“Music is to me what Fox News is to Trump. I would be nothing without it,” Piu Piu’s Lee Lam jokes. In truth, he’s a believer in the positive power of music and he’s a keen chronicler of Asian hip hop. So, we took a ride around town with DJ Scarry Potter to get his guest mix that he hopes can change the world.
Let’s go back to the beginning. Lee bounced between Saigon and Paris growing up. He also had an inexplicable fascination with the Chinese culture and language, so he moved to Beijing after high school. He only planned to stay for a year. But China had him enamoured. And so instead of going back to France to earn a degree, he moved to Shanghai.
There, Lee created a website detailing the nightlife in the Chinese city that he loved. This small website flowered into an events company. That turned into a music festival company. And that company reached its fully-fledged form as an advertising agency after five years. “Then I realized I hated advertising and the people in it.” Lee says with a smirk, “I thought, ‘Let’s focus on music.’”
Lee’s mother lives in Saigon and he visited her often. Through his visits, he couldn’t help but notice how youth culture was booming. “It was time to come back and do something.”
And so Lee opened Piu Piu with four partners. And they went on to also birth Piu Piu Records, a record label and distribution company. “I also helped open a second Piu Piu, called Piu Piu (L!VE) and Bip Bip, a bar in Saigon’s District 2 but they didn’t work out as we hoped,” he shrugs.
This year, Lee decided he would dabble in a different side of the F&B industry. With that, he joined Saigon Cider, the first craft organic cider in Vietnam. “Let’s try some right now!” a wide-eyed Lee offers, “It’s really good.”
Then there’s GOODHOOD, the first online media site dedicated solely to Asian hip-hop culture. Lee is one of the heads of this project, satisfying his craving to continue to dabble in the media. It launches this September. And it will feature writers and editors from different Asian countries reporting about their local scene.
What’s the first experience listening to music that you remember?
This is the cool version of my answer to this question. My parents had a CD of Eric B & Rakim’s first album and albums from an incredible French rapper, MC Solaar. My first experience with music is listening to those two icons on repeat as a kid. Actually, I just listened to those again recently. They’re still dope.
But here’s the not-so-cool version. I’m pretty sure I bought my first albums near Ben Thanh Market. It was the year 1998. And the albums were by the Backstreet Boys and the Spice Girls. Also still dope.
How has your taste evolved?
I was a Parisian baby. The place where I lived, in northern Paris, was the backdrop of the French hip-hop golden era. I was smack dab in the middle of it all. In the very hub of creation. I was also lucky that my very cool parents’ social circle was made up of some now renowned taste makers of this magical musical era.
One such tastemaker was Jacques Massadian, the man who launched the first alternative French radio station, Radio Nova. This station pushed a lot of the first-generation of French rappers to fame on a national scale. Jacques took me to my first club ever! There was me, a young 15-year-old, and my mentor Jacques, at the Rex in Paris. We went to a show by Gilles Peterson. My mind had never been so blown. Never before had I heard electronic music, seen DJs and experiences clubbing.
When the 20-year-old me arrived in Shanghai years later, I reconnected with this musical movement. The next six years were a blur. In Shanghai, I experienced some amazing artists – whether as a member of the audience or as the event organizer. I’m talking about Boys Noize, Booka Shade, Paul Kalkbrenner, and Gui Boratto to name a few.
Finally, I returned to hip hop four years ago. I have an allegiance to this genre and listen to hip hop every day. I can truly listen to it for 24 hours a day until the day I die. And that’s never!
What’s the most underrated genre of music? And the most overrated?
I feel that the most underrated genre of music is UK garage. It defined an entire generation. I see it as the perfect mix of elements – a distinct 4/4 percussive structure, syncopation, and loads of snares and cymbals.
UKG, or UK garage, would not be what it is without its chopped-up vocal samples. We creators still squish and stretch the vocals like this and change the pitch to make completely new vibes that complement the tempo of the music we are working with.
UKG is awesome and has somehow managed to become a mainstream success without becoming trashy. It’s tragic how short-lived this style was. It was born in the early ’90s but was already in decline by the mid-2000s. But it did give rise to some subgenres that are big now – genres like bassline and dubstep.
Polka would be the most overrated kind of music. I have a Moroccan-Russian for a mum and a French-Vietnamese for a dad. So, naturally, I hate polka.
What mood should your ten-track mix put the listener in?
After listening to this, I guarantee you will want to be a better person. I’m serious. These songs are the tools we need to achieve world peace.
Can you describe the ten tracks you’ve chosen?
We ease into the playlist with The Streets’ “Blinded By The Lights”. While it may be quite a chill vibe, this song is dark. Mike Skinner tells it like it is, talking about the loneliness that surrounds clubbing and the use of illegal substances. The honesty is humbling. The whole album, Original Pirate Material is a non-cliched classic.
Then, it’s virtually impossible not to bob your head when listening to the next track. There’s a perfect flow on the beat of JP The Wavy’s “Cho Wavy De Gomene”. Beware. Listen once and it’s stuck in your head for the week.
Next, you’re transported to another world. The moment Jidenna’s “Sufi Woman” comes on, it’s like “Whoa. This is different.” It almost sounds like music from the Middle East and Africa. It’s rare that an American artist can incorporate world music elements into their sound successfully. Jidenna does it and makes these elements feel like they really belong.
Then we have Sheck Wes’ “Mo Bamba”. I dub it the anthem of my generation. And I’m not the only one. How do I know that? It’s because when I play it in the club, I get this overwhelming reaction. It’s the new Rich Chigga’s “Dat Stick”. But less Asian.
Then there’s Keith Ape’s “It G Ma” which marked the beginning of a new era. Asian hip-hop fans from all over the world felt united around this Korean track. Everyone was rooting for him to make it in the US. And he did.
After that, we then go in another direction with “Loi Thinh Cau (I Pray)” by Suboi. Here, I’m putting the jazz version on my playlist. I connect to it more than the original as it breaks up all this masculine energy you’ve been hearing so far.
After chilling with Suboi, we get aggressive and hard-hitting again with Vic Mensa and Kanye West. If you don’t turn up to Vic Mensa’s “U Mad”, you’re dead inside.
Two years ago, we made “Ky La”. It was our first collaboration between Vietnamese rappers, 95 Generation, and a French rapper, Killason. East meets west in this crazy song. It’s so intriguingly crazy that we shot a short documentary about it. Keep your eyes peeled. It comes out soon!
Back to chilling. I put Lil Wuyn’s “Stop Me” next. I play this song to people who live abroad so they can hear how dope Viet-rap is right now. So simple in the beat and the flow, it almost feels sleepy. But in the best way possible. Then I’ve included a track by Kafe.Hu. Kafe is the best and the most down-to-earth Chinese rapper I’ve ever worked with. I can 100% feel his grounded, warm personality in his sound.
Then RAMENGVRL gives us some hardcore girl-power vibes with “Bitch I’m Me”. If you’re ever feeling like your confidence is in the gutter, here’s your medicine. I also call it a get-your-ass-to-the-gym track. This Indonesian rapper is one of the big up-and-coming artists in Asia.
Next is a cool non-pretentious urban vibe as we wrap up this mix with the retro-feeling song “Retrograde” by Wean & Naomi. They’re a Saigon duo with a super ’90s feel. The clash of their two styles is amazing. The song itself gets slower and heavier as it nears the end too, making it the perfect track for winding down. Also, Wean’s new track “AI BIET” just came out on August 30th so check that out too!
Photographs by Nam Tran Duy and Khooa Nguyen and edited by David Kaye.