Singapore rap pioneer Sheikh Haikel releases first single of his final album: “The hip-hop scene is in good hands”

The Singaporean hip-hop icon tells NME about his swan song and emotional new single ‘So I Say What’s Up’ featuring Charlie Lim

Singaporean hip-hop icon Sheikh Haikel has released ‘So I Say What’s Up’ featuring Charlie Lim, the first single from his fourth and final album.

‘So I Say What’s Up’ finds Haikel with his heart on his sleeve, addressing an old friend and reflecting on how they became estranged from each other – and, no matter how their relationship might be now, Haikel’s willingness to talk and “say what’s up”.

“Our relationship was based a lot upon music,” Haikel tells NME of the friend who is the subject of ‘So I Say What’s Up’. “We did a lot of good, bad things together. We changed moments in time, and we stopped the clock before. Not really nice the way things ended… I hope he hears the song. He’ll know it’s about him, straight away.”

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In the music video, directed by Zim Goodman, the duo perform the wistful, open-hearted song on an empty field together. “Love it or lose it, don’t you keep me hanging here / forgive and forget it, I remember what we had / Were all the times we shared wasted, can I still call you a friend? / Do I take it or leave it, so won’t you help me understand?” Lim sings.

And Haikel raps: “Will always spare a moment to talk about you / Tell ’em how you good you were and the bad things we do / Lemme see, would you spare a moment for me / ’Cuz the times we spent together were the best times, so I say ‘what’s up?’

Watch it below:

It’s been 30 years since Haikel made his first mark on Singaporean music history. In 1991, he and Ashidiq Ghazali won the Japanese music competition show Asia Bagus as the duo Construction Sight, who have been hailed as Singapore’s first ever hip-hop group. Catapulted into music careers as teenagers, they were handed huge sums of money as recording advances and got educations from star-struck tutors instead of moving through Singapore’s school system.

It was a “funny life”, Haikel says, but as pioneers, Construction Sight were in a landscape where there was no organic hip-hop scene to be hard. “We were rapping to suits. We were rapping to our boss’s office people, you know? No fans, no young ones. Just perform – ‘you’re cute, you’re talented, we pay you’.”

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Hip-hop in Singapore – and Southeast Asia at large – has grown tremendously since, with rappers building passionate, boundary-crossing fanbases; multiple labels, both majors and independents, operating in the region; and artists developing their own idiosyncratic styles and flows.

That’s why Sheikh Haikel has decided to step back from the rap game with this last album (which has a title that he is currently keeping close to the chest). “Looking at the people, the boys and girls who are in the scene now, it’s in good hands, man. I can only see it take off even further from here,” he remarks. “And we gotta understand that times are changing. If you can’t keep up, stay out – and enjoy the show.

“We had a good time doing it, we paved the way for them and it’s their turn to walk the walk… Yeah, it’s time to step back from the hip-hop scene. It’s beautiful now, and it can only become better.”

In recent years, Haikel has become known for more than entertainment (besides rapping, he’s also made forays into hosting and acting, the latter notably in 1996 comedy Army Daze). Many know him today as a restauranteur, who in 2017 teamed up with Fatboy’s co-founder Bernie Tay to open Fatpapa’s, a halal offshoot of the burger joint, and two years later Wakuwaku Yakiniku (Fatpapa’s closed temporarily in September, but will be back with a new diner concept, Haikel promises).

For Haikel, food is more than a business – it’s a means of bonding and forming community. He sees his restaurants as a means to feed people who’ve supported him and his career. Haikel turns emotional as he speaks about meeting fans at his establishments, among them one who said his song ‘Ode To My Girl’, from 2003 album ‘For Sure Too’, prompted her to reconnect with her father after 30 years.

“I’ve got my problems, just like anybody else. But those moments are the kind you live for, you know?” he says, wiping away a few tears. “You get your downs for sure, but I get to meet the people who allowed me to be me and spread my wings, and I get to thank them personally.”

Haikel loves to eat with people – which is what he did with Charlie Lim, whom he is effusive with praise for. He’d been a fan ever since a friend gave him a copy of Lim’s double EP ‘Time/Space’, and they later met at the wedding of fellow Singaporean artist Sezairi. Lim was open to a collaboration, and when Haikel wanted to finally make it happen, he had a meal with the singer-songwriter and ‘So I Say What’s Up’ producer Flightsch to talk about the stories he wanted to tell.

Haikel, who has collaborated with fellow SEA hip-hop luminaries SleeQ and Joe Flizzow (both on his 2010 album ‘10.10.10’), knows that he and Lim are an odd pairing at first glance. “I just had to have Charlie be [on] the first song, because of this reason exactly: the fact that people will ask, ‘why Charlie Lim?’ It’s a good start to the album, the swan song, to say bye-bye.”

‘So I Say What’s Up’ is the first of four songs from that Haikel plans to release over the coming year, culminating with a final drop on his 47th birthday on October 10, 2022. This 10-song album will mark the end of a rich rap journey for Sheikh Haikel, who is filled with gratitude when he looks back on his career.

“I’ve performed all over the world carrying the Singapore flag, but I was allowed to be by my people, by the people. You’re only as good as the people say you are, and Singapore let me be me. They allowed me to be Sheikh Haikel, and I’m very, very grateful for that.”

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