It’s not pop music: the rise of the Funan Beat Empire

Funan Beat Empire grew from the combined imaginations of Adrien Gayraud (The Schkoots, Moi Tiet) and Pierre Lenormand, a production team you may remember from the days of Links Music when they pumped out albums by the likes of Road to Mandalay, Hypnotic Fist Technique and myself.  For some time there was discussion in the wind about the hip hop project they were working on.  Eventually, it came together with a couple of gigs at Cloud and LF Social Club, and a trip or two to Kampot.

As Phnom Penh tentatively emerges from COVID world, Funan Beat Empire is surging forwards.  They will make their return to Phnom Penh this weekend, on Saturday 29th at Boran HouseLeng Pleng met up with this producer-driven (Pierre and Adrien), MC-fronted (Initial G and Mike Dynamo) force of nature to get the story from the source.

Adrien:   With a band, with instruments, it didn’t work very well.  It was too complicated to have everybody at the same time.  Eventually Pierre and I concentrated on the creation of songs.  It was easier for us to write on the computer first.

Pierre:   We decided to make this project together with MCs.

Adrien:   It’s also the way we produce.  99% of the things are written, not sampled.

Pierre:  We improvise a lot, tweaking the knobs on the machines.

Adrien:  We treat all the sounds in our analogue machines.  We send separate tracks – drums, vocals, whatever – to the mixer, and then send to effects, EQ and stuff like that.  Like DJs do.

G: This is how hip hop started out, with 808 drum machines, MPCs, analogue productions, samples and constantly combining different things, chopping and cutting up old funk/soul songs.  What got me excited about Funan Beat Empire was what these guys were doing with old school hip hop things using the latest synth sounds, the latest technology.

Pierre:  Two years ago we decided to really focus on buying good equipment, to make some really good sounds.  We invested a lot.

Adrien:   We had the constraint that we wanted to be able to record and also play live, to humanise the sound.

G: Live production is also another facet of hip hop, that’s what creates the block party atmosphere.

Adrien:  It’s the groove.

Leng Pleng:  You’re talking analogue but there’s obviously a lot of digital involved as well.

Pierre:  Yes, we play with a lot of sequences.  Everything is programmed or edited.

Adrien:  We create the midi tracks, the sounds.

Pierre:  We make our sounds live in live concerts, because there we touch everything.

Adrien:  We try to separate everything as much as possible, because there’s a lot of tracks, sometimes as many as 70.

Leng Pleng:  So you’re mixing each song as you’re going?

Adrien:  Yes, on the mixer, volume, EQs, effects and so on.

G:  He even pulls out the bass guitar.

Adrien:  I receive all the bass into my analogue machines, and I recreate all the sounds.

G: To us as MCs it’s all alien stuff, basically.  So many different knobs and dials that turn around.  We practice one way and in the live shows they’ll throw us a few surprises here and there.

Pierre:   It’s not really traditional hip hop so it’s pretty hard to play it live without sequences, it’s too complicated in terms of structure and in terms of chords.

Adrien:   It’s like an orchestration.

Leng Pleng: I assume you guys collaborate together on a track and then give it to the blah-blah guys and let them take it away.

G: I like that: blah-blah guys.

Adrien:  I might come with a bass line or something, or a very basic idea, a draft, and Pierre takes that and I tell him my thoughts, and that’s the foundation of the song.

Pierre:  I need him for the bass composition, because I’m really bad at that, but I compose the drums, and do melody and stuff like that.

Adrien:  And we work together to harmonise.  It’s amazing what Pierre can do with the basic stuff I give to him.

G: When they first approached me they already had five beats in the final stages of pre-production.  They pre-produce a lot of stuff, bring it to us, and once they see the challenges that we face when we record lyrics over that they tweak it as well, they go back sometimes to reconfigure it.

Pierre:  The most important thing is we wanted to create something pretty original, that doesn’t exist anywhere, and the first idea was to mix Asian instruments – not melody, we tried, it cannot match with our music.  But we use a lot of Asian percussion, gongs, animals – in every track there are animal noises.

Adrien:   A lot of roneet, but using arpeggios.

Pierre:  The idea was to create a kind of fusion: electronic and dark hip hop and Asian sounds.

Adrien:  We always had this idea in our minds of the devastated city, where nature has returned.  So our sound sits with that.

G: Like urban spaces reclaimed by the jungle.

Pierre:  And with the music we have many messages to send – a lot about the environment.  It’s not a gang style hip hop.

G:  From the very beginning they came to me and said we want you to go all out on this project.  They’d heard my spoken word, they’d heard my rap for HFT, and they said we want you to go full political, full poetic on this.

Leng Pleng: My impression of the first gig was the producers at the back making the soundscape, and something like a Socratic dialogue between G and Mike, each playing a character in each of the songs, trading backwards and forwards.

Adrien:   It’s a playground for them.  Because other MCs could join as a guest on projects, we want to be very organic with that.  I first saw G on stage at Show Box, I think it was the first time he jumped on stage, and he had this high voice, a high-pitched sizzling voice.  Perfect for the kind of hip hop we want to do.

Pierre:   Yes, we really want to extend the visuals, like trying costumes, to divide the two MCs and both of us on the machines.

Adrien:  Cyberpunk but also very organic.  We would really love to have lighting effects, it would really support the music from the project.  Pierre:   And because we have a very dark atmosphere.  We don’t have happy songs.

The knob twiddlers: Adrien Gayraud and Pierre Lenormand

Leng Pleng:  Tell me about the name:  Funan Beat Empire.

Adrien:  The old empire.  We chose the name because of the Asian instruments, being in Asia, and it represents the old tradition, now it’s all covered by trees.  So it’s this whole idea of a disappeared civilisation that changed and disappeared.  It’s about the land, the way of living, the land that was loved but that was lost.

Pierre:   We also wanted something which sounds like warriors.
Adrien:   And Beat is because it’s producer-led, because it’s the beats we create, and the Empire, it’s the idea of taking over, taking back.

[Mike Dynamo came in from the rain and joined the conversation.]

Leng Pleng:  So when Adrien and Pierre put a new composition in front of the rappers, do they suggest what the song might be about?

Pierre:  Yes, sure.

Adrien:  Not the title necessarily, but…

G:  Even the title…

Adrien:  We have a lot of titles.

Mike:   They will name something and say: do whatever you want.  And we go, no, no – War over Structure is the perfect title.

G:  They said this is why we named it, because we had so much trouble with the structure.

Leng Pleng:  This is Apocalypse Pool Party, but you can do anything you like.

Mike:  Right, I want to do Apocalypse Pool Party.

Pierre:  Many times we kept the original titles.  For example, I have one piece called Megacities, when I composed it I imagined exactly a megacity and the mess…

G:  Playing Bladerunner, basically, that song.

Adrien:   They did a good job.

Leng Pleng:  And sometimes the rappers will send it back and say we’ll need more space?

G:  No, it’s more like that part is way too complicated for us to rap over.

Mike:   It can be difficult to try to put lyrics over certain parts.  I want to make the best song that I can, and sometimes that means just doing something for seven and a half bars – okay G, there you go, three and a half bars, do something.  So sometimes we can go back and forth – what is the best approach to make the song.

G:  And we always go to the heart of capitalism in Phnom Penh to write our lyrics:  Java Café Tuol Tom Pong.  That’s where we wrote Candy Man.

Pierre:   I composed many tracks there too.  Java Café Independence.

G:  Seriously?

Pierre:   Every morning I was there.

Adrien:   For almost two months he was there every morning, and I was there a few times a week.

Mike:   That is so funny.  I had no idea.

Pierre:   I didn’t know.

Adrien:   The writers’ institution.

[Laughter, then some more laughter]  [Then another round]

The blah-blah guys:  Mike Dynamo and Initial G

Mike:   We work very hard on this music, we work very hard on creating an entire field to get involved in.  The feedback that we’ve got during shows has been incredible.  “We want to hear different things, we want to focus on the lyrics, we want to hear these musical tapestries and dive into that.”

G:  And it’s unlike anything I’m hearing with current hip hop right now.

Mike: Very true.

G:  I wasn’t convinced about the tenacity of this project until we did the Champa Lodge gig in Kampot.  I was thinking why would they want us to be one of the last bands to go on when we’re such heavy, dense, complex subject matter.

Adrien:   But finally people did.

G:  It turns out people don’t give a f*** about that.  Chanting along, getting wasted.

Leng Pleng:  People respond to the emotion, like the metal music, you get swept away with the intensity.

Adrien:   That’s why I have something to say also for people who don’t like hip hop:  Even when you don’t like hip hop there’s going to be something for you.  From your childhood, from your teenage years, there are going to be some sounds, some instruments, some melodies that you like.  I’m very proud of this project, it’s one of the first projects in my life that I’m really proud of.
Pierre:   We can’t say, oh, it sounds like this band or it sounds like that.  There are so many influences.  And our own influences of Asia and Phnom Penh.  It was very important to keep this in mind, we are in Cambodia, even if we don’t talk about Cambodia.

Leng Pleng:  To what extent is there a different dynamic that you find in writing for Funan Beat Empire than for Hypnotic Fist Technique?

G:  Mike and I have really profound conversations about politics and socio-economic status and wealth disparity and environmental issues, as I do with Pierre and Adrien as well.  And they encouraged us: take what we talk about so passionately in private and put it out there in the form of music.  That’s why originally for me it was more of a recording project rather than a live performance project.  The Champa Lodge gig changed that for me.  I noticed the dramatic potential in how people want shock music, being bombarded with things that they don’t necessarily want when they’re out drinking, but getting sucked into a warp.

Adrien:  It has to be a show, a journey.

G:  Like a wormhole, and they’re held hostage essentially.

Adrien:   With everything that is happening in the world – come on guys, let’s bring some anger into this fight.

Mike:   There was a word G used – dramatic.  And that’s very important, because in this project we get to do things like play roles, we think what’s the best way to bring this concept to people.  With HFT it’s fun to play this larger than life character, a lot of swagger.  Whereas with this project it is an opportunity to dive into these deeper and darker concepts.  Things that the coronavirus pandemic has really brought to the fore: how do we move forward with disparity?  How do we move forward with what we’re doing to the environment, while we watch the environment come back because we’re all trapped at home.  Being able to do songs about that, bring a longer view of why we’re here, what we’re doing, and how we can bring across musically.  Funan Beat Empire is more about the music and the tapestry that is created.

Adrien:   For us it’s important also that the lyrics are not just negative, and bring also some spark.

G:  This is the first project where I’ve had people hear my draft and say: that’s not good enough.  I’m a newcomer, everything started four years ago, and the Funan project was the first time I was asked to go back to the drawing board and start from scratch and come up with something else that they actually like.  And I was very grateful.  It was an education, and freeing, in a way.

Pierre:  It’s the first time where I compose music and I go straight ahead, I do it, and it works.  I feel this music in my blood.

Mike:  Adrien and Pierre in particular were very clear about what they wanted to talk about, what this was supposed to be about.  Even the concept of the megacity, this is cyberpunk, pushing outside of what we are used to, an idea about where we’re going, rather than what do you want to do tonight.  Where are we going as a society, where are we going as people in this world?

Leng Pleng:  What is the future for Funan Beat Empire?

G:  Glastonbury.  Ten livestreaming Go-Pros all focused on this massive array…

[General chaos]

G:  We want to undo the damage that Kanye did when he said he was the greatest rock star on the face of the Earth.

Pierre:   We would like to finish the album we are preparing, but that takes a long time.  When we finish the album we want to send it for free everywhere, we know many labels in France for example which can match with our music.

Adrien:  We are going to turn the world upside down.

G:  Public Enemy, even the Beastie Boys had their own protest music.  That’s what a lot of our music sounds like, it’s protest music.

Adrien:  Political protest.

G:  Any protests happening around the world right now would be relevant.  And we wrote this a year and a half ago.

Mike:   It’s actually become more relevant.

Adrien:  And it’s going to get more.

Pierre:  The cool thing with hip hop is you can use any kind of music and just have a loud beat, it’s a worldwide music.

G:  The structure of the songs is not traditional at all.

Pierre:   So it’s very hard for them to write.

Adrien:   It’s not often when we have a 16 bar or an eight bar.

Mike:   It’s not pop music.

You can catch Funan Beat Empire at Boran House on Saturday 29th August.  $5 entry with a free drink.



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