DJ KoFlow is first Singaporean hip-hop act to headline Esplanade show

Performing artist KoFlow's upcoming concert at the Esplanade will be a hip-hop theatrical experience about his life journey - from being in a gang to becoming a musician.
DJ KoFlow.
DJ KoFlow.ST PHOTO: FELINE LIM

Hip-hop helped to change DJ KoFlow's life

If not for hip-hop, DJ KoFlow's life would have taken a very different path.

The 36-year-old Singaporean, known today as one of the music scene's most established turntablists (an artist who makes music with turntables), had a troubled past and was involved in gangs as a teenager.

Knife fights, collecting protection money and rioting were regular affairs for the award-winning DJ, whose real name is Wayne Liu.

"I grew up with that, but eventually, I got caught. I was under 15 and was placed under probation, but that was the time I could really reflect," he tells The Straits Times.

"The officer told me, 'You don't have good grades, but you're a very talented kid. You need to find your focus.'

"That changed me."

The officer told me, 'You don't have good grades, but you're a very talented kid. You need to find your focus.' That changed me.

DJ KOFLOW on being placed under probation when he was under 15

Come June 30, he will make history as the first home-grown hip- hop act to headline a show at the 1,600-seat Esplanade Concert Hall, regarded as one of the finest music venues here.

He joins a select group of Singapore musicians who have done so, including jazz maestro Jeremy Monteiro and pop singer-songwriter Gentle Bones.

Putting on a hip-hop show in a posh, seated venue is not as incongruous as it sounds, he says.

"Being a DJ, there're always two objectives. When I'm in a club, it's to make people dance, and when I'm in a show like this, my objective is to promote the turntable as a musical art form. That's why I would like people to sit and pay attention."

KoFlow's set will feature guest acts such as rapper Shigga Shay, acclaimed percussionist Mohamed Noor, jazz pianist Tan Wei Xiang, singer-electronic artist Vandetta and breakdance crew Radikal Forze.

  • BOOK IT / FLOW - THE STORY OF KOFLOW

  • WHERE: Esplanade Concert Hall, 1 Esplanade Drive

    WHEN: June 30, 8.30pm

    ADMISSION: $40 and $55. Go to www.esplanade.com

With graphics and videos by content creators Alice and Untitled Project on a gigantic curved screen, he envisions the show to have "a cinematic" feel, with music to make the audience "feel your senses and emotions".

Having sold out the 245-seat Esplanade Recital Studio in 2010, he says he had made it a challenge to take on the much larger Esplanade Concert Hall.

He has played there before, most recently in a joint show with the Metropolitan Festival Orchestra and music director Julian Wong in the KoFlow-MFO: A TurntableOrchestra Programme, a concert for secondary school students on May 24.

He is no stranger to playing in front of big crowds.

He has performed at other major venues here, such as the National Stadium, Singapore Indoor Stadium and Victoria Theatre, and alongside international hip-hop luminaries such as Kanye West and Nas as well as pop star Mariah Carey.

He also travels regularly to countries like the United States and China to perform or judge DJ competitions.

He discovered hip-hop and DJ-ing not through clubs, but through skateboarding, a sub-culture which he got into after his teenage probation stint.

The skateboard videos that he watched introduced him to hip-hop culture, which turntablism is a part of. It also helped that his mother used to own a club, the now defunct Datoh Rajah Theatre and Cabaret, and he would help out there as a DJ and karaoke jockey.

He eventually bought his own set of used turntables from a retired DJ and cheap second-hand speakers from the Sungei Road flea market. Because he could not afford classes, he learnt by watching DJ battles on videotape.

He made his mark when he won the DMC Singapore DJ competition in 2003 and represented the country in the world championships in London.

Over the years, he has also won other awards, including the Nike StreetStyle Awards for Best Musician in 2004 and the Heineken Thirst Singapore DJ competition in 2005.

Today, besides performing every Saturday at Phuture in Zouk, he is also grooming a new generation of turntablists and teaches at Singapore Polytechnic as well as DJ school E-TracX.

The number of people picking up DJ skills in Singapore has gone up by "a thousand per cent" since he started, he reckons.

"I teach lawyers, I teach pilots, I teach (people from the) government sector. These are things they wanted to do as kids, but they never had the chance, and when they were older they were like, 'Ah I'm going to buy turntables'. I see the community growing a lot ."

KoFlow, who is also part of audio-visual collective Syndicate, lauds younger DJ/producers like Myrne, who are making their name internationally, as well as the rising number of experimental electronic musicians.

His goal is to get the word out that hip-hop, like in his case, can be a positive force.

"Having hip-hop as something that helps rebellious kids like me get out of trouble - that is something I can use as a message to spread to other kids, to make them have an aspiration."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 12, 2017, with the headline 'Gangster turns award-winning DJ'. Print Edition | Subscribe