“We notorious,” goes the opening line in the Rascalz’ 1998 CanCon classic “Northern Touch.” Two decades later, that statement rings especially true for Canada. Whether it be the top of the Billboard charts or the sports world, the Great White North has found a new gear, producing more world-famous talent at a higher rate than ever. So we’re capturing a few of those rising stars before they go supernova. This is Northern Clutch.
It’s plain for everyone to see: Neeko and Soliven are brimming with swagger. Coming off a sold-out international tour with iconic touchdowns at jam-packed clubs in Hong Kong and fully-booked stadium homecoming shows in the Philippines is no joke. As first-generation Filipino-Canadians, the Vancouver R&B duo are accustomed to drifting seamlessly between the East and West. But even though the world is now in lockdown, you likely won't find two people less pressed by it. Even when we caught up with the boys pre-pandemic, they were locked-in: staying right on their grind at their studio in Davie Street’s famous Celebrities nightclub.
“We’re very Zen people: we love our peace,” Soliven told us. “We wanted to build a space where we can just completely disconnect. As you get older, more things start to pile on so we use this space to get away and really focus.”
Their studio is a departure from dimly-lit, cramped spaces typical to up and coming hip-hop artists—their creative space is austere and airy, with cream-coloured dampening foams lining the walls. “We were going for that Aritzia vibe,” Neeko told us, laughing.
The pair’s chill demeanour is totally translated to their music. You really get a feel for Manila Grey in “Timezones,” the single off their eponymous hit record. Their muted melodies are stretched out over a washed-out dreamscape of a backtrack rich with reverb, vocals intertwining seamlessly in and out of the mix, backed with minimal but hard-hitting tempo. It’s the velvety, hazy sound most people peg on Toronto’s OVO roster that has come to define Canadian hip-hop, but with a distinctly West Coast vibe.
"We’re going for that Knight Rider sound. That’s very Vancouver to us," said Soliven. "We're always on Knight Street since that's the connector from Richmond. We realized driving down that street at high speeds is a whole vibe. Like this should be the sound of Vancouver."
Manila Grey is staying busy and coming for 2020 with a vengeance. Their new music video is out for "Night Code," off their No Saints Loading mixtape. And they've been indicating that another project is on the way. Looks like staying locked-in is paying dividends. Catch them in their process in the latest episode of "Northern Clutch" (above), and scroll through our chat with them to hear all about their come-up, Asian representation in pop culture, and their love for the JDM lifestyle.
How did you guys meet? What drove you to start working together?
Neeko: We were 13 at the time and both making music. We lived in two separate parts of Richmond and met through friends. We were both like, “You know what? You make music, I make music. Let's start doing some collab pieces together.” From there, we started working more with each other and eventually started releasing stuff.
Soliven: We caught a vibe, and then we met with Azel North, who's our current producer. We made a crew with guys we’ve known from time. They’re our day ones.
How are things different creatively today versus when you started all those years ago?
Soliven: In the early days, we were trying to maneuver our way through different sounds. We're inspired by so many different types of genres, but hip-hop is like our first love. We also had to get up to speed on the business side of things.
Neeko: When you’re that young, you glorify the music industry, but you don't really know what's actually going on. You might think you’re just making music but realistically, there's like a whole list of things that you have to know and understand so that as an artist you can sit in a room with agents and bookers and producers and understand everything that's being said.
Soliven: We just shot our last music video "Night Code," and that was like a big, all-across-Asia shoot. And then we came back to Vancouver, where we had a big set up at Mount Seymour. And that was just like, we all had to work together to organize it. And that's something we could not have done seven years ago when we were in ninth grade. [Laughs.] But, you know, if you love the art and you love creating, then it'll take you places. You have to knock down the barriers and these blockers.
"As immigrant kids you don't really see many Asians in media. You're coming here and it's a whole other culture and you're trying to assimilate. And so you start attaching yourself to different sorts of media. Hip-hop was the thing that really saved us."
What are some of the things you all did to fund this while you were scaling up to the group we know today?
Soliven: Just the other night we were counting how many jobs we had over the years and I think we ended up on like… 13-plus jobs? All kinds of shit, too—we used to work graveyard shifts at the casino together, like just seeing the lowest of the low. Deep in the night type shit. We also used to be barbers, hustling trying to get clients. After our shift was done, we’d go back in the studio and create like crazy. We would cut hair like 17 hours a day, and then go to other jobs, and then come back to the studio to mix the tape. By the time "Timezones" came out, which was our first big record, we were each holding down like three jobs. Those jobs really taught us patience and that there’s a whole process.
Filipino culture is really front and centre in your music. Talk to us about what it’s like to make music that has such an international fan base.
Neeko: We’re so attached to Filipino culture; it’s what we grew up with. And Filipinos are ride or die! It’s so amazing having that love and energy in the room wherever we are in the world. It's an amazing feeling to see a whole room of people just enjoy our music.
Soliven: We grew up in Canada but within the household the culture was still so instilled in us. So in trying to find a balance, we consider Vancouver our home but we try to create music that is true to our experiences. It just blows our mind that we did a whole cross-Canada tour and it was all sold out. And then we did shows in multiple Asian countries and those were all sold out too.
Neeko: But the energy in all of those rooms was the exact same. That was amazing.
Soliven: That's what really just gets us: it's like, kids just resonating with the music. And as immigrant kids you don't really see many Asians in media. You're coming here and it's a whole other culture and you're trying to assimilate. And so you start attaching yourself to different sorts of media. Hip-hop was the thing that really saved us. It really got us through a lot of things.
What do you think draws fans to your music?
Soliven: It’s real ones.
Neeko: And the honesty in the music.
Soliven: Yeah, that's the mantra: real ones. And we think that boils down to authenticity. We didn’t come from this amazing, glamorous life—we had to work our way to this. People tend to support each other through the struggle. If we're expressing that through our music, it's bound to happen that people will start attaching themselves and relating to that music and I think it's just the authenticity of it. When we play shows, whether it be for 200 or 1000 people, it's all just real ones in the moment. Everyone is just trying to turn the fuck up like no one is looking. We’ve been there with the 9-to-5 life and people want a place to escape and forget. We came from that place as well.
There’s a lot of tricked-out cars in your music videos and Instagram!
Neeko: That goes deep. That’s how we grew up! The cars in Richmond are crazy; you'll see more BMWs than Corollas. That's the vibe in Richmond. Even growing up watching Tokyo Drift, we have mad love for that Japanese car, JDM lifestyle—that's what we've always been attached to. We've always wanted the Civic that was slammed to the ground, that could hit VTEC once you redline that thing.
Soliven: It's just a thing growing up that has always been around us. Like listening to Kanye for the first time, it was in a Civic that was slammed to the ground. My uncle, my tito, was like, "Yo, check this record out." I was like 10. And it was just dope. The sounds system was so tight. What matters is the sound system. If the music sounds amazing in the car, that's what matters.