Meet the tireless MC who is keeping Malaysia safe for rhyme.
Words by Maria Bakkalapulo
“Welcome to Joe’s Kitchen and Barbershop, let’s go …,” says 34-year-old Joe Flizzow, Malaysia’s homegrown hip-hop mogul and chart-topper, as he leads us into his crowded shop. Customers come in equal measure to have their hair shaved, shaped and designed in true hip-hop style, enjoy some pizza and, if luck has it, meet the owner himself. Joe, born Johan Ishtak, is a very approachable guy, and appreciates when people make the journey to his place. Constant interruption by fans wanting photos is just a normal part of the day, and Joe always obliges them. He jokes about his go-to photo poses, the peace sign, a tipping of his baseball cap and a confident B-boy stance being his favorites.
It takes no time to feel welcome here and that’s the way he wants it. “Everybody knows your name here at Joe’s Barber Shop,” says a smiling Joe, AKA The President. Opened less than a year ago, his barber shop is doing a roaring trade. When we meet to chat in the afternoon, there are 26 people waiting to get their haircuts. “We are about to open our second one. It is great to have a business that serves the community where people from all ages and all races come in to get a haircut. It feels good to provide that kind of satisfaction to people.” Located at SS15 in Subang Jaya, 20 kilometers from Kuala Lumpur’s central district, Joe Flizzow’s shop and restaurant has more significance than the crew cuts and chili dogs it serves up. “This particular street is where I started my rap career. This is where Malique and I got the call,” he says.
It was the late 1990s, and Joe Flizzow and Malique Ibrahim were already making music as a duo when a low-budget demo tape, followed by live shows and commercial radio airplay saw them abruptly turn professional. Joe recalls the day that things changed. “The promoter wanted us to perform at a gig. We are like — ‘we don’t even have a group yet, that was just a demo.’ The organizer was like, ‘well, if you guys want to perform, you better come up with a group name.’ So it was me and Malique chillin’. We had twenty minutes to call the organizer and we came up with the group Too Phat, and the rest is history.” Back in 1989 groups like Krash Kozz paved the way, releasing Pump it Up in the early 90s. The release introduced listeners to hip-hop sounds and became the first popular album in the genre. The nascent scene went down for the count in 1995 when hip-hop collective Naughtius Maximus’s album was banned by Radio Televisyen Malaysia (RTM) for being “too Westernized.” Hip-hop was driven underground once again but the scene continued to produce young talent.
It was during this period that Too Phat entered the fray. “So stop laughin’ at me like I was a hooligan ‘fo my lil’ finga make you won’t do it again If you ain’t with me now where the heck you been / I pack ‘em skillz for real and blow up the scene,” rapped Joe in Too Phat’s hit single “Li’l Fingaz”. “We were just hip-hop fans. You know, back in the day, that was kind of special. You would be one of the kids in school bumping to hip-hop songs with your little Discman. We thought we had a little bit of talent,” Joe reminisces. This was 1999 when their singles “Li’l Fingaz” and “Too Phat Baby” got radio airplay. These were soon followed by the album Whuttadillywhich made double-platinum sales. Hip-hop spread through tape sharing in those days. “It was more of a cult following in various urban areas. They had to rely on tapes that you overdub and overdub. The scene was enthusiastic and against the mainstream. In the late 1990s, there was a government clampdown, because they saw the scene as a social illness. It stayed underground and continued to thrive,” says music documentarian and blogger Adly Syairi Ramly, who has been in the scene for over 15 years.
In the 1980s and 1990s cigarette and liquor companies were allowed to sponsor music events, the scene was big and the parties bigger. Then came more government clampdowns where anything seen as “too Western” or “harming the country’s young” was banned. In 2001, one of the first foreign bands forced to apply for permission to play was German rock band the Scorpions. In 2009, the Malaysian government barred Muslims from going to the Black Eyed Peas concert because the event was sponsored by Guinness, and alcohol consumption is prohibited for Muslims. Last year, Erykah Badu was banned from performing after a publicity photograph accidentally circulated, showing a temporary tattoo on her shoulder of the word Allah in Arabic. Joe Flizzow recalls how these politics have affected the hip-hop scene in Malaysia. “In 1998, hip-hop wasn’t like it is now. There was very little support. When we say underground gigs, they were really underground. The police would shut us down,” Joe explains. He sees the lack of understanding of the music to be part of the problem. “People didn’t really understand what hip-hop was. They just took a lot of the negativity and perceived it as that. Since 1998, I’ve been trying to change the perception of hip-hop in Malaysia and put hip-hop on a more positive note,” he says.
The cultural diversity of Malaysia is increasingly reflected in its music. You’ll hear artists rapping in Malay, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien and Tamil, connecting their communities across Malaysia and showing their identity and pride in their culture. Hip-hop hit the mainstream through Too Phat, and Joe Flizzow is determined to keep it there. “As a part of Too Phat, Flizzow and Malique took Malaysia by storm and really made hip-hop more commercially digestible to the masses. This opened the doors for other hip-hop artists in the country to get exposure and media support in a time when hip-hop was relatively unknown to the masses,” says Jason Vandal, host of The Crib Show, a weekly online hip-hop radio show streaming on demand at aforadio.com.
Malaysian hip-hop is stronger now than ever. “Flizzow has brought more of a western style and sound of hip-hop to Malaysia. With the new album being a Malay album, he’s aiming for wider reach with the Western sound mixed with Malay language,” is Vandal’s analysis. After Too Phat released their second album Rebirth Into Reality, Ibrahim and Flizzow split to pursue their own solo projects. Flizzow has stayed in the spotlight. In 2008, he released his all-English album, President, featuring American rapper KRS-One, and toured internationally. Dissatisfied with the support offered by established labels, he launched Kartel Records and an agency to further the careers of fellow musicians. He’s been a celebrity judge on a TV dance competition, started his own online clothing outlet streetsmartasia.com, has his own travel show on station 8TV and is a recent winner of the Ultimate Shout! Award. Joe has been busy making music too, the release of his new album, Havoc (on Kartel Records and distributed by Sony Music Malaysia), was on December 7th. The title track features two other Kartel artists, SonaOne and Altimet. Indonesian star Rossa sings on the track “Katakan,” and the album sees Joe switch back to using Malay with a peppering of English, an everyday Malaysian style.
Only days after the release, the album is already charting at number 1 on iTunes Malaysia. “The dream of the musicians is being heard by many. If they go too extreme it only causes problems with the authorities, they usually choose the path to be popular. I think hip-hop is about to boom again. I am looking forward to this happening,” Ramly More ambitiously, some hope Havoc will ignite a hip hop revival bigger than the 1990s. Flizzow stands ready to lead hip-hop in new directions, fusing his confident knack for a commercial hook with everything he has learned so far on his journey to the top.