Genre of the Week: Khmer Rap

For once I'm going to pose questions about a genre in one of these. Because even though I usually research stuff fairly thoroughly, on this occasion I think I might have been fooled.

I was convinced after watching a whole lot of Cambodian hip-hop videos from all sorts of sources that something seriously cool was going on there. Could this be the first "real" (well-integrated) Asian hip-hop scene? (Someone shout out if you know of another!)

So after looking at a dozen or so videos I plonked it down as an "integrated style" in my last post. But then I put in an "increasingly" as a caveat, because a quick google definitely rang some alarm bells. First there was this article, which (in hindsight) probably describes the beginning of the scene. What worried me there was the diasporadic status of the main rapper, the small numbers of records sold, and especially the mention of "trendy" young people, "inspirational" music and the fact that it's even mentioned in AsianWeek. Then it was the fact that most of the best videos I'd seen on Youtube were by a producer named Cream who is very articulate and uses the web fully, appearing on MySpace etc.

So, was I fooled? Is this a "cosmopoiltan" music by a small upper-middle-class elite? Well, maybe. But is there even such a thing as an upper-middle-class elite in Cambodia, one of the 40 poorest countries in the world? (Pakistan, which is "poorer", definately has one.) I googled on, and maybe my "increasingly" label is indeed accurate. Blog posts like this, or these, or even a throwaway mention like this does suggest that there's more to it going on than just a few rich dudes playing around. Then I came across this article and I started feeling a whole lot better about the genre...

With a bit of source criticism, a whole lot more listening (mostly trying to avoid more cream391 videos) and a whole bunch of mentions, I can fairly safely say the following, at least:

1. Khmer hip-hop is a very creative genre which differs significantly enough from the original American stuff to be very interesting indeed, with a great range of sample sources (love the old Khmer pop samples from the sixties) and some good-quality songwriting and vocals. New material is released on a constant basis.

2. The rap scene is fairly large in Cambodia, though not as big as the by-now-traditional pop scene. There are numerous bands and it's fairly well-distributed. Different competing artists spur each other on and it's caught on with at least some subsections of the youth, especially in the capital.

But obviously I want to know more, stuff that google can't give me. What's the actual popularity of hip-hop in Cambodia? How big is it in the regions? What social groups are buying it, making it, distributing it? Is there an "oppositional resistance" (thanks Wayne) baked into the music or is it seen as fairly "safe" pop even by the elders? I'd love for someone who knows the scene to give me some info on it, because I really do like this stuff.


Anonymous said...


I recomend you to follow the show "Papas kappsäck" on SVT, in which Papa Dee travels the globe in search of dope music. A friend of mine who is a photographer shot Papa Dees adventures, and he told me that their exploration of cambodian hiphop was interesting.


Other than that I only know some about Japanese hiphop (there are some good groups) and I heard som thai and chinese stuff that sounded really awful.

Anonymous said...

Best hiphop-act in Japan: "Rappagariya"


Birdseed said...

That's awesome. (Though we'll see how Papa Dee deals with the issue, he tends to be a tad naive about some things. He played reggaeton for several years on P3 Rytm without realising it was anything other than "kinda spanish sounding ragga from somewhere".)

I'll definitely be tuning in this coming wednesday though, and update international readers on the subject afterwards.