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Music

Malaysian rap star Yogi B talks about Kollywood and releasing the first ever Tamil hip-hop song

He may be Malaysia’s biggest rap star, the man who released the first ever multilingual album and creator of the first Tamil hip-hop song, but Yogeswaran Veerasingam is down to earth and appreciative of his success

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 May, 2018, 9:16am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 May, 2018, 8:07pm

For a man famed as a Malaysian hip-hop pioneer who rubs shoulders with the leading lights of Kollywood – the Tamil film industry in South India – Yogeswaran Veerasingam is very down to earth.

In contrast to the designer labels and bling sported by many hip-hop artists, Yogi B dresses simply in T-shirts and baggy jeans, and always wears sandalwood paste and vermilion on his forehead, a common practice in Hinduism, so much so that it has become his signature style. 

The latest work from the artist better known as Yogi B is the rap track Surviva from the movie Vivegam starring South Indian actor Ajith Kumar – the song received three million views on YouTube within just five days of its release and. He is now working on a track for the upcoming movie Kaala featuring Indian superstar Rajinikanth.

His interest in spirituality and Hinduism led to his stage name – he once wanted to become a yogi. But how did he end up as a hip-hop artist?

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Yogi B believes it was fate that brought him into the entertainment industry, and his role as a pioneer of Tamil hip-hop in Malaysia started with the song Vallavan in 1998.

His interest in hip-hop started in the early 1990s when he was 14 years old. “The first time I heard hip-hop was during a camping trip at school. One of the scout leaders bought a boom box and he was playing songs by American rappers group Run-DMC. I was instantly attracted to it and it piqued my interest to explore more.”

Rap music was very new to Malaysia at the time and new music was usually introduced over the radio, as MTV hadn’t arrived in the country.

“I was lucky that I studied at a school that had affluent kids who had access to hip-hop music and I got hooked on it,” says Yogi B, whose favourite international artists include Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and The Beatles.

He then started to  write lyrics and practise rapping. In 1992, he won the first rap competition in Malaysia. He then formed the group Poetic Ammunition with a school friend, MC Ena, and the duo 

released their first single PMO.

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When MC Ena left the outfit in 1995, Yogi B changed the name to Poetic Ammo, and brought in three talented rappers, Nicholas Ong (aka Point Blanc), Chandrakumar Balakrishnan (Land Slyde) and his brother Sashi Kumar (C. Loco).

Poetic Ammo became Malaysia’s top hip-hop outfit and earned a loyal following with their fiery live shows around Malaysia. Their music revolutionised the Malaysian music scene in the 1990s.

Their debut album from 1997, It’s A Nice Day To Be Alive, was critically acclaimed and a commercial success. “That was a very special album for us because we tried to strike a chord with Malaysians by releasing tracks in Malay, English, Cantonese and Tamil.”  It was the first multilingual album in Malaysia and it has the first Tamil rap song in the world, Vallavan, which gained me recognition as the world’s first Tamil hip hop artist,” he explains.

One long-term Malaysian fan, Haider Yutim, says he was obsessed with the group in the 1990s.

“I was totally amazed by their level of music at that time … it was world class. Yogi B was and still is a great rapper and singer. I have much respect for him – he can be considered one of the greatest rappers in Asia,” he says.

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The album went on to win the award for best English album at the Anugerah Industri Musik (AIM) awards in 1999, while Yogi B was named the best new English artist. 

Poetic Ammo’s success continued with their second album from 2000, The World is Yours, while their fan base spread to neighbouring countries such as Indonesia. 

After the release of their third album from 2003, Return of Tha’ Boombox, Poetic Ammo called it a day, but Yogi B has continued making waves in the music industry.

In 2006, he collaborated with the duo Natchatra – rappers Dr Burn and Emcee Jesz – on the album Vallavan, which brought Tamil hip-hop to an international audience and brought them success in India.

It was this breakthrough that led them to careers in Kollywood, and they first appeared on screen when they performed the song Happy New Year in the 2008 Tamil film Kuruvi. Yogi B’s talent and dedication was noticed and he got his big film break when he was asked to  rap in the A.R. Rahman song Boom Boom Boom Robo Da from the 2010 movie Enthiran.

Yogi B realises that he has been fortunate and has advice for local aspiring artists still waiting for their big break: “You have to determine whether you are in it for passion or a career. If it’s passion, just practise at your own pace without meeting anyone’s expectations. If it’s a career, you have to look at it as a business and understand the landscape of the industry and the market. But most importantly, never give up,” he says.