Left and Centre: Yung Raja and Mean in Comme des Garçons SHIRT Comic Book Print Shirt, Right: Mean in SHOES 53045 Bump Air in Acid.
It’s a sunny afternoon on the Thursday before Singapore celebrates its 54th birthday. We meet up with rappers Mean and Yung Raja, two talents who have been making their mark on the music scene, to discuss their interest in fashion and their entry into music. Over tea, coffee, a cocktail and many cakes, the conversation flowed leisurely as we discussed their upbringing, their affinity for Maltesers, Mean’s indifference to appearing underdressed or overdressed, and Yung Raja’s newly discovered love for anthropology.
As we speak, their differences begin to make themselves known: Mean has been in the game for close to a decade, whilst Yung Raja considers himself fairly new, despite having gained a wide amount of traction. Mean has had a long-standing love affair with fashion, whilst Yung Raja only recently found himself paying genuine interest in fashion this year. Their difference in age also brought to light the changing face of Singapore’s music and fashion industry. Mean grew up downloading music using Napster and Limewire, whereas Yung Raja experienced the twilight of Limewire, moving on to The Pirate Bay instead. Nevertheless, what the two have in common are a highly distinct and unique sense of style, both in terms of their music and their ways of dressing, and a sincere drive and passion for their craft.
ON STYLE AND FASHION
CLUB21: What marked the entry of your interest in fashion?
MEAN: I’m gonna take it way back. As a kid, growing up, my mum made sure I was always dressed up — crisp and clean. I went through a whole daily routine of getting groomed: putting on fragrance, cream, putting on a shirt. I was the kid who was dressed up in a shirt and a tie for Hari Raya. So when you pay that much attention to being dressed up, looking proper before you leave the house becomes a basic necessity. That’s been ingrained in me since a young age. Then, when I grew up, I realised I liked clothes, but I only started shopping when I was about 15. My parents never bought me anything. So I saved some of my pocket money, and I started going onto fashion forums, before Instagram and Tumblr were around. Forums like Superfuture and Frontallabs, which is run by Kurt, who’s the owner of White Label Records. Forum culture was the thing where you learnt about clothes and where you posted images of all your outfits. So before OOTD (Outfit Of The Day), there was WAYWTD (What Are You Wearing Today). On Superfuture, I learnt about all these obscure brands like Henrik Vibskov, and also made a lot of friends globally through that.
Then, I made my first trip to Paris when I was almost 18, I think, got my first Raf Simons T-shirt and boom, that was it. That changed my life completely.
CLUB21: Did you know about Raf Simons before, or were you just drawn to the T-shirt?
MEAN: I saw the T-shirt and I liked it. That was in 2008. Spring/Summer 2008, to be specific. I then started researching everything about the brand, learning more about Raf Simons, which led me to learn about the Antwerp Six, then learning about Margiela and that opened up a whole new world for me. What really got me into Raf was that I was studying Industrial Design at the time, and Raf was an industrial designer before he became a fashion designer. So I understood where his aesthetics were coming from. I haven’t stopped collecting Raf Simons ever since.
YUNG RAJA: Dude, I remember this one time you performed at Velvet. It was my first time seeing you, I think I had just turned 18, and you were performing. The host pointed out that you were dressed in all Raf, and I didn’t even know what Raf was, until I saw you wearing it. After which I went and did research.
I come from a middle class family, and my parents come from India, so the fashion world is so far from everything for us. My mum wears a saree on a daily basis. Growing up, for me, in terms of looking nice, I had similar experiences to you, bro. I had three sisters and I’m the youngest and I’m the only boy, so my mum had real fun dressing me up. I never really got into liking designer clothes till this year, in fact. Before this, I would wear whatever I thought was dope. I never really look at brands, but I particularly like Margiela. There’s no story behind it, I’ve never researched it, I just like it.
CLUB21: Playboy Carti said that the first thing he does before he sits down to make music is put on his best outfit in order to fully express himself.
YUNG RAJA: Right. I love wearing nice clothes to session. I can’t look or be shabby when I’m making beats. It makes a huge difference.
MEAN: It’s that power suit effect. But for me, it’s actually a little different. When I’m in the studio, I keep it basic. That’s why one of the lines in my song: “Up in the studio lookin’ basic, holy grail in the closet.” I look the most pedestrian when I’m in the studio. It’s just my thing. I need to be the most comfortable.
YUNG RAJA: Because you never know how long a session is going to take?
ON MUSIC AND FINDING YOUR CREATIVE HALF
CLUB21: What music did the both of you grow up listening to?
MEAN: I went through a lot of phases, listening to a lot of music.
CLUB21: Didn’t everyone?
YUNG RAJA: Nah, it’s always been hip-hop and Tamil music for me. Until I was 13 or 14, I had only listened to South Indian music, like A.R. Rahman.
MEAN: For me, growing up, I was very into pop. I grew up listening to Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC, and then I discovered Tupac through a pasar malam CD of music videos. Tupac’s ‘Hit Em Up’ was in that and I immediately fell in love with it. Then, when I was 15, I moved on to listening to a lot more ska music and I was actually in a ska band, and then I moved on to post-hardcore and I was actually in a post-hardcore band as well. Do you know the band Calvaire? I was their vocalist, their screamer. I then went on to meet Young (Naufal Gani), who was already in XS. I asked him if we could record some tracks together, and I’ve never stopped ever since.
YUNG RAJA: Friends really change everything. I too got into music through a friend, but I hadn’t met Fariz [Jabba] then. Did you know that we are both exactly 1 year, 1 month and 1 day apart? His birthday is on 13 November 1996, and mine is on 14 November 1995. He’s a Scorpio, I’m a Sagittarius. We’ve been best friends for six years, but we only observed this fact about two weeks ago.
MEAN: I’m working on a new album with Gema from Syndicate, but it’s on hold right now. It’s called 44. I knew of Gema for many years, always loved his music, always saw him around but we never actually spoke. One day, I thought I really wanted to work on my new album but I needed a producer. I sent him a message saying I’d love to speak to him, and since he was spinning for Dover Street Market Singapore’s First Anniversary Party, I went down and we spoke. I told him I wanted to work on a project, and he stopped me right there and said: “Bro, I’ll be honest with you, I’m very particular when it comes to working with people. Let’s have a session and see how it goes.” At the party, I loved everything he was playing; we were vibin’ throughout the night, so he said to come by the studio the following Monday and we pumped out five songs in like three hours. From there, we started hanging out more and got to know each other a lot better. We found out we share the same shoe size, which is a 44, and as we started to share more about our lives, I realised how similar a lot of our experiences were. It’s as if we’ve both walked a mile in each other shoes. That’s why the project is called 44.
CLUB21: It’s nice when you find your creative half. Rajid, you and Fariz have a similar relationship?
YUNG RAJA: Yeah, he is my creative half. We’ve built that synergy up to the point where we both learn from each other, but also to a level where we are now able to work alone. Ever since we met our producer Zeke, who signed the both of us, the three of us have been working very closely together. The synergy is always there. I know what he’s thinking, he knows what I’m thinking. We’re always impressing each other. [Laughs] Or surprising each other with what we come up with. We’re also always asking each other how can we make it better. Let’s pull each other up, you know? But it’s also difficult when you get to this point, because you get comfortable. So you’ve got to figure out how to move forward and push yourself while retaining that level of comfort. That is the challenge at this point in my life. But it’s dope that you have people around you to help you out. Every artist has their creative half though.
MEAN: It’s like 40 and Drake!
YUNG RAJA: Yeah, it’s like 40 and Drake; like Eminem and Dr. Dre; like you and your boy, like me and my boy.
MEAN: Like Kanye and Kanye.
YUNG RAJA: [Laughs] That’s right, Kanye is Kanye’s boy.
MEAN: There will never be another Kanye.
YUNG RAJA: Not for awhile, bro. Maybe never.
CLUB21: The topic of competition often gets brought up in conversation with figures from the creative scene, whether it’s art, fashion or music. Do you agree that the focus should be on community rather than competition?
YUNG RAJA: Competition is cool because if it’s healthy, it pushes people to be even more dope than they already are and it pushes the boundaries. But it should never be the focus. The focus should be on community, and especially for hip-hop, it’s always community first.
MEAN: To be fair, the essence of rap is competition. But it’s changed a lot.
YUNG RAJA: In America, for example, you have so many rappers, and so many people with talent. For that reason, it makes sense that competition becomes part of the focus. But in Singapore, the scene is not all that big, and we’re trying to grow the scene and the community into something solid. We’re trying to build awareness of the rap scene in Singapore. So if the focus is to grow it, and groom it, and bring it to the next level, the focus should never be on who’s better than who? And I agree with you, that the focus should be on community. We’ve gotta pull each other up and support each other. But competition can be healthy. Between Fariz and I, there’s always competition. Like, he can do this? Let me show him what I can do! But that never becomes the angle. The angle is always: Let me help you, bro.
CLUB21: What message are you trying to spread with your music?
YUNG RAJA: Anything I do has to be positive. I want to make something that is happy, cool, funny, nice, enjoyable, and palatable. That is the angle. Even if I talk about a set of messages that I resonate with deeply, I try to package it in a way where it isn’t so abstract, that only hip-hop fans would understand, you know? I’m very new to all of this, so it’s a work in progress, but I’m pretty set on the angle and direction of what I am trying to preach. Everything that I do seeks to bring people together. The stigma around hip-hop is that it’s about violence, drugs, gangsterism. I want to show how it can be uplifting. Think of a Singaporean in their mid-40’s who has never listened to rap and has no idea what rap is about. They’ll watch music videos from America and they might immediately associate it with gangsterism. But there’s a bridge, and you can bridge it with positive messaging, happy joyful stuff that brings people together. That’s where I’m trying to place myself as an artist.
MEAN: For me, it’s a little different. My music has always leaned on the more emotional side of things. It’s more about trying to relate with people who have problems and letting them know they are human and that I am also going through the same things they are going through. Letting them know that they’re not alone, that I go through depression, that I have my lonely days. When I was having a 9 to 5, it was about how yeah, I work, but I’ve got a dream, and that is the music I was making and still am making. It’s always going to be about the emotional side of things. My last EP was a happy product because I was in a good state of mind. My music is always going to reflect how I’m feeling. I’m only human. I started writing because I was at an emotional point in my life, so that will always be the drive.
YUNG RAJA: I’ve had my struggles, but I’ve also always been a happy guy. My mum is such a loving person, and there’s a lot of love in my household. I’ve always been a positive guy that handles things in a positive way, which is why I’ve chosen this angle for my music.
Interview: Alysha Lee
Photography: @yung.raja @mean.xs