Singapore rapper Yung Raja on his new single 'Dance Song' and inspiring fans through his music
'I want people to know that they are loved and we all have the power to inspire positively,' says Singapore rapper Yung Raja
Rajid Ahamed or Yung Raja like he's now known to the world, is probably the most humble and wholesome rapper you will ever know. Through his songs, the Singapore-based artist says, he wants to tell people that they are loved and that they wield the power to inspire. His new single 'Dance Song' —produced by Flightsch combines smatterings of his mother tongue Tamil with English — is a dead-on embodiment of this sentiment.
Raja also has a pre-taped set for the virtual NH7 Weekender on 6 December, an opportunity he describes as "probably one of the craziest things that has happened to my career."
In an interview with Firstpost, Raja speaks about the makings of 'Dance Song', how the pandemic has affected him as a musician, his favourite artists, and that there is a whole body of music that his fans can soon expect.
Edited excerpts from the conversation:
Could you tell me a bit more about 'Dance Song'?
The 'Dance Song' was made during a time when I felt very unsure about where I was going next, especially right around the time when ‘Mad Blessings’ came out. I was new to the rap game, new to this world of music, and to suddenly see myself as a rapper wasn’t something that I was exactly expecting. I couldn’t unpack it myself, couldn’t understand it all. It was a lot of learning the ropes the first two years and after ‘Mad Blessings’, I was just a bit lost. I was really stressing out. And then once we were just fooling around, having fun in the studio when 'Dance Song' just happened in a split second. We had something that was almost a moment of epiphany. It came out of nowhere and took us by surprise. That was a really good session. I would say that the level of pressure and the feeling of being stuck were a major influence to have a breakthrough.
And the music video, I loved your outfits. Did you have any input in its aesthetic?
We worked with this Jasper Tan (Vadbibes) who has collaborated with us since ‘Mustafa’, followed 'Mad Blessings', and now the 'Dance Song'. He’s one of those crazy geniuses. First of all, I’m very thankful to have been surrounded by geniuses in their craft and in their art. Jasper is one person I’ve had the pleasure to know and he is an artistic genius. His field is of videography and all he does is have ideas on how to execute your sound and song. He’s a powerhouse of ideas. We have created such an amazing work relationship with him, he just listens to the song and comes up with these ideas. We don’t get in his path of creativity. That’s how we work.
When he heard the 'Dance Song', whatever you saw in the final music video is exactly what he told me over the phone – scene by scene, shot by shot, colour palette by colour palette – whatever he had in mind, the overall aesthetic. He shared everything with me over the phone; I was so blown away. I didn’t even know we could make a video like that in the middle of a pandemic, but he made it happen. We all made it happen. I love his ideas and his direction, the team loved it.
What makes a good dance song?
A good dance song has to have that rhythm, the tempo to it that makes you want to groove. That groove, it has to have that groove. It has to have an almost trance-like effect. You listen it once and you can listen to it again and again. It’s the kind that never grows old. I love songs that you can dance to, man.
Could you tell me a bit about how you came to become a rapper and how you took up the name Yung Raja?
Well, to be brutally honest, I did not plan to become a rapper. I was a struggling actor many years ago. I was trying to figure out how to get to a certain place in life and was unhappy until my boy Fariz told me to try rap. I guess he saw some potential in me when it came to rapping. So we both gave it a shot. It was more like an accidental discovery of a career path. During the days when I was exploring, the early days, I had my name as MC Raja because I used to emcee in clubs. As a hip hop emcee I used to go to these club nights and be a hype man. After I met FlightSch (Ezekiel Keran), he told me that I should switch to Yung Raja because he felt like it was more of a rapper name. And I was like ‘Okay. I trust your judgement. Let’s go.’
In previous interviews you’ve said you’ve been a fan of Tamil film music, especially AR Rahman and Ilaiyaraaja’s compositions. Are you a fan of any artists/composers from the newer generation?
One of my biggest inspirations or somebody that I love and respect so much, and cherish the friendship of, is my boy, Sid Sriram. This guy is the wave, man. He is the new generation of Tamil film music artists or just Indian artists that I have grown to love so much after the likes of AR Rahman and Ilaiyaraaja. Then there is Hiphop Tamizha as well, they are really breaking boundaries in introducing rap and elements of hip hop to Tamil Nadu.
What does it feel like to be signed by Def Jam records? And do you think it will in anyway impact your creative process?
Being signed to Def Jam records is probably one of the greatest things ever. In Southeast Asia, especially Singapore hip hop is still in its infancy. We don’t have a proper highly dense, multi-layered hip hop scene. This is a situation for a lot of countries in Southeast Asia because hip hop culture is something that we adapted from the US. That’s just facts. So to be in a place which is like a hip hop powerhouse, where you join forces with the best of the best feels like I’m a part of a superhero group.
The only way [being a part of the record label’s roster has impacted the creative process] is positively because I’m put in a place where I’m surrounded by some of the best musicians that this part of the world has ever seen. There’s nothing but growth in a place like this. Mediocrity will not be allowed and I like that kind of a challenge.
How has the pandemic impacted you as an individual and as a musician?
The pandemic has been very difficult, not just for myself but the entire world. But as an artist, the first couple of months were the darkest because there was so much uncertainty in the air. There still is, but we are more used to the new normal.
To try to work from home and try to make songs or complete projects you have on hand independently, especially when you’re so used to working with your team, has been taken away. There’s always a vibe shared among us musicians that leads to creating. Now, I had to figure how to do that by myself. I also felt difficult to stay inspired because everyday was so tense. Especially the first couple of months, I couldn’t really get into the zone of being creative. Some of my peers in the industry have also shared a similar experience. Breaking through that [the creative rut] makes me feel stronger and more confident in myself as an artist. Somebody who is so used to relying on people and getting work done, now I feel more comfortable in my own skin and my capabilities. It has really helped me in my self-image.
Do you miss interacting with fans in person?
I do miss this. There’s a certain vibe that gets exchanged when you are surrounded by hundreds or even thousands of people that are there to see you. It is such a unique and powerful human experience. I don’t know if we can ever find or build something that can replace that feeling.
Which artist(s) music has comforted you in these trying times?
My pandemic playlist consists of songs that make me really happy. These are songs that have made me fall in love with hip-hop when I was young. Songs that have lifted my spirits hard. Some Lil Wayne, Jay-Z, TI, Kanye West, Eminem, Notorious BIG — these are some of the guys that I listened to in my teenage days. These songs bring me back to a time when I didn’t have to care about many things.
What’s next for you? You’ve only released singles so far is there an album in the pipeline.
Now, we are no longer going to release one or two songs a year. It’s going to be a lot more music, a lot more vibes and you could definitely expect a little body of work.
Is there anything you have been wanting to talk about that almost never comes up in media interviews? Please do share.
I want to talk about some of the key messages that I’m trying to put across in my music. I want people to know that they are loved and we all have the power to inspire positively. We are all capable of everything we put our mind to and through gratitude we can really live a life of immense beauty and wonder. I don’t think I have ever said this in this way, but I have always wanted to.
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