Ice-T released Rhyme Pays in 1987, the same year The Bangles' "Walk Like an Egyptian" was No. 1 on the charts. To black kids in places like Compton, four pretty white girls singing about cops at donut shops wasn't reality. So when Ice-T bleated, "I'm a self-made monster of the city streets/ remotely controlled by hard hip-hop beats," black youth crowned their own spokesman.
Now, 25 years after the Khmer Rouge waged its genocide, a nation of Cambodian youth have their own spokesman-a 23-year-old Long Beach refugee named Prach Ly.
"You don't need to read a history book. You don't need to see a movie. Just ask the elders-they're living documents," says Prach, who grew up on 69th Street and Long Beach Boulevard, on the edge of Compton.
Prach has asked the elders of Long Beach's Cambodian community-estimated at 30,000 to 35,000 members, the largest outside of Cambodia. And he's listened.
He's learned how Pol Pot reigned from 1975 to 1979, violently enforcing his utopian vision of Cambodia as a farm-based communist state. Prach learned of relatives, forced to dig their own graves, and then stabbed or beaten to death to save bullets. He learned about the execution of intellectuals- artists, lawyers, doctors, teachers-the sort who might pollute people's minds with information that differed from Pol Pot's plan.
Pol Pot's plan was to cleanse the nation, starting over at what he called "Year Zero." Books and art were banned, as was religion. Private property was outlawed. Speaking languages other than Khmer was grounds for death. It is estimated that more than 1.7 million Cambodians were killed under Pol Pot's rule.
Speaking on the phone from Seattle, Prach relays the story of his sister, who witnessed the Khmer Rouge first-hand: "She was eating in a noodle shop next to a man. I guess one of the Khmer Rouge asked why he was eating. He was tired, I guess. And they just shot him, and blood spilled all over.
"It wasn't her no more after that. I never seen my sister when she was normal, but after what happened, my mom and my dad said she's much shakier, real fragile."
Prach was born in a small farming village near Battambang in 1979. His parents decided their only hope was to travel into Thailand, where the Red Cross had set up refugee camps. The border crossing took months, through the jungle under the protection of nightfall. In his song, "The Great Escape," from his debut album, Dalama, The End'n is Just the Beginnin', Prach details the journey, as told to him by his parents.
"It's not just like you put on hiking shoes and grab some food for your backpack and hike for an hour," he says. "There were booby traps in the woods. If the Khmer Rouge soldiers catch you, they shoot you dead.
"My mother was walking with flip-flops. The skin of her feet peeled off, and my older brother had to carry her half of the way."
Prach's family made it to Thailand, where they stayed in a refugee camp for a year and a half before migrating to the United States in 1983. With little more than a few pots and pans to their name, they moved into the projects in Long Beach.
It was in the LBC that Prach was educated-mostly in the streets. He was caught in the middle of a drive-by shooting once, but escaped unharmed. Always enamored with poetry, he fell in love with hip-hop, battling fellow MCs at a nearby park. When he was arrested for riding in a stolen car when he was 18, his parents sent him to Florida to live with an older brother. It was then that Prach decided gangsta rap wasn't his calling-he needed to tell his personal story.
So he came back to Long Beach and recorded Dalama on a karaoke machine in his parents' garage. The folks weren't thrilled. "They said I was making too much noise in the garage and to turn that shit off," he laughs. "They wanted me to listen to Cambodian music."
The album is an autobiographical story of how a family and a nation were crippled by the Khmer Rouge. The rapper pressed 1,000 copies and handed them out at Long Beach's Cambodian New Year celebration in 2000. One of the tapes made it into the hands of DJ Sophoann, a disc jockey from Prach's homeland.
For youth in Cambodia, where little is spoken or written about the Khmer Rouge genocide-a silence attributed to the Buddhist dictum of forgive-and-forget-Prach's song-by-song biopic, sung in both English and Khmer, unearthed the ugly truth. And put it in terms they understood: sparse, hard-hitting hip-hop.
Six months later, Newsweek called and broke the news to Prach-his album was No. 1 in Cambodia. He didn't even know the demo tape had made it out of California. With no intellectual property rights and a rampant bootlegging system in Cambodia, however, Prach was anonymous. The music was simply attributed as "Khmer Rap."
With the media's help, Cambodians learned about the 20-something California kid behind the music. Prach became their own Ice-T, which is fitting since the MCs share a similar style.
Newsweek proclaimed him "the first Cambodian rap star," and Prach's story was told by the likes of CNN, National Public Radio and the Los Angeles Times.
Though hundreds of thousands of Prach's CDs-possibly a million, who knows-have been sold in his native country, he hasn't seen a dime. In an early interview broadcast on Cambodian radio, he asked the bootleggers to donate a portion of their profits to a charity. But, he admits, "I know that's not going to happen, because everybody needs money over there. I just take it as a blessing that people understand it and appreciate it."
Currently, Prach is on the "Spirit of Cambodia Tour," which commemorates the 25th anniversary of the Killing Fields. He's working on music for films, and a PBS documentary about his music is in progress. He's started his own record label-Mujestic Records-through which he's sold more than 70,000 copies of his second album, Dalama: The Lost Chapter.
U.S. record labels have expressed interest, but talks usually stagnate when discussing how to market "the first Cambodian rap star" to the most profitable demographic-American kids.
Prach has yet to go back to Cambodia, turning down all-expenses-paid offers because, he says, "I don't want the limelight to ruin my first trip there." It's also a security issue. The Khmer Rouge murdered pop star Sin Sisamouth for his political viewpoints, and even now that its rule is over, such extreme reactions are still very real.
After his current tour, he'll begin work on his third album, titled Memoirs of the Invisible War. He says that unless the release is picked up by a major record label, it will be his final rap.
"I just don't want to walk in circles. I done walked so long. Even though it seems short, I've witnessed a lot of stuff," he says. "I want the world to listen to our struggles and our music-not just my block."
Even if no major label takes the risk-which is considerable, despite the music's high quality-Prach will go down as Cambodia's first rap star. He was the one who spoke in a language Cambodian youth could relate to-about the Khmer Rouge and its debilitating effects on the psyche and culture of a people. He is responsible, at least in part, for Cambodian youth desiring to stare down their past. To learn, possibly to forgive, but never to forget. And he's done his family proud.
"I was having a one-on-one conversation with my dad recently, and he thanked me for it," Prach says, suggesting his father rarely, if ever, expresses such sentiment. "I almost had tears in my eyes." ©
Prach performs at the City Heights International Village Celebration on June 5. Free. www.cityheightscdc.org/ivc.