There’s no doubt that hip-hop has been a dominant cultural force in recent years. While a genre celebrated for decades around the world, its assertive presence on the public airwaves has been a fairly recent phenomenon in Singapore.
For the formative years of Yung Raja, somewhere in the late-2000s, hip-hop opened up new worlds for him. And he was compelled to dig deeper on his own.
Now an emerging face in Singaporean rap, skillfully mixing club-ready hooks with an ear for low frequencies, Yung Raja is cultivating his own path owed to years of studying the greats.
While music geeks would spend hours on music blogs unearthing obscurities, Yung Raja dug into the then-popular sounds that populated the iTunes hip-hop charts, which allowed him insight into the cultural power the genre held in the rest of the world.
Fast forward to 2021 and he’s promoting his newest single ‘MAMI’, his first under US label Alamo Records. Yung Raja spent time talking with us about the 10 tracks that have shaped him.
He begins the list enthusing about the formative songs that clinched his love for the genre, but down the line, his love for the greats take different forms — from their work ethic, to their choice of producers, to the powerful moves they make culturally.
The full episode of 10 Tracks provides greater insight into Yung Raja’s own personal journey, but read the list below for a glimpse into the hip-hop blueprint that has guided the rapper all these years.
I was 13 at the time and my dad got me my first iPod. I didn’t know who Lil Wayne was and Tha Carter III had just come out. ‘A Milli’ was on the Top 10 iTunes chart so I bought it. When the bass hit, a part of my soul just left — like, “What was that?”
It was a song I looped on my way to school and back home. I listened to it about a thousand times. It was one of the first few times I fell in love with the “sound” — the drums, the subs, the 808s. Lil Wayne was, at the time, somebody who showed me what the world had to offer in 2009.
The first song by him I discovered was ‘Whatever You Like’. It was everywhere, it was even the number one video on YouTube at the time. I got hooked on that song.
I dug a little deeper, and I found he had a song with Lil Wayne. I listened to ‘Swagga Like Us’ and that was the first time I knew what sampling was — with the M.I.A. sample (‘Paper Planes’).
It was just, like, “Wow, this is so cool!” This became the next song I kept looping on my way to school. That was the beginning of me understanding the other huge figures in the game at the young stage in my life.
My parents have always been obsessed with A.R. Rahman. The South Indian entertainment space has had many greats, A.R. being one of them — especially as a musical prodigy. There isn’t another A.R. Rahman. He’s made so many evergreen songs since the 1990s.
In my household, one of the biggest South Indian influences for me was A.R. Rahman. At a much later stage in my life, I realized I’m now at a place where I can connect with other musicians. I connected with Sri Sriram, who’s also another trailblazer in the South Indian music space, and he’s worked with A.R. Rahman.
I went to India and met Sriram and he told me to come through to the studio. Once our schedules were aligned, and we were kicking it, he played the original demo of ‘Thalli Pogathey’, the original demo that A.R. Rahman sent him to work with. I was just blown to smithereens. It was so crazy.
A.R. Rahman basically freestyled the entire song — every chord and vocal melody, not one part of it was changed from the demo sent to Sriram. I was already a fan of the song, but to now understand the backstory of it, there’s not a song I would rank above it. I got to take a sneak peek into how it was made, so it’s cemented as one of my favourite songs.
My brother-in-law gifted me a $50 Amazon gift card, which I bought a bunch of CDs with. Curtis was one of them. I saw the music video for ‘Ayo Technology’ and it had a sound that I was not previously exposed to. This was when I had a liking to heavy production.
I wasn’t able to verbalize these thoughts then but I was attracted to the production side of things. The word is kilat, bro. 50 Cent’s sound was so kilat, and I fell in love with it. From that moment in time, I wasn’t just looking for the artist, but I was looking at Timbaland and what he was putting out.
I bought Nelly Furtado’s album [2006’s Loose] because he produced it. That kind of direction only came for me after listening to a production-heavy song like ‘Ayo’. I’m pretty sure that was the tipping point for me.
By the time I was 16 or 17, I had thought to myself “I know everything about rap there is.” Someone told me about Biggie and Tupac and I asked “Who’s that?” That person said “How could you be a fan of hip-hop without knowing these guys?”
I went home and did my research. I went pretty in-depth when it came to Biggie and Pac and all the other artists who were around them at the time. That trickled down into learning more about that music period in the 1990s, so it includes Michael Jackson, Prince, and whoever was making the dopest music at the time.
At a later stage, I went deep into Biggie’s music, and I was drawn way more to Biggie’s music than Pac. I was trying to understand it over the years, but now I finally get it — he had a sauce and a groove that nobody else could copy. He had a way to flow over beats that was very inimitable.
It was a style he had that took the world by storm. Biggie could claim a spot next to Pac as the king of New York. He claimed his lane like no one else did, and I was very inspired by that.
It wasn’t the most pleasant time for me in secondary school. I was constantly trying to fit in, and it wasn’t pretty, man. Hip-hop was instrumental in making me feel empowered and dope inside.
It was something that I constantly had as a pillar of strength. It was that one thing that made me feel strong, so I relied on hip-hop for that strength. I’ve never come across a personality in the hip-hop space that was so bold as Kanye.
‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’ was the record I heard from Kanye that made such a big impression — that boldness was a source of strength for me at that time.
I would say that Drake is the GOAT because of what he’s achieved with his day ones over the last 10 years. It’s not even debatable at this point. It’s just a consistent display of greatness. That’s just how I view it.
He’s someone who reps his hometown, his team, celebrates his life, his people, and the different parts of life he goes through in each album. The way he tells stories is what I’m working towards.
Tha Blue Carpet Treatment was one of the other albums I bought with that Amazon gift card. ‘Vato’ is a very funny song, because if you listen to it, he uses the hook as somebody else talking to him, while he’s sharing a story from a Spanish dude he calls Vato.
The hook is what Vato is telling Snoop Dogg. Conceptually, it’s mad, and the song is a banger. Snoop Dogg’s sauciness is inspiring. ‘Vato’ is a song that is hard, and it has a creative storytelling element to it. It has his stamp, his sound on it.
Yung Raja’s ‘MAMI’ is now available to stream on digital platforms. Thank you to Universal Music Singapore for arranging this interview.