Still in the very early stages of development, underground Vietnamese hip-hop is gaining traction around the country, with young crews of rappers coming together to perform for the first time. By Chris Mueller. Photos by Dave Lemke.
Angst and anger seem to be the universal ingredients around the world required to spur musical creativity in young people. And in a café in District 1, Ho Thien An’s frustration with the world is palpable.
“I’ve cut school,” the 17 year old tells me. “I don’t like how they make me think.”
An, to the disappointment of his successful parents, recently dropped out of high school to focus on developing his passion for underground Vietnamese hip-hop, which is slowly starting to get popular in Vietnam’s cities. He goes by the street name Black Murder, or simply Black, and is part of a group of Saigon-based rappers called the G-Family.
Black first got into hip-hop after he broke his leg and could no longer practise martial arts. “I needed something strong to replace martial arts,” he says. That’s when he got involved with his first “crew”.
At first these groups may just seem like a bunch of kids playing around — they are all under 24. But they do put out some surprisingly good music. Rapping in Vietnamese to beats downloaded off the internet, they are using hip-hop to vent their frustrations, tackling topics such as growing up on the streets, drug use, the state of music, and even social issues.
They also don’t look like your stereotypical rappers. The leader of G-Family, for example, looks more like a nerdy schoolteacher in their latest video than an underground rapper.
When I met Black, I was half-expecting a wanna-be-gangster with a flat-brim hat and plenty of bling. Instead, I was greeted by a kid dressed all in black who was polite and intelligent and spoke fluent English — something he says he learned by listening to hip-hop.
“I’m not a gangster,” Black says, when I tell him of my surprise. “That’s not me.”
Crews like G-Family are sprouting up all around the country, mainly in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. While rappers aren’t the only members of these groups — each group has its own hair stylist, clothes guy, or motorbike fixer — they all try to live the hip-hop lifestyle.
“A lot of them come from low-class families,” Adrian “Pain” Rodgers, a Spanish-Scottish rapper in Saigon, says. “Rap is a lifestyle, and they identify with that lifestyle.”
Pain, who recently put out his fifth mix tape, is working closely with a lot of these crews to help create a place for underground hip-hop to flourish. Last month he put on a show called Strictly Street Vol 2, where he invited crews from around the city to come together and perform at the same venue. Although underground hip-hop is not yet popular, more than 150 people showed up, and Pain described the performances as “the best hip-hop I’ve seen in Saigon”.
Not only was it one of the biggest underground rap shows to date in the city, but it was also one of the first times these groups came together to perform. Many of these rappers seem to have a fixation with hating on and talking trash about other crews and mainstream rappers, which means they are reluctant to take to the same stage.
And like rappers everywhere, they are loyal to both their crew and where they come from. Performers are often heard shouting out their home territories while rapping: southside for Saigon, northside for Hanoi, and westside for central Vietnam. The beef can come off as a bit absurd — they aren’t Biggie and Tupac after all — and Pain thinks it is one of the biggest problems with the scene right now.
“They dis each other and start beef with other crews for no reason,” Pain says. “They should be working together.”
But there is one thing that all the underground rap groups have in common: a disgust for mainstream Vietnamese music, especially rap.
Mainstream Vietnamese rap has steadily become more popular over the past several years, with rappers like Karik and Suboi playing all over the country. Suboi has even been featured in international media, including the Guardian newspaper. The underground scene, like underground scenes anywhere, views these artists as “fake” and say their preference toward love songs or “hip-pop” is aimed at pleasing the masses.
“They are talking so fake,” Black says. “Why don’t they just be themselves?”
Pain, on the other hand, has nothing but respect for mainstream Vietnamese rappers. While he may not personally be a fan of their music, he says he still thinks these artists are pushing the rap scene forward and cementing rap in the consciousness of the young.
“Rap is just not a big thing in Vietnam,” Pain says. “A lot of talented rappers don’t want to do it seriously because they think there is no place for them to go and a lot of them give up.”
So he sees these mainstream rap successes, which would have never been possible five years ago, as a sign that there is a desire for different music in Vietnam, and maybe even a place for underground hip-hop.