Those of you who follow the rap scene might have found an interesting entry on the international Sound Click charts in recent weeks. Coming in at number 70 world-wide, with Almost There, is Kid Crisis.
So what, you might say. Ah, but this would be before I reveal that Kid Crisis is no-one other than local teen Julian Gatt, a fifteen-year-old who might put other, older musicians to shame thanks to the commitment and the passion he shows for his music. I am immediately intrigued; while rap is extremely big with Maltese teens, this is the first time that I’ve actually heard of a teenager trying to break into the scene with his own work. Come to think of it, homegrown rappers aren’t exactly thick on the ground in Malta either.
“In a way the whole thing started thanks to 50 Cents’ In Da Club. This was back in 2003; my elder brother was already heavily into hip-hop. I remember we were riding in the family car and the song came on the radio. Naturally my brother pushed up the volume to the max. The song caught my attention and I became intrigued with the way an artiste combines story-telling and music in rap,” Julian tells me.
And so, Kid Crisis was born. He picked this stage name, he tells me after going through various others. His original choice was X-Dect – the explanation behind this is rather witty: Dec is the brand name of a particular cordless phone. A cordless phone is an efficient way to communicate with someone, which for Julian seemed exactly what he was trying to achieve with his music. The X was thrown in because “X marks the spot and it’s where I want to hit”. Sometime later, Julian decided he had outgrown this stage-name and Razor XD was born: razor because of the sharp metaphors and rhyming schemes and XD as the universal symbol for a smiley because hey, it can’t be just about being tough and mean now, can it?
“It was only this year that I finally settled on Kid Crisis. I felt that it fit just right. I’m fifteen years old and through my music I want to represent the voice of people my age. Hence, the ‘Kid’ part. The ‘Crisis’ part refers to what I feel is the lack of buzz in the local and even the global hip-hop scene. You get the same concepts, lyrics and ideas repeated in different songs by different artistes. I want to counteract that as Kid Crisis,” he explains.
In short, it all goes back to the wish to a change brought about by the voice of youth – very apt. Julian’s style has been influenced by the rap classics such as Eminem. Eminem’s 2000 release, The Marshall Mathers LP, was to influence Julian’s approach greatly.
“When younger I really identified with the lyrics in songs like The Real Slim Shady, for instance. The song had a humorous side which really appealed to me. But the CD also tackled other, more serious topics. Take the song The Way I am, it’s all about how we can’t change an individual to suit our own purposes. And that’s what rap is really all about I guess.”
I confess to being slightly surprised that Julian got into rapping, which is a scene usually associated with older teens, at such a young age. He smiles ruefully.
“I’ll be honest, I didn’t always understand all the lyrics. Some of them went over my head. But they still struck a chord.”
I point out that rap hardly enjoys a wholesome reputation. Of course, the music industry in general doesn’t enjoy a wholesome reputation, otherwise it wouldn’t be very rock’n’roll would it? But rap is maybe the worst offender of the lot, with a reputation for violent lyrics, the glorification of gang wars and sexual exploitation. How true is this image?
“Well if you’re talking Gangsta Rap then obviously it’s violent and aggressive. But that’s just a sub-genre within the style. Rap itself is not about the aggression. First of all, there are various sub-genres, including Christian Rap – which can hardly be described as violent! There’s Nerdcore, there’s Electro-Hop, so many genres to choose from. It would be unfair to limit it to the image that one particular sub-genre is known for,” he says.
So what is rap all about, if not the aggression? Julian replies that at the heart of rap is the art of telling a story and letting out your feelings.
“I guess that if your feelings are mostly characterised by aggression, your song will turn out aggressive. But this applies to any genre really, not just rap.”
The lyrics, he continues, are the very soul of rap. The importance that the genre gives to these are what attracted him to it in the first place. A beat with no words, he tells me, isn’t really rap. But a series of rapped words without a music beats are still a rap song. Obviously I can’t help wondering what his family makes of all this. Refreshingly, despite his young age they have always backed him up and encouraged him to develop this talent.
“Ever since I was six years old I’ve been writing and showing my family the results. It was just something I did to pass the time, until I showed it to my late uncle. I remember I had just written a very long poem and I picked this to read out to him, unconsciously adding a rap rhythm to it. He was very encouraging.”
Nowadays Julian says that he gets his inspiration for his rap from “life itself”.
“Inspiration is life. If I do not know what to write, I go out and I experience something. My rap talks about experiences and feelings. Although lately I’m also trying to take a different angle and even dabble into commenting about current events that are happening internationally. That’s the beauty of rap, you can use it to comment about anything.”
Rap isn’t for everyone, by which I mean that not everyone gets it. And what people don’t get, they tend to bash and criticise. Is this the case in Julian’s experience. He admits that sometimes it does feel that way and that he is always being criticised for his music.
“I’ve shown my works to various crowds and I have received mixed reactions. Some say it is too harsh. Others say the opposite, that it’s too weak. Others have said that I don’t have enough fun on a track, that I should loosen up a bit. Constructive criticism is actually very helpful and I will accept it, as long as the person is being direct about it. After all I can use what you say you didn’t like, or what I could have done better, to my advantage.”
What Julian doesn’t understand is why some people will just tell him that his rap is bad without providing any justification.
“I guess that’s not real criticism, it’s just hate. I’m still okay with it though.”
This attitude reflects what he says are the best words of advice that Julian’s late uncle gave him the day he first heard him rap: if someone tells you you’re wasting your time, shrug those words off. Even this piece of advice, which Julian has followed with enthusiasm, somehow transformed itself into a rap piece, a song called Almost There. Julian confesses to one burning ambition that is growing stronger as time goes by: that of performing his works in front of others, an ambition that is slowly becoming reality.
“Given my age, my family’s support is essential. My family always help me get to wherever I need. My aunt even gave me a laptop to be able to work on my music more efficiently. Another aunt organised a gig for me and my dad is constantly helping me out with everything. My three siblings and other family members are also highly encouraging. I’ve been lucky on that front.”
The biggest achievement so far, Julian tells me, has been getting one of his tracks played on local radio. The single that was given air-time was Almost There, the same song that peaked at number 70 out of a million on the international Hip-Hop charts on Soundclick.com. At this point I can’t help asking the obvious question: can I white boy rap?
“We have Eminem to thank for that I suppose. He made it when literally everyone was trying to hinder him just because of the colour of his skin. Right behind him I have the biggest admiration for Tupac, whom I still regards as the greatest story-telling rapper ever. Listening to one of his raps is like watching a great movie. I also admire Drake for his diversity; he’s relatively new to the game but the different styles he manages to pull off are amazing. To answer your question, rap is no long what used to be called ‘a black man’s game’. Not it’s more like, forget ethnicity, if you can bless a mike don’t hesitate to show everyone.”
When I ask him about the rap/hip-hop scene in Malta, he tells me that the interest is there, particularly amongst the young generation. One particular radio station reflects this by playing urban music – ie rap, hip-hop and r’n’b – constantly. He admits that the Maltese do seem to have an inordinate love for anything techno and dance, but this doesn’t mean there isn’t an alternative scene. His favourite from his own works?
“It’s a tie between three: Almost There, Speakin in Tungs (which is a remake of a song which was popular some time ago in the States) and the track I’m currently working on. I like Almost There because it’s one of my deepest and most real songs. As I explained earlier, it is all about how my uncle convinced me that I could actually do something with my music. It’s all about hard determination. Speakin in Tungs is totally different. It’s just having fun talking about my favourite subject, ie music! I loved the outcome. And then there is the new track, but I won’t say anything much about it as yet as it’s still a works in progress!”
“Getting on a track with him would be amazing. The versatility he has shown through the years never ceases to impress me. Another Maltese artist I’d love to collaborate with is Dana McKeon, maybe beatboxing or singing a chorus or even just a verse. I went to one of her gigs and was just blown away. On an international level, I’d love to work with some underground artistes who are doing their thing on Youtube,” he tells me.
Other artistes he admires include 2Pac, Busta Rhymes, Skrillex, Dr Dre, Kanye West, Bob Marley and Chiddy Bang. One of his dreams is to also see Eminem perform life, especially since he owes the roots of his passion to the rapper – not to mention the beginning of his CD collection. Having said that, he also enjoyed the lighter show put up by LMFAO at the Isle of MTV last summer.
“Their stage presence was awesome! I do like to experience new sounds though so I’ll give anything a try.”
To pretty much prove this last point, he then goes on to tell me that the last amazing gig he attended was Santana’s Guitar Heaven tour stop in Malta. But that has nothing to do with your genre, I point out somewhat redundantly.
“No but I’ve always been a fan of Santana’s sleek, cool and relaxed style. The way he plays the guitar, it’s a very unique style that no-one has managed to imitate so far. And his passion for what he does is reflected in his songs and his performances,” he adds.
Sometimes it’s difficult to remember that this is a fifteen-year-old I’m talking to. His dreams, too, are bigger than those of your typical teenager.
“Hopefully, in five years’ time I will be well on the way to following my dream in the UK, maybe even making a move towards the US. You have to dream big!”
In the meantime Julian is focusing on gaining more experience in live performance. So far, both he’s been on stage the feedback and the buzz have been very encouraging.
“My first performance was at a school soiree, where I only performed one track, Speakin In Tungs. My second gig was last summer at Amazonia, where I performed a medley of seven of my favourite tracks, which were followed by two previously requested tracks: Speakin in Tungs and Incomplete. The adrenaline rush is always present when I rap, whether it’s for an audience or not. But it’s nothing to the feeling when I’m on stage. As soon as the opportunity for another gig comes up, I’ll be ready.”
This interview was published on The TV Guide (The Times of Malta).