We’re at Serif Space to shoot a special edition of V.Sik’s YouTube rap show. Vietnamese rapper Wowy Nguyen has invited five Vietnamese rap all stars over—Usagi, Ricky Star, Dat Maniac, Wean Le, Smo, and also the producer NVM. They’re sitting down to talk about the state of Vietnamese rap, and to drop some freestyles for the V.Sik talks show hosted by Callous Tran.
When he arrives, Wowy Nguyen looks every bit the eccentric godfather of Vietnamese rap with a blue blazer and gold chain swinging over a Pirates of the Caribbean shirt. With him is the show’s host and MC, Callous Tran, looking like the hip-hop impresario with round gold-rimmed glasses and a Macbook under his arm.
“Vietnamese rap in the south feels splintered—everyone’s busy doing their own thing and there’s not many events like this where we can connect and show each other support,” Wowy says sitting down. “But the scene is growing,” he adds. “I still remember the days when we’d sit on the street and put on some music or freestyle in Circle K,” Callous Tran says, “things are changing.”
July was a good example of the growth in Vietnamese rap. Suboi released her long-awaited “N-Sao?” and Binz and Triple D dropped “NTDVH.” And a young Vietnamese rapper crossed-over into film. Wean Le starred in “Trường Học Bá Vương” (School of Success) that premiered at the start of August and the soundtrack features his NVM-produced track, “Me.”
So, after finishing the shoot for this special episode of the V.Sik talks series we got Wowy Nguyen to tell us about the five Vietnamese rap all stars that he’s invited over.
Wowy Nguyen presents his Vietnamese rap all stars
Wowy met Smo in the rapper’s hometown of Buon Ma Thuot while on tour. “Then a friend played me one of his tracks and his voice really impressed me,” Wowy remembers. “We did a song together, “Theo Tao Ra Ngoai Kia Song,” and became friends.”
“I was a hip-hop DJ at the time,” Smo says, “and after his show we got drunk and talked about rap.” Smo left Buon Ma Thuot and moved to Saigon to pursue his career in music. Usually in his videos he’s staggering through Saigon’s “Little Tokyo” or stepping into the club. But in the video for “ITSANEWDAY,” he’s back home in Vietnam’s Central Highlands riding elephants and swimming in pristine lakes.
Last weekend, Wowy and Smo also finished the shoot for the video for “Money.” They filmed it in a studio in Tan Binh called GBox and at locations around town like Dominic Saint Paul’s shoe shop on Dong Du. The shoot mostly went to plan, “except we were doing a scene in a car and we didn’t realize the road had speed bumps which ruined the shot,” Wowy laughs.
The Buon Ma Thuot-born rapper also has a track, called “Lam Them,” that’s featuring on the HBO show “Here and Now.” And a new album coming out, KSS, featuring Wowy. They plan to tour together this year starting in Buon Ma Thuot and finishing with a show at Hong Kong music festival Clockenflap in November. “It’s a work in progress,” Wowy smiles.
“I started rapping when I was 16,” Ricky remembers, “and I joined my crew ‘C Town Dream’ the same year.” The Can Tho rapper, who is now twenty-three, put together his first studio for five dollars. “I bought this old mixer and a broken microphone and fixed them up. At the time it felt so professional,” he laughs.
To understand the ascent of Vietnamese rap from rhyming over bedroom beats to big-budget shoots watch Ricky Star’s low-cost karaoke-video tribute “Lý Cây Bông” released in 2013 or his early freestyle videos. Then compare them to the glossy pop video for the Superbrothers track “Doc Than” featuring Chau Dang Kho that Ricky drops a couple of guest verses on too.
Ricky and Pjpo shot the “Lý Cây Bông” video in Vinh Long. It cost two hundred dollars to make. “Three-quarters of that went on stuff to smoke and food,” Ricky remembers. The Superbrothers music video for “Độc Thân” had a VND 200 million budget. The rapper didn’t know the size of the project when he agreed to do it, “I wrote those two verses in ten minutes…me and Khao couldn’t even remember our lines during the shoot.”
“Lý Cây Bông’ is my favorite Ricky Star track. The way he brought Mekong culture into Vietnamese rap makes me proud to be Vietnamese…” Wowy smiles. “I first met Ricky and Pjpo, who he raps with, at a show in Long Xuyen. He’s one of the most talented rappers in Vietnam, and he’s typically south-western Vietnamese—funny, energetic, talkative, and honest.”
Halfway through the show, Ricky Star has to leave. Even though it’s Sunday the rapper is late for a session. He’s recording a new track, “Beautiful Vampire,” that’ll be free to fans. “We wouldn’t be here without them,” Ricky says as he heads off to the studio.
Usagi is the youngest at the table. The eighteen-year-old rapper’s part of Callous Tran’s Shizzle United crew. He also recorded the theme song, “Red Lantern,” for the crew’s Ginza club released on Shizzle Records. Usagi’s been scouting more talent for the label to add to upcoming releases by artists like No Luck and JustZen, and tracks like “Come Closer To Me Girl” by Klaw. And they’ve opened a second club, Southside, “a shrine to hip-hop culture in Vietnam,” and Ginza coffee, a Japanese-themed cafe.“‘Red Lantern’ took months to record,” Usagi remembers, “the crew kept pushing me to perfect my flow.”
“He’s young but talented. He can produce, rap in English, make videos, take photographs,” Wowy says about Usagi who he’s meeting for the first time. “Who knows if he can do all that successfully? Maybe he should focus on one. But nothing is impossible. If he fails, he can start all over again. As long as he doesn’t give it up,” Wowy advises.
Green-haired Wean Le has a style that’s more punk than hip hop. Wowy calls him a fashionista. He started rapping at 16 in Quang Nai—his hometown. “I used to freestyle with my homies,” Wean tells us, “but I realized that if just kept freestyling I’d be treading water, so I started to write songs.” The scene in Quang Nai is small and it’s “mostly made up of breakdancers with hardly any rappers.” And so Wean Le moved to Saigon two years ago and started the clothing brand Lazythink.
Wean’s also about to star in a film. In a few days time, his first feature, “Trường Học Bá Vương” (School of Success), will premiere featuring his track “Me” on the OST.
He’s another rapper Wowy met on tour—this time in Wean Le’s hometown. “I still remember our first conversation,” Wowy says. “We visited a pagoda in Quang Ngai together. Wean was standing in front of a tree for a while. Then he looked at me and said, ‘The seed of life.’ At that moment I knew he was a real artist.”
So far, besides his song on the soundtrack of “Trường Học Bá Vương,” Wean’s had guest verses on tracks like G.O.S.S.’s “New G, and there’s some live videos circulating too.
G-Family’s Dat Maniac is a distinctive voice in Vietnamese rap. Dat first got attention for his fast-paced flow in viral videos posted in 2013. Listening to “Mấy con mèo” (Those cats) you can understand the comparisons to US rappers like Eminem and Twista—especially when Dat Maniac switches to double-time rapping—but his voice is uniquely Vietnamese. “It’s his own style,” Wowy shrugs. “He’s got a vision and he won’t stop fighting till he achieves it. I respect him a lot.”
The twenty-seven-year-old rapper is a regular live performer—lots of his tracks have been fine-tuned in freestyles and first aired on stage. He’s collaborated with other artists like Hazard Clique Cam’s side project, Cam & Next Door Stories. He’s featured on talent shows with the rest of the G-Family. And he’s been interviewed in the chair at Liem’s barbers.
Dat Maniac’s lyrics dig into betrayal, relationships, and day-to-day struggles like on “Ở lại đây với con” (Stay here with your children). “On songs like that he gets into character and expresses genuine feelings…he’s got authentic stories to tell,” Wowy adds.
In June, he released the track “Ngày Nào,” a collaboration with indie band Cá Hồi Hoang. Then in July, he dropped “3:1.” It shows where Dat’s at right now. On “3:1” he turns a light piano and sax inflected beat into a rich story about surviving hard times through rap with support from his mom. “His mom is a legend. She’s always supported him,” Wowy says.
The show’s over and Wowy’s going back to his studio. “I hope one day Vietnamese rap gets way bigger than this one table,” he says walking out and back down the Serif Space stairs.