“This is my 24K Magic!”
Deep in the back streets of Phnom Penh, inside a home studio in an apartment block in Tuol Svay Prey, the most individual and groundbreaking ‘Barang’ musical creative currently residing in The Kingdom of Wonder is at work. Vintage 1980’s and 90’s synths and drum machines sit alongside a state-of-the-art Logic Pro X digital audio workstation. A condenser microphone is set up in the corner of the studio, with thick fabric curtains employed as sound absorbers, while guitars and basses line one wall of the immaculately clean and tidy (albeit smoke-filled!) room. This is where Mehdi ‘12ME’ Benabdessadok spends the majority of his waking hours.
We are here to listen to ‘Oh Kampuchea’, an album of nine tracks of old-school-style hip-hop with a unique flavour. 12ME emigrated from France to Cambodia in January 2016 to pursue his love affair with Khmer culture in general and follow his dream of writing and performing music in the Khmer language. Mehdi had already begun to learn to speak Cambodian before booking his plane ticket to Phnom Penh and found a long-term tutor in Men Thida – based at the Cloud arts space in the Tonle Bassac area of the city (Thida is a vital part of the 12ME story, not only mentoring Mehdi to a level where he is able to conduct live television interviews in Khmer but also coaching him in the studio during vocal takes – sometimes spending fifteen minutes getting one word to sound right). Within a few short months, 12ME had completed his first album ‘Samai Thmey’ – founding long-term collaborations with Cambodian hip hop artists Dee Jay Cake, Parker Jones and Lisha.
While Mehdi’s raps on Samai Thmey are almost exclusively in French, the vocals on the new album are almost entirely in Khmer. During today’s Oh Kampuchea listening session, Mehdi smiles when he looks back at his sometimes clumsy pronunciation of Khmer words during his performances for the first album and is proud to relate his euphoric feeling upon completing Kromom Srok Khmer – the seventh track on the new album and his first performed only in Khmer – ‘I understood everything I was saying, word for word. I look back at the first album now and I laugh, especially now I can understand what Lisha is saying… she says some crazy sh*t in Khmer!’.
Oh Kampuchea: Track-by-Track Preview
- Oh Kampuchea
The title track features young rap trio Khmer Pride. The concept of the Music Video, taking place in Phnom Penh’s Prokout Fitness & Fight Center, was initially planned for an earlier 12ME film, but ditched on the day of production when the artist realised that a beer advertisement had just been launched on Cambodian television with exactly the same concept. French ‘Kun Khmer’ fighter Derek represents the rapper 12ME. Mehdi smiles when he notes that the Cambodian video director made sure to open with a shot of the Barang fighter being knocked down by his Cambodian counterpart.
- Money Ain’t a Thing
Featuring longtime 12ME collaborators Dee Jay Cake and Parker Jones, this track sees 12ME rapping about not needing a lot of money while Dee Jay Cake approaches the subject from a very different angle. The line about drinking Jack Daniels originally referred to a different brand of premium spirit, until Dee Jay Cake telephoned the relevant company representative to find that they were not immediately willing to sponsor the rapper with cash! Friends at Old No.7, on the other hand, came through with some ready dollar bills and the line was changed to ‘pak sra Jack Daniels’ ! The feel of the track is deliciously old school 90’s ‘G-Funk’ hip-hop.
- Kom Oy BatBang Ao-Kah
This song tells of the importance of persistence and not losing your chance. In the music video, A young member of Skateisan is a skater who does not give up in the face of adversity.
- Pi Neak Der Leng Khgong Soun
This up-tempo track is adapted from a Khmer song with lyrics about a couple visiting a garden. The song normally takes the form of a playful and sometimes risque dialogue along the lines of the husband asking questions like : ‘which flower do you want?’ and the wife responding. 12ME’s version talks about his wife.
- Phnom Penh
Featuring a sample from a Cambodian singer of the 1980’s, Phnom Penh details where 12ME and rapper Morno like to visit in the city, including going to Wat Tonle to eat pork. This track is 12ME’s favourite on the album. The musical structure is most interesting, with a ‘middle eight’ section in a minor key contrasting with the happy, major key chorus… and an unexpected ‘Cumbia’-style rhythmical change.
- La La La
12ME expands the main theme of Oh Kampuchea : positivity and never giving up. Here he talks to a young man and implores him to keep going and remember that he is not a ‘piece of shit’.
- Kromom Srok Khmer
12ME’s own personal ‘Kilimanjaro’ achievement is his first track performed entirely in the Khmer language. He relates a tale of a foreigner on the streets of Phnom Penh, trying in vain to engage the attention of respectable Khmer girls that he sees. At one point the protagonist succeeds in talking to an attractive girl, only to find that her husband is waiting behind him to scald him. 12ME was disappointed when he first performed this track live as it did not initially get a great reception from the female members of the audience, but he was encouraged by their reaction when he explained the story of the song.
The strong ‘Madison’ beat, echoing classic Cambodian song ‘Reap Ga Bale Na’ makes this song stand out and it is certainly one of the strongest pieces on the album.
- Kom Oy Rerng Touch Tarch
This song features an adapted melody line, played on a roneat (‘xylophone type traditional instrument’) from a song traditionally played at weddings. The narrative warns of not letting one minute ruin your entire life.
- Keep Holding On
The album concludes on a personal and very positive note with 12ME talking about how his life has changed since arriving in Cambodia, a country and culture he loves deeply. The track features a sample from a Ros Sereysothea song and vocals sung in the studio by Phnom Penh-based singer Chris Sarcas.
Oh Kampuchea is scheduled to be released around the end of February 2018. The album was produced, recorded and mastered by Mehdi ‘12ME’ Benabdessadok at his home studio in Phnom Penh, with a host of guest artists.
Mehdi plans to release the album for digital download and as a USB flash drive package. Watch this Leng Pleng space for more news of the release date and the Oh Kampuchea launch party.