April 30, 2005

(From left) Silong, Syam and Ted, who make up the rap group 2nd Language, use their music to explore what it means to be Cambodian American. Their song "Corona Nights" gets played on KUBE 93.3 FM.

Rappers driven by their own beats

By Caroline Li
For the Northwest Asian Weekly

"Start a new trend, never stop until the beat ends..." ? From "Shuffle (the b boy stance)" by 2nd Language

The fourth track on 2nd Language's debut album "Language Arts" is an easygoing, carefree listen. The lighthearted lyrics over an old-school beat make for a tune of good times. But fun-loving cuts like "Shuffle (the b boy stance)" are just one of the many sides of this Tacoma rap trio.

Their other personas have indeed started a new trend. Syam, Silong and Ted, the members of 2nd Language, are taking a look at themselves and the roles they've played in the world. They've explored how history has set them on their paths, remembering the genocide of their people during the Khmer Rouge's rule in Cambodia. For them, the beat never ended.

"Remember the past that keeps us lasting ? the pain and sorrow. And I'm gonna live today for a new day tomorrow ..."

On "New Day Tomorrow," Silong brings listeners on a journey through the genocidal "killing fields" of Cambodia. 2nd Language's cultural side comes mostly from Silong, who says if he were to put together a solo album, it would mostly be about his reflection on Cambodian history and heritage.

Through their music, these young men contemplate their lives in the United States ? exploring the clashes between mainstream hip-hop culture and cultural traditions, while offering their own ideas for compromise.

With a new generation of hip-hop talent in our midst, the sounds are changing, and the lyrics are reflective of today's society. 2nd Language is a mirror image of the evolution of urban music and has been on top of its game since the release of "Language Arts" last December.

2nd Language isn't the first urban musical entity to dabble in the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. Prach Ly, from Long Beach, Calif., recently became Cambodia's No. 1 hip-hop icon for his debut CD, "Dalama: The End'n Is Just the Beginnin'." This rapper recites stories that have been told to him by his refugee family. Prach put together his songs using background beats made with a karaoke machine and sample sound bites from old Khmer Rouge speeches. Somehow his CD got all the way to Cambodia's capital and onto Phnom Penh radio.

Though neither Prach nor the members of 2nd Language are old enough to recount that horrifying period in Cambodia, they act as a voice for those who did not survive.

Syam, Silong and Ted ? 25, 26 and 26, respectively ? were raised in the United States. They say with pride that they have kept their roots alive in innovative ways.

These fellas even have plans to go global. There have been recent talks with fashion executives in Asia, along with an endorsement deal in the works with Den Phok of Denzoe Designs and the creative director and head designer at Caffeine Clothing.

"It's the sign of the times, have a few in the sunshine ..."

"Corona Nights," one of the last songs recorded on their album, became the hook. Since debuting on KUBE 93.3 FM's "Future Flavors" segment last February, the Cambodian American rappers have performed all over the Puget Sound area and gained a following. Consecutive airplay and CD sales have quickly followed.

None of the members knew beforehand that the song would be played on the radio, but they are thrilled that it has caught on like wildfire. "Corona Nights" has become really popular really fast because it's easy to listen to, Jason Gamboa, manager for 2nd Language, believes.

The idea behind it is simple, but the song is still good. It's also a special way to end one's day, much like a Corona beer is, the members point out.

The album didn't just break new ground on the Northwest rap and hip-hop scene; it pounded on the door of discrimination.

Members of 2nd Language say they have worked hard to get local vendors to look past the color of their skin. "There is no color to hip-hop," says Silong, who used to play guitar in a rock band.

When they take their CDs to local music vendors and ask for distribution, some of the vendors are surprised by who is asking. Some, after listening to their music, are willing to give them a chance. Others need more coaxing, the members admit.

"People expect to hear gangster sh*t," said Ted. "It's the perception because we're Asian, but when they hear us, they think, ?What the hell?' and they're taken away by it."

Currently, 2nd Language's album can be found at Buzzards and Rocket records in Tacoma and Super Video in Seattle.

Their music is neither mainstream nor underground, they say. "The only way to describe it (the album) is just that it is music," Silong says. Their current goal is to create a loyal fan base.

The guys started rhyming in high school to other artists' beats. Both mainstream and Bay Area music were early influences. Though a lot of gang activity surrounded them while they grew up in the early '90s, they never considered themselves gangsters, they said.

"We are some broke rappers," Ted acknowledges. All three of them have day jobs, and the whole album was produced using money from their own pockets.

Silong lives in Oregon and commutes to Tacoma every week to record. New technology allows them to communicate and work on projects from different locations.

"The album is a measure of our different personalities," Silong explains.

"We're not trying to be anybody except ourselves," Ted adds.

For more information about 2nd  Language, visit www.the2ndlanguage.com.

Caroline Li can be reached at scpnwan@nwlink.com

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