Yogi B is back! The Malaysian hip-hop star has been working on what he calls his ‘magnum opus’ over the last couple of years and we find out more about what is in store for fans, over a conversation ahead of his much-awaited performance in Chennai next week. For folks who don’t actively follow the Tamil rap scene though, you might remember him singing in Engeyum Epothum in Dhanush’s Polladhavan or Surviva from Ajith’s Vivegam. Of course, most of us best remember him from the Madai Thiranthu music video from the album Vallavan, singing alongside Natchatra (Dr Burn and Emcee Jesz) way back in 2006. The song took the classic Illaiyaraja number and fused it with rap lyrics... and a whole lot of swag! Over a fun interview, the godfather of Tamil hip-hop takes us all the way back to ’93 when he walked into a record label office in his school uniform, and chats with us about mentoring new talent and the lyrics he would pen to describe the journey so far.
You’re performing with Natchatra after 15 years. How did this come to be?
We did a numerous shows in most Tamil diasporas post the album release in 2006. Our careers took a different path as we all pursued solo ventures. We took time for ourselves venturing into various projects. All through the years though, the fans of the album, the OG Yogi B Natchatra fans have been unwavering in their support. I, especially, saw an increase in requests for Yogi B Natchatra concerts as the world opened up post the pandemic. Maybe, the lockdown was a time in which people may have reminicsed or revisited our album. If anything, the pandemic has taught us to appreciate and take whatever chances we get and, so, if people want to see Yogi B and Natchatra back together on stage, we’re more than happy to do it. Dr Burn and Emcee Jesz were on board and so, here we are.
We hear that you’re working on some new music. Tell us more.
My album Manthrahood. It’s my magnum opus (if I could humbly say so). It’s everything I’ve dreamt of how a Tamil hip-hop album should sound. Getting the right amalgamation of Tamil sounds with hip -hop has been harder than I thought and hence the process is taking a while. I hope to release it this year. It has to come out because I’ve made everyone wait far too long.
You’ve worked with some of the biggest music directors in Kollywood. Is anything brewing in the studio on this visit?
Not as we speak. But, hey, I’m always ready if anyone calls (smiles).
Music aside, it’s been a while since you came to Chennai. What are your plans off-stage?
The last I was here was a mere two weeks before the lockdown was imposed in 2020. I’ve missed Chennai over these three years, so, I’m hoping to soak everything in. I’m planning to revisit my favourite restaurants and hangout spots. Also, I love my music community friends here and there are so many new talented artistes in the hip-hop scene. Hoping I have time to catch up with them all...
How did you spend your time as the world shut down over the last few years?
The pandemic was hard on artistes. I was in my studio working on my album for the most part.
You’ve been mentoring young rappers via the talent hunt Rap Porkalam. What has that journey been like for you?
Rap Porkalam has been a fantastic project, I’m so honoured to have been involved as a judge. I wasn’t expecting the kind of talent that was featured on the show. I am so incredibly proud of the Malaysian pool of talent. We don’t ever stop learning and the boys and girls were so open to receiving feedback and improving their craft. And in the process, I too learn a great deal of the youngsters’ music taste
Take us back to the beginning. Do you remember where this hip-hop journey started for you?
I first heard hip-hop as a school boy when a senior of mine played some good old Run-DMC on his boombox during a camping trip. I was instantly drawn to the music, the thumping beats, songs which felt more like a mantra recital than the convential melody. It felt like I knew it from somewhere. I pursued it, begging my mother for some extra money, so, that I could buy new hip-hop CDs. I remember wanting to recreate the sounds and perhaps that’s why I’ve always had the affinity to beatboxing. I practised, trying to imitate some of the rap, flows and sounds I was fascincated by. I don’t know what exactly made me think that I was good at it but one day after school I decided to try my luck and walked into a record label in Kuala Lumpur. They could’ve easily turned down a boy in a school uniform but some good souls decided to take a chance on me. My first gig was a street hip-hop competition in 1992 which I won and then the good people at this record label let me start dabbling with lyric writing for one of their artistes. Hip-hop is culturally interesting. It is an art form created by the masses, for the masses. It’s a form of storytelling, a mode of expression of one’s livelihood. That coupled with rhythm and beats is something that people can connect with. It is as fascinating to me today as it was in 1993, when I first started.
What is your advice to that young kid who wants to become a rapper someday? And what is a good response to ‘get a real job’ from a well-meaning parent...
At the risk of sounding like a boomer uncle, the simplest but most obvious thing I can say is to learn the craft. Rap, on the surface looks like a frivolous art form, the layman might think: ‘they just sound like they’re talking’. But just like every other music style there are various aspects — musicality, control of breath, enunciation, lyrical prowess, the works. Most of the greatest artistes are great for this reason — their knowledge and control of the skills required to excel in their particular art form is unmatched. If rap is going to be your bread and butter, then there’s the business side of music which one has to learn as well. I wished someone told me this when I was first starting, we cannot only focus on wanting to create the next hit song. Read up on publishing and copyrights. Read your contracts! Find yourself a lawyer friend who can help you with this to protect your intellectual properties and educate you on copyright laws. The avenues to monetisation now is vast and many, a sustainble career in music is now plausible more than ever.
If you could write us a lyric to sum up your journey so far, what would it be?
This might be the most cliché response, but sometimes even I myself don’t know how I’ve done it over the years. Yevanakumme theriyathu, unnakku sonna puriyathu!
6.30 pm onwards. On January 26. At Phoenix MarketCity.