At a Glance
DJ Illest, at Chow, Saturday October 10, 8 p.m.
Cambodia can be desolate territory for a DJ.
There is not one single retailer of turntables anywhere in the country. There are no records stores, and thus no records. Even if there were, few Cambodians would be interested in listening to them.
After 30 years of war and isolation, local audiences remain near totally unexposed to outside musical influences. Hip-hop, for decades a worldwide musical and cultural force, has only recently cracked the Cambodian market.
And what most Cambodians know as hip-hop is Top 40 saccharine that’s piped into the country by VH1 and MTV Asia.
But times are changing.
“There is the beginning of a scene here,” says the acclaimed DJ Illest, Cambodia’s lone native DJ and the only one who uses a turntable. “What I try to do is show another side of hip-hop; it’s not what’s on TV.”
Raised in Paris and Montreal, DJ Illest followed the family business to Phnom Penh in 1995, back when the Heart of Darkness was still playing war-era acid rock and serving ganja along with peanuts for bar snacks.
“Vinyl is heavy,” Illest remembers of the move. “I came with more than 200 kilos of excess.”
He practiced long hours in his bedroom and played house parties and clubs around town. In 2000, a friend at The Riverhouse Lounge offered him a residency.
“He’s been a really good deejay for a long time,” says Steve Nyirady, owner of the Riverhouse. “He plays really, really good hip-hop.”
But if today’s audiences are just now tuning their ears to radio-friendly Top 40, in 2000 they had no use for break beats.
“He was excellent technically, but he wasn’t that popular,” recalls Nyirady of Illest’s earliest shows.
So Illest adapted. Determined to succeed, he studied the crowds and listened to his audience.
“I try not to be too stubborn,” he says.
He played the pop hits he knew the crowd would dance to, and he slipped in funkier beats when he thought he could get away with it – something he still does.
“You can play anything, if the timing is right,” he says.
In 2003, Pontoon, the floating nightclub on the Tonle Sap, asked Illest to help establish the club’s musical credentials.
During its first two years, Pontoon played only house music. The venue commanded a great atmosphere, but the crowds remained underwhelming.
“We wanted to change the music policy,” recalls Nyirady, who was involved with the club at the time. “We put in hip hop two nights a week.”
With Illest at the turntables, the crowds started to grow. And before too long, he had laid the groundwork for the club to bring in guest DJs from overseas.
Illest reconnected with old crew members from his days as a graffiti artist in Paris. Known as the CP5 crew, the group’s members by then had fanned out across Asia, to Bangkok, Hong Kong, China and beyond. He worked to bring them to Phnom Penh for shows at the Riverhouse and Pontoon.
“It’s a good thing when DJs from other places come over,” Illest says. “It forces you to become better.”
Yet even as a foundation for the Phnom Penh DJ scene began to take shape, Illest remained the only DJ using a turntable living in the country, a situation he continues to work on mending.
He collaborates regularly with Klap Ya Hands and Tiny Toons, two local hip-hop groups, and he is currently developing two young turntable DJs plucked from those ranks.
“There’s a lot of talent here,” he says.
But DJ gear is not just expensive, it’s difficult to come by. A stylus cartridge can run a few hundred dollars, a turntable even more. And you’ll likely have to buy them in Bangkok.
“It’s a challenge,” Illest admits. “Because the kids who are embracing hip hop are not the ones with money.”
Still, the passion for music drives him, and these days, it’s clubs in other countries that are calling him. He has recently played shows in Thailand, Malaysia and France, and his local schedule shows no signs of easing up.
There are many new clubs opening up, says Nyirady, rattling off half a dozen names of new dance halls.
“Before you went to a club because that’s where your friends were going,” he says. “There was never a focus on DJ music.”
But that’s changing, and the shift in attention has forced clubs to rethink their approach.
“Before, you couldn’t even see the DJ, he was stuck in the back,” Nyirady says. “Now he’s the main attraction.”
Illest is largely responsible for that, he says.
“He’s a pioneer.”
DJ Illest plays an intimate set on the Chow rooftop at Oct. 10 at 8 p.m.