Sabahan rapper Decipher, aka Chris Pereira, is originally from Labuan. He came to KK in 2000 to take up a job in audio engineering. In 2004, he joined Roger Wang’s RAM studios, and entered a life working with music.
Chris spoke with me at his iMotion Production studio in Penampang, Kota Kinabalu, describing what rapping means for him, and a bit about his EP work with WordsManifest.
I’ve already posted a video interview, but here’s a fuller write up of our afternoon chat.
DECIPHER. “In the thesaurus, it says: The ability to translate hidden messages, deeper meanings, something like that. And my lyrics back then were very metaphoric.”
Working at RAM exposed Chris to new possibilities of working with music. “Definitely, because working with RAM you are always working with the top people: Simon from Labuan the bassist, people from KL, so you are always exposed to different ideas about what you can do with music.”
So why does Decipher choose rap to convey his messages?
“For me, it’s the poetic expression of it, where you’re not just limited to the melody line, but it’s very expressive. You don’t have to sugar coat everything. Like in normal song lyrics, they are very – not straightforward but very sweet. Even if it’s a sad song, it still sounds sweet. With rap, you can sound angry, you can sound depressed, you can go into metaphors, you can go as deep as you want. It’s poetic for me.
“I started listening to rap in like 92, the mid 90s, that was what rap was all about, it was always about the lyrics. The lyrics were first, then the music came second. So now, it’s kind of like the other way round: the music first, and the lyrics are like, ‘if it’s important okay, if not – it’s also okay.’
Decipher didn’t start rapping until he got to college, and his first rap in public? “It was bad! It was a Black Union party, Kinabalu Kings were on stage. So I joined them for one verse. This is in KK, in 99-2000 I think. It was in Star Hotel, Tanjung Aru, the crowd was 1000 plus, and I CHOKED! I had one line, and I choked! You can hear the crowd…’Boo….’ Took me a couple of months to get the need to perform again.
“Nowadays, my current writing is about not giving up on yourself. No matter how long it takes to get where you wanna be, don’t give up your dream. It took me four years to work in a studio (working with music) after college. FOUR YEARS of working in nothing to do with music! So once that happened, everything else just kind of fell into place. So it’s like, how long do you dream? You need like a dream to live your life. You need that goal to look for.
“Hip hop wise, I’m working with this rapper from KL called WordsManifest. He’s from the group called The Rebel Scums. They came out in the late 90s and they’re still around for now. How we met was we went online to YM a friend of ours, a photographer.”
Decipher gradually got to know WordsManifest online. “We went through talking about photography, to me realising he’s from The Rebel Scums, to telling him I’m a fan. We started talking randomly, and found out that we both have common interests, like Transformers, and we’re both are mad about Star Wars! We went from there to saying: Hey, let’s do a 6 track EP for fun, and see how we can gel together. So we did one track together, the chemistry was there, writing-wise and flowing-wise, and things just kicked off. And yeah! I’m working with a KL rapper, after what – eight years?
Chemistry is important to Decipher. “You have to be comfortable with each other. You know, you have to be able to click with him, understand where he is going with his lyrics, and be comfortable with each other’s style. Like, you may be a good rapper, but if I’m not comfortable with you, it’s kinda hard to work on a song together, because it will be going in different directions, and the vibe on the track won’t be right. It’s the same with a band, you may have the best drummer, the best bassist, the best guitarist, but if the vibe is not there between the three of them, they won’t sound like a complete band. They will just sound like three people getting together and making a song.”
Decipher and WordsManifest cover a variety of topics on the EP. “We have a track called Nightmares, which talks about you living your worst nightmare in the daytime, basically. It’s like your worst thought possible happen there and then. We talk about the instinct to survive. The story I tell is basically about us as rappers: about our rhymes, our verses, our stories. How we can take from it and grow from it, take from it and leave it, or whatever. Another song talks about the golden days of hip hop, the mid 90s and everything, we want to compare the difference between then and now.”
Here is the familiar tune of money dictating the art. “The change in the music is a very debatable topic. For me it’s because the bigger industry, the bigger labels that have the power to sign cheques, realised the power of hip hop in the late 90s. Then they marketed it in such a way that it went from being lyrically important, to being something which you play in the clubs, that you dance with. The music takes over and all you worry about is the music, you hear the drum beat, you think, Yeah that’s it, and the lyrics are secondary to what they used to be.
“So we want to bring it back to the beginning, where the lyrics and the beat match, but the lyrics are the ones that outshines the beat.”
“There’s always a group that wants to make the money and say: Hey, I don’t care what people say about me, I want to be popular, make a song that is catchy, and get on the radio. All good for them, if that’s what you want. But a few of us are like, very lyric conscious, so we try and go inbetween a bit – what we call ‘dumb it down’, so that it’s more appealing to the commercial people, but still at the same time main integrity. So when you listen to it, you wanna rewind and listen back to that phrase again, and be like: WHAT did he say???
Internet makes publicity for artists easier. “With the availability of blogs, online streaming and all that, it’s much more easy to put your songs out. It’s just worrying about copyright. So our release, when we do release it, won’t be a very big bang. We will make it official in the hip-hop circle, we will do it all on our own: release it on blogs, do shows, all that basic old school stuff, and hopefully let it carry on, on its own.”
Decipher says there is still passion about rapping in KK, but opportunity to perform is scarce. “I still keep in touch with a few rappers in KK who are still in it for the passion. AUR, Russell from Soul Chamber, Soul Chamber themselves, Rap Soul, definitely Kinabalu Kings and a few other local guys.
“In KL, there are weekly and monthly events to do things. I guess in KK it’s our own fault. We could do these events, if we wanted do. It’s just a case of getting up off our asses and doing it.”
Being a recently married man, Chris Pereira is thinking laterally. “Being married makes you think out of the box. Not just recording, but what else can I do that’s still tied into the music industry. So hopefully next year, those things will happen. I won’t anything now, don’t wanna jinx it!
“Also, the thought of going to KL and spending time in KL has kinda lessened a bit now, so I’m doing a lot of planning with WordsManifest online, but we both agreed on recording the final product together in one studio. At the end of the day, I’ll still go to KL, do the voicings there and everything.
“I’m still running a recording studio called iMotion Productions, and working with a lot of bands, which is good for me. Mostly KK-based. Hip hop-wise it’s mostly KL people, rock bands are local guys. They actually spend time working the tracks with me, going through the mixing process, it’s good, lah. It’s finally reached the point where they are willing to sit down, listen, spend time and money on getting the right sound and right product out.
Chris says studio work is educational. “Every new band which comes, I learn something from them which I wish I knew before. It’s a real learning process.”
The last time I spoke with Decipher, he talked about what he saw as lack of local support for Sabahan artists. So is it different in KL? “I was asking the boys over there, they said it’s similar for them. Just because you’re in KL doesn’t mean you get recognition. So some of them work with Filipino rappers or Indonesian artists. Or people from Japan. Then they get the recognition in KL.
“It always seems like, when we see something comes from somewhere else, we think it’s better than if it’s coming from here. I work with a Korean producer called Josh Kim. His story on how the Korean pop culture is, they have the passion to support their own people more than outside pop artists. So, if you have a Korean singer with a pop album out, alongside a Britney Spears album, they’ll pick up the Korean pop artist more than they would Britney Spears. I don’t think that goes on in Malaysia yet. When was the last time you picked up a local album?” Decipher ponders this. “I wonder why. Not because everything sounds the same, but not enough variety maybe?” He shrugs. “I don’t know.”
“There are a lot of technically good musicians in KK. So it’s like this: I have a band, I have an EP, I have an album. And then what?”
It isn’t easy to make money, with people sharing mp3s and getting free downloads. “You make money from shows, performances. That’s the best way to make money. Performances and caller ring tones (smiles). That’s a big, big market there.
“But if you like a band enough, and you are passionate about their music, you will still go to the shop and still buy the CD anyway. Because I still like holding it my hand, reading the inlays, having the actual CD. Downloading it’s just not the same. That’s my take on it.”
The EP work with WordsManifest is not particularly Malaysian. “The feelings and emotions are universal. We are not looking to regionalise it, or make it a Malaysian-based thing. Also, on this one the lyrics are in English.
“We are going as a group, two of us, so we have the initials ‘C.O.M.’ That stands for ‘Cranky Old Men.’ We get called that so much, it’s kinda stuck with us! It should be out soon, we will be releasing something online by January, some online releases, free downloads and everything. Like maybe 2-3 minute tracks, before the official EP comes out.”
Chris Pereira is committed to working with music. “What would I ultimately want to achieve? I’m still looking for that. I sometimes think I have the answer, but it keeps on changing the more I progress. I think I would love to be that person in Sabah that people come to, to MIX.
“I mean like Andy Wallace, this guy in the U.S., he mixed Nirvana’s ‘Never Mind’ album, he mixed Linkin Park, he mixed Rage Against The Machine, he worked with Sheryl Crowe and got a Grammy for that. I want be like that person, where you can record any way you want to record, just come to me to mix, and I’ll make it sound fantastic.
“Oh – and I would like my own shoe from Nike – a DECIPHER shoe, please.” Decipher, aka Chris Pereira.