'16 Baris' Is a YouTube Cypher Show That's Reviving Malaysian Hip-Hop

We talked to Joe Flizzow, the legendary Malaysian rapper behind the successful YouTube series.

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25 April 2018, 11:15am

Photo via Instagram

The traffic jam stretched for hundreds of meters from Publika, a hip shopping center in Kuala Lumpur. Lines of cars slowly snaked toward the shopping mall while bands of mostly Malay youths skirted by them on motorcycles and on foot to make their way in. It was an unusual sight. Sure, Publika is a popular hangout spot, but this was more packed than I had ever seen it before, even a Saturday night.

Soon, it became clear that all the action was at The Bee, an informal live music venue inside the mall. Outside, hundreds of teenagers and 20-somethings waited expectantly. The venue was already filled to its capacity of 500 people, but the crowds were undeterred. “Buka! Buka!” they yelled, pumping fists and phones. “Fuck polis!

“No one expected that,” said Joe Flizzow, the day after the first live showcase of his YouTube cypher show 16 Baris, more than a week ago. “In the end, I had five security people holding on to that door. We had to call the police. We had to shut down early. I’m truly sorry for the fans who didn’t manage to see the show.”

Disappointed hip-hop enthusiasts waited outside The Bee until the end of the show, still hoping to get in. Photo by author

Hosted by Joe, 16 Baris debuted exclusively on YouTube in December last year as a collaboration between Rocketfuel Entertainment and his own Kartel Records. Over 15 weekly episodes, it featured 45 hip-hop acts from Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia freestyling behind closed doors in the modish interiors of Joe’s Barbershop. Everything in the show is a testament to Joe's taste. The barbershop is in Subang Jaya, a neighborhood in the Malaysian state of Selangor where he grew up. The show features familiar names like Altimet, Alif, and Sonaone. But it also is a showcase for newcomers like Fariz Jabba and Yung Raja, two rappers who were handpicked by Joe from the hundreds of aspiring artists who submitted their skills over social media via the hashtag #16Baris.

“These days, all you have to do is pick up your phone and rap into it," Joe told me. "You don’t even need music, you can rap a capella. Like, Lil J from Subang Jaya, he was rapping in his car and his friend recorded a video and submitted it for him. So you can imagine, when I DM-ed him, he was like, What?!

Joe emphasized that the show’s modest but growing popularity has been entirely by internet word-of-mouth.

“We never wanted 16 Baris to go on TV because I never wanted to restrict what the kids could say," he said. "On YouTube, we went from 0 to 40,000 subscribers in 15 weeks, without sponsors, without ads, without boosted posts. People came together through the comments. It was all organic. And there was no payment for no rappers, because I wanted them to want to be on the show. We’re a platform, you know? I’m not making any money off this.”

16 Baris is Joe's latest evolution in an admirable career spanning two decades. Joe got his start in 1998 as part of a groundbreaking duo Too Phat, which went on to record five albums and paved the way for Malaysian hip-hop hopefuls.

In 2008, Joe went solo, producing two albums, President (2008) and Havoc (2013). He’s won multiple industry awards and gained recognition as Malaysia's so-called President of Hip-Hop. He’s proud of his audacious feats at live shows too, like driving a Maserati onto the stage.

Aside from being “nice on the mic,” as Joe put it, he’s also always had an eye on the bigger picture. In 2005, he founded Kartel Records, a music label that has since branched out into talent management, as well as lifestyle products and services like Joe’s Barbershop, which now has 11 branches around Malaysia (and one in Singapore), and its complementary line of men’s grooming products. “Hip-hop is about everything: music, fashion, art, culture. It’s a tool for self-expression," he said. "It’s everything a kid needs."

He’s also got an upcoming line of clothing called Baek—reflective, perhaps, of an attitude encapsulated in his latest single “Sampai Jadi,” which talks about working at it until you make it. But despite all his talk about rapper’s inherent braggadocio, Joe puts a lot of stock in the idea of being good. “In ‘Sampai Jadi’, there’s one line when I say, like, ' jumpa orang lama lutut bengkok badan bongkok.' It’s something so Asian, right?”

Joe Fizzlow at the live showcase of 16 Baris in April 14. Photo by author

Joe knows full well who he is to the Malaysian hip-hop scene. “At the end of the day, when anyone talks about Joe Flizzow, they think, 'Oh he’s on top of things in Malaysia'," he said. "That’s always the introduction I get, and It’s important that I never lose ground here. At the same time, we want to build connections, both regionally and, hopefully, internationally."

That’s where 16 Baris comes in. Joe sees the show, first and foremost, as a way to unite the hip-hop scene in Malaysia and its regional neighbors.

“It’s not really a competition," he said. "We make everyone look good. For me, it’s been a blessing to connect with these rappers."

However, unlike the first season of the show, he’s looking for sponsors for the second, and hopes to fly-in some of his favorite MCs from further abroad. “Lupe Fiasco has announced to the world that he’ll be part of season two of 16 Baris," Joe said. "That’s insane."

Newcomers from Singapore like Fariz Jabba and Yung Raja—real names Fariz Rashid and Rajid Ahamed, respectively—are proof that 16 Baris can uncover new local and regional talent, who can rap in English as fluently as they can in their ethnic tongue, Joe explained.

“The number of people who knew me and Fariz literally skyrocketed after 16 Baris," Rajid said. "With it, Joe Flizzow stamped us as certified actual rappers, not just amateur Twitter rappers."

Fariz and Rajid had a surprisingly enthusiastic reception at The Bee, considering they’ve only been around for a few months and haven’t officially released their first singles yet. Both in their early twenties, the two best friends first met on a movie set four years ago while auditioning for their respective Malay and Indian minority roles. They later discovered a mutual love of hip-hop. And while they don’t perform as a duo, they enjoy a camaraderie that plays off especially well on social media, which may explain part of their popularity.

16 Baris basically changed my life,” Fariz said. “I grew up with Too Phat, so I look up to Joe like crazy. He’s like a superhero to me. The way the crowd reacted to us was insane. I was so grateful I kept touching the floor afterwards, because I felt sky-high and I didn’t want to get lost.”

Seeing the hundreds of people who showed up to the first live showcase of 16 Baris, it's clear how strongly it speaks to the youth in Malaysia.

“With 16 Baris, we’ve woken a sleeping giant,” Joe said. “I mean, hip-hop never left, but it had plateaued a bit in the local scene. There was nothing new stirring things up. Now, there’s 16 Baris.”

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