With a moniker that makes reference to Singapore, THELIONCITYBOY, also known as Kevin Lester, is undoubtedly someone who embraces his roots even as he makes stops to international festivals such as SXSW. The prominent rapper who has been praised by key publications overseas and is often seen in marketing campaigns as the face of local hip-hop culture, shares his struggles of how he went through the arduous process of trying many sounds, before arriving on his tone of voice with the help of a good friend of his, Flightsch.
As with the journey of many artistes, especially those who have already gained credibility in their respective fields locally, the question that undeniably looms would be – what’s next. Even for him, having been in the music scene for more than 15 years, the unprecedented trying times has seen many careers, including his, slowing down. In spite of all that, we see his unbreakable spirit shining through in his latest track, “Could Be Worse”. Kevin raps fervently about not quitting, all whilst texturing the rhythmic lyrics with references to other local luminaries such as Dick Lee, Seziari, Gurmit and Sonia. All in the hopes of lifting everyone up together.
Popspoken: Tell us more about your journey with music growing up. Was it always something that you were surrounded by, were your parents supportive, and who were your musical idols / influences growing up?
THELIONCITYBOY: Music was always in the house. My parents used to throw weekend parties in our flat in Ang Mo Kio. My dad had 11 siblings, so imagine our HDB flat, packed with cousins, aunts, uncles and friends – all laughing, dancing and no doubt on the karaoke machine. There were always dance circles waiting for someone to better the last person’s move. As a kid I’d hide in the kitchen, or the toilet – I never wanted that spotlight but that environment definitely shaped me.
I shared a room with my older sister, she introduced hip-hop to me through the big names like Pac, Biggie and Bone Thugs N Harmony. So that was my baptism into rap. I’d go into school with all that bounce but I think I always wanted to be that kid that had my own sound, or knew the other vibes, so while everyone was East vs West Coast I think I really became a fan of hip hop through the other acts from different parts of the states, like Three 6 Mafia, Petey Pablo, Ludacris, Terror Squad and even The Roots. I was learning about new acts and quickly trying to learn about the originals.
Popspoken: What is one thing you hate and one thing you love about the Lion City?
THELIONCITYBOY: I think Singlish is important for us – it makes us Singaporean. Like how street lingo makes a London-er or a New York-er. It doesn’t need to be glorified but I think that’s our middle ground. That’s how we can communicate across generation. Lots of things get lost in translation when we’re trying to over elaborate how we feel.
“Shiok! This song baik la. You see ah, I think everyone is going to like it I tell you.”
Popspoken: In choosing the part to pursue music professionally, what is the one thing that you had to give up to get to where you are?
THELIONCITYBOY: Somewhere after YAYA I think I had a change of mindset. Before, I was trying everything, every sound not knowing what I wanted to say or sound like. I think as soon as I got more studio time by myself, just locked in a room – I found my voice. My brother, Flightsch was a big part of that journey, he was at the end of every question about logic pro, how to record better and how to mix.
The more hours I spent, the more comfortable I got with my own voice, my own skin and the easier it was for me to share my perspective of the lion city. From my view from Bedok, Singapore sits in between two different four letter words.
Popspoken: What do you recall about the VHS / MTV days. Which were the iconic moments that you still recall. What has been the most culturally significant event you’ve attended throughout your career, and why?
THELIONCITYBOY: I used to hang on every episode of Pimp My Ride and MTV Cribs, like that first taste of getting to know the artist personally. Of course, there were some cribs that were staged but it didn’t matter to me at the time! My schoolmates and myself used to like breakdown every room when we got together “Did you see Snoop’s living room, Redman was too real.” I love all the studios that they built.
I have played for Laneway Festival, F1 and had many amazing opportunities, but IGNITE Music Festival has left the biggest impression on me in terms of significance to our tiny music industry. It’s important for our growth as an industry to have these big scale indie fests that are built by students and curated by them – the production crew, marketing team, ushers, some acts are all students – it goes on but still done on a massive scale. There’s no salary tagged to it, it’s built by legacy. It’s built on love and you can sense that energy when you’re there and it’s packed! I hope to see more community, almost grassroots-big-scale festivals like that.
Popspoken: Share with us your journey for being an independent musician to getting signed by Apl De Ap’s label, and then by Sony. How did you get your music heard by either labels and did you know what specific sound / tune they were looking for. What do you miss most about being an independent musician?
THELIONCITYBOY: I don’t think there’s anything I miss yet. I’m with Sony because of the people that show the same enthusiasm that I have for my music. Shawn, Keith and the team have become family, they’re building this next step with me – all the way, they give me space to be the independent musician that I’ve always been for the first leg of my journey. My goal was always for my music to reach as many people as it can.
For any artist looking to get your music heard by labels, I’d say keep working on your music, make that your first priority. Everything else will slowly fall into place.
Popspoken: What has been the best part of your career so far and what has been the worst? How did you overcome it?
THELIONCITYBOY: Some obstacles are meant for you to fall to learn from. I’ve always been a soldier to my dreams, so that meant – you can bet, I’ll work hard in any studio I get, every opportunity on stage I’ll make the best of it. There’s never been a worst experience, I’ve always taken every day like a lesson – you can bet I’ll be better equipped the next time I face something I lost a point to.
2020 has been the biggest blur to me. I don’t know what the future looks like, everything is postponed or cancelled but it’s my chance to try new things. I was dropping freestyles with beats I made from sounds from my washing machine. Sharing more personal stories, I’d never do that! It’s breaking my own walls in my head that used to think I was maybe “Eh that’s not my thing” or “I dunno how to do that”. I do enjoy this new expression.
Popspoken: How would you define what “culture” means in Singapore in the Covid-19 crisis. Could you share with us some tips on how you keep “sane” and what you’re currently binge watching at the moment?
THELIONCITYBOY: It’s so heart-warming to see Singaporeans come together for a cause during this crisis, there’s been a great conversation on supporting small local businesses, ways to improve the difficulties our migrant workers face and also how to help Singaporeans who deal with mental illness. These are just some areas but everyone is stepping up, people volunteering while their jobs are in limbo. I’m looking at that light that they’re shining. Singaporeans want to help.
No doubt, it’s a mad house of loud characters like myself with each other 24/7 but knowing that they’re beside me safe and healthy keeps me sane. When the kids go sleep though, me and Aarika are hooked on The Last Dance.
“I wanted to win, but I wanted them to win and be a part of that, as well.” – Michael Jordan