Under the moniker LEO37, Leo Shia has firmly established himself in the international hip hop scene, from his hometown in Toronto to Taipei, where he moved three years ago to pursue his passion for music and design. Originally from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and now based in Taipei, Shia wears multiple hats as an artist, from organizing hip hop and live music events to overseeing the label PPF House with his brothers to producing with creative collective the BLAST. In this interview, Shia shares his thoughts on the rising interest towards hip hop in Taiwan and how family is at the heart of his work as an artist.
*This will be the first in a series of interviews conducted by hardboiled staffer Sam Lai during her time in Taipei this summer. A little bit from Sam: I first came across LEO37 on Angry Asian Man when the Fanfare music video was posted. What struck me the most was seeing a Taiwanese face not only rapping, but also rapping in a way that stood out from the hypermasculine Asian American hip hop artists I had seen. At the time, I had no idea that I would end up meeting both Phil Yu the Angry Asian Man and LEO37 in the next three years. PERKS OF BEING ASIAN AND A WRITER WOOT.
So you’ve been in Taiwan for eight years? [edit: Shia has been in the hip hop game for eight years. Sam needs to do better research.]
No no, three years. I did a tour around Asia with my good friends MAGNOLIUS (Toronto-based Hip-Hop group), back in ‘06, and that was the first time I’d been back as an adult: last time I was back I was 11. I was able to experience a lot, since a lot had changed. Back home, for independent Asian rappers, we were doing okay, had day jobs, but you start to see a roof. When I began to see some of my more favored counterparts and colleagues get deals, some major label, but see them struggle, I thought I’d give it a shot out here. I started going back and forth for several years, and three years ago finally made the move [to Taipei].
What’s a regular day for LEO37 look like?
As an independent artist, there’s nothing regular. Nowadays, independent artists, they have hands in everything. They have to multi-task and be a lot more business minded. Pseudo-entrepreneurs if you will. My day-to-day, it depends. I do a lot of graphic design work, promotion: me and my two brothers (Howie and Tim) run PPF in Toronto and I have the Blast (Serpico, Poppa Baer and Oohchild) out here in Taipei. So it’s different depending on the day. Obviously I’d like to be writing a lot more considering that’s my technical job description and I have three different projects in three different countries that need finishing, but unfortunately, I can’t be in the studio every day.
What’s your approach to writing like?
My brother Howie, he did the videos for “FANFARE,” “YOU & THE NITE,” produced for my first two albums, did all the artwork for all my physical and digital releases, and he’s a songwriter as well. He’s worked harder at his craft than anyone I know. He’s the reason I know how to do graphic design and he’s the reason why I approach writing the way I do now. When he started working professionally, he told me there was no time to wait for inspiration, you have to treat it like a job. So when I have time I force myself to write. When inspiration comes, I do write faster, in comparison to when I really have to sit down and force myself to write. But the key is to treat it like a job. You can’t really wait for inspiration anymore when this is your living. You have to be able to work under pressure. I used to carry a notepad everywhere, but now I have my iPhone where I’m constantly writing things down, so when I go to work, I can always refer to these pages and pages of random notes, lines and words to get me started.
This past March you hosted Raekwon and Ghostface Killah [of Wu-Tang Clan], how was that?
So the company I have out here is the BLAST [started in 2011, based in Taipei], we started it with the idea to go big right away, like “Let’s make a mark on the scene.” We wanted to get Ludacris and thought, How much could he be, he couldn’t be more than 10,000 US [dollars]. We hear back and his fee is like $100,000, including 7 or 8 flights, so okay, we’re nowhere near that. So we started to focus on community and culture-driven projects to really build and contribute to the scene. Eventually we started getting a lot of great offers from artists on legacy runs but none of them ever seemed like the right fit. So when we got word from Ghostface and Raekwon, it was the right offer at the right time so we jumped at it. Contrary to what I had heard from other promoters, they were both real cool. Hell, Rae even taught us some new ways to play pool as he trash talked us at the table. It was surreal.