After Poetic Ammo disbanded, Point Blanc grew from a rapper to an entrepreneur. Here is how he did it.
Before there was Mizz Nina, or Pop Shuvit, there were the golden years of the English hip hop scene in Malaysia. Started in the 90s, Poetic Ammo was one of the key acts that contributed to the boom of the hip hop and rap scene locally.
Who can forget the catchy, and yet relatable songs like Who Be The Player and Monay, Monay?
However, good things do not always last forever. The band ran into obstacles and internal problems among the members which led to the hibernation of the band. The last album released was The Return of Tha’ Boombox in 2004 with just Yogi B and Point Blanc in the group.
After a brief hiatus, Nicholas Ong, popularly known as Point Blanc, continued to share his passion and talent with the release of his first solo album, Straight to the Point. The talk-of-the-town and on-repeat single from the album, Ipohmali won an ERA Award 2007 for the Best Local English Artiste of Choice category.
Point Blanc’s first album is a tri-lingual album featuring songs in Chinese, English and Bahasa Malaysia, sweeping multiple awards, such as the Local English Artiste of Choice category in the ERA Awards 2007.
With a record label (Voyeur Records), fashion/clothing line (Voyeurizm), music publishing company (So Fly Publishing), entertainment collective (The Kingspin) and two solo albums, under his belt, Point Blanc has truly “been there, done that”.
Point Blanc shares with iMoney Malaysia’s editor, Iris Lee, his journey in the industry and how he achieved the longevity that made him who he is, the entrepreneur and award winning entertainer, producer and songwriter.
Poetic Ammo is synonymous with the history of hip hop in Malaysia. What happened to the group since the last album in 2004?
The classic case of fame and fortune. It all went downhill when we booked a slot at the multi-million studio called Synchro Sound to record our second album with a producer from the UK, and one of us walked in with two girls, late and without even written the lyrics. When things like this happened, it was sort of hard to continue as a group anymore.
How difficult was it to deal with sudden fame and wealth?
Not everyone can deal with fame and fortune because when you combine money and popularity, your ego becomes your biggest enemy.
Some of us couldn’t deal with the success we had when we were at the peak. We started to lose our way and our focus, and believed in our own hype too much.
It’s okay to do that if you can still maintain the quality of your work. There are many rock stars, who indulge in that kind of lifestyle, but when they step in front of the mic, they make genius level kind of music.
So, maybe we were not so extremely talented, and when some of us lost our way, it affected the quality of our work. When it came to that point, it was serious.
I’m sure it takes more than hard work to produce music that relates to all Malaysian youth at that time. What makes you so passionate about hip hop?
I had been obsessed with hip hop as a strong form of expression since I was just 14. For me, it wasn’t just something “cool” I wanted to be associated with.
At that time, it wasn’t like now, where people are like, “Oh, I want to be a rapper too, I want to tilt my cap this way.” I loved what hip hop stood for. It was about people from poverty, embracing a certain art form and taking it somewhere else, to express themselves.
I related to it in a different way, from an Asian perspective, because hip hop was an African-American art form. If you look past all the yo’s and the baggy and saggy pants, it’s like, you come from nothing, and you express yourself through music and culture. So, I got really into. I just wanted to release an album, it was like my dream at that time.
Getting to where Poetic Ammo was, was certainly not easy. We all have a rough idea of how you started in the industry from the Ipohmali music video. Tell us the details!
It was a funny story. At that time Ipoh had this whole underground hip hop movement, and Asia Bagus was really popular. One day, I saw a newspaper ad on New Straits Times, it was just a small, square box with the words “Looking for new rappers” or something like that.
Then I mustered my – pardon my language – “b***s” to call the number in the ad. On the other line was Yogi B, and we talked. I was a 16-year-old Chinese kid and sometimes we only get one shot in our life – and I believed that was mine.
On the phone, I could tell he wasn’t impressed because of my background, and I could hear from the tone of his voice that he was a little doubtful and was not really into it.
I thought to myself, if I didn’t step up, I would lose the chance. I could do something that he could do, which was beatboxing. So, I impressed him that way. I was like “Yo, I could do what you can do, but not as well, obviously! Check me out!”
I auditioned through the phone. After that he told me that he wanted to see me next week. He asked me to go down to KL to meet him.
What was your parent’s reaction?
I re-enacted what happened when I was 16 in the Ipohmali music video. It was exactly how it was in the video. My mum was like, “Are you crazy?”
Did the financial part of it cross your mind? If you make it big, you could be financially well-off.
It was 1999. (Laughs) So, not really.
(Laughs) Maybe not make it big, but at least found a way to support yourself and your family.
Of course. But it wasn’t like balling and all. I did not go into it thinking I’d strike rich at the end of it. It was more like, hopefully, this music could help me support my family.
And it did. Thank God. With the blessings of my family.
You were 16 when you started out. How long did it take you to establish yourself financially?
If I’m being honest, I was naïve when I first started out. We were lucky because at the peak of our popularity, we started getting sponsorship deals from Coca-cola and DiGi.
That journey took us about two years to get there. When I first moved to KL, it took us about a year to record our first album. Back then, we were sleeping in studios and eating instant noodles. We grinded. That’s why the first album came out so well because it was written through our emotions, through our struggles. The music somehow translated those emotions.
This kind of art form is sort of lost now.
After that happened, did you have anything else lined up?
It wasn’t really a break up, it was just the group consolidated to just two members – me and Yogi B. So we did another album, The Return of Tha’ Boombox, where the single, Monay Monay, was released.
So, the group technically has not broken up. It was never official. Poetic Ammo is still alive, it’s just that we are on an indefinite hiatus.
Then, you started your solo career with the single, Ipohmali. Was that your only source of revenue?
In the entertainment industry, there are a lot of ways to monetise, even though the options are fewer today. But back then when I was still doing it attentively, there were a lot of ways to do that. One of them is music publishing. Every time your song is played on radio, or used in shopping mall, TVC, or movie, you will get your royalty at the end of the year.
I did the 360 degree business plan based on the blueprint of African American hip hop business. You create a brand where the music is the core. Then you leverage with a clothing line. Now it has become a standard cookie cutter path, but back then, it was quite a novel business model.
What would you advice be for artistes who are trying to extend their revenue in the industry?
In business, there is always a lifespan. To be a successful entrepreneur, you must know when to let go. Don’t hold on to something too long, even though you build it from the start. Like any other investments, you must know when to sell.
Who knows, with the money you get from selling, you can do something else that can make you even more money, if money is your focus.
That’s sound investment advice. What is the biggest lesson you learnt from your career in the entertainment industry?
Life is all about learning from your mistakes. When you’re young, you make a lot of mistakes. The same goes for me. During my era, the whole property investments and the whole investing trend weren’t really there yet. So, at that point, I was young, coupled with my poor background, I indulged in a lot of stupid and ridiculous things when I started to see money coming in.
My mother always tells me that I blew away all my money that I made when I was young. (chuckles)
But I believe that I blew that money away for a lesson, that lesson made me understand the importance of managing one’s money well, and also the importance of investment.
Now I understand that when you make money, you can’t just spend it all. You need to reinvest, and not just reinvesting into the same thing or business. You need to invest in something else too as back-up. Too many people lost everything they had by putting all their money in the same basket.
What was your biggest indulgence at the height of your success in Poetic Ammo?
My biggest indulgences were expensive shoes, caps and clothes. I was quite a himbo. (Laughs)
I invested in a couple of stupid businesses. I opened a Magic: The Gathering card shop, invested in some family businesses. But I also made life better for my parents. I moved them out of Ipoh to KL, and they’ve been here ever since.
After Poetic Ammo, you started your recording label, Voyeur Records and a clothing line. What else did you delve into?
My music publishing company, So Fly Publishing and also a company providing entertainment solutions, such as event organising services, and consultations. The whole business plan was done by leveraging on the existing network that I had.
Which was the most lucrative?
Long-term, it would be music publishing. It is intellectual property. That is sometimes more valuable than properties and other investments. It is forever. I own a catalogue of songs that I’ve written, for myself or for other artistes, which I can monetise in many different ways. It could be picked up for a movie or TV show.
Are you still expanding your music catalogue?
Right now, no. I’m taking a sabbatical. I don’t know how and when I will get back to it. The industry had deteriorated quite a bit, at the core of it, it’s hard to monetise, and the consumers, the average listeners, have changed.
I believe in substance, though the layman may just see a dude with long blonde hair, going “Yo, yo, yo!”
But if you really delve on the intellectual level of my music, it’s always been about inspiration. My tagline has always been, “Small town, big dreams.” That’s what I’ve always represented, the working class. No matter where you are from, or your background, if you have a dream, you stick to it with a passion, you go all out, and you can make it happen. That’s what I always say in all my music.
Ipohmali is about that. Poetic Ammo was about that. We did something that seem impossible at that time, Asian boys doing hip hop. But we localised it. Why Poetic Ammo was successful was because we had substance. We talked about things that are relatable to the local market.
Because of all that, I don’t feel like I can do any music right now.
Coming from a poor background, does it affect the way you manage your money now?
Not initially, when I was 16 or 18. Like I told you, I was quite naïve when I first started out. However, when I get older, yes, obviously it does. I come to the point in my life where my whole existence does not revolve around money anymore.
The ideology of money, if you read Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad, Poor Dad, and other finance books – money is not real. You make RM100,000 today, that money may translate into RM1,000 or whatever in years. Money is not real.
Obviously you need to work hard to be able to support yourself and be comfortable. I’m not at the point where I am working my butt off for the sole purpose of making money. I’m not saying money is not important. It just shouldn’t be the sole purpose of your existence.
You can never make enough.
That’s very true. How much was your first pay cheque?
It was really terrible but it meant the world to me. After splitting the money into four, it was somewhere in the region of RM250 to RM300. (Laughs)
It was the most money (of mine) that I had ever seen. But the feeling of satisfaction was priceless.
I spent it all on a pair of shoes that I could not afford before but I’ve always wanted. I carried the shoes with me all the time, I think I slept with them as well.
(Laughs) Those shoes must be quite special. How has all that changed your lifestyle?
Because I come from a small town, my upbringing centred me somehow. Whenever I get lost, I go back to my roots. Don’t believe in your hype so much. At the end of the day we are all human. Being popular and famous should not give you the higher-than-thou attitude.
I work hard, if people appreciate my work, that’s what drives me.
Obviously when I was at my peak, I kind of lost my way as well. Who wouldn’t? Temptations were abound. After a while, seeing what happened to my partners, seeing older musicians who have passed their prime becoming hateful, spiteful and bitter, I learned.
This is not something a lot of entertainers can come to term with. I guess fame and wealth are addictive. How did you escape that vicious cycle?
At age 36, I don’t want to be that person. That washout person who is still trying to come out with an album. I just want to live and do something different.
If people ask me, why are you doing this, why not? Why are you not doing this? Why should I? If I did music, should I do music till the day I die? Is that what you expect of me?
I’m done with people’s expectations of me. Now it’s the time for me to do something that I want.
So, now that you decide to do things differently, do you have a fall back?
I have multiple fall backs. I have a backlog of profiles, and strings that I could pull. I’ve been in the industry for 20 years, I have my own network. If things go bad, where my parents have to sleep on the street, there is always somewhere I can do something.
And I’m trying not to tarnish it. You must know when to bow out graciously so you will be remembered for the good things that you have done.
What are your plans in the next few years?
I just want to have serenity, inner peace and happiness. Does that have to translate to more revenue or income streams? If that will make me happy, maybe.
Or maybe living in a mountain off the grid, just being self-sufficient will make me happy.
What are your indulgences now?
I’ve always been bipolar in my spending, there are two sides of me. I’m basically a geek in every essence. I indulge in a lot of comic books, toys, collectibles and art books. These do not come cheap.
They can turn into investments too, as these collectors’ items can go up in price.
How about a pension? Do you have one?
Do I look like I have a pension? (Laughs) Not really, but I do have savings. I wish it was more.
Cash, card or cheque?
When I was broke, I like to use the card. (Laughs) But cash is good, and you also feel the self-satisfaction when you are paying with cash. But these days, it’s dangerous to bring too much around. I hate cheques – just too much hassle.
What is your best financial decision?
Setting up my music publishing company and consolidating my intellectual properties.
And the worst?
(Laughs) Too many to mention. There’s no worst, they are all equally bad. On top of my head now is probably buying the Hot Toys Iron Man action figure for RM1,000.
(Laughs) Is it not worth that?
It’s just too expensive a price to pay for plastic.
Would you get back the money if you resell it?
I hope so. It better! They told me I can, but I won’t know until I close the deal.
What are your financial priorities in the next five to 10 years?
Giving a better life to my parents. They are old now. I want them to have the best time they can.
Do you invest in other conventional investments like unit trust, or shares?
My sister is a huge unit trust advocate. She tried convincing me years ago, but I wasn’t really into it. I think I have more faith in gold investment. At the end of the day, it will be down to precious metals that have value.
If we go into a zombie apocalypse, gold may be the universal currency.
Spoken like a true comic geek. (Laughs) How about properties?
Yes, I have delved into it. But it’s hard for us to get a loan sometimes because it’s difficult for the banks to see the stability in our income, as musicians. We don’t have monthly payslips or EPF.
But I don’t sweat myself over it. If I get it, I get it. If not, I’ll just move on.
Are you a saver or a spender?
I did say I’m a bipolar when it comes to money. Chinese believe that when there are gaps between your fingers in a palm, you are a spender. That was true when I was younger, but as I got older, my spending pattern changed. I spend on different things, and hopefully, less expensive.
At the end of the day, we all just want happiness.