Musically famous: ShiGGa Shay, humble Lion City Kia, is going global

He opens up about losing his father to cancer, and gives us a hint of the next big thing he's been working on.

By Jeanette Tan | December 3, 2017

In early 2009, there was a TV show on Channel 5 called “Live N Loaded”.

And on its second episode, a 17-year-old rapper named Pek Jin Shen appeared on the show — explosive, in-your-face, and criticised to be trying too hard to sound American, he was snubbed as “cocky” and roundly dismissed by critics.

Screenshot from “Everybody” music video

Three years and a mixtape later, the boy, whose stage name came quite strangely from a contest registration aunty in a dream he had, dropped his first extended play record (EP). And interestingly, despite a persistent New York City accent, its song production value, songwriting, and even some emotional depth for a song he wrote that was inspired by his father, won praise for the young, fledgling artiste.

And he kept at it, against the odds, naysayers and an unforgiving audience of listeners more interested in music coming out of America, until today, you can’t think of rapping in Singapore without ShiGGa Shay being the first name that comes to mind.

In fact, chances are you would recognise his stage name over his real one — a testament, if that ever was needed, to his success thus far.

Hyper-local hits

Photo via ShiGGa Shay’s Facebook page

Now 25, Pek has pretty much spent the last four years carving out a uniquely local, slightly self-effacing image and niche — on one hand, he projects the standard aloof, brooding rapper persona, but on the other, he always reminds us of that different side of him through an element of ridiculousness or pompous exaggeration — with a touch of humour, of course — in his videos (which he edits on his own, by the way).

Take “LimPeh”, released in 2013, for instance — his first collaboration with Ah Boys To Men stars Tosh Zhang and Wang Wei Liang, who eventually joined his Grizzle Grind Crew — which features Pek smoking a bubble-blower and scenes of a supposed gang confrontation descending into a slow-motion nipple-squeezing, ear-pulling match.

Or “Lion City Kia”, which like “LimPeh” will inevitably alienate non-Singaporeans as much as it would solidly resonate with every citizen — interspersing various local celebrities and kids decked in streetwear with Hokkien, Malay and Tamil rap sequences, and even shot in the soon-to-be-demolished Dakota Crescent estate.

But what’s coming down the pike, an album he is hoping will drop by the end of this year — he hasn’t released anything in the past two years, he admits — will be completely different from the fun local stuff, and even his previous, not as prominent work.

He has been working very hard, though — he says he’s written and produced between 80 and 90 songs, which he will whittle down into what we hope will be something epic, and also very different.

“I’m not going to put out something just because I need to put out something. It’s more like I really want it to have an impact in terms of the message of the song and like how people can relate to the song. I’m looking for stuff like that more than anything else…

None of the major rappers sound the same because everybody needs to have their own style. You don’t hear like Kendrick sounding like Drake or Jay-z sounding like Nas. Or Tu-pac sounding like Biggie. Everybody had a very distinct difference.”

When we chatted about this earlier in the year, and also recently, Pek and his management kept pretty tight-lipped about this project, so we’ll just have to wait and see what comes.

Going global

It’s been quite a journey for Pek, who is now at the point where he does large-scale gigs on a pretty regular basis and is frequently seen in public campaigns and national-level events.

Thank you Swee Choon for this private dining experience!!!! #SweeChoon

A post shared by ShiGGa Shay (@shiggashay) on

He’s long been a pal of former U.S. Ambassador to Singapore Kirk Wagar, who last year flew him and Tabitha Nauser to Washington DC. There, at the State Dinner after-party, he performed for former American president Barack Obama, his vice Joe Biden and of course, PM Lee, Ho Ching and the ministers with them, at the White House:

And naturally, he got his airtime with our PM:

Real talk

A post shared by ShiGGa Shay (@shiggashay) on

His time there wasn’t solely for this, by the way — thanks to his bud Wagar, he was also introduced to Randy Jackson, and his son Jordan, whom he’s let on he is working very closely with on his upcoming material:

make it happen

A post shared by ShiGGa Shay (@shiggashay) on

And in the months that followed, through this year, he’s been flying around and doing one of the things he was noticed for five years ago — collaborating and networking in and around the scene, here and more importantly, globally.

Meanwhile, we met up with him during a period he spent back home at a house-turned-creative hosting space somewhere in MacPherson, a promising venue owned by a longtime friend and industry collaborator and supporter of his.

Despite his multiple milestones and achievements to this point, Pek struggles to articulate his take on how things have changed for him as an artist — at first, he jokes, “I’ve got a beard now”.

“I guess like when you first started doing it as a hobby, as a passion, it was honestly just you wanted to be cool, you wanted to get it with the ladies, you know? … and then like as you grow and as your passion grows, you kind of have different focuses in life. Cause, like, different things make you happy as you grow. And it’s the same thing with music. That’s what happened, that’s the biggest change I feel. The way I see things, or the things that make me happy.”

And what makes him happy?

“Just the satisfaction of, like, making the change and doing something different. Creating something that is of value to the world.”

Maturity and his parents

It was interesting how the maturity question inspired him to talk about his parents — in particular, the year his father succumbed to cancer — it was right after he appeared in Live N Loaded — and how as the only child, it forced him to grow up, perhaps a little before his time.

“It went from like, okay, taking things for granted, to kind of like, life is in front of you right now and it’s either I do it now or… you know. So it kinda put me in a different mental state, different kind of drive and different kind of purpose already.”

His father, a senior flight supervisor (in layman terms, a super zai air steward) with Singapore Airlines, was diagnosed with cancer and fought it for a year before he passed away aged 58. As with any of us who have loved ones who lost their lives to cancer, Pek didn’t see his dad’s death coming.

“It was like … If it’s like my grandparents or something then you kind of expect it from, like, old age. But my dad wasn’t that old. He was 58. So you just never would’ve thought that it would actually happen… It was like the type of shit you see on TV or you only hear about.”

But it made him draw a lot closer to his mother, who still works as a sales manager at a store here.

“Everything I do, I keep my mum in mind. Basically from work to the decisions I make. She wouldn’t tell me what to do… (but) she’s basically supportive of every decision I make but with every decision that I make, I feel like I have the responsibility (to ensure) her happiness.”

He also says he wrote a lot of songs for his late father — one of them in particular, “Everybody”, involves a sampling of his voice, as well as sequences of the two of them (him as a young boy) in the music video — from the 2:45 mark onwards:

“Basically, music is an output. So when I put it in my songs, I put it in my music, I feel like… there’s less burden.

You don’t think so much about things. You still get to share your story with the world, and hopefully people can relate to the songs. And that… feeling is irreplaceable to me.”

2 biggest lessons

Of course, we had to ask Pek what he’s learned thus far in this journey — he said there were many, but named chiefly two:

  1. Always be humble, and
  2. Never chase money.

Humility, to him, is “never ever putting yourself above people”, while on money, he shares the same advice many in this business do: the motivation must be love and passion for music, not for wealth — the cashflow will follow.

He also finds great joy in performing for his fans — in his humble way, he refers to them as “people who listen to my music” — and says he will always go back to events like the annual SHINE Festival and Youth Month to perform.

“I think it’s very important to have that connection because every time I perform my songs for them, and then I see how they react to certain songs, or if I were to drop a certain song, their reactions are priceless… and that feeling that you get when you’re performing, just having that connection with the fans, is just crazy man.”

But possibly the thing that struck us most was how global his thinking has become. Even though some of his biggest hits are hyper-local songs, it’s clear Pek is determined to break into the international music scene and make his mark for Singapore, in the world.

“Where I wanna be is I wanna put Singapore’s name on the world map. That’s my only goal.

But where I stand, I’m just a rapper from Singapore, just reflecting the state of society through my music.”

Top photo by Chiew Teng

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About Jeanette Tan

Jeanette takes pride in her ability to sing the complete lyrics to Hakuna Matata and a host of other Disney songs. She holds out hope to someday be talent-spotted to do voice-overs for documentaries, lifts and automated telephone answering systems.

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