Wa ko’y kapareha, ako usa ra.
When FELIP first made his solo debut in 2021 with “Palayo”—a sleek Bisaya-English R&B number that shows off the SB19 member widely known as Ken in a cautious, vulnerable state as he grapples with a thorny romance—it signaled an understated attempt to explore a left-field turn from his group’s maximalist pop style.
As with many solo projects, it was a chance for FELIP, HipHopDX Asia’s inaugural Artist of the Month, to carve out a career path not only untethered from group-set dynamics but more importantly, make room for his personal artistic and creative interests that are often different from his group’s style and brand.
By using his real name (albeit as a mononym: he’s born Felip Jhon Suson), FELIP sets out to share his own narrative, on his own terms. Similar to his professed musical influence, Kendrick Lamar—who himself stopped rapping under his first stage name, K.Dot, and switched to his birth name early in his career—FELIP allows himself to go to the farthest, most experimental, and even most unthinkable places and tap into his own instincts to make music and art with the utmost freedom.
In his second solo single, 2022’s Tagalog-language “Bulan,” FELIP combines his own visual and lyrical interpretation of Filipino lore and cultural elements with brash sonics, produced by FELIP himself and was intended to be “a metaphor for contemporary life, and specifically, a message to those facing crab mentality.”
It was the first track by a domestic artist that was featured by the Recording Academy in their Global Spin performance series on YouTube, which aims to highlight artists from around the world. At the time, it was, yet again, a marked departure from the lush R&B textures of the previous year’s “Palayo.”
The singles rollout was an unintended slow burn, as Felip Jhon went to embark on a world tour with SB19 in late 2022. Any budding soloist may have their career wither with a two-singles-in-two-years catalog, but thankfully for FELIP, his ardent fans (fondly called sisiws, or chick, as in young chicken) wait patiently, showing in full force for every solo event, appearance, and driving numbers and visibility online.
FELIP enters his “ROCKSTA” era
On January 12, 2023, FELIP took to Twitter to announce he’s releasing his debut COM•PLEX EP—his first official project under Warner Music Philippines as the label’s latest signee to date—in less than a month, with no prior fanfare.
Its first single, “ROCKSTA,” has already shattered any preconceived notions about what kind of artist FELIP is, or what kind of music he makes, especially within the context of how he first achieved his fame. There is no set precedent in the local music industry when it comes to pop stars (in this case, P-pop, specifically) successfully crossing over to a completely different genre, particularly hip hop.
It is more common for Pinoy pop artists to incorporate hip hop elements into their music than the other way around. The Pinoy hip hop scene, while continuously evolving, is still very much grounded in its roots. As the pioneering hip hop scene in Asia, we inherited and continue to practice ‘80s- and ‘90s-inspired styles. The Filipino battle rap scene also happens to be the biggest and the most-watched in the world, thanks to FlipTop, which remains fiercely independent to this day.
It is a testament to hip hop’s innovative characteristics and rich cultural elements that make it malleable and easy to adopt. In the case of FELIP, it felt like a natural progression. Like a lot of people, he started as a fan. “I was a big fan of hip hop talaga, like before pa. Lagi kong pinapakinggan yung hip hop or mga metal bands.” (I was really a big fan of hip hop, even before. I always listen to hip hop or metal bands.)
It eventually became a creative exercise for him, mixing the two. “Minsan mini-mix ko yung mga metal tracks or guitar riffs, nag-iisip ako ng bagong melody tapos mini-mix ko sa hip hop or traditional sounds, mga native sounds, or whatever.” (Sometimes, I mix metal tracks or guitar riffs, thinking of new melodies and then mixing them with hip hop or traditional sounds, native sounds, or whatever.)
It was born out of his desire to be experimental and show his appreciation for hip hop at the same time. “Ginawa ko ‘tong hip hop talaga, may konting R&B. Gusto ko maging experimental sa mga kanta ko,” he said. (I really wanted to make [it] hip hop, with a little R&B. I want to be experimental with my songs.)
FELIP was also eager to share with HipHopDX Asia the vocal styles he employed in the COM•PLEX EP. “Talagang experimental lang pagdating sa voice ko din. People know na malalim yung boses ko, hindi nila alam na kaya ko palang—” then proceeds to hit a falsetto riff for us. (I’m really experimental with my voice as well. People know that I have a deep voice, and they didn’t know [he can hit a falsetto]).
When asked why he chose to highlight the Bisaya language in his EP, the trilingual artist (FELIP speaks Bisaya, Tagalog, and English) beams with pride. “Mainly because I’m proud to be Bisaya. Proud ako sa language ko, and I think that Bisaya is really cool. Kumbaga, pag narinig mo yung song sa Bisaya, sarap pakinggan. I’m really proud to be one. So, gusto ko na hindi mawala [yung Bisaya]. I think Bisaya are so cool, they’re so fun to be with. And syempre yung roots ko…gusto ko siya ilagay [sa kanta]. Sa lahat ng mga ginagawa talaga namin, ‘wag kalimutan ang roots.”
(I’m proud of my language, and I think that Bisaya is really cool. It’s so great to hear a Bisaya song. I’m really proud to be one. That’s why I want to not lose the Bisaya [part]. I think Bisaya are so cool, they’re so fun to be with. And of course, my roots, I want it to be part of my songs. In everything we do, let’s not forget our roots.)
FELIP allows himself to go to the farthest, most experimental, and even most unthinkable places and tap into his own instincts to make music and art with the utmost freedom.
FELIP’s deliberate decision to not just rap in Bisaya, but rap about being Bisaya comes on the heels of a national discussion about Bisaya musicians “being treated as collateral damage” in favor of Metro Manila or international artists.
HipHopDX Asia staff writer Kara Angan wrote about what Bisaya rap pioneers Midnasty thought about how Bisaya rap (and Bisaya music, in general) has been pushed to the sidelines. “That’s the reason why kami sad, nagseryoso mi sa music na gi-Bisaya mi kay ganahan mi mag-push gyud further ang Bisaya. Kami sad sa Midnasty, our responsibility is how to put something new, something unique nga sound para sa Bisaya pud na music.”
(That’s the reason why, even us, we make it a point to rap in Bisaya because we want to push the language further. Even us in Midnasty, our responsibility is how to put something new, a unique sound, into Bisaya music.)
Thematically, COM•PLEX is described as “a journey beyond the blinding lights of the stage and into the psyche of an artist.” The title is intended to be open to interpretation, however it applies to whoever listens to it. While it is an autobiographical piece of work, it urges listeners to look inward themselves, and “embrace their complexities, knowing it makes them one of a kind.”
He explains, “[The songs] mainly talk about myself, ‘yung complexities na meron ako.” (The complexities I have). FELIP adds, “Minsan, as an artist, filtered yung mga sinasabi namin. Syempre, ‘di lahat ng mga tao magugustuhan ‘yung mga sasabihin mo.” (Sometimes, as an artist, the things we say are filtered. Of course, not everyone will like what we’ll say.)
It all goes back to hip hop giving him an unencumbered platform to embrace his full self. “Making music is a way for me to really express how I feel, or [what my thoughts are],” he says. “This is a way for me to say the core or ano bang message na gusto kong iparating sa mga fans ko, na tanggapin nila yung mga flaws, mga complexities na meron sila kasi it’s normal because we’re just human.” (This is a way for me to say the core or what message I want to send my fans, to accept their flaws and complexities because it’s normal because we’re just human.”)
FELIP goes on, “Gusto ko i-uplift sila, kahit may negative things or negative thoughts, kumbaga mga ganun na bagay, yun yung nagbibigay satin ng weapon o nagiging unique tayo because of those things.” (I want to uplift them despite negative things or thoughts. I mean, those things are what give us our weapon or what make us unique.)
During our interview, FELIP expresses his anxieties not only about performing all six tracks from his EP in front of a live audience but also about how people will receive his solo music. As if bracing himself on perceived disappointment or disapproval (or both), he admitted, “I know na hindi lahat ng tao magugustuhan ang EP ko—I’m well aware na hindi lahat magugustuhan ang EP ko.” (I know that not everyone will like my EP.)
He dove in further, acknowledging that he isn’t the first one to do it. “I just wanna be experimental. Tine-test ko lang ‘yung waters kung ano ‘yung reaction ng mga tao. Hindi naman siya new sound, may ibang artists na gumagawa nito, pero siguro sa mga Pinoy, hindi pa… may standard pa. Sana open sila sa mga ibang genres ng music. I’m not saying na tanggapin nila yung music ko. Pero…this is not for everybody, and that’s OK. Kung may mga taong magugustuhan ito, I appreciate it.”
(I just wanna be experimental. I’m just testing the waters, what people’s reactions are. It’s not a new sound, there are artists who do this, but for Filipinos, not yet… there’s still a standard. I hope they’re open to other genres. I’m not saying they should receive it well. But this is not for everybody, and that’s OK. If there are people who’ll like it, I appreciate it.)
“This is way for me to say the core or ano bang message na gusto kong iparating sa mga fans ko, na tanggapin nila yung mga flaws, mga complexities na meron sila kasi it’s normal because we’re just human.”
I told him this sentiment frankly applies to any type of music, especially for artists making a “departure record” (as The Roots’ Questlove defines it, it’s an album where artists make a “complete creative left turn”) but I also acknowledge where FELIP is coming from, what the pressure must have been like for someone like him with associations he cannot simply (or nor I suspect he wants to completely) extricate himself from that he had to preface what is a celebratory moment for him with a practical, but still a somber, reality check.
Bisdak in the spotlight
FELIP’s “Rocksta” persona palpably feels more of a state of mind than a perceived way of life, such as addressing and challenging stereotypes in the hazy mid-EP cut, “DRINKSMOKE.”
The multihyphenate artist wields his obvious musical influences throughout COM•PLEX, including Travis Scott, Post Malone, and others like Kid Cudi, Lil Uzi Vert, particularly the latter two in “DRINKSMOKE,” which is stylistically reminiscent of Uzi Vert’s 2017 platinum hit, “Magnolia.”
HipHopDX Asia received an advance copy of the EP a week before and even though we already heard the studio version, FELIP’s anxieties turned out to be unfounded, at least among an audience that includes his peers and contemporaries when he performed all songs from COM•PLEX with a live band (much to our delight).
It was an extraordinary display of showmanship: an artist clearly eager to share what he can offer, with the goods to back it up. Whether or not you have heard of or you listen to SB19 frankly matters not at this juncture, as FELIP, not SB19 Ken, should be seen and judged on his own merit, which for this writer, is someone who knows what he’s doing. COM•PLEX is punk, unapologetic, and monstrous in its darkness and its appeal.
After our interview, I mentioned to FELIP that my top favorite track from the EP is “SUPERIORITY.” He was shocked and asked why, saying he thinks that it was the track he thought will be least appreciated. I told him that it’s a track that fully embraces one’s strengths. It may be braggadocious but that’s part of hip hop culture. And it reminded me of how I learned to take pride in and stand up for myself—that’s what hip hop is. That’s what FELIP and his music represent to me. He is, truly, one of one.
Stream FELIP’s COM•PLEX here. All inline photos courtesy of Louis Anthony Duran. Special thanks to Warner Music Philippines.