Thu, Mar 25, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Asian hip-hop music has come a long way

From the US, actually, but it is starting to spawn local and regional variations of the originally black ghetto music


Taiwan's Machi pose-down for photographers upon arrival for the MTV Asia awards at the Singapore Indoor Stadium.


As the crowd heaves at Singapore's popular Zouk nightclub, a Malaysian rapper in a crisp red-and-white tracksuit takes to the stage, working up the audience with shouts of "Come on, put your hands up!"

The phrase, almost a cliche in the cult of American hip-hop music, whips the crowd listening to Malaysian rap duo Too Phat into a frenzy.

The staccato beats and displays of urban ghetto fashion could place the scene in any of hundreds of US or European clubs.

"Too Phat's really good but they need to be exposed more outside of Malaysia," gushed Anna Hazlett, a 19-year-old British student. "But I think they could be popular in the UK."

The increasingly global appeal and popularity of hip-hop could thrust Asian acts such as Too Phat before a wider audience, music industry executives say -- possibly even into the tough North American market.

EMI Group Plc signed Too Phat in 1998 -- through its "Positive Tone" label -- and Singapore hip-hop group "Urban Xchange" in February. Both could find appeal at home and abroad, said Caroline Qwek of EMI Music South East Asia.

"Asian hip-hop music has come a long way and I think Too Phat certainly has the potential to do a lot more," said Qwek, an international marketing director.

In China, a new "Generation Y" has embraced hip-hop as an emblem of free-spirited expression while the sound has been a dominating influence in Tokyo sub-culture since the late 1980s.

Artists such as Taiwan's Machi and South Korea's Drunken Tiger also have strong local followings although their appeal is limited somewhat by lyrics written in their native language.

But even Asian-language rap is being touted with some potential, experts say, citing the musical success of jazzy French rapper Claude M'barali, aka MC Solaar, whose fluid phrasing made up for a lack of English to generate strong US, British and Australian record sales in the mid-1990s.

"Sometimes people typecast Asian acts as merely mirroring what the West puts out.

"But I think through acts like Too Phat, Urban Xchange and Zircon, there are a lot of sounds that are slowly evolving to become very Asian-centric," said Qwek.

For now, Asian artists aspiring to see their names on US and European charts may want to focus on collaborations with Western artists, said Mishal Varma, vice president of programming and talent at MTV Networks Asia.

The recent MTV Asia awards held in Singapore saw pop singer Gareth Gates, winner of Favorite Male Artist, sing a duet with popular Malaysian singer Siti Nurhaliza, while Stacie Orrico performed Stuck with Urban Xchange and Too Phat.

"We intend to do much more of these collaborations ... because they come in as an underlying endorsement," said Varma, who also handles artist relations for the music network.

Too Phat have rapped since 1998, before hip-hop evolved into a multimillion-dollar industry in Asia. But not until their collaboration with international artist Warren G on a track in their third album, 360 degrees, did their popularity surge.

In the album, which went platinum in Indonesia and Malaysia, Too Phat raps about money, fame and love, sometimes incorporating Malay traditional music, or keroncong.

But widening their appeal outside Asia could be difficult.

"It's going to be really tough for them," said Spencer Ball, who has worked as a disc jockey in Singapore for five years.

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