If you’re a music head, you probably have had a moment where you’ve witnessed the sheer effect music can have on human beings – the way it can drastically change a life. Maybe you’ve seen a thousands-strong crowd in thrall to a festival headliner, or a song you’ve never heard before has stopped you dead in your tracks.
Singaporean DJ KoFlow is telling me about one of his moments – one that left him realising he had to drastically change as an artist and performer. It didn’t come on the heaving dancefloors he’s commandeered for decades, or the concert halls he’s taken over with turntablism. Instead, it happened in a park in Cambodia, when he saw 50 people spontaneously gravitate towards an aerobics instructor who’d decided to play ‘Gangnam Style’ by PSY, and simultaneously do the iconic horse-riding dance move that would be a hit on TikTok today.
“I was like, ‘Wow, this is the power of making a hit – a song that even people who don’t even understand the lyrics relate to’,” he tells NME over Zoom from his home studio. “I started thinking – what was I doing? I was trying to be super cool, super underground, better than everyone else… I needed to simplify my music: not overly technical, overly ‘jazz’. I had to help the layman understand and enjoy music.”
To hear KoFlow tell it, his career has all been about balancing on the line between underground and mainstream: riding the right wave. Acknowledged as a veteran of Singapore’s hip-hop scene, the man born Wayne Liu has been described as a turntablist, DJ, producer, songwriter and performer; he throws club nights, helps organise Radikal Forze Jam, one of Asia’s biggest breakdancing competitions, and conducts DJ workshops for kids in schools.
So it makes sense that the multihyphenate aimed to theme a record around metamorphosis. On August 7, he released ‘Metem’, which is titled after metempsychosis, an ancient Greek concept which describes the transmigration of the soul after death into a whole new body. KoFlow marshalls swooping strings, immersive sound design and thumping beats into a cohesive work that weaves through hip-hop, yes, but also future bass and dubstep. “It’s really just my own journey through music,” he says.
The release of ‘Metem’ marks a milestone in a busy few years for KoFlow. In 2017, he staged the “hip-hop theatrical experience” FLOW: The Story Of KoFlow at the grand Esplanade Concert Hall in Singapore, telling his life story through songs and scratching with the help of guest vocalists and collaborators. Material from the show was released afterwards as an album, or ‘motion picture soundtrack’, featuring interludes on skating, breakdancing and music-making – all things that have influenced the course of KoFlow’s life.
“In terms of a ‘Singaporean sound’, we can’t not explore and just follow trends”
He then spent most of 2018 travelling to China to compete in the televised electronic music reality competition Rave Now alongside Singaporean beatboxer and old friend Dharni. Together, they continued a recent trend of musicians from the city-state who’ve attempted to break into the Chinese market by participating in TV competitions, winning new fans and sometimes even changing the direction of their careers in the process.
Travelling back and forth between China and Singapore was a grind, KoFlow recalls. The rigorous competition schedule – in which he had mere days to write entire songs and get them performance-ready – also reprogrammed the way he worked. He points to the dramatic ‘Metem’ track ‘Hear Me Coming’, which he says is the song on the album that gets the biggest response from people.
“I made that song in like three days for the China competition,” he says. “I was writing – with no speakers – in my hotel, trying to speed up the process… That trained me to write songs in a shorter timespan. That reflects in most of my beats these days, I try to finish them in two or three days.”
In late 2019, KoFlow decided to channel that newfound discipline and finally complete the album he’d been dragging his feet on for years. He’d started working on new material in 2017 but, two years later, only had two satisfactory tracks to show for it. “I knew I had to treat it like a day job now,” he says. “I [realised] I could not do it with an ‘artist lifestyle’ – waking up whenever I feel like it – because I’m not going to finish it.”
So for four months, he woke up early and got down to work by 8 in the morning, clocking off about 10 hours later.
Mixed by Low End Theory founder Daddy Kev, ‘Metem’ has gotten KoFlow love primarily from fellow producers, he says. But for all its meticulous, ear-pricking sonics, the album was written with performance in mind: some songs for the club (the banging closing track ‘Be Who You Really Are’, for instance) and others for a live show. Pre-pandemic, he had been hoping to perform some of the string-heavy tracks with sessionists at a launch show, like the turntable-orchestra show he developed with the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra in 2018.
‘Metem’’s third track, ‘Dreamers’, is one of those tailored for a smoky, sweaty hip-hop venue. It’s the only song on the album with guest artists: the rapper Mean and vocalist J.Joven. “The reason I chose Mean is because I have always admired him as an artist,” KoFlow explains. “He was really not the norm [among Singaporean] rappers. He was the unique guy, but he was fighting for a place. I really admire that fighting spirit that he had.”
Are there any other Singaporean rappers he’s fond of? He names Fariz Jabba and Akeem Jahat, singling out the former as a particularly gifted freestyler – something he says is rare in the region.
“Freestyling is really the epitome of being a great MC,” he says. “A lot of rappers I come across in Southeast Asia are mainly lyricists: they write it out and they can only perform a certain song. If anything changes, they don’t know what to do. They go blank.
“Which is not the case in America. There, it’s: you put on a beat, any beat, and I’m gonna give you a show. I don’t have to have written lyrics, it’s all about what I want to say. And that’s the art of rap, right?”
KoFlow isn’t afraid to give his opinions on hip-hop in Singapore. And why should he be? He started DJing at 19 and is now pushing 40; he’s seen the genre rise and fall and rise again in popularity here, helping introduce the country to turntablism when it was on the cutting edge and laying low when EDM swept hip-hop out of the clubs.
In 2014, he rode the hip-hop wave as it began to crest, debuting a club night under the banner of Solid Gold Productions at one of his city’s beloved live music venues, Blu Jaz Cafe. It soon moved to Zouk, taking over the megaclub’s main room in 2016.
The night aims to celebrate hip-hop and all its offshoots: KoFlow describes its sound as “whatever has influenced hip-hop, or anything that hip-hop has influenced”. The variety stems from both a desire to embrace the sheer breadth of hip-hop and its various evolutions, and Solid Gold’s close association with pioneering b-boy crew Radikal Forze and hip-hop dancers at large.
“Freestyling is really the epitome of being a great MC. A lot of rappers I come across in Southeast Asia are mainly lyricists”
KoFlow lobs us another opinion: “In my experience in Singapore, the dancers actually listen to a lot more good hip-hop than the rappers. They understand funk, they understand soul, because it’s the foundation of the dance. Most rappers, when they hear funk and soul, they’re like, ‘What the hell is this?’” he laughs. “Even with DJs, I guess it depends on the generation… A lot of us in the older generation, we love our funk and jazz. But if you ask new generation hip-hop DJs, they don’t listen to any of that.”
But don’t call the man an old head. Kids may be coming to hip-hop through trends and fashion, but “fashion is part of the whole culture and movement” too, KoFlow acknowledges. And with the help of the internet, people can educate themselves more easily – he thinks Singapore will come to understand hip-hop better. He just hopes the youth understand you have to know your history in order to forge a new path.
“In terms of a ‘Singaporean sound’” – he carves out air quotes with his fingers – “we can’t not explore and [instead] just follow trends. We’ll never be able to come to that own point where we find our own sound, because we’re not experimenting.”
KoFlow’s ‘Metem’ is out now via Syndicate