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2021 has been VannDa’s time to rise

The Cambodian MC on blowing up, Khmer music, & what comes next in 2022

LiFTED | Words by Sean D | Photos by Andrew Mam | 15 Dec 2021

Last April, a news article circulated around the LiFTED staff about a new single and visual from a Cambodian artist named VannDa called ‘Time to Rise.’ We hadn’t heard of him before, but we were well aware of the rich Hip Hop landscape in the country via the Klap Ya Handz camp, so we gave it a listen. What happened after that was one of those very rare moments in the music business when every single person in the room identifies a serious hit.

From the opening tones of Master Kong Nay’s powerful wail to the hauntingly funky plucking of his traditional chapei, it was obvious that this was an extraordinary and original track. Mesmerized as we were by the Folk elements, we knew something even greater was about to happen…and it did. A beat kicked in and then VannDa started spitting startlingly confident, rapid-fire verses in Khmer – and it didn’t matter at all that we couldn’t understand them.

I know personally that I felt a great sense of pride and joy as we watched the YouTube views soar over the next few months [80 million to date] and started to notice comments in English – our own among them. Here was a song that was combining everything that has been driving the pan-Asian Hip Hop scene for the past few years - local pride, language, history, storytelling, and the beginnings of a truly Asian Hip Hop culture. And while there have been so many great songs and artists this past year, we feel that for the sound and vision and overall originality of ‘Time to Rise’ we have chosen it as our Song of the Year and VannDa as our cover star for December.

Hey, man. How are you? It’s so good to finally sit down and chop it up with you! We’ve been following you ever since ‘Time to Rise’ dropped and we’re all big fans, straight up.

Thank you, I’m a lot better now mentally because we don’t have a lockdown in Phnom Penh anymore. The situation is getting better and better and hopefully we can meet each other in person very soon.

That would be awesome. We’d love to invite you to Hong Kong! What prompted you to seek out Master Kong Nay for ‘Time to Rise’? Were you already a fan of his music?

Yes, one day I was listening to one of Master Kong Nay’s albums and I totally got attached and inspired. Also, fun fact: Master Kong Nay is one of my dad’s idols.

What went through your heart and mind when you realized how sonically matched his voice, the chapei and your own beat and rhyme were? It feels like the thrill of finding a dope sample from an old record that you just know will work.

Firstly, we love to try new things. The chapei is such a catchy instrument and I have been a fan and love Master Kong Nay’s works. Speaking of chapei, let’s congratulate Chapei Dang Veng’s 5th anniversary of being included on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List a few days ago on November 30, before we did this interview.

I know you have said that it was important for you to use Khmer music in your tracks to expose it to the world. Is there also a desire to preserve Khmer culture in your rapidly developing country? How is Cambodia changing, and is there a fear that ancient Khmer culture will be lost?

Khmer music is an important treasure to preserve and update in the present day. There's a lot to learn about Khmer cultural music and the more we learn the more creative we can get. There are many more beautiful Khmer instruments that I want to include in my works in the future, especially for some of you to explore and learn more about.

I’m not saying that every song should have Khmer instruments to convince everyone to listen to it. That’s not how we work, we need to find the taste. “Does this type of instrument or sound fit in this concept? During this or that season, what instrument or sound would work well?” are questions we always need to ask ourselves. And it should be balanced, without too much of one element. Cambodia is developing rapidly, but at the same time, I don’t want this rapid growth to cause people to lose interest in Khmer culture. I cannot imagine that Khmer culture will be forgotten.

Vaan Da2 2016x1334

There are Cambodian rappers in the U.S. [mostly California] have you been in touch with any of them?

Yes, there are a few of them I’m in touch with but I can’t reveal them yet! It’s still in the works.

Who were some of the MCs who got you excited about Hip Hop at the beginning. What drew you to the culture?

The first were Twista and Lil Wayne. I got introduced to their music by my brother back in 2006. I barely knew English at the time, but I enjoyed their music, instrumentation, violins, and rap flow. What drew me to the culture was inspiration from listening to international Hip Hop.

At that time Khmer music was corrupt. Piracy was everywhere in the country, from copying lyrics, beats, and even translating other artists’ entire songs to Khmer language without credit. I’m not sure why that happened but there was a part of me that wanted to change it and I got the opportunity to make it happen with my label Baramey.

That is a common story across Asia that’s changed as the markets have matured. Now the Asian Hip Hop scene has really been booming in almost every single country, from India to The Philippines – and local language has been the catalyst. What do you think is the next logical step to becoming a regional star? Does it mean rhyming in English?

My answer would be yes. I will still be rhyming in Khmer but with English back and forth. Maybe I’ll try to add on another language someday, with a new flow, new taste, but I won’t abandon my identity and my culture.

Your singles since ‘Time to Rise’ have all been wildly successful, like ‘Skull [If I Die]’ which feels like a similar song structure as ‘Time to Rise’ with Khmer Folk sounds and then a heavier beat and rhyme. But on ‘Catch Me if You Can’ the visual is a send up of contemporary Cambodian culture, which is interesting. Did you feel it was important to bring your storytelling into modern everyday life?

Yes, I did. It’s one of the best ways I can connect my music to my fans and also have the opportunity to share what I’ve learned, experienced and felt during a certain time period. There’s always something behind everything I’ve put out with different stories.

When you look around Asia you can see a vibrant Hip Hop scene in every country. Are there any Asian rappers you’d like to collab with?

I would love to collaborate with artists like G Dragon, CL, Jay Park, Ez Mil, 1Mill, and F Hero.

If you could work with any U.S. artist who would it be?

US artists that I want to collaborate with would of course be Kanye, Lil Wayne, Eminem, Kid Cudi, Meek Mill, A$AP Rocky, Kendrick or Lil Uzi.

Finally, what does 2022 hold in store for VannDa? Will you be touring once the pandemic allows more open borders? Any plans for a new album?

First of all, I love this question and I’m excited to share the good news with you guys. I have a lot of work to do in 2022, starting with a domestic tour and hopefully, an international tour as well. I’m not sure which countries we’re going to yet - we’re working with the team on that. About the new album, SKULL II. I’m currently working with Baramey producers, songwriters, and everyone to finish and release it early in 2022. Thanks!