“I love Long Beach,” PraCh Ly tells me, “I love the people.” PraCh Ly is Long Beach’s next legend. The Cambodian-American rapper is a leader and visionary. It all started when one of his demo tapes he passed around to a few of his friends somehow found its way to Cambodia. Soon enough over a million copies were bootlegged throughout the country. By producing a bilingual album packed with meaning and history, he electrified his homeland with lyrics that are relentless, yet thoughtful. Some have called him the Bob Marley of Cambodia comparing him to freedom fighters like Fela Kuti.
On a balmy afternoon day we got in PraCh’s Mustang and rode from one end of Long Beach to the other as he popped in CD’s from his rapidly expanding discography. We began at Anaheim and Atlantic. Rolling north PraCh explains the power of each passing place. Long Beach has deep meaning to him. When we pass Jordan High School, his old school, he tells us “there were so many fights that we couldn’t learn at the school.”
At Long Beach Blvd and 67th, PraCh shows us a plaza where he had his first job in a video store. Two blocks up at 69th is the apartments his family lived in when they first moved to Long Beach two decades ago. Right on the border of North Long Beach and Compton. PraCh pulls into the back alley. “We used to play tackle football in this alley. Grass doesn’t grow in the ghetto.”
“Love our land to death, but can’t stay no longer/ it’s life or death, we gotta make it…across the border.”
Long Beach has nearly 60,000 Cambodians ,the world’s largest concentration outside Phnom Penh. Anaheim Street was a ghost town until Cambodian owners came in the late 70’s, early 80’s. The rundown streets of Long Beach were a long way from Cambodia’s landscape of fresh water fish, rubber plantations and fields of rice. The atrocities of the Khmer Rouge during the late 1970’s made Cambodia into “the Killing Fields.”
One historian describing the Killing Fields wrote, “People were murdered for not working hard, for complaining about living conditions, for collecting or stealing food for their own use, for wearing jewelry, for having sexual relations, for grieving over the loss of relatives or friends, or for expressing religious sentiments. Sick people were often eliminated. The killings often occurred without any kind of trial, and they continued, uninterrupted, until the 1979 Vietnamese invasion.”
PraCh was born in Cambodia in 1979. His family walked for miles escaping the carnage of the Killing Fields. They ended up in Long Beach in 1983. “It’s about power, territory and rice/and a course that comes with a hefty price/ whenever there is war, there’s always sacrifice/ and it’s usually the innocent who lose their lives.”. The large Cambodian community around Long Beach gives PraCh access to a network of grandparents, family friends, aunts and uncles. By listening to their stories he was able to compose the first musical description of the Killing Fields.
It makes perfect sense that PraCh ended up an emcee because his native Khmer language is steeped in oral tradition. The Cambodian style of storytelling known as “ah-yie” has a rhyming meter. Male elders of the community would tell their families historical tales in a rhyming style. “Stories told by our parents to us.” Oral tradition dates back to the dawn of man. Hip-hop is older then we think. “There’s a gap in our generation, between the adults and kids. but since I’m bilingual, i’ma use communication as a bridge…” PraCh understands the importance of being the messenger, the leader of the discussion, the master of ceremonies. Not only loyal to his Native Cambodia, PraCh has an American flag in his car as well.
THE KILLING FIELDS OF LONG BEACH
Sliding south on Cherry Avenue, PraCh points out the heavily Cambodian Cherry apartments in North Long Beach. Further south at the Forest Lawn Cemetery near San Antonio, PraCh recalls his friend buried there. Vouthy Tho was shot last year in cold blood. Tho had just returned from Iraq. He was killed along with Sok Khak Ung, a 22-year-old Marine. The killer remains at large.
A few miles south along Cherry, the Hellman Street neighborhood in Central Long Beach is a war zone. The Latin Eastside Longos have been battling the Cambodian Tiny Rascals for the last 20 years. Crips are also in the same few blocks. Packed with small houses, small yards, tight streets and gangs — the Hellman area is the densest part of Long Beach. After the recent spate of killings many longtime residents have started to move. PraCh sees those who leave the old neighborhood as just as much a part of the problem. Whether it’s Long Beach or Cambodia, PraCh wants to be a part of the solution.
His answers begin with his knowledge-based music. PraCh comes from the burgeoning underground of 21st Century urban Long Beach where Asian rappers, including many Cambodians collab with Latin Black Filipino Samoan Italian heads. He also competed in local emcee battles for years. After earning his stripes, now he hosts them. He no longer hits the parties and clubs like he once did ‘cuz some young hot shot always try to battle him. Nowadays PraCh is either in the studio or touring.
“It’s not just music, it’s a movement.”
PraCh is a busy man. Besides two more of his own albums, he’s currently finishing production on two other artists albums. Mujestic is the name of their Record Label. He is the Executive Producer of the Universal Speakers. Universal Speakers are three female singer/emcees. Asian females straight out of Long Beach . Mujestic is also releasing a classical record by Ho C. Chan. Chan is a “Master musician of pin peat—the wind and percussive music that accompanies Cambodian court dance—masked dances, shadow plays, and religious ceremonies.” Chan is responsible for much of the music on the PraCh’s most recent album, “the Lost Chapter.” “The Lost Chapter,” is all about urgency. Lee Ballinger of Rock & Rap Confidential writes, “It’s all there in Prach Ly’s latest CD Dalama|”the lost chapter” (mujestic.com), It’s recorded in a barebones garage studio, yet it’s bass-heavy sound is pulse-quickening and persuasive.” The album’s sound also swings from Long Beach G Funk to the lyrical precision of Nas.
“When I say Long Beach, you say City, Long Beach City, Long Beach City!”
On a warm Saturday in January at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade at the Park of the same name, PraCh performed a bangin’ three-song set. The park was packed with a few thousand folks.
He began his set with by saying, “How many of you have Cambodian friends? [some hands shoot up] How many of you have Asian friends? [more hands shoot up] Well, everyone else has a Cambodian friend now. Me!” This epitomizes his openness.
Then in the spirit of the day he kicked a short statement dedicated to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. With no music behind his voice, it hit like a bangin’ poem. The last few lines went like this… “Its united we stand, divided we’ll fall/ that’s why we should build a bridge instead of a wall. and we should all care, because injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We have a rainbow of culture, but only one Earth, one Sun./We need to learn to live together before there is none./If you’re a leader, go out and get the job done! You can say I’m a dreamer, but today I know I’m not the only one!”
The capacity crowd cheered in agreement.
PraCh Ly is blazing trails for those who want to learn, grow and make their community a better place. As a foot soldier for justice, he handles his responsibility with grace. As our drive in his Mustang came to a close, PraCh’s undeniable conviction shined bright as he freestyled his ass off to Phil’s beatbox while we drove over the Vincent Thomas bridge. High above the harbor, Prach weaved through traffic rappin’ about the future. Kicking focused rhymes hittin’ on the one, PraCh has a controlled fury coupled with knowledge and wisdom that reminds me of why hip-hop was great in the first place.
Prach asked me to listen
to his album
and write a poem.
Bagdad, Cambodia, London,
bribery, extortion, embezzlement,
nepotism, money laundering, genocide..
How many have died?
From the Constitution to the
political executions, starvation.
Forced labor became the daily flavor
for Cambodians under the
Khmer Rouge regime..
Damn near 2 Million civilians
were killed in cold blood..
The Killing Fields filled
Cambodian Country sides..
This goes down worldwide
from the Diamond mines
of Sierra Leone to Rio De Janeiro
& Sao Paulo..
Long Beach, California..
the whole country
pays the price for
Power lies in
the hands of few,
those who start wars
never fight them..
Abuse of authority creates tyrants
Hell bent on daily violence,
POL POT, Bush, Bin Laden
Who do you believe in?
What do subscribe to?
Some live by the gun,
the apocalyptic hum
of a cold blooded drum..
crossfires in the Killing fields
no shields in the ghetto
drive-bys are real
& snitches die..
Who’s the real wise guy?
Most turn a blind eye
just to survive..
Hate crimes from all sides..
Soldiers, sailors, assailants,
the LAPD doesn’t talk about
don’t expect a witness..
Even the chair of internal affairs
laced up his lair for extramarital affairs,
corruption is everywhere..
Restrictive housing covenants
afterhour night clubs
the casting couch
something in your mouth..
Keep your mouth closed,
ask no questions
& hear no lies,
& chaos in the air,
freedom & fear are at war..
PraCh Ly’s poetry turns
pain into medicine,
poverty, war & terrorism
climbing over execution
To tell the truth
can’t erase the past,
but it can stop it from