Calix: “Action can bring change. Art? I don’t know about that”

The ‘Kolateral’ rapper/producer levels another memorable critique on concept EP ‘Crash And Burn’ – but remains realistic about the impact of his music

The ‘Crash and Burn’ EP by Calix is what happens when panic and frustration are funnelled into story and sound. Its five tracks, penned during lockdown, all chart an experience that characterises this period in Philippine society: being consumed by the dread of violence and uncertainty, all the while craving the elusive good time.

For Calix, it all began in September 2020, amid constrictive quarantine procedures that everyone dealt with differently. “The whole pandemic anxiety had me bogged down,” the producer-rapper tells NME. Instead of completing a full-length concept album like he had planned, he settled on a shorter release instead. “I couldn’t focus and I couldn’t decide on an outline for the story. But I love the songs that came out of it, as they are, so I wanted to release them as an EP.”

‘Crash and Burn’ is about a “depressed dude who goes on an adventure”, exploring Manila’s nightlife to escape his melancholia. The EP opens with danceable beats and pop sensibilities on the first two tracks, ‘Crash and Burn’ featuring U-Pistol and ‘Juicy’ featuring Japanese singer Futakuchi Mana (who contributes the bridge). Both describe the weariness of someone longing for an intimacy lost: On the title track, Calix raps, “And I reek, five bottles but I’m feeling empty / I’mma steal a car, and drive ’til I kill my envy.”

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For reasons unknown to the protagonist of ‘Crash And Burn’, the club he frequents is raided by the police who arrest his friends and brutally maim the crowd while planting evidence. After that, “what ensues is a whole revenge story against the police.” That begins with the ultraviolent fantasy ‘K.A.C.’ (or ‘Kill A Cop’), which finds Calix delivering deadly promises: “If you gimme cash, then I’mma buy a fucking gun / Pull the trigger, kill a cop, empty my clips ’til I have none.”

“If you get the story then that’s cool,” Calix says of the overarching narrative, “but for me [the songs] can stand alone as well.” It’s hard not to miss the message, though, especially in the guest verses by Promote Violence and Mocksmile, the latter rapping: “Finger bangin on the trigger bullets automatic (full clip) / Rollie pollie holes hundred hollows on a fascist (headshot).”

‘Crash And Burn’ is Calix’s first release under the new label LIAB, or Lightning In A Bottle, Studios, who were keen to give him full creative control even before he signed with them. That was an unexpected source of stress for the veteran producer. “I wanted to do so much that I couldn’t decide what. It’s like a self-induced writer’s block. It was hard to funnel my ideas into a song,” Calix admits. In the end, he used “brute force of will” in a bid to “streamline things I [wanted to] do. That help[ed] me get a laser focus on one task at a time.”

Many of Calix’s fans know him best as an electric live performer. In cramped pubs, he almost wrestles with the crowd, making them a part of the performance as soon as the first backbeat booms from the speakers. “I love performing live, it’s a different monster and vibe,” he says. “These days, I’m reluctant to say yes to online gigs. How do you connect to the audience through a webcam? There’s no participation. The audience should be part of the performance.”

In the past, Calix would strategise for his performances, plotting how he would pull off each song in a live setting. But the test of ‘Crash and Burn’ was how he could achieve a comparable level of emotional depth through listeners’ headphones. “It has to pass a sort of repeatability test for me. Pulling it off live is a problem for the future,” he says.

“‘Kolateral’ educated people, which is what we wanted to happen. But it was a failure in a way because its message has been tokenised”

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Listeners also know Calix as a firebrand who’s unafraid to blast the state and its powermongers. A typical Calix set usually begins with the crowd jumping around, getting some heavy cardio in, and ends with them cussing out the President in a chorus. In 2019, he was part of the team that recorded and released ‘Kolateral’, an album that took on the ‘drug war’ instigated by the Duterte administration, and the record he is probably best known for.

The 12-song compilation, featuring Kartell’em, Pure Mind Quiet Heart and a host of other hip-hop artists, chronicles untold stories of the drug war’s victims. The concept was spearheaded by the research-artist collective Sandata, of which Calix is a member, who sourced their lyrics and narratives from interviews with witnesses and victims’ families. All of ‘Kolateral’’s songs were made freely available online, aiding its rapid spread in bars, student chat groups and protests – even leading to a tour of the album in the United States.

Calix presents his honest assessment of ‘Kolateral’’s impact as best he can: “It was both a success and a failure. The album tapped into a narrative that was absent from mainstream media: the actual stories of the victims of the state’s drug war. When it snowballed, it also educated people, which is what we wanted to happen. But it was a failure in a way because its message has been tokenised. People sometimes use [the hashtag] #StreamKolateral to rack up woke points.”

But no single contributor to the album can be the final judge of its influence, he concludes. “To be honest, I won’t be able to appraise its impact fully. History will do that for us.”

Released November 12, ‘Crash And Burn’ arrived amid the media circus heralding the 2022 Philippine presidential elections. Calix says the timing is a coincidence, though the EP still serves as a critique of sorts. “It’s supposed to be timely and timeless: timeless because we’re still facing a police state, and it’s been like that for much of modern Philippine history,” he asserts. “I wish it weren’t that way. I wish we didn’t have to write songs about these issues though. But right now, it’s a contribution needed in that conversation.”

Take ‘Some of Y’all Pt. 2’, a sequel to the 2020 song by M4660T, featuring Calix and BLKD, that tackles political sellouts. On ‘Crash And Burn’, the trio once again indict the conduct of turncoats and liberals in Philippine politics over a mockingly good horn section during the hooks. The song exemplifies Calix’s raging against “neoliberal sickness”, what the rapper characterises as ordinary folk being pitted against each other in crippling competition – be it in jobs, the arts or education – while those in power reap the benefits.

But as the Philippines grapples with lockdown, its madcap politics and the violence that comes along with it, Calix is the first to downplay the importance of his art, even if music is the antidote to sitting idly and absorbing all the anxiety.

“Art is just an accessory. It may move things forward, but remains inefficient in its form,” he argues. “Movements take primacy. Action can and historically has been proven to bring change. But art? I don’t know about that.” He adds, humbly: “These are just songs. Actions are more important.”

Calix’s ‘Crash And Burn’ is out now

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