Hip-Hop Hopes

Cambodian rap group AZI Fellas drop a positive beat on their troubled past.

By G.W. Miller III
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 55 | Posted May. 4, 2010

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Photo by Jeff Fusco

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.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 55 of 55
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1. mia-lia said... on May 4, 2010 at 09:42PM

“yea!!! azi all day!!”

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2. Anonymous said... on May 4, 2010 at 10:23PM

“AZI will live forever!!!”

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3. Barber Mout said... on May 4, 2010 at 10:30PM

“Yo much to respect to the writer ( G.W. Miller III ) he took his time to put this piece together and have AZI Fellaz on the cover of the Philadelphia weekly!!! Philadelphian show love or be counted out!!!! AZI Fellaz all day!!!”

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4. Anonymous said... on May 5, 2010 at 12:11AM

“Great job AZI!”

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5. Anonymous said... on May 5, 2010 at 12:20AM

“big ups to the fellas.”

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6. Razor Sharp said... on May 5, 2010 at 01:25AM

“Congratz to da fellas! Continue to work hard and strive to be da best at what we do and we will prevail...AZI MUSIC!!”

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7. sunny said... on May 5, 2010 at 01:55AM

“This is HISTORY in the making and yall did it "FROM THE MUSCLE" this is only the begining..AZI!!!!!!”

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8. Anonymous said... on May 5, 2010 at 02:03AM

“George Miller, please don't say things like "spit lyrics." Go back to not writing.”

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9. Coe said... on May 5, 2010 at 03:08AM

“Congrats to the AZI FELLAS.. Keep moving foward your on the right path”

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10. Vy said... on May 5, 2010 at 04:35AM

“Philadelphia needs to see what i see in these talented guys. Way to go AZI Fellas!!!!”

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11. What It Look Like? said... on May 5, 2010 at 09:54AM

“For More Azi.. Check out their music page on
Http://www.myspace.com/theazifellas
Show some support and Love!!
Free S.K
Much love god Bless..”

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12. sperk said... on May 5, 2010 at 11:56AM

“Yo my azi brother I'm trying to blow up..good job with the work”

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13. Anonymous said... on May 5, 2010 at 12:10PM

“Get AZI or fall asleep on Elm street”

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14. dustin lock said... on May 5, 2010 at 02:21PM

“Azi is puttin in dat work wit real hip hop good shit my nikkAs it been a long time comin for yall and im proud yall made it! Keep up da good work :)”

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15. T.0.L said... on May 5, 2010 at 05:45PM

“A......Z....i
its jus Da way dat we livin....
we all can relate!
keep it coming...stay determined
it aint bout nothing!”

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16. Anonymous said... on May 5, 2010 at 05:55PM

“A bunch of wack chinese rappers that are never gonna make it. There all gonna laugh at you hahahaa”

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17. Anonymous said... on May 5, 2010 at 06:01PM

“AZI dudes are wack! 30 years old! Get a real career!!!”

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18. E K T said... on May 5, 2010 at 06:04PM

“love the tracks guy keep it up and blow up like the wprld trade lol and where my mans Ranz Dolo at with his sick flow? haha much love”

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19. YoungILLz said... on May 5, 2010 at 07:00PM

“Damn go ahead Azi. Do your thang keep it up! love your music haha, also the haters do too, chu kno..you must be doing something right for people to envy n hate yall.. remember dont hate da haters jus thank them for their time.
Salute!!

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20. Alleena said... on May 5, 2010 at 07:04PM

“Bout got damn time philly comin up.. yo whens ya next performance .. everyone needs to start showing love to AZI philly yea !!!!!”

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21. Anonymous said... on May 5, 2010 at 07:44PM

“Yea Korn, do your thing I'm proud of you man!”

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22. Sophy said... on May 5, 2010 at 08:02PM

“The AZI fellas been through a lot to become the group that they are, I applaud your hard work, determinations, and passions. AZI will be known, and continue to strive to become the best Khmer rapper in Philly, much love to my cousin Joe, and friends!”

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23. playahata said... on May 5, 2010 at 09:58PM

“i got to admit azi is a hip hop group that the music industry needs
no more bullshit raps!
i never heard of these guys til now but im glad i picked up the paper today!”

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24. lovely said... on May 5, 2010 at 10:14PM

“picked up one on the way to work today. nice story guys, i really enjoyed it! look forward to hearing more stuff from yall soon. Represent!”

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25. groupielove=) said... on May 5, 2010 at 10:17PM

“Korn Swagger is soooo sexy!”

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26. kevin jordan said... on May 5, 2010 at 10:17PM

“man these for hot i never heard asian people rapping like this before they are stepping it up i thought they was black the whole time keep it up fellas”

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27. susan said... on May 5, 2010 at 10:20PM

“aint no more "got rice?" for asians no more thnx n good bye steriotypes”

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28. john lopez said... on May 5, 2010 at 10:22PM

“yo man I'm really feeling this man i heard one of their tracks on myspace yo man yall is hot man keep it up”

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29. Azi said... on May 5, 2010 at 10:42PM

“You can get more info & music on
myspace/twitter/youtube or just google us
thanks for love & support!
AZi”

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30. LoGuNNaS Old York RD RuNNaS said... on May 6, 2010 at 02:24AM

“It's ya boy! Keep up the progress. We Khmer, ain't nothin we can't overcome. Like it or not we "here". Cambodia, we on the "map". Wut? Stop all that envy Shit, Lets get this money n share the wealth.
For Reals!”

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31. I_own3chineseStores said... on May 6, 2010 at 07:50AM

“These guys r not Chinese. I know, because I'm Chinese. I think they were drafted by the Jews in Dave Chappelles racial draft. Lol!! But they better than alot of these fake MTV rappers!! Go AZI!!”

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32. Anonymous said... on May 6, 2010 at 08:59AM

“AZI, May this journey keeps on going for you guys!! Congrats!! korn...you are HOT!! ;)”

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33. Anonymous said... on May 6, 2010 at 11:08AM

“I always knew you would make it!!! This is how your foundation continues to grow. I am glad to see Cambodians being recognized in such a way. Much Love to Joe and the AZI family...hot article!”

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34. Cidric McCray a.k.a. SouleEvolution said... on May 6, 2010 at 11:40AM

“Big time shout out to ya. I remember Sorkorn from way back in the day. I'm glad to see that you're representing your heritage and it represents you as well. Hip-Hop is not defined by just one race, but by all people. The love for Hip-Hop is eternal and I hope that you will continue to shine with you and your group. Keep on representing the real and remember what i taught u back in Frankford High School. Lol. Peace and The Evolution Continues,,,,,”

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35. Cidric McCray a.k.a. SouleEvolution said... on May 6, 2010 at 11:51AM

“My bad. I meant to spell it "Sokorn". Lol.”

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36. Anonymous said... on May 6, 2010 at 01:19PM

“froe life”

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37. Anonymous dude said... on May 6, 2010 at 03:46PM

“you dont have to be chinky eyed to get down AZI”

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38. Anonymous dude again said... on May 6, 2010 at 03:47PM

“with*”

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39. Park Ave Weeze said... on May 6, 2010 at 11:04PM

“Yeah AZI produced my artists biggest hit 24/7 and the 24/7 remix. Korn swagger is a real hip-hop critic and we would always go @ it over todays hip-hop. I like there studio cause its like family. To hear 24/7 go to myspace.com/hillcreekentertainment”

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40. Anonymous said... on May 6, 2010 at 11:19PM

“Great story, good writing, n nice pictures!!!! Don't fall for the machines!!! Let's go hip hop. azi represent”

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41. Anonymous said... on May 7, 2010 at 02:52AM

“big thanks to the author whom wrote this article. Great story, love seeing khmer people making a change... May 7th, I'll be there”

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42. kliff said... on May 7, 2010 at 07:27AM

“not much of a fan of rap these days but i def will check this out. got lots of cambodian friends and know the horrible history of what their families went through. refreshing to hear their side instead of money, cars, b***hes and jewelry. peace”

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43. Anzwer said... on May 7, 2010 at 06:24PM

“........Nice article!....AZI you guys rock man....much love and support! you will make it to the mainstream!!!!”

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44. Anonymous said... on May 8, 2010 at 12:37AM

“Great show!!! I can't believe that you guys are involved with khmer kids from cambodia... mad respect and keep doing it.”

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45. mr. george said... on May 9, 2010 at 11:46PM

“my secretary brought in the paper for me the other day, i must say pretty interesting made me forgot that i had the inquire .”

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46. Anonymous said... on May 11, 2010 at 02:04PM

“I think they are cute and I'm a dude... LOL”

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47. Bunrath Math said... on May 11, 2010 at 02:10PM

“Cambodian youths and community in Philadelphia are starting to make positive contributions,social changes and so on. Encouraging development.
Proud of you, AZI.”

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48. fabo said... on May 13, 2010 at 01:03PM

“yall is willd for this one..i seen the article at my cuzzos crib..i like.i hope for the best for you guys.and yall music is contagious..they need to give yall radio play.”

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49. Eagles4life said... on May 14, 2010 at 05:27PM

“Hey I'm a big hip hop fan that loves that original shit. N y'all definitly got it. This article is real I know alot of Cambodian dudes. N y'all get it in. Mad props for that son. Keep it real. Peace out”

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50. Philly Phill said... on May 14, 2010 at 10:06PM

“Yo Camobodian Rappers need promotion too. I wrote this article on Japanese Hip Hop http://www.badhabitatmusic.com/top-10-japanese-hip-hop-artists
Next I will do one for these dudes. Peace”

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51. 007Khmerguy215 said... on May 16, 2010 at 06:45PM

“Nice article guys. It's good that the young Cambodian kids didn't forget their heritage and where they came from. Stay Real.”

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52. SIMEIZM 215-702 said... on May 27, 2010 at 09:49AM

“kept it up azi ...we made it out stuggle here fuk the player hate.....“Philadelphia needs to see what i see in these talented phillie world. Way to go AZI Fellas!!!!” the world is your.....A WO ....A WAY OUT SIMEIZM KAREEM COE NANG KIM STICK RAW .............”

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53. dayknight said... on May 29, 2010 at 09:12AM

“you guys rock.....where can i find your album? i heard some songs on the web but i want the official cd..”

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54. D.S Da Damaga said... on Jul 10, 2010 at 10:05PM

“Azi Do Ya Thing Fam and if they hate let em hate watch the money pile up!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

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55. Laine Cavanaugh said... on Feb 24, 2011 at 04:33PM

“You guys are awesome. I would love it if you could come perform for my middle schoolers in West Philadelphia. I know they would love this!!!”

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