Nathan Flows by Zack Calixtus (EP)

Track listing:
Global Cypher – Hong Kong edition (Vol 1)
Global Cypher – Hong Kong edition (Vol 2)
Nathan Flows
Righteous (Uncensored)
My Novocaine
Final Space

You know what Zack Calixtus made me do? He made me sit down for several hours reading academic papers to figure out what a ‘Global Cypher’ is. Classic case of overthinking – turns out Wikipedia had the answer and a ‘Cypher’ is a rap circle. Rappers (sometimes break-dancers) come together and each take turn showing off and toss rhymes.

It’s simultaneously nothing special, and also incredibly special – Zack’s new EP Nathan Flow is kind of that ‘cypher’. With tracks that bring together young musical artists from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, Zack’s EP is creating a community of musicians all eager to add to Hong Kong’s musical tapestry. The issue though is the album’s inconsistency.

Take for instance the most important two tracks – Global Cypher. Must say the name confused me a lot, especially considering his social media, album and videos logged the song differently – Instagram and Youtube calls it the ‘Hong Kong Global Cypher’; Spotify, the ‘Global Cypher – Hong Kong version’.

But I digress; one of the articles that I ended up studying (thanks again Zack) talks about how hip-hop as a genre of music is distinctively for young performers with problems – that there must be some level of rebellion against the dominant culture or, in less sensitive terms, an assertion of individuality.

In the two ‘volumes’ of cyphers, 12 rappers from 7 national backgrounds, performing in 4 languages, all linked to Hong Kong spit bars about their own struggles living in the impossible city. What’s more, many of the rappers are super young and without much social media presence (yet).

JayJ and G.I.N are both Filipino HKer rappers of high school age, and while G.I.N’s Instagram shows good bunch of previous work, JayJ’s only has one post. Also featured in the first volume were Fxith and Hxpe, two very established British Hong Kong rappers who have lived across the world.

Each rapper’s problems are universal, yet somehow also specific to their background. “Filipino breed, I’m grinding on my work each day”, spits JayJ “lose it. They say, “Jay when you up on the mic, you look stupid”. Volume 2 is personally the more interesting of the two cyphers. A trilingual performance with Govi Dhaliwal rapping in Punjabi, and Cotac Boy and Martian. B. rapping in Cantonese. The lyrics aren’t translated, which is a shame, but if you know, you know – the Cantonese lyrics definitely resonated very strongly: “I’m riding on the fire of our past generation … my job is to exceed the past generation”.

The lyrics really show off each rapper’s own style and identity; it’s amazing. But it’s not perfect. Zack’s ‘falsetto’ at the beginning of Volume 2, while catchy, was off-tune and without enough oomph to carry the high, punchy melody.

On other parts of the album, Zack is a fine enough singer – My Novocaine, a pretty cheesy love Coldplay-esque ballad with odd drug metaphors (“Breathing it in like you’re my heroin / I can take away all your sins”, I’m not a junkie but I’m not sure about that one…) has Zack singing alongside a four-piece band. And it’s really good! His voice is relaxed, a little raspy, full of groove and pretty sexy. Zack’s previous album Gloom has many more ballads similar to My Novocaine, so its no surprise that his voice is in its comfort zone when slow and laid back. In any case, Zack’s performance on My Novocaine is much better than actress Cecelia Lai who plays his girlfriend in the video – her voice is sweet, and the duet section reminds me a lot of Chloe Moriondo in ‘Be Around Me’, but not as clean or tight.

Other tracks in the album include the titular Nathan Style and Righteous, tracks with great beats and lots of energy. The final track, Final Space, is another collab, this time between Zack and fellow Nepalese DJ Sky Limbu. Both Final Space and Nathan Style is a great showcase of Zack as an all-round performer, singing and rapping without many issues. Final Space’s futuristic backdrop, courtesy of Sky Limbu, brings Zack’s vocals even higher; out of this world (pun intended). It’s odd that despite being the titular track, and a great one, Nathan Flows that it’s not got as much exposure as Global Cypher and is put third on the album. The cyphers are great collabs, but in time I think Nathan Flows and Final Space will be the albums true hidden gems.

Global Cypher is important though (otherwise I wouldn’t have spent over 50% of this review talking about it). What it, and by extension the whole EP does, is, in its own small way, challenge Hong Kong’s ‘dominant mainstream culture’ and apparently hard lines between ‘ethnic minority’ and ‘local’. Zack speaks fluent English and some Cantonese, yet the official awards and events given to him are titled …. “Ethnic Minorities Volunteer Awards Ceremony” hosted by the “Ambassador Scheme for Ethnic Minorities Youth”. Not only a mouthful, but kind of undermining his, and the identity, of many others featured on the EP.

There are of course other performers in Hong Kong that do this – JB, ethnically Filipino, raps in Cantonese (and in another cypher unrelated to Zack’s, forwardly says “a bun zai (derogatory for Filipino boy) rapping better than locals”.
But who’s complaining about more work in an important field?

And if anything, performers like JB are now famous. One of his songs which-shall-not-be-named became a protest anthem. He lost a performance and a film deal. He’s big. Zack is giving opportunities to 17 year old rappers like JayJ, like the 18 year old Cotac Boy, like 19 year old Martian. B, and for them to work with established performers like Fxith and Hxpe. Nepalese, Indians, Chinese and Brits all on the same album? Find me another city who can make music like that. As Zack himself raps in Volume 1 “We from Hong Kong, we from Hong Kong, we don’t give a fuck what they think”.

I want to end this review with the intro from one of the essays I read. Nathan Flows is by no means a perfect performance, but it encapsulates the spirit of hip hop and rap, and the community that Zack is building is something we sorely need more of in Hong Kong:

“To cypher is to rap, break, beatbox tightly together in a circle where each person just might get a moment in the spotlight. To cypher is to borrow and to lend, to playfully freewheel through whilst taking an exacting care for each word and carefully considering all the sounds, meanings, and interpretations. It is to fight back, to borrow, to steal, to represent, and to collaborate, whilst suddenly—surprisingly—at times aggressively claiming your own voice, your own right to speak. A cypher is a gathering of rappers, beatboxers, and/or breakers in a circle, extemporaneously making music together.”
Paul Watkins and Rebecca Caines
Cyphers: Hip-Hop and Improvisation (Critical Studies in Improvisation)

Review by Cyril Ma

Listen to Nathan Flow on Spotify, Youtube or Apple Music.

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