Whoever said hip-hop was dead clearly has never been to Burma. In this sweaty stew of political dissidence and reclining Buddhas, baselines and break beats are king. Billboards display hooded MCs striking aggressive alpha poses, radios bump familiar American instrumentals laced with thunderstorms of Burmese lyrics, and fans are so familiar with their favorite artists’ bodies of work that when electricity goes out at concerts—an inevitable event in this power-thirsty country—they rap the rest of the song a capella.
And so it was with great honor we found ourselves being escorted from Roads and Kingdom’s Burmese headquarters at the Eastern Hotel across town to Diamond Pussy studios by local hip hop royalty. Our host’s name was Thxa Soe (“I added the X because I wanted something crazy”) and he—spiky hair, cola-bottle-thick glasses and all—is one of Burma’s most famous masters of ceremony. He picked us up in his ‘92 Toyota, which, because of this country’s crippled supply chain, cost him $30,000 cash. In a country where crumbling buildings are a pedestrian hazard and where taxi drivers shuttle locals around in cars held together by bubble gum and balsa wood, it’s not easy to bling.
Unless they’re pipelining oil, pushing heroin, or wearing a general’s uniform, nobody is getting rich in Burma, especially not the hip-hop heads. Thxa Soe says even the biggest MCs struggle to make a living for two inescapable realities in the Burmese musical landscape. “First, we can’t sell real CDs because pirating is horrible and our government refuses to do anything about it. The other reason is the censors.” Ahh the censors, that humorless band of government officials who must approve every piece of expression—every song lyric, every brushstroke, every line of newspaper print—before it finds its way to a public audience. From everything we’ve heard from local writers and artists here, the Burmese censors are a tough crowd to please.
No one knows that better than Thxa Soe, who has been fighting the state-controlled soul-crushers for the better part of a decade. He estimates that 75% of his music has been denied by the censors over the years. We’re not talking about incendiary stuff, either; a track off of his last album whose only lyrics were “hey, hey, hey, hey now” didn’t past the smell test either.
Finally, Thxa Soe did what any reasonable human would do, he stopped making music with words altogether. He concocted his own brand of supercharged electropop, mashing together thick bass lines and caffeinated hi-hats with the ancient sounds of traditional Burmese music (think flutes and eerie strings and chanting women). He hatched most of this conceit in a London library, where he studied sound engineering for three years and spent many an hour reading old Burmese texts because “the British have better history on Myanmar than we do.”
The result is something truly unique in a medium that desperately lacks originality. After listening to hip-hop around the world, I’ve gotta say, most times you get a guy imitating his favorite American MCs in his native language—same sounds, same attitude, same tired result. But Thxa Soe has tapped into something different here, something that belongs to a time and place largely beyond the reach of Western influence.
That didn’t deter Roads and Kingdoms from hopping on the mic, though. I convinced our host to sift through his repository of beats until we found something we both felt comfortable rhyming over. (In my previous life, I spent not an insignificant amount of time rolling through suburbia, rapping to myself about traffic lights and Southern girls.) No time to write and record, just a little old fashioned Burmese-American freestyle session. I don’t have the first clue what he was rhyming about and can’t say that I ripped many memorable lines, regardless of mother tongue, but by the time we were done, there were talks of a Rangoon-New York collaboration underway.
Like everyone we’ve met here so far, Thxa Soe said he’s been shocked by the pace of change he’s seen with the new government—the opening of previously-banned websites like Twitter, the sudden images of Aung San Suu Kyi in the state-run press, the loosening of the censors. He believes in Brand America, the America that exists to bring balance to the Force. More than anything, he wants Uncle Sam to take a couple of lightsaber swipes at China, which right now is free to have its way with Burma and its deep supply of natural resources—oil, precious stone, heroin. (Thxa Soe played us a song about Mandalay, which airs out his beef with the Chinese who flaunt their drug and jade money in the north…It’s also about how girls from the country’s ancient capitals have fat booties.)
Now that the censorship vice grip appears to be loosening, Thxa Soe thinks he’ll try his hand at traditional hip-hop again, this time with a heavy hit of American jazz sounds providing the backdrop. Next release: 2012
“My newest album was supposed to be called ‘Marry for Money’, but then one day on the news I saw our new president standing with Aung San Suu Kyi and I got a new idea, so I think I’m going to call it ‘We Can Win’.”
Heartwarming sign of a new dawn in Burma? Not so fast.
“I had to change it anyway. The censors didn’t like the first title.”