Cambodian rap group AZI Fellas drop a positive beat on their troubled past.
After practice, Touch meekly says, “The birthday gig is just for money.”
“But AZI is for real,” In adds.
When the birthday band exits out the alley door, Korn takes his seat at his computer and In begins spitting in the booth.
Upstairs in the kitchen, Korn’s mom cracks pepper using an old-fashioned wooden pestle and bowl, preparing spicy pickled cabbage dishes to sell at the Cambodian New Year’s celebration the next day. The pounding echoes into the basement with a hard, steady rhythm.
“She’s got the beat,” Korn says.
The tight-knit Cambodian community in Philadelphia has embraced the AZI Fellas but it will be difficult for the group to make it into the mainstream.
“We want to be successful at what we do,” Korn states of their intensely honest lyrics. “We don’t conform to popular music.”
The problem is that the industry promotes bling and the stereotypical gangster lifestyle, according to Michael Coard, a Philadelphia attorney who also teaches "Hip Hop: a Race, Gender and Class Perspective" at Temple.
“The bastards controlling the production of hip-hop don’t push music because it’s good,” Coard says. “They push the lowest common denominator, whatever they think is going to sell.”
When Mountain Brothers, one of the first Asian-American hip-hop acts to sign with a major label, sent demos out in the early-1990s, they sent them two ways: one with their picture attached and one without.
“The ones with no picture got us calls back,” says former Mountain Brother, CHOPS. “We were judged on our music and not by the color of our skin.”
Since Mountain Brothers broke up in 2003, CHOPS has performed with or produced beats for Bun B, Lil Wayne, Young Jeezy, Chamillionaire, Paul Wall, The Game, Raekwon, Fabolous, Talib Kweli and Kanye West, among others.
He’s very aware of his image, preferring not to discuss his specific age, hometown and other vital information for fear that it might harm his reputation.
He’s adapted with the industry over the years. When he began in hip-hop, he was all about the message, the lyrics. Now, he primarily works behind the scenes making beats.
“As time goes on, you have to make money doing what you do,” he says. “If I kept doing what I was doing 10 years ago, I wouldn’t be in business anymore.”
The AZI Fellas rap about their current situations but they focus on how they arrived at this point.
“We want to help people, educate them through our music,” In says.
Until the 15th century, Cambodia was home to the world’s largest pre-industrial civilization, Angkor.
In 1975, Pol Pot became the state leader. For the next three years, he tried to return Cambodia to the pre-industrial age, expelling people from cities and forcing them into labor camps.
“Pol Pot believed Cambodia could only function as an agrarian society,” says Ben Kiernan, the founder of the Cambodian Genocide Program at Yale University and author of numerous books on Cambodia. “He believed that cities were parasitic and polluted with foreign ideology.”