Who said hip-hop was only for young people?
Just look at Muhammad Marzuki who performs on the stage a musical style that was born in the African-American community in the United States. Older and cultured people like Sindhunata S.J. and artist Butet Kartaredjasa are often seen together with other fans in Yogyakarta.
Marzuki was born in Klaten, Central Java, in 1976, and is a self-taught musician who delved into hip-hop in 1991, later establishing the Jogja Hip-Hop Foundation in 2003.
Marzuki’s take on hip-hop differs from the version found in its country of origin. He has, in his own words, turned the music around 90 degrees to make it more acceptable to a Javanese audience.
“Since birth, we have become accustomed to gamelan music, dangdut, sholawatan [Islamic] music and jathilan [dance with mystic overtones] rhythms,” says Marzuki, whose stage name is the less subtle Kill the DJ.
“We’ve thus had to concoct the spirit of hip-hop music to make it acceptable to the local ear, and this means inserting local values into this imported music. We don’t swallow that foreign music raw.”
He adds his choice of nom de guerre highlights his refusal to deify hip-hop music, which he says has happened in the United States.
“Over there they have non-stop rave parties. This new culture, like many others, has its own raw fashion and ideology,” says the high-school dropout.
“There are even the catchphrases like ‘God is a DJ’ and ‘last night a DJ saved my life.’
“Well, we try to think differently from all that. Their type killed their God, so we created Kill the DJ.”
And so in his works of hip-hop, collected in the album Poetry Battle, appear poems from ancient Javanese literature such as Gatholoco and Serat Centhini, as well as the poetry of Sindhunata S.J.
From the Serat Centhini, Marzuki gives us the songs Sinom 231 and Asmaradhana 388, and from Sindhunata’s poetry he churns out songs such as Cintamu Sepahit Topi Miring (Your Love is as Bitter as a Tilted Hat), Jula July Jaman Edan (Jula July Crazy Era), Pring-Pring Petung (Bamboo), and Ngelmu Pring (Esoteric Knowledge).
When all these poems are juxtaposed onto concocted music, the sounds of Kill the DJ ring familiar. There are elements of gamelan, sholawatan music to celebrate Islam, dangdut and sometimes even the rhythm of jathilan music.
Javanese and Indonesian poems, easily understood by local listeners, are included in the hip-hop songs to add the flavors of Java. And to complement the music with image, Marzuki always wears batik shirts onstage.
His breakthrough music sparked the popularity of hip-hop in Yogyakarta, where it has grown and been developed among groups such as Rotra, Jahanam, Kontra, Dubyouth, Gatholoco, DPMB, Nova, Trio Gudel, Shaxted, Gangsta Lovin, and Zapatista.
The journey in bringing hip-hop music to a level understandable by local audiences has led Marzuki to christening himself Chebolang in honor of his travels through life.
Chebolang is the central figure in the Serat Centhini, written during the reign of Mangkunegoro IV in Surakarta in Central Java. The Serat Centhini itself is a chronicle, almost a Javanese cultural encyclopaedia.
It tells of the wanderings of a man to forbidden places and holy ones, where he rubs shoulders with criminals and meets with religious leaders.
He tries both the bad and the good, seeking true knowledge and the essence of eternal life.
And so it is that Marzuki, the son of a religious teacher in Prambanan, Central Java, also wants to be called Chebolang.
“Chebolang is a stubborn child, but has noble desires,” he says.
“I wanted to be like him. So not long ago I also wandered for months through Java, visiting places of pilgrimage and holy places, starting with mosques, Buddhist and Hindu temples, churches, and the tombs of holy men.
“I also visited the Palonthen [a red-light district]. I wanted to undergo the spiritual experiences Chebolang went through.”
Marzuki’s travels through Java began with his running away from home when still in the third grade at a state-run Islamic school in Yogyakarta. After dropping out of school, he took to the streets, mingling with all kinds of people. He worked odd jobs, as a parking attendant, painter and busker.
Yogyakarta boasts a smorgasbord of artists and cultured people, and this became Marzuki’s school. His ability to mingle and his continued search for identity led him to learn about art from Europe, and France in particular.
He consequently became a musician and artist, dabbling in electronic music, as well as turning his hand to artistic styling, graphic art and film art.
“In the film world I worked with Hanung Bramantyo and did theater and film work,” he recalls.
“Then in the music world I made Parkinsound, and in the world of graphics I worked as a layout artist at Latitude magazine, and founded the Art Zoo Support.”
Among all Marzuki’s achievements, his hip-hop music has seen him at his most diligent and serious, and he says his work will continue, though he doesn’t know why.
“I just feel good and comfortable with it,” he says.
And well he should be, having virtually introduced Yogyakarta-style hip-hop to the wider world.
He recently performed at the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) office in Jakarta, singing one of his own Javanese compositions, Cecak Nguntal Boyo (The Gecko Eats the Crocodile).
And once again, he drew audiences in the capital to rap together with Chebolang, a.k.a. Kill the DJ, a.k.a. Muhammad Marzuki.