MC Dolla Billz (L) poses with DJ Bboy Peanut in front of the Independence Monument in Phnom Penh. Photograph: Belinda Kimson
Hip-hop dreams came a dime a dozen while Sokha Chhim was growing up in the post-industrial wasteland of the American northeast during gangsta rap’s golden era.
“Everyone wanted to be a rapper. Everyone wanted to be a singer or a DJ,” says Chhim, better known in Phnom Penh by his MC moniker Dolla Billz, or simply Dolla.
Despite the prevalence of hip-hop and a lifelong passion for writing, Dolla – whose debut mixtape is set to drop this Saturday – never bothered to explore music-making in the nearly 30 years he lived in the US.
“Everyone was going into the studio. There was too much competition,” says the 31-year-old, who was born in Thailand’s Kao I Dang refugee camp and raised in Amherst, Massachusetts, by an aunt and uncle.
It was only when Dolla found himself in Cambodia after being deported by the US government for having committed an “aggravated felony”, that he first stepped to the microphone.
Shortly after arriving in Phnom Penh, Dolla met Seattle-born Phanna Nam, also known as Bboy Peanut, at a congee stand by the side of the road. They found out they shared a mutual love of hip-hop – Dolla had begun singing and rapping behind bars, Peanut was a break dancer venturing into music production – and two weeks later they were recording in Peanut’s home studio.
The result of this chance encounter is the P.N.D. Take Over Mixtape, Dolla’s official debut as a rapper and the first full-length production from Peanut, one of Riverhouse Lounge’s resident DJs.
With a hip-hop scene that’s barely in its nascent stages, both artists feel there’s more inroads to creating music here than in the US.
The songs on the mixtape range from hip-hop samples to original beats and R&B ballads, and the underlying theme is Dolla’s life story – growing up as a refugee kid in the US, getting caught up in the street life, gang-banging, doing time, getting deported and starting anew in Cambodia.
The song Take Over, for example, is about the struggle of adjusting to life in Cambodia as a “Khmerican”. Dolla says the song’s lines of “Take over/We put a hole in your Range Rover” were inspired by the class differences he noticed when he witnessed a car accident caused by a young, wealthy SUV driver in Phnom Penh.
When he speaks of the choices he made that got him deported, Dolla goes back to the reasons he ended up on the street. He talks of his experience growing up as a refugee in the US.
“We couldn’t communicate,” he says of his aunt and uncle, who he considers his parents. “They were going through their own stuff. They had gone through the Khmer Rouge. They couldn’t read or write. They were trying to adapt.”
Unable to relate with his parents, Dolla started getting into trouble and eventually dropped out of high school at 16 and moved to Lowell, Massachusetts, home to one of the largest Cambodian communities in the US, and infamous for its gang scene and drug running.
An assault on a rival drug dealer landed him a 10-year prison term for armed robbery. He went in at 17 years old and came out at 27. The violent offence marked him for deportation under US immigration laws, and a few years later he was deported to a “homeland” he had never known.
Some of the lyrics on the Take Over Mixtape are overtly political, criticising the White House and US deportation policy.
“I really want to direct it to the States. I want to send a message that we’re gone, but we’re still here,” he says.
Peanut, who mixed the album on a modern but simple computer set-up rigged in the corner of his bedroom, says that the dominance of formulaic K-Pop beats getting marketed to Cambodian youths makes it difficult for something different to catch on.
“Cambodians like commercial music, like if it’s linked to commercials, or if it’s playing at Lucky Supermarket,” says the 28-year-old.
This is why the duo is taking a grassroots approach, launching the mixtape at a Riverhouse Lounge party this Saturday, and ideally distributing the music for free to get exposure.
Although Dolla dreams of “going global” someday and performing in places like Australia or Europe, he maintains that the most important thing right now is telling his story. “I’ve been quiet for so long,” he says, with a sense of urgency.
The P.N.D. Take Over Mixtape will be officially released at Riverhouse Lounge’s Green Glow Lumina Party this Saturday, September 8th, featuring a live performance by Dolla with Peanut on the turntables.
To contact the reporter on this story: Diana Montano at [email protected]