Published Nov 14, 2012When Masia One hands me a copy of her latest album Bootleg Culture, she tells me there's another blank CD inside so I can burn the album and share it with someone else. I laugh, chalking it up as a joke of some sort, but it turns out what she says is true. Not only does it contain a blank CD, but the album package includes instructions to bootleg and remix the album. "The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is encouraged," reads the back cover of the album package, underlining Masia One's unorthodox approach to making her third album. Bootleg Culture is a musically adventurous outing, drawing inspiration from hip-hop, pop and reggae among other influences. It is the product of the Singapore-born Canadian artist globetrotting around the world, drawing cultural similarities and differences while running into the likes of the RZA and John Frusciante along the way.
Why are you so comfortable with your art being spread around?
In these days and times there's definitely a lot of censorship, whether it's trying to withhold information and knowledge on the internet with Megaupload [and what] went down, or if you're looking down on counterfeit code or this and that. I've been fortunate as an artist to travel all over the world and I see that there are certain brand names, there's this and that, we're all humans and the reality of how humans live is that they just have to make a living. Brand name or not. And also with the technology, with the internet, no matter how much you try to censor it or the technology of the music industry, no matter how much try not to allow people to burn and steal music they're gonna do it. If the technology is there, it's a way of life. So I mean I'll go to New York and I'll hear girls talking about "Oh my god, I'd never get caught wearing a counterfeit this and that" and then I'll go to Indonesia where there are kids ― because he's gotten a bootleg copy of Photoshop let's say ― he's been able to break his poverty cycle from what he's always been doing to suddenly learning Photoshop, learning on a computer and possibly becoming a graphic designer.
So I decided I'd mess around with the concept of this, how badly and how taboo we look at bootleg culture and just kind of say that well, at one time the culture was stolen from the streets and larger corporations have money to market it and make it into a large phenomenon. And we that invented it are taught how to lust for this thing that was ours in the first place.
So the main message is for people to reclaim their culture. It's also on many different levels. On one level it's also the criticism that comes from music critics on [my music being] all over the place. There are too many styles, this and that kind of thing. We don't understand what Masia One's style is. But for me it's like you're allowed to be dynamic people and travel around the world and learn all these different things.
So when it comes down to it ― making a record like this , that has a bit of dancehall a bit of pop, a bit of rock ― everything's in it because that's who I really am as an artist. I've seen, I've lived with that hub and flow. I used to jam with whoever and this is Toronto too. Toronto is bootleg culture. So, in a way using the term is as a mix of culture, that everything doesn't need to be so black and white. Finally, the third meaning is that the music didn't take two years, but the business around it took two years to make sure things are clear, things are mastered, this and that. So it's one of those things that you fight so hard to keep something. I always feel that it's best to just let it go. So, now that I've fought to have this record we can release it and let the music go and see what it does you know. Having that faith that it's a vibe and if it's music that the people like, then it's always coming back to you. It doesn't necessarily have to be this giant music industry fear of people stealing music.
Did you ever second guess yourself on giving away your music?
Only when I go to music conferences and labels are like "You're crazy for doing that. No, you don't do that shit." One of the biggest things that holds a lot of artists back is that they're being perfectionists and defining their song. "But I can do a better vocal performance than that" and that has to come into play to a certain extent. At the end of the day, if you're an artist you make music and you let it go and you're always gonna make more and hopefully you make it better. So it's ok. We all know that you don't make money in the music industry anyways. Not anymore. You don't sell enough off CDs, you're selling off licensing or you're selling merchandising. You're selling the idea of somebody.
You've said there were some similarities in different cultures in terms of trying to make a living, but were there any striking differences you noticed while working on this record?
Sure. I mean it could be negative at the same time. I mean the [Wu Tang Culture interlude] that I put out before the RZA track was the homeboy Sean Prominent. He has a following with little nerdy kids. Like that guy's not really Wu, but he's like the second cousin of this person or this person of Shaolin. It's really become like this Dungeons and Dragons of nerdy culture. Where there's a deepness to it, where people study it. Where there's literature that comes out about it, y'know. It's just to show cultures aren't just black white, Asian, there's all this.
How did you hook up RZA?
Well I was blessed to work with this guy Che Vicious on this record, he's the producer. And he's an Aftermath producer. He produced a lot of tracks on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which in itself was a dream come true for me 'cos when you're a kid listening to those records you never think you're gonna one day work with that producer. So it was through Che. RZA was coming through the studio, he played him some of my stuff and asked him if he would be interested in jumping on. And he said "Yeah." Yeah, man and that's basically how it happened. It was great meeting him it was great working with him. I worked with him on more than one song. What's the name of the Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist?
Oh, John Frusciante.
He just released a record where I'm on a track with RZA and myself and Baretta 9 from Killa Army. 'Cos it was just in LA we were ciphering right and at John Frusciante's house and that came to be. So it was just stories from behind the scenes of the time that I was working in L.A.
You say this kind of matter-of-factly. How did you get to L.A. in the first place to actualize these collaborations?
You know me, I move because I have to move. I move where the hustle is. Well, I was touring Canadian high schools at the time and I got a call from Che. He had seen [the] "Return of the B-Girl" [video] and he's like "I think you're mad talented and I like this song as a whole record." He's like "I just think that with the right beats we could position you to blow it up." You just haven't hit the right hit beat in his mind yet. So he's like, "Well I just got into Detroit working on Eminem's record" and I'm like "Woah, hold the phone!" Next thing you know, I'm on a bus on my way down to Detroit and I see him. And he's like well, especially any female artist, [you must] be determined to jump on a bus, like right now. And I'm like "Well, I want to talk business." It's better for me in person and as an artist. And he's like "OK, well, I'm going back to Arizona to my studio there. We'll go there. If we like you we'll take you to L.A. and we'll do it." So I went to Phoenix, this is almost three years ago. I threw down on "Warriors Tongue," when he played me the beat ― it was a beat for Nas ― and I was like at least let me demo something for you on that beat. He's like "Alright." Demoed something, he's like "OK, this girl can rap" and we went to L.A. [laughs].
So this is pretty good fortune for you, but you had to be willing to take the opportunity.
Willing to take the opportunity and also be putting out enough catalogue there in the world for people to see. If I had never made "The Return of the B-girl" or made that video that would catch the eye, then there would be no opportunity. It could be like 60 records later and finally 61 is the one that catches somebody you know, you never know.
I will be asking about some tracks that are on the album, but there's one that isn't and that was "Soldier" featuring Talib Kweli.
I didn't include some of them on the record, the one with Kweli and as well "Everybody Get Up" which has the Game and Pharrell on it. And that was because I didn't want to step on anyone's toes. If I knew I was going to make a bootleg record, a bootleg culture record and put everything out there, I had to be careful. Because my business ways may not be Kweli's business ways you know what I mean. So I was very careful for anything that I put on sale in the business model that I'm choosing to go on.
Because of the fact you were going to give it away?
Yeah and you don't want to piss off somebody ― I mean I guess you can give it away anyway but I'm not making any commerce from it. I'm not using it to my own personal benefit you know, for monetary gain.
Talking about songs that are on this album there are a number of songs that stand out. Out of the new ones I like "Number One."
Yeah. I just dropped number one. I think Graph Nobel [who appears on the album as Black Molly] is an amazing Canadian female star that had to go over Stateside [to] L.A. and be ghostwriting for all these American writers. It's too bad because the talent is incredible. I spent a lot of time with her and with Isis [formerly of Thunderheist] in L.A. and we were all writing for Americans.
It's interesting to see you all on one track 'cos I was thinking all three of you artists at one point were all based in Toronto.
And we were all in L.A.
I didn't realize you were all in L.A., but also the fact is you all started out strictly as MCs, but then you all expanded beyond that.
Yep, yep. As an artist you're eventually going to grow and I love hip-hop till I die but when you start exploring different things to do with your voice or different melodies you start branching out into different music it's just the nature of having experience on wanting to try new things.
What kind of common experiences did you share?
I think that for a very long time I didn't pay attention to a hook. Whereas I [used to be like] I'm an MC, I'm going to spit this hot nasty 16 [bar verse] for you and you're going to be blown away by my lyricism type of thing, right. And I mean there's definitely obstacles to that. Being a female Asian MC, people didn't really want to accept me as an MC for a long time. And now they do, I was like "Oh now you don't want to hear a dancehall track" because now she's an MC. You know what I mean? Always those obstacles of how you're supposed to look, or how your look is dictating your sound. That's definitely an obstacle all three of us have faced, but at the same time I realized that there are certain themes in the world. Love, missing somebody, struggles that everyone can relate to. But not everyone can necessarily relate to just a raw beat and someone screaming their frustration out, you know what I mean. So there are different ways of presenting these universal ideas. I think it was a gift to work with Graph and Isis and kind of see how they express it and for me to see the different ways I would want to try.
This was obviously before Isis moved to Germany, right?
Yes. We're getting together shortly to do a video for "Makeup," myself Graph and Isis.
That was definitely another song that stood out so that would be good to see.
That song "Makeup" was the one Interscope called me in on. They were like "We'd sign you but we want you to just make dance music." [laughs]
And your response was?
My response was I'll think about it.
The press release says you had a lot of major label interest for this album.
When I go to the drawing board and calculate the finances, I still do better as an independent. Whether or not it's more widespread or not, I would still do better as an independent in the situation right now.
In terms of your success, your audience around the world. How does that break down. I'm interviewing you for a Canadian magazine but I'm not sure if people are aware of the breadth of your success in different countries.
Well, I was able to get the videos for this album on Jamaican TV before it was able to get on Canadian TV. I was able to get it on Jamaican and like South East Asian MTV before I could get it on Canadian TV. Like I had requests for it at that time before even my home base so that already is an example. I mean look at the population of the world y'know, the music industry is not an isolated industry it's where the finances and where the business go in the world, there's a lot of movement that goes with it. So, right now there's a lot of movement in Southeast Asia. So, for me it's special, like kids in Singapore where they're like "You're just a kid from Singapore and hip hop wasn't from Singapore." It's very prevalent now. At the time I was coming up, I was eight years old, there was hardly any of it. So to these kids it means a lot, "Wow you're this girl from Singapore that actually did something in a country like Canada that's far away from us."
Are you viewed as being from Singapore in Singapore. I know you were born here in Canada.
I feel like my base is in Canada because Toronto raised me musically. I wasn't even an MC before I came to Toronto and there's definitely a patronage where these kids are looking at something that they thought was impossible to happen and it was impossible I think it was more the impact of that.
It's interesting that this album goes through so many countries and is so broad when you once had an album called Mississauga at one point.
Yep. This is the first record that isn't named after somewhere. 'Cos there was Mississauga. Pulau, the islands [near Singapore], "Montreal in the fall," so every record has been named after something. So now it's kind of the amalgamation of all my growth. So now it's like everywhere, every mix up thing. You notice if you look at the album very carefully when Megaupload was seized by the FBI or whatever or if any website is seized by the FBI. They're like this website is no longer blah, blah, blah, it's been seized by the FBI for copyright infringement or something like that and they'll put that thing there so I kind of like inspired it off of that logo and put my own name on there. Usually on the back of the record it usually says the copyright infringement of this is blah, blah, blah, prohibited. But I put on there the appropriation of this stuff is creatively encouraged.
Yes I did notice that. I also noticed the remix graphic, which is kind of a take off of the logo of RE/MAX .
I mean look at how many T-shirt companies are successful off people just completely remixing brand names and things like that.
You're taking a subversive approach here but are you ever swearing off ever aligning with a corporation for your music or does it have to be on your own terms?
No, it doesn't have to be on your own terms but I'm sure you know the music industry ask for your rights through the whole universe, meaning if they discover life on Mars then the Masia One bobblehead dolls on Mars are 15 percent theirs, or 50 percent theirs or whatever it is. For me, this a paranoid way of doing business in no other business industry would you swear on the likeness of someone on a different planet, do you know what I mean? It's not a good business deal. I'm into it with people who want to do business and make music grow and make things happen. But I think the way the music industry has been going is "mine, mine, mine, gimme mine" and it's really hurting something that is music and music is probably the most spiritual thing that brings people together. And yet it's been so badly polluted and so badly damaged, both in the content of the music and in the business of the music. So if independent is the way to go you do it until the next hustle makes sense.
And I also think because I was working with Che, y'know I was seeing Dr. Dre and he'd just be like "This is great, now dumb it down at least 50 percent," you know what I mean. I'm watching industry veterans and professionals that know what they're talking about 'cos there is a formula to everything. So this record represents my attempt at sounding more mainstream for myself. 'Cos I've definitely written mainstream songs for other artists that my face does not get associated with but this is definitely more my experiment with going mainstream, but the truth is I kept pulling back into myself saying some shit that might ruffle feathers but it means something to me as an artist you know. In this record I think you would see like more mainstream beats but trying to say conscious and politically aware things over beats that should sound like "bitch, bitch, booty, booty" like uh, know what I mean? [laughs]
Jamaica. I believe you were there recording there as well. What were you drawing on there?
I think for this particular record… I recorded everything in L.A. I went to Jamaica to do the Tuff Gong record. Like it's done, it's gonna be released next year. I mean, I take so long to release records, there are three ready to go. But the recording experience is amazing at Tuff Gong obviously. You grow up in Singapore, you listen to "No Woman, No Cry" and then you show up at Tuff Gong and you see Bob Marley's handwritten writing of the song on the piano that's still there y'know? It's incredible. The part where we did go back to Jamaica was that we filmed a couple of the videos there. We did "Alright, OK" in Jamaica and we did "Number One" in Jamaica. And "Alright OK" was, I used to teach in a place called Three Mile in Jamaica; we just went back there to a jam party and let the kids dance and jam 'cos this song was inspired by that whole Dudus Coke crunch. You know they wanted Dudus Coke and they wanted to extradite him, the U.S. wanted to extradite him and he's the big gangster in Jamaica, but in Jamaica he was a hero because he took that money and built schools and fixed the roads and built communities which the government wasn't doing for them. So the song "Alright OK" sounds like a happy pop song, but at the same time it's kind of saying like sometimes cops are robbers and robbers are cops. You know the bad guy they're trying to catch is the one building community centres, right? So it was like an experiment to try and mess around with making something sound pop but not making them fear it politically to play it on the radio. The kids in the video are kids that I taught. And that have grown up and that kind of thing and taking it in, Junior Reid was in the mix chilling in the video too. Just trying to show a bit more reality. Even the "Number One," video if you see female videos nowadays, they're all super polished, super airbrushed, super stylized. Nicki Minaj in a corset, with her hair did, nails are good, eyelashes are in. That video was just ragamuffin style no hair, no makeup, got up at four in the morning on a motorcycle and start filming with a bunch of friends. I'm just hoping it brings a little bit of balance. Against Nicki Minaj and that whole imagery that comes with the industry 'cos I know it's Hollywood and I know it's entertainment. But I think there's a lack of representation of different types of women in the industry. So for me if I can't wake up in the morning and do a video that was in my backyard of where I was living in Jamaica ….I'm just showing the waterfall, showing there's no stylist and I'm just wearing a man's shirt that says Jamaica. And at least maybe it can bring some balance to the visual, maybe people are tired of seeing over-polished. Maybe they want to see a waterfall.