Khmer Rap

Long Beachs Prach Ly drops rhymes about the Killing Fields

The idea of "dalama" rose naturally out of his writings about the Khmer Rouge and his family's experiences—and it was a natural title for the album he cut in his parents' Long Beach garage two years ago, using a karaoke machine to dub rhymes over his beats and burning the final mix onto a CD. "No mixing board or studio!" Prach boasts. "I keep it old school! What you hear is what you get. And if you mess up, you gotta do the whole thing over again." Prach considers Dalama (the full title is Dalama: The End'n Is Just the Beginnin') a demo that he'd love to cut over again. But for an album cut in a garage, it sounds great. And his message just screams through.

In "The Year Zero," he's a victim of the Khmer Rouge: "These assholes laugh like jackals dressed in black/Strip me naked, tie my hand behind my back/Told me to choose one, the gun or the axe/They say I was guilty of rebelling against the revolution/Told me I got three seconds, then they're gonna start shootin'/On the count of one, I pray for my soul/On the count of two, for my family and my people/On the count of three, I was dressed in red/I took two shots to the head and [was] left for dead."

In "The Letter (Prisoner of War)," he's a history teacher: "On April 17, 1975/The rise of the Khmer Rouge terrorized the countryside/Innocent cries, endless shooting, do-or-die/It's a revolution, population 7 million, everyone heard it/Within 3 days, the whole country is deserted . . . And those who wore glasses or different language-speakin'/Either executed or severely beaten/Doctors, teachers, lawyers, bureaucrats and merchants were killed/They say intellectual people is not needed in the field/Villages burned, schools turned into barns/There's nothing to learn but to listen and farm."

And in songs like "Welcome" and "Child of the Killing Field," he's just himself, one of a generation of assimilated Cambodians growing up without really knowing or appreciating what their parents went through to make a better life for them: "As soon as our feet hit the ground, my mom busted in tears/No words can describe a moment so rare/And right by her side my father was there/Staring at the sky, holding each other/Realized we survived the genocide."

He rhymes mostly in English—his steady, deliberate flow at times reminds you of Ice-T circa "Colors"—but he switches to Khmer on several tracks, and he ends the whole thing on an upbeat note with "Jaey-Yo!", all about the glories of Cambodian New Year, one of the country's major celebrations. For extra effect, sprinkled throughout Dalama are sound bites from old Khmer Rouge propaganda speeches and dialogue from the 1984 movie The Killing Fields, still the main reference point for Americans familiar with what went on in Cambodia during the late 1970s.

When Prach finished Dalama, he made up a thousand copies, sold it until he earned back his production costs, and then gave away the rest of his stock to family and friends. And that was it, he thought—time to get started on another.

Somehow, though, a copy of Dalama found its way to Cambodia, where it showed up on a radio show. And then people started asking about it. And then—thanks to the miracle of CD burning and the lack of copyright laws in Cambodia—hot-off-the-burner copies of Prach's album popped up in Phnom Penh record shops, some selling for as much $5 apiece. That's a lot, considering that the average monthly wage in Cambodia is around $30—and that's a telling indication of just how much of a hit Dalama had become.

But bootleggers had hijacked the title and artwork, replacing Prach's minutely detailed visual timeline of his journey from Cambodia to America (with skulls in a pile, a cart pulled by cows and the Angkor Wat temple on the left and the U.S. Capitol building, a Hummer and the Statue of Liberty on the right) with a photo of a small boy clutching a rifle under the legend "The Khmer Rouge: Khmer Rap"—and omitting any credit or mention of Prach Ly in the process.

Until an Asiaweek reporter tracked Prach down last April, Cambodia had no idea who their anonymous rap phenomenon was—and Prach had no idea he'd become possibly the first rap star ever in a country he hasn't seen since he was four years old.

"I got this call, and [the reporter] told me it was a really big hit there in Cambodia. She told me I was a hip-hop star!" Prach says. "I didn't know what to say—I was just shocked. I didn't know how it got there because I didn't know anybody who took it over there. But at the time, a couple of stores had sold 700 or 800 copies. I wanted to know where the money was going because I knew it wasn't going to charity—it was going into someone's pocket. But I really couldn't do nothing about it."

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