Straight Outta Saigon — Hip-Hop OG Việt Max

Interview by Elphick Wo and Dan Nguyen
Translation by Dan Nguyen
Photos by Christopher Lim

Interview by Elphick Wo and Dan Nguyen
Translation by Dan Nguyen
Photos by Christopher Lim

On a recent editorial trip through Saigon (where we also met veteran film producer Jenni Trang Le), MAEKAN sound engineer Elphick sat down with local Viet hip-hop pioneers Dan Nguyen (DemonSlayer) and Việt Max.

As artists pushing the next wave of hip-hop, Dan and Việt instantly gravitated towards each other and have remained close friends and collaborators since first meeting in 2011. In this story, they discuss the history and rise of hip-hop culture in Vietnam before the Internet and where the genre could be going in the near future.

Elphick Wo: Can you guys introduce yourselves?

Dan NguyenI’m Dan Nguyen a.k.a DemonSlayer. I’m a multidisciplinary creative. I was born in California, but have since then returned to Vietnam to learn more about my roots. I’m here with one of the pioneers of hip-hop culture in Vietnam, Việt Max.

Việt Max: Hi everyone, I’m Việt Max, and people know me as a general creative with a love for the arts, especially things related to hip-hop culture. Everything I participate in, whether it’s directing feature films, painting murals or dancing, it all stemmed from hip-hop culture. 

DanCan you tell us how you first got into hip-hop, how you discovered it, and your love for the culture?

Việt: My story started in 1990. I was born and raised in Hanoi. At that time, I had an older friend, a “sister” that studied at a well-known international school in Hanoi. She would travel a lot, and bring back cassettes from overseas. One time, she brought a cassette for me. It was a bootleg compilation of US and UK pop songs. 

Dan: Yeah, I remember back then, that was the jam: bootleg compilations of pop songs. 

Việt: Yeah, the tape that started it all had random songs on it, but the song that stuck out to me most was Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” At that time, I didn’t even know who MJ was, but listening to “Billie Jean” made me feel some type of way. The rhythm, the bass and drums—it all made me just want to move, to dance my heart out.

After playing this tape to death, I wanted to find more of MJ’s music. I went to this CD store in Hanoi, on 49 Quang Trung street. This was probably the first music store in Hanoi to sell international music. After chopping it up with the owner, he gave me a list of MJ’s songs.

Elphick: What happened after that?

Việt: Sometime after that, I went to an auntie’s house and she had a VHS player (at that time, only very affluent houses would have a VCR). She had a video cassette called “Love Song Collection,” with a live recorded performance of “Billie Jean” dubbed into it.  I saw MJ do the moonwalk, my mind was blown. I was like, “What on Earth is this sorcery? How does one do this?”

So after watching the video over and over, I started practicing. I started dancing and wanted to learn new moves. I started studying different forms of dancing. My research took me to other famous pop artists at that time. I discovered Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer—artists who are defined by their dancing. At that time, I still didn’t know that style of dance was called hip-hop, but I would imitate the moves and watch the videos over and over again just to learn from them.

DanSo this was during your childhood? Around what age?

Việt: Back then, a lot of the middle schools would have a little talent show thing, sort of like a block party where different schools would show up to perform a dance routine, or theater play. It was a chance for schools to get to know each other. At every event, there was always a segment in the show where they would just turn on music and have people just get out on stage and dance for fun, anyone could join and do whatever they want, listen to the music and freestyle.

One day, I came up there and I saw others dancing using a similar style like popping and locking. I was so surprised, like, “What?! You guys know about this too?” I finally felt like I wasn’t alone. From there, we started connecting and practicing together. These other guys were the ones that went to international school or went to school overseas in Germany or Russia, and came back with hip-hop and b-boying. This was 1990 and in 1992, I started focusing even more on breaking.

I wish that more pioneers of hip-hop, the ones who were there first, would give back to educate the youth about the culture. If you’re first generation and you don’t educate or give back to the youth, the youth have no direction, and the community starts to dwindle and suffer collectively—as does the culture. Cut the ego, work together—you’re not better than the newbies.

DanSo, after you met your fellow b-boys and what-not, what was the scene like back then? What was the community like in its infancy?

Việt: So in the ’90s, some people knew it was called hip-hop, but didn’t know the history or where it came from. There was no internet at that time in Vietnam. We didn’t have any international b-boys coming into the country or any community centers with workshops etc. We would just see what was going on in videos and then imitate it. A breakthrough in the scene was when the community got their hands on the film Breakin. 

Dan: Ah, the classic film from the ’80s.

Việt: Yeah, we all watched that one copy prob a thousand times. We were all imitating it. It was the only hip-hop video we ever saw. The copy we had was dubbed in German, so there wasn’t any information we could get from it. We were still just imitating the visual aspects of hip-hop. By this time in 1999, Vietnam had internet, but it was dial-up and connected to the phone: there was no way we could’ve downloaded any hip-hop videos.

Our parents were always on the phone since there was just the landline and no cell phones yet. Yet, even at that time, there were already hip-hop events–battles and dance exhibitions—in Vietnam, but the culture and history wasn’t really known yet. 

DanThat must have changed when you got broadband internet.

Việt: Finally, in 2000 we got internet and I would go on breaking.com to learn more. Back then, I didn’t know English and they weren’t teaching English in schools yet, so I had to go out to a bookstore and buy an English-to-Vietnamese dictionary so I could go on hip-hop websites and read about hip-hop. I would translate it word by word. This is how I learned English.

Dan: Wow, that’s dedication, yo. So even back then when there was no hip-hop and no one was following hip-hop, why did you continue to pursue it?

Finally, in 2000 we got internet and I would go on breaking.com to learn more. Back then, I didn’t know English and they weren't teaching English in schools yet, so I had to go out to a bookstore and buy an English-to-Vietnamese dictionary so I could go on hip-hop websites and read about hip-hop. I would translate it word by word. This is how I learned English.

Việt: Vietnam back then wasn’t like now where there’s plenty of subcultures to choose from, like fashion, skating, and BMX. Back then, there were only really two paths the youth could’ve taken: motorcycle racing or drugs. The youth in Hanoi were consumed by that in the ’90s and parents were always worried about their children.

Dan: Whoa, that’s very similar to the Vietnamese diaspora in the ’90s as well. It was either the street racing-slash-import scene or the gang-banging scene to choose from.

Việt: Exactly. There were a few other routes, but those were the main ones for the youth who actually were active; the ones who were searching for something to belong to. Hip-hop kept me off the streets. Even in middle school, I would go out and fight other crews and what-not, typical teen stuff. Hip-hop literally saved my life; just like it did with you, Dan.

Dan: It sure as hell did. So right now, with the state of hip-hop in Vietnam, can you touch on the positive and negative aspects of it? 

Việt: The way I see it now, hip-hop in Vietnam has a pretty good understanding—a firm grip on what hip-hop is and what it isn’t. The culture is about 28 years old now, so people have a fairly good understanding about the culture. There’s a lot of the youth now who are traveling outside to participate in hip-hop events and workshops, and a lot of Vietnamese artists and dancers are getting invited to participate and take part in events overseas. We also invite a lot of international pioneers to Vietnam for workshops and lectures.

Elphick: How about the other elements of hip-hop?

Việt: Graffiti, b-boying, rapping, DJing, they all have their own route and direction now. Back in the ’90s it was just all lumped into one category. So now what I see taking place after is each element evolving on its own, finally returning to connect together again, and people are realizing that all these subcultures came from hip-hop, they have an understanding.

The pioneers and forefathers—the people who were in the beginning—they are now taking on a role model approach, sharing what they know, passing their knowledge back to the youth. People overseas are recognizing Vietnam now.

DanYa, def. That’s like the Vietnamese beatboxer Trung Bao who placed in the international beat box championships. Everyone here is so proud of him.

Việt: The one thing that I do see that Vietnam could probably work on is that now since the Internet is everywhere and you can easily just go on and get all types of information without filtering—they start to just imitate whatever is hot or whatever is the new thing, the new trend and in doing so, they kinda lose their individuality.

It’s okay to imitate and be inspired, but one should work toward developing their own style as well. Otherwise, you’re just a copy of the new trend, without your own style as a foundation. Of course, everyone needs a role model, but don’t just follow blindly. Take the inspiration and incorporate it into your own style. 

ElphickIs there anything else that could help the community?

Việt: I wish that more pioneers of hip-hop, the ones who were there first, would give back to educate the youth about the culture. If you’re first generation and you don’t educate or give back to the youth, the youth have no direction, and the community starts to dwindle and suffer collectively—as does the culture. Cut the ego, work togethe—you’re not better than the newbies.

DanThat’s so hard for some to do. With everything going on in Vietnam right now, what inspires you? What drives you to keep going, to create and push yourself?

Back then, there were only really two paths the youth could’ve taken: motorcycle racing or drugs. The youth in Hanoi were consumed by that in the ’90s and parents were always worried about their children.

Việt: I’m older now, so need to do things that evolve and challenge myself. I see other people—my colleagues, my peers and even my friends from the same generation—totally killing it in their field and putting Vietnam on the map.

This shows me that I’m not alone in my pursuit to raise the standard of Viet creativity. We’re still a developing country, so the work is not over. 

Elphick: Where do you see the development of Vietnamese hip-hop in the next five years?

Việt: I feel like the scene is going to explode in the future because the youth now are really focused at this point. They’re hungrier than ever. The last five years or so, we experienced a drop in interest in hip-hop where a lot of the older cats kinda just stopped caring and participating, partially because they’ve got families now, or are focused on a different career. Now with the advent of fast internet, social media, and the youth, there’s a rekindled interest in it.  

ElphickDo you have any specific examples?

Việt: In Hanoi, there are actually community centers teaching hip-hop culture to the youth. Those youngsters are the ones who are going to take it to the next level. They don’t have cultural restrictions as I did in the ’90s. English is taught in every school now.

Hip-hop is on TV, in commercials, in fashion, in the mainstream. Every year, I get invited to judge b-boy competitions in Hanoi, and in two years, I’ve seen these same kids develop and learn what I learned in 10 years.

DanSo the workshop you recently had with Papito and b-boy Rush (a legendary American b-boy), you saw more of a younger crowd in those classes?

Việt: My point exactly. Workshops used to be just cats closer to my age, but in the last few years, the students attending the workshops were mostly teenagers and preteens.

Elphick: Is there anything specific that gets you excited right now?

Việt: Hmm, there’s a lot! Right now, the youth are doing all the things that we prayed for back then: throwing b-boy jams, ciphers and workshops, block parties and stuff. So personally, I wanna do something new and challenging to myself that I haven’t done before.

I’m doing a comic that talks about hip-hop in Vietnam. This is a story that takes place in the future and also in the past, and it’ll be based off of real-life events that happened in Vietnam’s history with real people. It’ll show readers where the culture came from and how it formulated here in Vietnam. I am gearing this comic towards everyone, not just hip-hop fans, but people who appreciate a good story in general.

Dan: Are you in the stages of writing it or do you already have some panels done?

Việt: I have about 10 pages done already.

Dan: I remember about three years ago, we were talking about creating a hip-hop book–similar to the Source’s “Hip-hop” book but a Vietnamese version. The book would have old photographs and interviews with the pioneers of the scene here. We just kinda stopped working on it after a while. Care to share a bit about it and why you chose to do a comic instead of a book?

Việt: With that book, I decided against it because it would mostly be text, and no photos because a lot of the photos were lost or no one really had money to buy a camcorder to record things back then. So without the visual accompaniment, the book would be mostly text—if not all.

I figured the general Vietnamese public wouldn’t be interested in reading a Bible-sized text book, so that’s why I decided to make it into a comic to appeal to a wider audience of all ages and backgrounds.

Elphick: Looking forward to it and as always, keep us up to date with everything you got going on. Thanks so much to both of you for putting in the time to talk with us. 

Dan: Thanks a lot. 

Việt: Thanks! 

It’s okay to imitate and be inspired, but one should work toward developing their own style as well. Otherwise, you’re just a copy of the new trend, without your own style as a foundation. Of course, everyone needs a role model, but don’t just follow blindly. Take the inspiration and incorporate it into your own style.
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