DJ Cake, 35, does not come across as a megastar. As he sips his drink in a Phnom Penh backpacker hostel while visiting his friend at work, he has the air of a serious businessman, with only the massive ring on his finger betraying his status as a hip-hop idol. Every Monday from 6pm to 7pm and every Saturday from 11:30pm to 12:30am, he performs his rap tunes, which are mostly Khmer covers of American rappers, ranging from Snoop Dog to Flo-Rida, on TV 9. However, his performances take him to most Cambodian television channels, both as a rapper and brand spokesman, with advertisement roles ranging from a mafioso dealing briefcases of cookies to a love-struck geek pursuing a girl at a café. He spoke to Bennett Murray about his life as a Cambodian superstar and the need to be a clean role model for the youth..
How did you get your rapper name?
Everyone loves cake. Like a birthday cake, wedding cake, every time you party, you party with a cake.
How did you get your start in rapping?
I first listened to rap in 2000. My first favourite rapper was Jay-Z. Before, I had been a radio DJ since 1997, one year after I moved to Phnom Penh from Kampong Speu, where I grew up. My parents were labourers, so we were not rich.
When I began working in radio, I did the French connection programme, where we talked in both French and Khmer. I studied French for more than 20 years, but I’ve never been to France. From there, sponsors began to notice me, and I began to move upward.
Do people ever recognise you?
Yeah, everywhere. I’m always good with them and friendly. But all the girls like me, and then the boyfriends, say, ‘oh, no’. I will be eating at Lucky Burger, and some girl will say, ‘Aww! DJ Cake!’ But then her boyfriend will say, ‘He’s no good.’ He’s very jealous.
What does your wife think about your career, and all the female admirers?
She sees me with a lot of pretty girls in the videos. But she understands that it is just my work. And I love my wife; she keeps me on a straight path.
What do you rap about?
We talk about Phnom Penh. We are talking about Phnom Penh developing every day. Big buildings, hospitals, pagodas, basically to appreciate the development. Phnom Penh has everything, just like any other place. We are talking about Phnom Penh life. And I rap about pretty girls, too.
Do you ever delve into social issues?
I also rap about drug abuse. There’s a lot of drugs in Phnom Penh, so I rap about [that]. It is all part of the environment in Cambodia, so we need education.
Do you see yourself as a role model for Cambodian youth?
Many, many kids want to be like me. I’ve been through a lot, and I don’t want kids to make the mistakes I’ve seen people make.
Kids won’t go to school, they’ll go with their girlfriends and boyfriends, and do things like smoke shisha when they should be in school.
Sometimes, parents come to me, and say, ‘Cake, my kid won’t go to school, he’s on drugs.’
When those parents talk to me, I tell them they must send their kids to rehab.
Parents like me, because they know I educate the youth about drugs. I also talk to the kids, because the kids don’t want to hear it, but they’ll hear it from me.
In Cambodia, you have to be clean to be a rapper. If people say I do drugs, that I’m a gangster, I will lose my sponsors. So I stay clean.