Cambodian rap group AZI Fellas drop a positive beat on their troubled past.
It’s a Monday evening in April and the back door leading to the alley opens and closes steadily as people stroll in and out. Cigarette smoke from outside wafts into the room, a dimly lit rowhouse basement in Olney with walls painted black and strips of sound-proof cushions attached to the ceiling in random spots.
Sokorn Touch, known as Korn Swagger, sits at his computer in front of his homemade recording booth, listening to beats, his head gently bobbing along. Next to Korn, Joe In—clad in a flat-brimmed Phillies cap turned slightly askew—rocks his head from side to side with the beat—an electronic rhythm with a meandering Asian lilt floating over the bass line.
“We always want to add a little flavor to it,” says In of the lilt—a nod to the men’s Cambodian heritage.
The two make up half the Philly hip-hop group AZI Fellas, an Asian-style Wu-Tang Clan creating conscientious music based on the craziness of their lives. Rooted in their urban experiences as well as their dramatic family histories, the AZI Fellas spit lyrics that speak of a common disenfranchisement, backed by a beat that makes you want to bounce.
Korn, 30, clicks his keyboard a few times and a high-pitched female singer’s voice screeches over the beat in Khmer, the official language of Cambodia.
“It’s an old, traditional song,” says Korn, referring to the lyrics. “You play this somewhere and all the old Cambodian people will start singing too.”
Korn and In, 30, continue swaying to the pulsating beat as Raymond Ros, another member of the group, joins them after walking through the alley door.
“Man, this is some real in-your-face Cambodian shit,” says Ros, 25, known as Razor Sharp. “We usually try to blend everything.”
Their music generally incorporates tiny Cambodian tunes with heavy drums, East Coast-style attitude and powerful lyrics—about their families fleeing the genocide of 1970s Cambodia, living in refugee camps, arriving in Philadelphia with nothing, growing up as outsiders, living on welfare, joining gangs, selling drugs, watching friends get killed, hustling to survive and raising their families.
“Hip-hop has always related to poor people in the struggle,” says In, who performs as Joe Hanzsum.
“It relates to people’s problems,” Korn adds.
“That’s why we relate to it,” In says. “We got a right to say what we say.”
By now, the narrow room packed with musical instruments and sound equipment swarms with activity. Five more people have entered through the alley door, including a few teenagers and two black rappers who are all part of the AZI family.
Korn’s mom takes it all in while observing from halfway up the basement steps.
“When you buy me big house?” she asks with a laugh.
In a genre that reveres authenticity, it’s hard to argue that anyone could be more street than these guys—even though they’re Asian. And in a city that has unsuccessfully been dealing with tensions between Asian and African-American students in the public schools and elsewhere, the AZI Fellas may be the perfect bridge between the two cultures.
“When you listen to our music, you don’t hear race,” says In.
“Yeah,” says Korn. “We don’t get people saying, ‘Damn, those are some hot Asians.’”
“Most people think we’re black when they hear us anyway,” In says with a chuckle.