Rapper TheLionCityBoy goes to LA and rediscovers Singapore roots

Rapper TheLionCityBoy used to be more comfortable as "the guy at the back", but he says he is ready to make his mark as a solo artist now.
Rapper TheLionCityBoy used to be more comfortable as "the guy at the back", but he says he is ready to make his mark as a solo artist now.PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

TheLionCityBoy uses local lingo liberally and references Singapore events in his first full-length album

Singapore rapper TheLionCityBoy is finally sure of who he is as a solo artist, after years of being a part of hip-hop acts such as Sixx and Bonafide Vintage Flav'r and releasing solo singles and mixtapes.

And his identity is unmistakably Singaporean. In his first full-length work, Paradise, he uses local lingo such as "yaya" (proud) or "start already" liberally and references local events such as the City Harvest church case.

A song on the album is titled HRLY (Harry Lee), after the late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

"In no way is the story his biography," says the rapper, whose real name is Kevin Lester. "But at the end of the day, you cannot doubt that what we have around us is because of him. So that song is about a guy coming in to clean up the city with music and hip-hop."

Previously, he " felt more comfortable being part of a group or a band or being the guy at the back".

With the release of Paradise on Friday, the 32-year-old is finally ready to make his individual mark.

"This is the first time I feel like I really got down to what is my voice and my message as an artist," he says in a recent interview with The Straits Times. "I am still discovering, but (this album) is something that I'm quite confident to say, 'That's who TheLionCityBoy is.'"

Early single Yaya, which features guest vocals from The Sam Willows' Benjamin Kheng, is already building up a buzz. The song is climbing up music streaming service Spotify's local Viral 50 charts while its music video has amassed more than 40,000 views. This week, the song sits at No. 15 in local radio station 987's charts.

Lester first came to prominence in the Singapore hip-hop scene when he became a member of Bonafide Vintage Flav'r from 2004 to 2006. He would later front Sixx, a nine-piece band that regularly played at festivals such as ZoukOut and Mosaic, from 2008 until their break-up in 2012 .

The past few years have also seen Lester fine-tuning his craft as a rapper and hip-hop artist.

From 2014 to last year, he was signed on to a management company BMBX, ran by apl.de.ap from American pop/hip-hop group The Black Eyed Peas. He spent a month working with hip-hop artists in Los Angeles, taking pointers as he immersed himself in the city's lifestyle and music scene.

His time there has made him more aware about creating his identity based on his Singapore roots.

As much as he is inspired by American hip-hop acts such as The Roots, Kanye West and The Notorious B.I.G., Lester says that he also grew up on Singapore rappers such as Triple Noize.

"Whatever I've been inspired by, and the years of being a rapper has put me to this voice," he says of his rapping style.

His lyrics are based on real people and experiences, but are not necessarily literal, he says.

Apart from HRLY, another song, Decorate, features vocals from his wife and former Sixx bandmate Aarika Lee. The couple have two children aged three and one.

"The song is about me and her decorating the city with our love and not being afraid to tell people that this is us."

Ms Lee, a marketing director and copywriter, still sings occasionally.

He worked closely with his regular collaborator, home-grown producer Flightsch on the music on all the tracks. Besides Kheng and Lee, he also roped in home-grown singers Gentle Bones on My Way and Charlie Lim on Interlude.

Lester has big dreams for his future and hopes that Paradise is the launch pad for him to stage big concerts in and out of Singapore.

"This is the beginning for me. What I want is to reach a stage where people say, you've done well. I want to do concerts and take them regional."

•Paradise will be released on digital platforms on Friday.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 24, 2016, with the headline 'Finding his voice'. Print Edition | Subscribe