The Jogja Hip Hop Foundation was founded in 2003 — a time when Indonesian gamelan culture and hip-hop couldn’t possibly make sense in tandem. But now that hip-hop has become more or less a global language, adapted and accepted from the Bronx to east Asia in every dialect on the planet (thanks, in part, to Javanese trails blazed by Jogja Hip Hop Foundation) it seems like their success was written in the stars.
The crew of eight men and women have since released a documentary, and they’ve received world-class recognition for their blend of gamelan (an ancient Indonesian music, puppet, and lifestyle tradition) and western hip-hop. They flow in high-level, old Javanese — which was explained to me as being somewhat equivalent to Shakespearean English — over looped beats, and the result is nothing short of mesmerizing.
The Foundation is touring the states at the moment, performing everywhere from New York’s prestigious Lincoln Center to a venue in Scottsdale, Arizona, and performing with the likes of Indonesian/Brazilian funk carioca queen Zuzuka Poderosa. We asked MCs Marzuki (aka Kill the DJ), Balance, and manager Anindita all about it.
What do you think of New York?
Marzuki: New York? I love new york. it’s always great to come here. we came here last year. Hip-hop is becoming a global culture and you can find it in Africa, Asia, everywhere…to come back to the home of hip-hop is always good. But we bring our own style.
When did you start getting into hip-hop in Indonesia?
Marzuki: Oh, some of us started more than 20 years ago, in the very beginning.
Balance: Wu Tang. Cypress Hill, Public Enemy, Dr. Dre.
It seems like it would be hard to make the marriage between hip-hop and gamelan culture happen. What’s similar and what’s different between hip-hop and gamelan culture?
Marzuki: Depending on how open-minded you are, you can combine anything. You can love something that comes from the outside, like hip-hop came from America and came to Indonesia, but we use our traditional language every day, so it’s better to rap in our mother tongue.
Then, a tradition like gamelan is just our every day life. So, it’s really simple to make a combination between hip-hop and gamelan, and while they’re really different in a lot of ways, in gamelan there is a lot of looping, like a hip-hop beat. And the puppet master is like a fantastic inspiration for me. They freestyle. It’s a different spirit, but it’s simple to combine it.
Watch Intel’s short film on Jogja Hip Hop Foundation and gamelan culture.
When you say you can be open-minded, how is the reception of your music in Indonesia?
Marzuki: In Jogja we have a long history of contemporary art, you can do anything in Jogja in terms of contemporary expression. There’s no problem, they accept everything. I don’t know about other cities.
Marzuki: In the beginning it wasn’t really a group or a band, or a unit, but a community. More than 2,000 people joined us, and every month we made a bloc party. But after five years, I started thinking that I was only passionate in the combination of Javanese culture and hip-hop. So after that we’d become a group, like a hip-hop collective.
And you’re working with Zuzuka Poderosa?
Marzuki: Yes, it’s ongoing. Not finished yet.
Well that’s a cool, crazy combination, no?
Marzuki: We have experienced a lot of collaborations. This year, in June, we had a collaboration with MC Akala from The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company in London. We also had a collaboration with Chinese Man from Marseilles; they use french language and we use Javanese. Then Omar Musa, a rapper from Australia; he uses Australian English and Arabic — and it works!
Since I can’t understand your lyrics, can you tell me about them?
Marzuki: Well actually we don’t understand our lyrics either! [laughs] Because it’s from the traditions of Java literature, some of the lyrics are untranslatable. Some of these spells and dances are still used by people in Java. We produce it and give it a contemporary context. So for me, maybe we don’t understand the lyrics at all, but we just kept the energy.
What does gamelan culture mean to you?
Marzuki: It’s a community that doesn’t pretend to be contemporary. We love hip-hop but we hear gamelan in our every day lives and we talk in our own language. I think we just love to do this. I mean, I can learn to rap in English but as I said, it’s better to rap in your mother tongue. I don’t think we could get that energy if we use any other sound.
Geeta: Gamelan is body and soul and everything. They’re living inside a kingdom, and every day in their lives they’re listening to gamelan music and using Javanese language at the highest level. And thy just love to do that because it’s more energetic, and it’s more real, more honest with the sound.
Marzuki It’s better than acting like a New Yorker. Some people act and copy and use big jackets. But it’s tropical in Jogja, you don’t need a jacket! [laughs]. I can’t do it. It would be ugly.
If you guys could achieve anything as a group, what would it be?
Geeta: This is their dream actually — singing and rapping and doing their own style. Maybe you have another dream?
Marzuki:Not really. We have a dream to come here, and it’s happened. For me that’s the best investment in the world. If you don’t have a record label, you need to say what you are expressing to the world. After doing it 10 years, we’ve been traveling abroad a lot, so it’s good. But, we never make a plan. We just love what we do. And I don’t know, I’m in New York!
Photo by Mike Peay.