Phnom Penh Post
July 4 - 17, 2003
Phat times in Phnom Penh
[Saturday slam: DJ Cake gets the crowd going at the country's first regular hip-hop Khmer rap party.]
Khmer hip-hop takes the rap at La Casa
By Evan Weinberger and Sam Rith
A brief lull comes in the thumping bassline and a DJ screams: "Enjoy Freedom! Be free!" Hundreds of young people in the crowd take a short break from their wild dancing and roar in response, drowning out the music. It could be a scene in any nightclub from New York to Bangkok, but this is Phnom Penh on a Saturday afternoon.
Every Saturday for the last seven months, up to 1,000 Cambodians in their teens and twenties crowd into a club in the Casa Hotel near Wat Phnom from 1 to 6 p.m. to hear the latest hip-hop music from the US and techno from Europe and Asia. They gyrate under strobes, flashing lights and spinning disco balls on a checkered dance floor to be free of their troubles.
"I come here to reduce my stress," says Raksmei, a 23-year-old student who checks out the club almost every week. "You can come here and just enjoy the music."
DJ Cake, from Planet 107 FM radio, organized the first dance party for last year's Water Festival.
"More than 1,300 young people showed up and I had to do it every weekend," he says. Now the 24-year-old Cake takes his turn spinning at the Casa parties, mugging behind the DJ booth as the crowd jumps.
The afternoon discos provide a cover for young people who want to keep their parents off their backs. Pove, a 20-year-old city resident, says: "I only come in the afternoon. I stay at home at night."
There's a three dollar charge to get in, so it's mainly the middle class and wealthy who can afford to rip loose. DJ Cake says the crowd is a mix of overseas Khmers and Cambodians born inside the Kingdom. There are few, if any, Western or non-Khmer partygoers.
Ample amounts of beer and hard liquor flow, but there's rarely any trouble. Organizers say few of the vices endemic to expatriate hangouts are found at the weekly hip-hop fests.
"There are no taxi girls, no drug addiction and no fighting," says DJ Lux, who spins at the parties. "Everybody comes just for fun and exercise."
While most of the music comes from outside Cambodia, a small amount of Khmer-language rap is making its way onto the play lists. DJ Lux, whose birth name is Doeur Chan Salux, is part of that new wave.
He first heard DJ Cake's radio show a few years ago, fell in love with hip-hop, and started MC-ing last year. Now Cake calls 23-year-old Lux his 'student'. Lux says he got into rap because he didn't like the other types of music coming into Cambodia.
"I don't like the Thai techno style. It's too fast," he says.
While DJ Cake introduces foreign hip-hop to Khmer youth, the leader of the hip-hop scene is 38-year-old veteran DJ Sope, who works at 97.5 FM.
"Cake's a nice guy, but he's kind of a flake," says Sope of his rival. "He's just following what I did."
Sope is the self-styled Sean "P Diddy" Combs of Cambodia, more a producer than a performer. Much like P Diddy, Sope has a stable of MCs, collectively known as the Phnom Penh Bad Boyz. Their first album came out three years ago, and a third will be released soon. The Bad Boyz rehearse every evening at Sope's studio-a flat just off Monivong Boulevard.
Bad Boyz Studio is a low-tech affair, but the rooms are soundproofed. The front room has a dark, floral-patterned cloth that covers foam insulation and is covered with photos of friends and family, as well as awards his father won in California. The second room is the recording studio.
"This is my first studio. They wanted a window, so I got a window and now they always put down the shade," he says.
Sope's MCs come from a varied background, and all have full-time jobs. TJ is a former monk, but currently works as an air-conditioning repairman. Sdey, another rapper, is a teacher.
DJ Sope's love affair with hip-hop started in southern California. His family, refugees from the Lon Nol era, was resettled in Des Moines, Iowa, when Sope was ten. Soon after, they moved to Oxnard, California to be part of a larger Asian community.
Sope rattles off the first hip-hop groups he heard while growing up in California-Run DMC, Afrika Bambatta, Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five.
He returned to Cambodia in 1992. The trip was supposed to be short, but a visit outside Phnom Penh made Sope change his mind. "I thought I'd only be here for two weeks," he says. "But Cambodia made me realize that my whole life was about material, and I didn't need that."
Because hip-hop is still a relatively new form of music here, Sope has to take the bass lines and music from popular American artists-Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg and Eminem are among his favorites-and put Khmer-language rap tracks over them, a trick similar to P Diddy, who puts rap tracks over pop songs. The songs often wind up being quite different to the originals.
"Nelly has a song called 'Air Force One', which is about playing basketball in his Nikes," says Sope. "But who can afford Nikes here?"
'Kou W'teer Tam Kjom' ('Don't Be Like Me') by Sdey is the song rapped over 'Air Force One'. Instead of sneakers, the song is a warning to teenagers not to make the same mistakes that Sdey made when he was growing up.
There are other differences too between the local rappers and their US counterparts. For one, the Khmer MCs don't use swear words when they rap-Sope says the words are too rude. Another reason is that they are concerned about the messages they send to their listeners.
"In Cambodia we can't rap like they do in America," says DJ Cake. "They sing about gangs. They sing about drugs. We can't do that. We have to be polite and teach people how to be good people."
There are other differences too: unlike P Diddy, Sope does not make piles of money from his artists. Instead of selling albums at the major CD shops, he gives master copies of his records to small-scale vendors. CD World sells albums for three dollars, while other vendors sell them for two dollars. Sope asks that they sell his for just half that.
"I tell them they can sell as many of the records as they want, but they have to keep them [priced low] so kids can buy them," he says.
Hip-hop's rise in Cambodia has not been seamless. One problem has been kitting out in the right clothing.
Khmer MCs have been slow to embrace the hip-hop uniform of baggy jeans and loose-fitting T-shirts. Sope took his artists shopping to buy their clothes. They found most at the Russian Market.
"I had to take all my rappers out and show them how to dress. At first they didn't like the clothes, but I said: 'I'm paying, so you're going to wear this,'" he says.
Stage fright is another major problem. Sope's artists don't do stage shows. Lisha, Cambodia's first female rapper, shakes on stage.
"I get so shy in front of all those people out there," she explains.
Despite the hiccups, hip-hop is becoming more and more popular. Both DJ Sope and DJ Cake have promoted cell phones, and Sope says he has a new group of MCs on the way.
"Sometimes people will just be waiting for me outside the studio and I'll scream, 'How'd you find me?'" he says. "But I've got this group of five kids coming up who rapped at my last party. They're tight."
Another part of the hip-hop scene that is starting to make its way here is the rivalries between MCs. The Phnom Penh Playaz, an outfit led by MC NCK, plans on trashing the Phnom Penh Bad Boyz on their next disc.
"We're gonna spend an album ripping them," Sope says.
Back at the Casa, 22-year-old Paaken explains hip-hop's appeal this way: "It's easy to dance to," he says, demonstrating some of his moves in a white satin cap which reflects the red lights.
Sope, his eyes darting behind black-framed glasses, has a different take. People tell him that hip-hop reminds them of traditional Khmer sounds.
"People keep telling me it's just like chanting with beats," he says. "Hip-hop's just funkier."