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Phnom Penh proves a rapper’s delight

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Grant Massey, aka Gobshite, is a teacher by day and a rapper by night. Photograph: Ruth Keber

It takes a certain type of person to tag trains. Calm, creative, focused – and, as they say in Britain, a bit of a gobby s—.     

Meet Grant Massey, aka Gobshite – the 29-year-old English graffiti artist and rapper who has quietly carved out a life in Phnom Penh as a gentle high school teacher by day and outspoken, witty rapper by night.

His brand of reggae-infused rap shows off the city in all its colours – from the affable (“chaps asleep in their cyclo”) to the teasingly biting (“‘nuff palm trees, no cool breeze, a place where politicians be the local G’s.”

Back in his old life back in England, he was an expert “graffer” from the age of 12, spray painting walls well into his 20s.

Friends within graffiti culture led him “naturally” to rap, and his first live performances in 2006. “I started freestyling at a place in Leicester called Castle Rock bar every Friday night, just grabbing the mic. I got good feedback, so I decided to start writing rhymes.”

Of his conspicuous moniker, he says: “I’ve had people say it’s a good name; I’ve had people say it’s a terrible name. It’s tongue-in-cheek.”

He moved to Phnom Penh in 2009 and took up the teaching job – the most rewarding he’s ever had, he says. He kept up collaborations with DJs at home and started recording with Klap Ya Handz, Cambodia’s independent hip-hop label with whom he has a 6-track EP in the works.

 Asked whether his persona has been a problem in the classroom, he says, “They think it’s great. Apart from they’re always ribbing me on my tattoos. Tattoos in Cambodia means you’re a gangster.”

His tattoos, which cover his elbows and shoulders, include the Black Flag logo (“I’m also into skinhead culture, ska music and reggae”), the letters ASB – “for Anti Social Behaviour, a crew of ours from back in Leicester” and a tribute to “Siren”, a friend and fellow graffiti fanatic who passed away.

And does he want to be a gangster?
“No, very far from it,” he laughs.

He has little interest in mainstream hip-hop, having been raised on fairly obscure underground UK acts. “Taskforce, Skinnyman, Universal Soldiers. Berry Crew, all that sort of stuff. Nothing you’d hear on the radio.”

The mainstream is “moronic”, he says. “I don’t see the point in talking about dumb s— in your music all the time if you have an opportunity and an audience who will listen to you so you can say something worthwhile.”

His own lyrics roam from poking fun at gap-year tragics on the track Jasmine Pants and mixing Khmer and English language (“bong thom means you’re a gangster lad”) to edging into the political. Some of his upcoming tracks address illegal logging and landgrabbing, he says. “I don’t necessarily call out anybody’s name, but it’s obvious who I’m talking about.”

His first Cambodian video, Phnom Penh, makes reference to corruption and the city’s murky side. It was played on national TV.  

Grant says he’s starting to find a Khmer audience. “We’re getting through to a Khmer audience, especially stuff where we heavily sample Khmer music from the ’50s and ’60s. That’s obviously a lot more appealing to the Khmer market rather than just underground hip-hop.”

As for the graffiti, the scene is tiny in Cambodia, he says. “It’s so in its infancy, there’s probably two or three kids that take a can of spray paint out at night,” he says.

“There’s one Khmer kid who’s putting a question mark everywhere, and I just wish that I could see this kid and hook up with him and take him under my wing and show him the ropes.

“I’ve got one friend who comes and paints with us sometimes. I think he is the only homegrown graffer here at the minute. But he doesn’t have a lot of money, so he doesn’t spend it on paint.”

For Grant, it’s an obsession – just like rap.

“It’s addictive, you know. If someone sends you a really nice beat, automatically you’ll get some inspiration for it. So it’s nice to hear the finished products. Plus, you know if you die tomorrow, you’ve left one or two tunes behind you.”

And, with any luck, a few tags. Gobshite will perform this weekend at Elite Club on Friday night, and Equinox on Saturday. His latest LP, a collaboration with English, China-based DJ DSK, DSK Dark Passenger, is out now on iTunes, Bandcamp and available at Russian Market.

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