By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Dallas hip-hop producer and DJ Rob Viktum is known as an impeccably tasteful sampler, a beatmaker who uses snippets of half-forgotten soul songs and boom-bap drumbeats for a sound that hearkens to the '90s Golden Era of rap and '70s movie soundtracks. And yet he still manages to sound modern.
But, in 2007, his Progress project referenced a completely different time and place: pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodia. Inspired by a treasure trove of records given to him by a Cambodian family member, he assembled a combination of hard-hitting hip-hop beats merging Cambodian classical music and pop with rappers contributing verses to a handful of the tracks. He offered the resulting collection as a free download on the Internet, and it became a minor sensation, with more than 10,000 copies downloaded in the States and in Southeast Asia.
Tuesday, meanwhile, brought the release of the follow-up, Progress Vol. 2. But, this time, Viktum is raising more than just awareness: Each $7.99 download charge for the digital album will go to a soon-to-be-determined Cambodian charity.
As with the original, Viktum used samples from some 35 or 40 records saved by his longtime girlfriend Tavy Um's father Sihourn Um, who with his wife, Sovannary Um, managed to escape the Pol Pot-led genocide. Knowing of Viktum's love of music, Sihourn gave the rare records to his de facto son-in-law. Had he not salvaged them, they would have almost certainly been destroyed, as music and other cultural artifacts were seen by the communist regime as tainted by capitalism.
"A lot of them were completely random compilations," Viktum says. "One song might be classical Oriental music, and the next will be a Credence Clearwater Revival cover."
While he was proud of the results and bolstered by the encouragement of Um's family, Viktum braced himself for criticism that he was misappropriating the Cambodian culture. To his shock, there was none.
"I figured there would be some backlash, but the Cambodian youth were so intrigued by it because all that music had been destroyed during Khmer Rouge," he says. "They're enthralled with U.S. hip-hop, and then for them to see it used in that way was exciting for them."
While she thinks it's a great album, Tavy is just as proud of Viktum's research into the dark subject. Her parents don't talk much about their experiences during the regime, but a 1999 trip to Cambodia capital Phnom Penh brought the horror to life. There, she visited a memorial at the school her parents had attended. The school had been turned into a torture camp—bloodstains on the walls were still visible, and bones exhumed from a mass grave loomed in a gruesome pile that stood two stories high.
"A lot of people don't realize that as many people were affected as were during the Holocaust," she says.
Like the first, Progress 2 is a mix of instrumental beats and songs with rappers. Each instrumental track is named for a specific date corresponding to an unnamed event, which Viktum hopes will encourage curious record buyers to do some research into the genocide. As for the tracks with rhymes, Viktum let the guest rappers come up with their own titles. In fact, he gave them no framework for their lyrics.
"I didn't want people rapping at you about the issue, because that comes off as corny," he says. " I just said, 'Do whatever the song makes you feel.'"
Despite that lack of guidance, he says positive vibes of triumph over adversity seemed to be a recurring theme.
"Problem Child [from Austin] did 'Born Leader,' which is kind of a from-the-ashes, phoenix-type story," he says. "And Caucasian [from Lubbock] sang 'Progress,' which is just one of those feel-good, moving-forward type things."
Other rappers include Damien Randle of Houston's Legendary K.O./K-Otix, original Progress alum Bavu Blakes (from Austin by way of Dallas) and Viktum's collaborator on his recent Aight, New Drink release, Elucid from Brooklyn.
Though Viktum had a beneficiary in mind, he found out some "sketchy" information about the would-be recipient. As it happened, Um's family recently left the States to visit Cambodia following a death in the family. While there, Viktum says, they plan to choose a beneficiary.
Even without that detail finalized, Progress Vol. 2 is already moving forward.