Cambodian rap group AZI Fellas drop a positive beat on their troubled past.
They want to use their music to bring people together, to pull themselves out of their personal situations and to help their families. Their ultimate goal is to take their music international so they can help rebuild Cambodia, a nation still scarred by decades of war and political turmoil.
“Every single person in Cambodia was touched by the tragedies,” In says.
This Friday, the AZI Fellas will perform at the Asian Arts Initiative (1219 Vine St.) in a benefit for Tiny Toones Cambodia, an organization that helps at-risk Cambodian youth through breakdancing, hip-hop and art.
The question remains whether four humble yet provocative Cambodian guys with sketchy pasts and no desire to be commercially appealing can make it out of the basement in an industry that rewards image.
“Asian or not, if you plan to make music your job, you definitely have your work cut out for you,” says Scott Jung, better known as CHOPS, a hip-hop producer who was a member of the pioneering Philly-based Mountain Brothers, an Asian- American rap group. “When you’re talking about making rap music, you have to be 100 percent with it. You have to earn your spot.”
The four members of the group grew up together in Olney, rapping in ciphers on street corners and beat-boxing by the playground.
“Rap is what we grew up on,” Korn says. “We were just trying to duplicate what we liked.”
But music surrounded them. Korn’s father loved the blues— especially Muddy Waters—even though he couldn’t understand English. Korn and Touch taught themselves how to play various instruments: the trombone, drums, keyboard and guitar. They also listened to Cream, Led Zeppelin and Soundgarden, as well as the Cambodian songs they heard on DVDs, VHS tapes and at festivals.
By the late 1990s, the quartet began building the studio in the basement. They played traditional Cambodian music at weddings and parties to pay their bills. They worked with other artists to develop beats and produce music, with Korn honing his self-taught mixing skills along the way.
In 2005, the AZI Fellas decided to officially pursue their dreams. They first performed at the Hot Import Nights auto show at the Convention Center, and then played various venues around the city—the Khyber, Trocadero, Egypt, Transit and Tipsy, a popular Asian hot spot owned by friends on Frankford Avenue.
They’ve performed live about 50 times and they independently produced, promoted and sold two albums. Their third is set to drop this summer.
In addition, they have a stable of artists working under their label All Corners Covered—the name of the barbershop near Wyoming and D streets where In gets his hair cut. In’s barber, Joseph Frazier—known as Jodie Onez, performs with the group DNOC on the AZI label.
“It’s no run-of-the-mill shit,” Frazier says of the AZI Fellas’ sound. “Their music is the product of their country. They merging cultures and shit.”
On the eve of the Cambodian New Year’s festival in mid-April, the AZI Fellas are back in the basement, as they are nearly every night.
The fourth member of the group, Korn’s brother Sokhon Touch—known simply as Touch, bangs the drums while Korn plays guitar for a five-piece pick-up band they’ve assembled for a spot gig at a 1-year-old’s birthday party. They rehearse a few catchy Cambodian classics—it will be a family crowd—but neither Korn nor Touch seems inspired by the kitschy, ’80s-sounding Asian pop.
“I’m trying to get the right beat,” Touch says excitedly, a Cambodian flag draped on the wall behind him. “I just can’t get it. I’m about to hit a hip-hop beat.”
After an hour of rehearsal, he wants to unleash.
In sits on a nearby couch, listening to an iPod. He scribbles lyrics in a spiral notepad between munching Doritos and mouthing rhymes to himself.
When the pick-up band practices their final number, Touch finally drops a hard-pounding beat just for fun. In jumps up and starts shaking his hips.
“This could be a hip-hop song,” In says over the cacophony.
First Person Arts Podcast: Proud Mom