Josh Cullen Santos was determined to make a statement. This was, to some extent, a foregone conclusion: as a member of the boyband SB19, whose ascendance since 2018 has seen them crowned the princes of Philippines pop, or P-pop, anything Cullen does makes an inevitable splash – or, in the case of their ardent fanbase the A’TINs, more like a wave.
But Santos wanted his debut solo single as Josh Cullen to be big and dramatic, because to do anything otherwise would be dishonest to who he is as a person. Stepping out with the rap-EDM hybrid banger ‘Wild Tonight’, as he did in February, was the “perfect” move, he tells NME. “Everything was right in the perfect place when I was doing it… I wanted to incorporate a lot of my experiences, and of course, my personality through this song. So I chose ‘Wild Tonight’.”
If you were to take that literally, the conclusion you’d reach would be: Josh Cullen is a vampire. The music video for ‘Wild Tonight’ – which has passed a million YouTube views – casts the rapper with the piercing gaze as a magnetic bloodsucker with super-senses who’s as at ease leading dance routines in a spooky mansion as on a laser-streaked dancefloor. He knows what you’re thinking: one lyric goes “not your typical Twilight”; Santos takes pains to assure NME that “Cullen” is his real middle name and not cribbed from Stephenie Meyer.
The ‘Wild Tonight’ video, with its mansion setting, gothic imagery, eye-catching costumes and group choreography, has echoes of another SB19-adjacent video: the visual for ‘Palayo’, the single by FELIP, or SB19 member Ken. The band’s lead dancer, vocalist and rapper and the first of the five-man group to go solo, FELIP debuted with ‘Palayo’ in 2021 and earlier this year dropped the EP ‘Complex’.
Santos has heard the ‘Palayo’ comparisons before, but points out that he was personally inspired by video games, such as Devil May Cry and Castlevania. He’s not altogether opposed to fan theories that link his work to FELIP’s, though: “A lot of people say that [they’re] connected with each other. Well, it [could] be. Maybe in the future we can do that, trying to connect these songs to one another,” he muses.
Not only does Santos not seem to mind his fans (or BBQs, as he calls them, due to the phonetic similarity to the phrase “baby ko”, or “my baby” in English) weaving their own stories around his, he welcomes them.
For his second solo single, the R&B-inflected love song ‘Pakiusap Lang’ released in April, he ran a competition that encouraged fans to speculate about a character in its music video, a mysterious black-haired woman dressed in white. Though he ultimately supplied an “official” answer (she’s a representation of death), he also said: “I usually like to keep my stories open-ended, because I believe any headcanons you guys have add to your own love of the song. Know that your stories were all appreciated!”
It’s not a bad strategy when you have a fanbase as dedicated as A’TINs, whose command of social media has in the past propelled SB19 to a nomination for a Billboard Music Award for Top Social Artist and up the the Twitter-powered Billboard Hot Trending Songs Chart, where their music has spent enough time to rival the likes of BTS.
Josh, Ken, Justin, Stell and Pablo, who go by their first names in SB19, came together thanks to ShowBT Philippines, a subsidiary of Korean company ShowBT that held a talent search in 2016. After gruelling training, they debuted in 2018 – but didn’t know if their future was secured until a dance practice video for 2019 single ‘Go Up’ went unexpectedly viral and pushed them into the spotlight.
Over the next few years of relentless activity – including the release of a debut album ‘Get in the Zone’ and the EP ‘Pagsibol’, an arts ambassador appointment by the Philippines’ National Commission for Culture and the Arts, and a global concert tour that began with an arena show at home – SB19 became young stars and proud flagbearers of P-pop.
“We’ve been preparing for quite some time… Expect higher heights for SB19”
This week, SB19 return after some months of silence to feed their fanbase again. On Friday, they’ll release ‘Gento’, the first single from their next EP ‘Pagtatag!’ – which they’ve previewed with a trailer that introduces a dystopian storyline about sacrifice in the service of preserving life. After the EP’s release in early June, the quintet will gear up for yet another tour, kicking off with not one but two arena shows in Manila before heading to North America.
Speaking to NME when ‘Gento’ and ‘Pagtatag!’ were still the stuff of secrecy, Santos teases “a mature version of SB19” in this new era (plus an upcoming collaboration with August Rigo, the Filipino Canadian songwriter and producer who contributed to the BTS song ‘Black Swan’; he previously worked with SB19 on their cover of Eraserheads’ ‘Christmas Party’).
“We’ve been preparing for quite some time. It’s so much better, in my own opinion, than the songs that we’ve had before,” Santos says of the new SB19 material. “Expect higher heights for SB19. And we’re really improving our individual skills. As for me, I’m trying to express my creativity and craft. So I can put more of me in SB19 works as well.”
⚠️ SB19 ‘GENTO’ Solo Teaser
Pre-save 'GENTO' here 🔗 https://t.co/vYZwsAkL19#SB19 #PAGTATAG #SB19PAGTATAG#GENTO #SB19GENTO #SB19_JOSH pic.twitter.com/5PJQjLvwCA
— SB19 Official ⚠️ (@SB19Official) May 14, 2023
The 29-year-old Santos has been awaiting the opportunity to hone his skills and exact his artistic vision for a long time. For years before SB19, he’d been working different jobs – in computer shops and call centres or as an English tutor – and supporting himself and his single-parent family from the age of 15.
His background is why Santos is something of a control freak now when it comes to manifesting his own creative vision. “I experienced a lot of things not going in the right place. I felt a lot of times that I should take over, I should handle and fix things in my own ways… It was like destiny wasn’t cooperating with me.”
Though he’s a long way away from that pre-SB19 period of “trying to get out of the slums, the rags”, as he puts it, some of that old life stays with him. Santos keeps fast friends from that time – “they’re still the friends I trust the most, because they saw me grow” – and his enduring love of EDM from his days as a Dance Dance Revolution pro competitor influenced the monster beat drop of ‘Wild Tonight’, which he co-produced with his cousin Ace, who goes by Ocho the Bullet.
He’s now gearing up for a busy few months with SB19, but Santos will return as Josh Cullen sometime later this year with a debut EP. The project has another English-language song, he teases, which offers an “underground rap feeling with an EDM pop vibe”. “They can expect more of provocative Josh, just trying to trash talk everyone,” he adds, laughing.
And whether he’s surrounded by his brothers in SB19 or standing alone as a solo artist, Santos’ mission to change the OPM industry is crystal clear. “I want to break barriers and push the capabilities of the people around us,” he says. “I want to maximise my time in this league – this legacy.”
Josh Cullen’s ‘Wild Tonight’ and ‘Pakiusap Lang’ are out now via Sony Music Entertainment. SB19’s single ‘Gento’ drops Friday May 19 and EP ‘Pagtatag!’ drops June 9