Given its shoestring budget production, few might have thought that No Bling Show’s Stejjer mill-Bandli tal-Mosta album would leave such an indelible mark on the local music scene when it was released in 2009, least of all the band itself.
The title represents what we’re about…we tell it like it is
As Jon Mallia, the main voice on that album, puts it, “the feedback was unexpected and overwhelming”. In fact, he concedes, “it was so unexpected we didn’t know how to handle the immediacy of its popularity”.
Looking back, he says there are various things that could have been done differently, but that, of course is all in the past. Three years on, one of which was spent in London, the rest setting up the Breaking Limits NGO with Jimbo Thinlegz, Mallia admits he had no particular desire to get back in the music scene too soon. Nevertheless, he is back, resurfacing with a new No Bling Show album, Ċar Kristall.
Still relatively ‘no frills’ as per the band’s inherent philosophy, the new album also reflects a certain degree of wariness and preparation. “The Stejjer album, including writing, recording and merchandise, was completed in five weeks,” Mallia recalls. “This time I wanted to work differently and use what I’d learnt from past mistakes.”
‘Differently’ is indeed the keyword here, as apart from Mallia and the band name, the rest of the project revolves around a brand new line-up featuring a fresh generation of hip-hop artists, namely rapper and lyric writer Il-Lapes, (who Mallia cites as the most technical rapper he’s ever worked with) and beatmakers Drinu and Il-Bon.
“Actually, there was no real plan to make another No Bling record either,” Mallia admits, “it sort of just happened”. Having listened to the album and its impressive content a number of times, I’m not sure ‘just happened’ is an adequate explanation, so I urge him to elaborate.
“What I mean is, the guys and myself got together quite casually. I’d already heard some of the work they’d done with Marmalja, and I remember thinking that one day I’d like to work with them.” The opportunity to do so presented itself when Il-Lapes, Drinu and Il-Bon approached him to collaborate on a song.
“I saw how passionate they were about hip hop and suggested that rather than one song, we should do an album together. That was the moment the new No Bling Show was born, and thanks to them, I rediscovered the spark to get back to making music.”
The first collaborative efforts began to evolve into something of a concept album, which they shelved for a while and started over again. “It was sounding great, but we agreed that to re-launch No Bling we needed something less complex,” Mallia says.
“With me being heavily tied up writing for a TV show during the making of the album, it was better to aim for something more immediate and less complicated.” Juggling work and music was a tough call for Mallia, with some of his verses actually being written while driving to the recording session.
“On the other hand,” he is quick to respond, “some of the verses on the Marija tracks took hours to write, as the lyrics were far more elaborate and needed a lot of concentration”.
Elsewhere on the album, one finds that the hip-hop-meets-Maltese-culture blend already present to some extent on Stejjer has been expanded further. Elements of the village band (il-marċ) are present on Il-Partit Tagħna, a sample of a Manwel Cilia song (from Andrew Alamango’s Malta’s Lost Voices collection) features in the first of the four-part Marija song cycle, and on what is possibly the album’s most powerful song, Il-Kotra, verses from Rużar Briffa’s classic poem Jum ir-Rebħ underline the song’s patriotic vein.
“Using folk and other elements from our culture was the natural thing to do,” Mallia explains. “Hip hop may essentially represent the sound of the streets, but we also wanted to incorporate some of the important characteristics that have made our culture what it is today.”
The album title, Ċar Kristall, also plays an important role in what No Bling stands for. Admittedly, it contrasts with the cover photo, a blurry monochromatic band picture where nothing, in fact, is crystal clear.
“We chose the title because it represents what we’re about,” Mallia continues. “We don’t hold back about anything; we tell it like it is”, which anyone who has listened to No Bling’s albums will readily confirm.
“Beyond that, the title is also a jab at the society in which we live, where, irrespective of which aspect we’re talking about – be it politics, business, religion, culture and so on – nothing is ever clear or transparent.”
He refers to the song Bla Xinxilli off the previous album, which vehemently underlined this hardline direct approach; its final words, “baqa’ biss il-verità”, providing a fitting description of just what fuels the essence of No Bling’s lyrical verve.
On a different note, what does Mallia make of the increasing use of Maltese in contemporary music? “It’s always great that more artists are discovering that Maltese is as good a language as any to sing or rap in.”
Indeed, outside of hip-hop, bands like Fastidju, Brikkuni, Xtruppaw, Kantilena and Kultural, to name just a few, are proof of the growing appeal the Maltese language seems to have acquired in recent years, even if some may argue that the market for Maltese music may be limited.
“I’m not sure about the other bands, but in our case at least, we’re not particularly interested in foreign markets, so it doesn’t really affect us. We’re more concerned that the Maltese people get what we’re talking about, and there’s no better way of doing that than in our own native tongue.”
Last but not least, I’m curious as to what prompted No Bling Show to give Ċar Kristall away as a free download. “Yes, as you know, No Bling was never about making money, and since this time we were supported by the Malta Arts Fund, it made sense to give the album away. Without their help, this would never have been possible.”
Ċar Kristall was engineered by Danjeli and features Sixth Simfoni’s Nadine Chircop and DJ Mac from Chapter Zero. The album is available as a free download at http://sound sagacity.com/css016.html .
The band is currently working on a short film for the Marija s-Sabiħa song cycle and will be officially launching the new album with a live performance on March 30. More details to be announced soon.
No Bling Show is supported by the Malta Arts Fund.