JRLDM: Filipino rapper who went from Bataan’s factories to making stark songs about love, vice and inner darkness

Jerald Mallari tells NME how a frank and forthright song about self-harm transported him to recording with “rap heroes” like Gloc-9 on his debut album ‘Mood Swing’

For a decade, since he was a high school freshman, Jerald Mallari would take Sundays off to write and record songs, then toil in Bataan’s textile factories the rest of the week. Last year, the Mariveles-born artist was still getting little attention for his music, and with troubles exacerbated by the pandemic, decided something had to give. It was time, he figured, to quit hip-hop and leave the Philippines for better-paying jobs overseas.

So last July, the 26-year-old rapper dropped what he thought would be his final project as JRLDM (pronounced Jerald Damn), the four-track EP ‘Look MOM I’m Flying’. But what Mallari thought was a last-ditch effort turned into the beginning of what looked, from the outside, like overnight success.

The EP track ‘Patiwakal’ (‘Suicide’), turned heads on the Philippine internet when its accompanying music video was published on Local, a platform that promotes local underground artists to its large fanbase. The disclaimer-tagged video sees the rapper toying with a prop noose and gun, mulling his troubles over gin and smokes. It’s raked in 2.8million YouTube views to date.

“I think today’s listeners are smart enough to know that I’m not glorifying suicide, but bringing awareness to what’s going on underneath”

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Wearily, JRLDM raps: “Naubos ko na ang isang kahang malboro na pula / Alkohol at dubi ang pansamantalang nagpapasaya / Pinapatay ko ang pangambang nadarama / Ang bawat gabi, parang may mali / Tawag ka ng lubid / Siguro ang lahat ay may sagot na sa mga katanungan / Kapag dedo ka na / la la la” –

I’ve run out of a box of Marlboro reds
Alcohol and pot temporarily make you happy
I’m killing the anxiety
Every night, there seems to be something wrong
Call for a rope
Maybe every question will be answered when you’re dead
La la la
”.

Mallari’s stark take on the subject of self-harm has attracted more praise and sympathy than controversy, and he understands why. “I think today’s listeners – especially the Gen Z – are smart enough to know that I’m not glorifying suicide, but bringing awareness to what’s going on underneath,” he tells NME, speaking in a mix of English and Filipino.

“When I wrote the song I had so many problems: money, our house, my mom, it goes on. The only thing I was clinging to was music. It really didn’t cross my mind to worry how people would interpret the song because I didn’t expect it to blow up the way it did. When I wrote it I was a nobody. I was in a really dark place and writing about it was a way out of that place.”

JRLDM rapper Patiwakal album Mood Swing
Credit: Music Colony Records

The second of three brothers raised by a single mother, Mallari’s earliest memories of music were listening to OPM hits on the radio, his brothers’ beatboxing, and the occasional karaoke-belting at family gatherings. He’d eventually borrow a friend’s guitar and teach himself to play it by ear, but his relationship with music truly changed when he discovered hip-hop in high school.

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“I would download free beats on YouTube and rap or sing over the parts,” he recalls. “Eventually I saved up enough to buy a friend’s second-hand PC which came with all the apps I needed to produce songs I made. I started properly recording in 2011, but I’ve been writing songs since 2009.”

JRLDM has been on the long and grinding road ever since. “Being a hip-hop artist was something I wasn’t sure I could keep doing because the financial aspect of it wasn’t working out for me,” he says frankly. Bataan has a non-existent music scene and hip-hop artists were largely seen as “drug addicts and low-lifes,” he says. The province is better known for its power plants, historic tourist spots, and for large swathes of factories that make “clothes, garments, bags, wallets, shoes, mountaineering equipment, everything”, Mallari says. “I’ve made the rounds in more than 20 of them.” (He now does music full-time.)

It took a while, but Mallari’s music eventually reached the ears of Ryan “Juss Rye” Armamento, one of the country’s pioneering hip-hop artists and a member of famed rap quartet Sun Valley Crew. Armamento also happened to be the head honcho of Music Colony Records, Warner Music Philippines’ new hip-hop sub-label, and he was looking for an artist to sign.

Armamento was barely a month into the hunt when he stumbled on JRLDM’s music video for ‘Parasitiko’, featuring Lexus of Owfuck, and decided they needed to meet. What distinguished JRLDM? Mallari’s “dark, cinematic style is something I haven’t seen in a while in the hip-hop scene”, Armamento says. “He also puts melodies in his music, and he touches stories that are rarely topics in hip-hop tracks here in the Philippines.” Local hip-hop’s “topics usually shift from time to time – today it’s been about ‘hustling’ and the ‘grind’ and ‘making it’. Ten years ago it was more about just having fun.”

With his emotionally charged verses and melodies, Mallari has his own take on “fun”. He can flit from atmospherically dark to deliriously light, delivering multisyllabic raps in one track and crooning in another. Mallari’s minimal production sensibilities also borrow inspirations from R&B to ’90s alternative rock.

‘Majik’, for instance, is a hopeful, lo-fi jangly-guitar ballad. “Iba na ang saya…lumalangoy sa ulap papalaho na sugat mapapawi,” he sings: “This joy is different… swimming in the clouds, my wounds will disappear,” before frenziedly shouting “da da da da!” in the chorus line. And on the bittersweet love song ‘Ay Nako’, he interrupts soulful melodies with a chorus of haunting harmonies – all the while sighing about a woman’s boundless sadness and promising to unburden her of all troubles.

“I never set out to make ‘dark’ music. I wanted to make sad songs because I like sad songs”

Mallari is a rapper who wears his heart on his sleeve, which is evident in conversation: he rubs his brow and shakes his head in disbelief when asked of his newfound success. At the time of his chat with NME, the rapper is back in his Mariveles bedroom studio, a cosy, isolated setup which he prefers. “It’s nice to get help in a lot of aspects like making videos, and Sir Rye offering notes on the songs’ production,” he says.

“But when I’m writing and conceptualising, I’m used to working alone. Even when I do collabs, I have to finish the song and storyboard the music video before I present it to another artist, so that we already have material to get hyped about. So that the fire’s there.”

Mallari is set to release more “fiery” collabs in ‘Mood Swing’, his forthcoming debut album under Music Colony. On the nine-track record out next month, he performs with titans of the Pinoy music industry, among them, Gloc-9 – who features on JRLDM’s new single ‘Lagi Na Lang’ (‘Always’), out this Friday. “He’s one of my rap heroes and the first rapper I heard on the radio in elementary [school] before I properly got into hip-hop,” Mallari recalls.

JRLDM rapper Patiwakal album Mood Swing
Credit: Zaldine Alvaro / Music Colony Records

True to its title, “the saddest track [on ‘Mood Swing’] will be followed by the happiest song, and so on. It’s a good mix of highs contrasted with lows,” he says. One of the darker songs on the record is first single ‘Lason’ (‘Poison’), all haunting keys as voices laugh and wail in the background. The verses are an inner monologue confronting Mallari’s love/hate relationship with his “poison” of choice, alcohol.

“It’s one of my bad habits,” he concedes, admitting that most of his songwriting is fueled by drinking “gin – neat, no ice… I tend to write songs when I’m drunk,” he says. “The song is me asking: why am I here again? Why am I constantly suffering? Why do I need this, but how can I be free of it?” On the record’s “lighter” end are songs like ‘Bahala na Bukas’ (‘Whatever Tomorrow Brings’) and ‘Para Sa Sarili’ (‘For Yourself’). “It’s me giving myself a pep talk when I’m down. Maybe it can do that for other people, too,” Mallari says.

After being down for so long, things seem like they’re finally looking up for JRLDM. What does this newfound success mean for his music moving forward – when many of his songs are defined by darkness he’s tussled with for so long?

“I don’t know,” he says candidly. “I never set out to make ‘dark’ music. I wanted to make sad songs because I like sad songs. I find myself drawn to heavier emotions and instrumentals. I think that’s because it’s who I really am. I don’t know why but I just catch myself feeling sad from time to time. But when I’m writing songs, it somehow takes the weight off.”

If you or someone else you know needs support or assistance and are based in the Philippines, call the National Center For Mental Health’s Luzon-wide toll-free landline at 1553.

JRLDM’s ‘Mood Swing’ is due for release January 2022. The album’s second single ‘Lagi Na Lang’ featuring Gloc-9 drops December 17

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