Crafting an Identite: An Interview With Razi Razak

It was a cold rainy Tuesday afternoon when Delfina and I stepped into familiar confines of Home Club. Unlike other days when we’d normally find ourselves entering that narrow, dimly lit entrance with hope of cheap beer and DIY aesthetics, this time we were looking for someone by the name of Razi Razak.

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The club was oddly empty, except for a few guys chilling on the sofas at the back of the club. Razi was leaning forward, typing away on his laptop. He stood up and gave us firm handshakes while he asked what drinks we’d like to have. Confused for a moment - because we thought we’d have the whole bar at our disposal - he suggested iced green tea, which we were more than happy to agree to.

We brought the interview outside the club, to a lone table and a couple of rattan chairs. Razi kindly brought us some glasses of that sweet green tea as he sat down. Right from the start he casually mentions that he usually avoids doing interviews and features for the press, to the point that he actually spent a year in a sort of media sabbatical. I assure him that this was more of an informal chat, rather than an interview. I closed my notebook, placed it on the table and lit a cigarette in solidarity.

Up-close, you notice that Razi is somewhat jittery, wiggling about on his seat like a man with too much spark to contain. And why wouldn’t he be; he’s behind so many of the happening nights going on at Home Club. He informs us of his indistinct job scope - mainly curating the club’s art and music programs, being the brains behind Speak poetry nights, while juggling his own music as DJ KNIVES. Being heavily involved with the club from the start, it’s only appropriate that he identifies himself as ‘Activist’, as it says on his name card.

But our main impetus for seeking him out owes to the fact that he’s also the man behind Identite, the weekly nights at Home Club showcasing local music of varying genres under one platform. Started 3 years ago under the Rockstar Collective (RSC) brand, the programme is stretching on its 100th show tomorrow, with one of the biggest lineups of local acts yet. It’s already a familiar brand in the local music realm, with many prominent bands obtaining their much needed stepping stone into the scene through the Identite nights. 

The Early Years: Rockstar Collective

Rockstar Collective was named as such as a parody and presumably an in-joke about rockstar aspirations. It was co-founded back in 2000 with a group of friends (mainly to mock the HXC youth crews) consisting of members from Plainsunset, Anaconda, Marchtwelve, I Am David Sparkle and more. Even before the collective started, they were all already a closely-knit group of friends.

The main reason though for the formation of RSC was a more of a reactionary decision. “At that point in the late 90’s to the early 2000s, there were not really many gigs happening. There was practically one or two a week, usually at The Substation or the Arts House.”

RSC was a solution to a problem - the difficulty for bands to find gigs to play in.

Their first gig happened in 2001, in a club called Insomnia at Bugis called the ‘Get Rich Quick Gig’. It was an encouraging success. With the money they snowballed collectively, the group slowly eased into the practice of organizing DIY live music showcases.

Razi also recalls that they were the ones who kicked off the trend of gigs in  jamming studios. The idea came about when they were at a place called Forward Studios at Novena. It was a simple concept; clear the furnitures out from the lobby area, and hold a show there, charging people three to four dollars to enter. In familiar accordances of recent shows in Lithe Paralogue Studios, the venue got really hot and sweaty with about 50 people packed into that tight space every time. The Forward Studio sessions went on every Saturday for about two years.

It was right there that the first few strands of Identite came into fabrication. “There was the idea of consistency that I wanted to retain for Identite,” he says.

As the years went on and friends slowly departed ways from RSC to do their own thing, Razi remains appreciative of those years. “I’m actually quite proud of my friends, and the things that we did. We grew up together and even today we still keep in contact.”

Interestingly, he comes up with terms to describe the different waves of people who have been with him in RSC. He dubs them as generational, with the original members in the first generation and the current team in RSC in the third generation. I ask him about the possibility of a fourth generation.

“Maybe soon, I don’t know when. I’ll probably pass on my responsibilities to someone else to run it. How long has it been? 13 years.”

Searching for an Identite

RSC carried on to find a new base in Home Club ever since it first opened its doors in 2005, mainly as music promoter with events such as BEAT! and RNDM. A few years went by before plans for Identite even solidified.

“Identite started out as a theory, concept and a brand. It’s crafted in such a way that you just have to fill in the blanks.” Razi didn’t expect it to grow out of the brand he originally wanted it to be. Instead, it became the music community it is now.

Nevertheless, he takes it all in stride and notes the importance of the growth. He downplays any aspiring notions of money or fame that Identite has afforded him so far.

“It has always been about giving back. I recognize the struggles that I had when I started out as a musician, being in the scene.” he said. “Identite was created as a silver lining for me to actually give back to the community.”

He looks nostalgic as we sipped on our green tea and lit up another cigarette. I asked him about the first few shows in 2010 and I mentioned how post-rock veterans I Am David Sparkle were heavily involved at the start.

“The guys helped me a lot, even though they’re not involved in music promotion. It’s a win-win situation for them because if they do play in Identite, they can test out their new material, like a live jamming.” It’s pretty much the same thing for the current concept - alumni bands have returned to Identite nights time after time to try out their new songs on an audience, on top of supporting the event.

Identite Crisis

The biggest challenge for Razi at the start however was actually introducing the idea of gigs on Friday nights.

“When Identite started, the whole local culture was always about gigs on Saturdays and Sundays right? Even the bands don’t really want to play on Friday nights because it’s too much of a rush from work or school.”

It must have been disheartening for the first several months. There were only a handful of people - about 5 to 10 - who dropped by. Despite that, he attributes Home Club as a solid pillar of support. “They’ve been a very supportive unit for me because they too want to give back to the community.”

During the early years, BEAT! (Friday indie rock nights helmed by deejays Ginette Chittick and Joe Ng) was a much bigger entity than Identite. Razi tried to latch Identite on to BEAT!’s crowd, with free drinks included.

“It kinda worked out in the end. To have that level of consistency almost every Friday and being able to reach out to so many bands of different genres, we’re able to actually get the word out about Identite”. Bands today are reaching out to him instead of the other way round, and that’s quite a measure of success.

The Third Generation

With such a rapid growth, it was impossible to run the weekly nights alone anymore. The foundation and the template of what constitutes an Identite night was already set up years ago - he just needed people to run it.

That was where he got idea to form a team to run the nights, currently made up of seven people. Rather than regarding the people he recruits as employees, he treats them like apprentices, as pupils. He teaches them everything he knows, gives them challenges and goals to fulfill and lets them run with it by themselves. Razi himself takes a backseat spot in Identite these days.

“If they can produce shows every week for 6 months, they can run a big festival just like that.” He acknowledges with a sigh that they won’t stay with RSC for very long. “But when they leave, at least they bring something with them.”

His team also help run his two other brands: Statement and Canopus Distro. Both branches interweave together with Identite - Canopus Distro being the merchandising arm and Statement handling the artistic concepts and exhibitions.

The Growth Of A Scene

Seeing so many other small shows popping up in places such as Hood Bar and Artistry over the last few years, Razi feels glad instead of intimidated.

“If there’s 4 or 5 different venues having gigs every Friday, isn’t that good for the local music scene?” he asks. “Yes of course, Identite will be affected, but for the whole scene it’s a lot better now.”

He rebuts the general belief of how the local music scene is boring, by raising the fact that it’s slowly growing. He jokes about how he’s been “studying the local music scene closely” and offers a few notes from his years.

“The scene is formed by different cliques of people and friends, like how RSC used to be.”

He cites a few examples, like the unity of the punk scene at The Substation, who are able to bring in a big act every two months. There’s the hardcore group of kids who are always at every hardcore show. Then there’s the indie group and the open mic circuit.

With a steady growth of live music in Singapore, he notes that the money in being in the music industry will enjoy the same increase. But he quickly dismisses fiscal matters as a priority.

“I’ve never talked about money, I’ve never discussed money, I’ve never placed music into a business form.” It may sound contrived, but coming from Razi, it sounds firmly sincere. From the past hour of our conversation, it’s pretty clear how self-assured he is, and how important it is for him to stick to his principles and ideologies. Money will never take center stage; he has always been all about the music.

The Past & The Future

Being in the show business for past 13 years, with hundreds of gigs under his belt and reaching that 100th mark in Identite this Friday, I ask him what he has taken away from all that madness. He laughed as he dragged another puff of his cigarette.

“When I started Identite, I’ve always had this fear of getting well-known. By this 100th show, my fear will come true,” Razi remarks quietly. “In those 99 shows, we created something that Singapore hasn’t seen for a long time; people coming in purely to support good music. And that’s impressive to me.”

Then again, what could possibly drive a person to push on consistently for 99 shows, and almost weekly at that? Razi credits it to his undeviating philosophy of pushing forward after every show. “That bar that we set together as a team, we always strive to reach that every show. After that, there’ll be another bar raised and so on.”

He makes sure that his team shadow his principle of never looking back. always pushing them to look forward. Although everyone will be buzzing about Identite’s 100th show come Friday (and probably the days after that), the RSC team will have to think about the next few ones already. “I always advise my team to never sit back and enjoy the recognition that they have, because there’s no point really and that’ll just feed your ego and you’ll turn into somebody else”.

It appears that the man behind Identite is a man who rejects identity.

It’s a rare ethos to possess in a scene replete with immature individuals who seem so selfishly desperate for attention and recognition that they don’t see the bigger picture. It’s a refreshing take on tackling the music scene, or the relative lack thereof. I ask about the future of Identite.

“I’ll always make the nights happen on my part. Identite might change, it might end, who knows. If the community doesn’t need Identite, we- no, I will definitely end it”.

Might that happen anytime soon?

“We’re having a great relationship with a lot of promoters and record labels, so we’re now in this prime position now to actually help change the scene,” he smiles. “Maybe we’ll stick around for a while.”