It was in 2012, during a six-hour taxi ride through the Kingdom’s countryside listening to a bunch of old mix tapes, that Australia hip-hop outfit Astronomy Class found themselves inspired by the fruits of the Cambodian music scene of the ’60s and ’70s. Back in Australia, the trio teamed up with Cambodian Space Project vocalist Kak Channthy to put together Mekong Delta Sunrise, an album that combines laconic Australian-accented rapping with snippets of Cambodian “golden age” rock ‘n’ roll. The week after the record was released, Will Jackson had a chat with the outfit’s MC Ozi Batla (Shannon Kennedy).
What did you set out to achieve with Mekong Delta Sunrise ?
What we wanted to cover was our experiences of modern Cambodia and the history of the music that we were referencing. We wanted to try and tell some of the story of the Cambodia of the ’60s and ’70s. We had been excited by the songs that we were hearing and it didn’t feel right to rap just anything over it. We wanted for new listeners to understand something about Cambodia and the music.
What is it about Cambodian rock that inspired you ?
There’s the songwriting and I suppose the weird feedback loop that you get when musical cultures influence each other. I think Jamaica is another example of it. It just was one of those moments in time where everything just clicks into place and you have this amazing dynamic music scene that only lasts for so long. You usually end up with those songs being played over and over again everywhere but due to the history of Cambodia that hasn’t been the case. It’s a fascinating story, in and of itself, but the music is vibrant and really captures a feeling of time and place.
Of the artists you sampled for the album, which are your favourites ?
Obviously a lot of Ros Sereysothea and Sinn Sisamouth songs get a look in but I think Pen Ron – especially with Channthy’s influence, I think she is probably closer in attitude and personality and style to Pen Ron than Sereysothea – that sort wildly crazy ’60s go-go vibe, I really enjoy that. But some of the ballads are just amazing as well.
How did you guys get good-quality source material for the samples? Did you have to clean them up a lot ?
We weren’t that concerned with cleaning it up because that’s the nature of it. Sonically, you just want to keep the aesthetic – I think that’s more important than quality. We’ve sourced the music from all over the place. There’s little snippets from YouTube, from DVDs we got burned in [the Sydney suburb of] Cabramatta . . . You just work with what you’ve got and what’s actually there
How did the songwriting process work with Channthy ?
Channthy was a big influence on Four Barang in a Tuk Tuk and Woman Wants to Drink is Channthy’s song, it’s her theme and I basically wrote around it. Aside from the songwriting, she was also able to tell us what the songs were about, the context of them and that really made a huge difference when we were sampling and trying to reference this music.
Are you planning to give something back to the surviving families of the musicians you have sampled ?
From the start we’ve said that a percentage of any money that we make, we’re going to give back [to the families of the musicians], trying to do it as directly as we can, through Thy most probably. We haven’t come up with anything yet, but we will be coming over next year and we will be making every effort to give back to the families of the people that we’ve sampled.
What was your impression of the Cambodian hip-hop scene while you were over here?
It’s incredibly healthy and vibrant. I think there’s a big US West Coast influence because there’s a lot of Cambodian-Americans who have landed back in Phnom Penh in the past few years because of the US [deportation] policies and I think that’s been a big influence and healthy as well. It’s a very strong and conscious hip-hop scene over there. We’re going to get in touch with [Phnom Penh hip-hop crew] Klap Ya Handz to just hand the instrumentals over and we’re really looking forward to hearing some raps in Khmer over the tracks as well.
Mekong Delta Sunrise is available now via digital download from the Elefant Traks website elefanttraks.com.