ASIA AF: DJ CHEE creates a deeply personal concept EP
The 6-track opus depicts the pair’s life story
ARTIST: DJ CHEE & RUTHKO
RELEASE DATE: January 15 2022
DJ Chee has long been the main beat merchant of Cambodian label Klap Ya Handz, producing hit after hit for the likes of Vuthea, Vin Vitou, RuthKo, and others. While he has released his own tracks in the past, his latest release, ME with RuthKo, is a quantum leap forward for Cambodian Hip Hop and certainly a high-water mark for the culture.
The six-song biographical concept EP reflects both artists’ history, and is a clear sign of the evolution and growing confidence of Khmer Hip Hop. Each track includes traditional Khmer instruments or elements of Folk singing. It’s hauntingly beautiful at times, or aggressive and exuberant depending on the mood of the song. Listening to ME it seems impossible that the current crop of Khmer rappers weren’t influenced by KlapYaHandz on their way up. The new generation’s deep embrace of Khmer music traditions reflects this. KlapYaHandz started out by sampling and making tracks from old Khmer Pop records. DJ Chee and his label mates brought it into the present with a potent mix of spicy [and often humorous] rhyming over catchy Trap grooves. Now Chee, and others like VannDa, are fully embracing their own culture and history, both public and private.
ME starts off with ‘Struggle,’ a track about a young boy’s alienation at home and his conflict with his parents. RuthKo’s singing and rapping capture the essence of sadness and feel very much like Folk singing over a Trap beat. The next track, ‘Wolves,’ finds our hero mixing with other kids and finding his tribe, especially a friend he can finally trust. RuthKo rhymes, ‘You ain’t shit without your homeboys’ and you start to recognize the tribalism of disaffected youth.
On ‘Insouciant’ the hero is in his teen years and has discovered partying as he starts to care less about society’s rules and gets wild. The funky beat revolves around a simple, yet effective piano riff and now the EP really gets cooking. The party has started. On track 4, ‘Heartbeat,’ he meets someone and feels he has found his soulmate, the track appropriately is a Reggae Lover’s-Rock style groove that feels joyous and free.
The last two cuts of the EP go back to more downtempo Trap grooves, as reality sinks back in. On ‘Frivolous,’ he finds that his girl has cheated on him and he spins out of control, sinking into despair. The beat is slow and melancholy and features traditional Khmer sounds. The ending is dark and mournful, with RuthKo’s vocals sounding like pain personified.
Finally, the EP wraps up with the beautifully sad track ‘Loneliness’. It begins with the sounds of waves lapping against a shoreline and a haunting flute, as RuthKo narrates the last story of this collection. The hero is back in society, circulating and meeting new people but his heart’s been broken, and he no longer trusts easily. Mostly sung, the track feels like it could almost be a slow jam from back in the day, except for the Trap hats and deep kicks that propel it forward. It’s a sad ending, but at the same time it feels hopeful in the sense that it’s only through pain and hardship that we truly grow. It’s the human condition, but there’s always hope if we can find it. DJ Chee and RuthKo called the EP ME because they wanted the story to feel personal for anyone who speaks the title. It’s their story, but maybe parts of it are your story, too.
Stopping just short of declaring DJ Chee’s ME a masterpiece, it’s certainly one of the finest moments so far for Khmer Hip Hop. Highly recommended.
Check out DJ Chee and RuthKo's EP ME here.