Two members of Tiny Toones flipping their way to hip-hop success. STUART ISETT / SUPPLIED BY TINY TOONES
Despite the fact that hip-hop music was born in America, it has spread its influence over the world during the past two decades and has recently been embraced by a growing number of Cambodians who are mixing hip-hop beats with Khmer words to make truly unique, and Cambodian, music.
There are five elements of hip-hop, rapping, DJing, graffiti, beat boxing and break dancing. Thanks to the widespread availability of Western beats throughout the Kingdom, as well as a number of returnees from America, a number of these activities are catching on with Cambodian teenagers and university students. Just about every bar or night club in the city blasts hip-hop beats for clubbers dancing in the evening hours, but there is also a smaller group of people who are spending their days making hip-hop music with distinctly Khmer styles.
Hip-hop teams like Khmer Struggle (Khmer Tousu), Tiny Toones, Klap Ya Handz and Youngsterz are using hip-hop to express themselves, talk about their lives and are now attracting a loyal following of hip-hop fans.
Youngsterz, the youngest of the hip-hop crews, was created by three teenagers named Sok Sokpagna, Keo Heng and Tourn Sopaik who loved rapping as soon as they first heard it. After producing one song, fittingly title Youngsterz, they were adopted by Klap Ya Handz, an older and larger hip-hop collective. Now, Youngsterz team have recorded around 13 or 14 songs.
Sok Sopagna explained that he and his friends decided to create their own hip-hop team in order to entertain themselves and the others, as well as stay away from drugs and other bad influences.
“We love everything about hip-hop music – like its rhythms, clothing styles, actions and the lyrics of the songs. That’s why we create our own songs, which talk about our group, society, drugs, HIV and love,” said 20-year-old Sok Sopagna.
He said that he and the other Youngsterz got their musical education from DVDs, CDs, TV and concerts. Eventually they had the confidence to start writing their own song “Youngsterz”. After finishing the song, they sent it to Mr. Cream, a director of Klap Ya Handz. He liked what he heard and invited the boys to join his outfit.
Youngsterz writes and performs all of their own songs but they get help from Mr. Cream on the beats. “We do not copy styles from the others, we write and rap by ourselves. Our hip-hop music always mixes modern music with classical music,” Sok Sopagna explained.
Besides becoming well-known entertainers, being involved with hip-hop also gives artists a chance to inform and educate their audience
“Many people know about our team because of our performances at night clubs and concerts. We are very proud of ourselves because we can educate and send very good messages to the audiences,” said Keo Heng, who is part of Tiny Toones.
Tiny Toones is an organisation that has been providing hip-hop classes and practice space for free since 2004. Hundreds of children and teenagers have gone there to learn to breakdance, rap and compose hip-hop music.
Mom Sothear, also known as DJ Manner, has reached minor fame among other rappers since he started with Tiny Toones three years ago, and he explained the differences between Khmer hip-hop artists and their foreign contemporaries.
“We can identify hip-hop as Khmer style base on the melody, words, and we try to renovate hip-hop by mixing Khmer music with foreign music instead of copying completely from others,” he said. “We try to write our own lyrics and rap in our own style.”
DJ Manner explained that because Khmer hip-hop is a unique creation, it adds to Khmer culture and is representative of Khmer people. The band is even spreading Khmer hip-hop to the world. “Recently, we sold out one album to the US and we plan to sell another album in the future,” he said.
Another group of four teenagers from Korsang, an organisation that works with recovering drug users, have formed Khmer Torsu (Khmer Struggles).
The group was initially founded by Boomer, a Cambodian American who wants to help Cambodian youths stay away from drugs and start a new life with their hip-hop talent.
“I want to help addicted youths to have a bright future and get away from drugs,” said Boomer, who has spent much of his own money supporting the group. He added that some people are sceptical that the rappers in the group can really turn their lives around, but that the project has been a great success.
Twenty-year-old Houn Chakriya, who fell into the depths of addiction and became virtually unrecognisable to his friends and family, has made a great effort, along with others in his group, to get away from drugs, helped along with strong encouragement from his family.
“When I tried to stop using drugs for the first time, I got a fever, shaking hands, runny nose and body sweats,” said Houn Chakriya, whose nickname is Kidd.
“But when I listened to music I felt well and forgot of about the pain of the drugs. I can say music partly urged me to stop using drugs.”
Now whenever he thinks of drugs Kidd said he goes to sit down and listen to music. The hip-hop artist is also now working as a disc jockey at a club in Phnom Penh.
“My life has changed since I began working on music with my team,” he said.
Hip-hop may not be traditionally Khmer, but it is certainly finding a place in Cambodia today.