Words and Illustration by MC Galang
It is not often that good, or if lucky, great rap and hip-hop records land on my lap. At The Rest Is Noise, we take curation very seriously—which means going beyond music news and regular streaming playlists. The lion’s share of the work means logging hours upon hours of scoping for under-the-radar releases from various sources: creepily exact YouTube algorithms, Reddit threads, word-of-mouth recommendations, and accidental finds on massive streaming sites like SoundCloud and Bandcamp, as well as off-kilter, non-English underground sites.
Sometimes—and this is perhaps the best—it’s discovering artists at shows, live or otherwise. However, there is a distinct satisfaction found on stumbling upon honest-to-good hip-hop and generally beat-oriented acts within Asia to a point where it’s woefully frustrating that accessibility can often be a scourge as it is convenient.
To that end, we are launching a two-pronged feature series highlighting the best hip-hop and electronic records from Asia, in addition to our weekly review of outstanding new music. For our hip-hop maiden issue, I’m sharing three records on heavy rotation: one which dropped just today and the remaining two released in 2019. Enjoy.
Lately by Hsien Chan (Taiwan)
I discovered Hsien Chan’s Lately (2019) when I was going deep into Taiwanese producer CONEHEAD’s work. He was credited in one of the songs, the boom-bap feast “bidibi swing” featuring _tarolin and DJ Kool Klone, which I included in our inaugural THIS SIDE: TAIWAN playlist. On Lately, Chan tours around New York’s most cognizable sound, which reached its commercial peak in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The album retained the narcotic restlessness and rip-roaring chaos that defined the era and a city that stings and burns.
I met James (Hsien) at LUCfest last November, where his other hip-hop project Banyan Gang performed. We instantly bonded over Yellow’s performance, where I caught a reference to one of hip-hop’s (and music’s) timeless love songs, “Bonita Applebum” by one of his heroes, A Tribe Called Quest. A lot of the artistic choices in his solo effort conjure some of the most memorable productions of Q-Tip, DJ Premier, RZA, KRS-One, and Slum Village. Even at some of its more schmaltzy moments, such as “Fall In Love” with Major7 and Hana Lin from It’s Your Fault, which samples the latter’s “Young Love,” James made the jazz-infused original feel a bit looser, more extemporaneous.
Favorite tracks: “bidibi swing,” “A Tribute Called Quest,” “New Moon,” “Fall In Love”
No Bethany by Ramengvrl (Indonesia)
I discovered Ramengvrl (Putri Soeharto) at We The Fest—after the fact, but enough interest to attempt to book her for one of our bigger shows (ultimately, the logistics didn’t match and the plan fell through. Now I sorely regret not trying harder). When I first heard her breakout single, “I’m da Man,” it was abundantly clear to me that the Indonesian artist is not interested in confining herself in gender roles set in hip-hop, the music industry in general, and in the misogynistic expectations of her as a woman, particularly an Asian woman.
These hostile segments of many Asian cultures range from anodyne to fatal. We are expected to be docile, refined, and gentle: to behave and to serve at the pleasure of others (men). Ramengvrl’s debut mixtape, No Bethany (2019), not only wrestles but fights to decimate what are often ascribed to as “traditional values” and at the same time adopting hip-hop’s tools which has its own fraught history of gender insensitivity, to say the least. The “Bethany” persona represents these archaic stereotypes and Ramengvrl’s insistence to present the complexities of being a woman as a human being and not a standard or an object simply by existing matters.
I mean, if people are scandalized by women having pit hair (“Whats Ur Problem”), then it is a sad state of the human race not to be able to accommodate the realities of human anatomy and physiology to be offended by that. “Do you even have a job? Do you even have that much time on your hands? I don’t get it. I put in the work, I got money now so I can do anything I want,” she asks. A boss.
Favorite tracks: “Gippal,” “Whats Ur Problem,” “Go Commando”
Ultimo Fantasma by Tito Uncle x Scarly (Philippines)
There are no shenanigans in rapper Tito Uncle (Diego Avanceña) and rapper-producer Scarly (Daniel Scarlata)’s collaborative debut, Ultimo Fantasma (2020), a formidable project that worships at the altar of MF Doom. The self-released EP recontextualizes the glory and pitfalls of fame and how anonymity mitigates both through their renewed fascination of wrestling, particularly of larger-than-life luchadors. Faithful to these influences, the duo brought their Ultimo Fantasma alter-ego (illustrated on the album art designed by Bryan Sochayseng) to life “in the same thrill that only B movies and comics would.”
The EP examines—and often weaponizes—capitalist exploitations (“Ferdinand,” “Mansion X”), the chronic restlessness and isolation that fuels self-medicated coping mechanisms (“Shadaloo”), and the delicate line that straddles between mortality and invincibility (“DND” which, side note, repurposes one of the worst bars of Jay-Z’s career).
The brevity of Ultimo Fantasma facilitates a curt, but interesting, introduction. It’s certainly not enough to dig deep into the rabbit hole of its nihilistic tendencies, but it’s certainly more accessible than I anticipated (I was mildly wary on whether or not I will get its wrestling references, as my personal recollection of watching WWE doesn’t go beyond the early 2000s and I can only remember Rey Mysterio as the closest visual aid). The agility of its verses broach more within Ab-Soul and Earl Sweatshirt territory rather than Doom’s, something that actually works on its favor. Although barely just a day-old, it’s one of the more exciting rap debuts I listened to so far.
Favorite tracks: “Shadaloo,” “DND (f/ Cavill)”