in an attempt to reason with us, but Jin made a slightly better argument, “There’s too much noise on social media, you’ve got to fight for attention. On radio, you’re in your own space.” In spite of their advocacy for the medium, they are, however, not deluded by how finicky and difficult it is for one to get a song on radio. Jin even used his own single ‘Banana’ as a way of substantiating the claim, as the music video for it had a tremendous spike in views after hitz fm picked it up, which Dan has regarded as a victory for independent hip hop artistes everywhere.
But to those truly well-acquainted with Jin’s career, he has been on the come-up for nearly a decade and RTB has been in operations for half of that duration, hustling to provide a platform for undiscovered talents as well as established ones like themselves. They’ve joked about the repetition of responses they’ve given about the state of the local hip hop scene, and the problems have remained stubborn and unchanged. For one, there’s the question of production quality of the mixtapes that’s released as they would have to wade through all the “wack shit” on the internet. Secondly, it is the lack of provocation in the lyricism of local hip hop. Adriana – who has taken a backseat throughout our conversation – quipped, “The ‘[Malaysian] Rap Up‘ is provocative, without being seditious.” A statement to which we concurred to a certain extent, but even Jin himself hesitated to definitively call his annual rap-up a ‘song’, so to speak. It took a bit of meandering, but eventually there was a suggestion, albeit it being an equivocal one, “It’s never been provocative but I guess there’s conscious rap. If you were to ask me if there’s an equivalent of Talib Kweli… The Rebel Scum? I guess that’s just very angry rap (laughs). Figure of Speech is doing it! But, that’s more spoken word…” They chalked it up to people’s evolving emphasis on the production, melodies, and hook of a particular track rather than having the attention be focused on the words, though Adriana simply stated that Malaysian listeners do not possess the skill or are not willing to focus on the words as a certain finesse is needed to listen to hip hop tracks. Local listeners are at fault with their hypocrisy as well, in terms of their perception of songs supposedly sounding ‘local’ or ‘Western’. We’ve all heard the same gripes in the music scene in general; top YouTube comments would run along the ignorant lines of “I did not know [insert local artiste] was local!” How does one define or categorise the perceived East-West dichotomy of musical signifiers when cross-pollination and influence often occur? If a local track were to be imbued with too much local slang, it’d be dismissed for being cheesy. And let’s not forget that the majority of people would only pay much closer attention to an act when they have found success overseas.
Moving forward, developing and establishing a community require the efforts of everyone involved, not just the heads of one. As it was mentioned before, RTB’s crusade has always been to instil a support system for hip hop artistes for them to showcase themselves. But we wondered if there were any underlying issues that had irked them since the many years RTB was conceived, and there was indeed some annoyance that they’ve kept under wraps. “I think RTB has done more than what it should, and you’d expect more… [returns]. But, people don’t give a fuck. They love you and support you, but when push comes to shove, they really don’t give a fuck,” Adriana divulged without a flinch. Then, the two men turned their criticism inward, to the people that they have been helping, reiterating that consistent output and a certain standard should be achieved in order for attention and praise to come a’ knockin’ instead of the dependency on such a platform as RTB. Furthermore, they’ve grown impatient of the stingy gig-goers who would rebuff a RM15 cover charge and pine for the guestlist. Jin, who’s clearly peeved by this, announced that there will be no more free shows following the Raising the Bar Festival ’16 that will be taking place on Saturday 9 January ’16.
“We as RTB are not asking for much. If you can work your ass off, come before the event starts, market the show yourselves without me having to force you to do it, make sure your fans come to the show, and put on a good show, not some half-assed – not just standing and rapping – [performance], you know, [give] a show! That’s it, and that will make us happy.” Jin finally shared his conclusive opinion after grimly listening to Adriana and Dan as they both offered bits and pieces of their frustrations warily. The two of them also gave Jin his due credit, “[Jin] has looked out for so many people, how many shows he has given away to artistes who got paid?!” Dan elaborated, whereas Adriana concisely stated that “Jin is everything.” Don’t get them wrong though, the three of them recognise that RTB is not a noble cause, nor does the hip hop community is entirely indebted to them for their efforts, but plainly speaking, they just want a relationship that’s reciprocal — because the scale has always been heavier on RTB’s end.
On a lighter and more positive note, RTB has become the alternative choice when it comes to brands or entities looking for a platform to provide curation. “When people can’t get Kartel, they’d look for us (laughs),” said Adriana, and they are fine with being the secondary choice to such a respected label. The association also extends to Jin Hackman as well, who’s increasingly becoming one of the choice examples of a Malaysian hip hop staple when discussing about local hip hop — acts such as Altimet, SonaOne, and Joe Flizzow often get mentioned and now it seems that Jin has finally achieved a level in his career where his name gets namedropped alongside other Malaysian hip hop luminaries. However, one can surmise something from the regretfully few familiar names that keep popping up in relation to how people are still referencing the works of acts such as Too Phat. Though their career was revered, people should look forward, work and experiment with new material; Jin said it best when he declared, “Everyone needs to stop asking for Malique,” before Dan completed his sentence with the inevitable, “… start opening [yourselves] to new talents.”
Nostalgia can be creatively crippling if there’s too much reminiscing of the past. There’s just so much diversity presently, and the people at RTB are striving to put forth those talents in the best way they can. So, has the bar been raised?
Raising the Bar Festival ’16 is set to happen at KLPAC, Sentul Park on Saturday 9 January ’16. Purchase your tickets here.