PHM – Rapper Suboi and hip-hop music in Vietnam

Posted on Monday 24 Dec - 2012

On the occasion of Suboi’s visit to Hanoi for the music event “Underground Revolution”, PHM from Hanoi Grapevine had the opportunity to meet with this promising young rapper to learn about the hip-hop scene in Vietnam. And coincidentally, Suboi is also about to put down a big party for her second album launch in Ho Chi Minh City this week.

From teen pop to hip-hop

Obviously the American entertainment industry has a huge impact on the music movements all over the world and Vietnam is just one of the many influenced zones. Vietnamese youth were first exposed to world music in the 1990s thanks to MTV and it is no exaggeration to say that no less than 99% of the teenagers at that time fancied the likes of Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls or the barbie princesses Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. However, teen pop music soon faded in early 2000s to give the spotlight to nu-metal (the new rock genre combining DJ and rap, typically represented by the famed Linkin Park) and rap hip-hop (with the name of Eminem coming foremost).

In Vietnam, when the boy bands’ heyday ended, young people’s taste in music began to split and became extremely diverse. Of course, up to now the majority still listen to pop music (which is why this music is named “popular”) while the rest go in different directions and explore new music genres that were not much known in Vietnam before. The most visible group is the noisy rockers, most of whom have declared a complete “divorce” from pop music. Another quieter group decided to switch to experimental, ambient and sound art. Whereas, another emerging trend that attracts a lot of young people recently is hip-hop and street arts which are tied to breakdance, beatboxing, rap and DJ. In fact, boundaries between these groups are quite fragile because many people switch or mix genres while trying to find the musical “path” for themselves.

For Suboi, she was first exposed to hip-hop a long time ago but before totally moving to hip-hop, she was a member of two nu-metal rock bands as a rapper and songwriter. When being asked about childhood idols, she replied: “When I was a little kid I liked Britney Spears, then Linkin Park, and Eminem, but the person that inspired me to rap was Will Smith”.

A few highlights about hip-hop music in Vietnam

In Vietnam, hip-hop is categorized as “underground” music. “Underground” here does not mean illegal but simply means “not official”. The official programs in Vietnam now are mostly pop and organized by the government. However, for a country that integrated quite late into world music, the “underground” music scene in Vietnam is surprisingly varied. Nowadays it includes hip-hop, rock, electronic, experimental, sound art and a lot of other imported genres from Africa, Latin America, etc.

Hip-hop in Vietnam is quite new. The hip-hop listeners and performers are all very young, mostly from 9x or second half of 8x generations (*). Talking about hip-hop, Suboi said: “Hip-hop in Vietnam is still limited, not very developed. There are many talented rappers composing great music, but just a few people know, only the ones who often listen to underground music are aware of them and their music. However, after I released the first album “Walk” (2010) in which I mixed hip-hop with pop, reggae and other pleasant rhythms, people seemed to welcome it because they realized that rap and hip-hop were quite ear-catchy. Through the years, things are getting much better. Even VTV3 (**) now has a program for hip-hop… Besides, according to the statistics on my facebook page, the fans are mostly between 18 and 25 years old, all very young.”

Being a Saigon native but having performed numerous shows in Hanoi and having lots of friends here, Suboi pointed out the different styles in the two cities: “People in Hanoi love dubstep, and here everyone prefers dance to rap. Hanoi has great break-dancers but too few rappers. While in Ho Chi Minh City I think more people listen to hip-hop, but the style is different, a bit more old-school.”

Portrait of the young female rapper

It was hard to recognize this famous rapper in the café. The skinny girl in black T-shirt and jeans looked just like any other traditional Vietnamese girl with her long black hair, no make-up, casual style and soft expression.

Suboi’s real name is Han Lam Trang Anh, 23 years old, originally from HCMC. Her stage name “Suboi” came from her nick name at home “Su” and the “boy” title given to her by friends due to her tomboy style. Her favorite color used to be pink like many other girls and now they are blue and green. Before music, her dream was to become a lawyer, and now her desires are traveling, visiting Europe, working with the producers and artists that she idolizes. Her “bucket list” is wrapped up in two words: “travel” and “music”.

On the second album launch, quite awhile after the release of the first one, Suboi was very excited, she said: “I wanted to do this album a long time ago, almost immediately after the first one. But it took me 3 years, because I didn’t have anyone to do it with me, no producer, no one to help, I couldn’t make it alone. And then I met Tanya and Josh (***) and they offered to help. I am very happy that it happened.”

She also intends to organize a debut album party in Hanoi in the coming time but hasn’t got a specific plan yet. For now all she can think about is the upcoming album launch on 29 December at Q4, Ho Chi Minh City, which promises to be a huge one.

Here are some of her most famous tracks that are loved by thousands of young Vietnamese:

“Chất riêng của tôi”, released in summer 2012:

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“Walk”, the featured video in her first album in 2010:

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“Run”, the featured video in her second album, newly released:

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Words by PHM. Photos provided by Suboi.

(*) In Vietnam we use the term “8x” for the generation born in 1980s and “9x” for generation born in 1990s.
(**) VTV3 is an important national TV channel in Vietnam, focusing on culture, sports and entertainments.
(***) Tanya Johnston from Music District PR and Joshua Turner from Saigon Sound System.

Pham Hoang Mien has been with Hanoi Grapevine for some time, mainly involved in social media and occasional translation. As an enthusiastic music lover, now she wants to challenge herself in a new role – being a columnist writing about music and musicians for the site.

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