music • 13 Jul, 2017
The reluctant King of Vietnamese rap
Wowy Nguyen started rapping over ten years ago. Today, five albums in, he is the reluctant king of Vietnamese rap. “I’m just grinding and trying hard to keep my life on the right track,” he says, “People say I’m the king or the Asian godfather, or whatever, but if I keep that in my head it’s going to hold me back.”
And reassuringly, Wowy’s head still spins with wild ideas. One minute he’s considering retirement and going into renewable energy. The next he’s refusing to resurrect the rapper Nate Dogg because the legend would get too much attention. Plus, he’s just decided he wants rap babies with Yolandi from South African duo Die Antwoord.
He recently rapped in a Muay Thai ring, and he launched a kickstarter campaign to put on his ‘Live!’ show. How did this all start, we wonder. “Real simply,” he says. “A track came on the stereo and I said ‘f*ck you’ right on the beat. And I was like ‘wow’. So I tried ‘motherf*cker’. Same effect,” Wowy laughs.
So while Wowy put together his AnyArena mixtape for us we asked a few important questions.
The track ‘Where I live’ made you famous. Where do you actually live?
A hood in the center of Saigon. Everything you see on the screen is real. I live in the same place I was born — Nguyen Bieu Street, District 5. Living there makes me stronger.
If you’d become a rapper at age six or seven, what kind of things would you have rapped about?
I’d be rapping about stealing money or dodging class!
Did you have any nicknames as a kid?
My mom called me ‘cu be’ (which means big dick)!
You used to work as a water delivery boy. What did you learn about life back then?
I hated 5th floor walk-up buildings! Back in those days, I thought that I was gonna end up being a guy with a computer and a company job waiting for my salary at the end of every month. That was some weird thinking!
Your first full song was called ‘Saturday night’. How have your Saturday nights changed since then?
When I was 18 or 19, on a Saturday evening I’d be all dressed up with my homies and smelling good. We’d roll out with some chicks and grab some burgers and wait for the night to arrive, and later we’d be dancing together to hip hop in some club. But these days? Every night is a party! It’s becoming boring though because it’s not special like it used to be...
You went round the city holding pop-up parties for Youtube sensation ‘The Secret Show’. Where in Saigon would you secretly most like to throw a big party?
I’d love to throw a party on a construction site. It’d be very raw and dirty.
Is the personal connection that show created with your audience important?
I don’t try to force it. I just lay my lyrics down on the beat. And then my audience automatically connect their stories with my lyrics. That is the amazing thing I learned about my music!
Now, for aspiring rappers, could you talk us through the steps of your writing process?
It’s very easy. First, I find a good chair and a good table. I grab a whisky, sit down, take a sip, turn on the speaker, smoke and after that I’m not sure. But when I wake up, I’ve got a song.
What do you not like to hear about in rap lyrics?
Death. But sometimes it makes for a good lyric.
You’ve said hip hop was a lifesaver. If hip hop saved your life, how can you pay it back?
OK, you’re waiting for cliched answers like ‘I’d die for hip hop’, right? The truth is I don’t need to do sh*t. When hip hop saved me it stole my life! I don’t have to pay it back at all.
Which dead rapper would you like to bring back to life?
Nate Dogg was good. His flow was smooth and he had bounce. When he died, I was sad, but I thought ‘it’s OK’. If these dead rappers came back, everyone would want to listen to them so maybe they should stay dead and give everyone else a chance.
If something terrible happened to you, would you like to be brought back as a hologram [like they did with Tupac at Coachella]?
Haha, that will be in a long time. But that’s a good idea, for sure. First you need to make a 3D Wowy — copy my moves, my face, everything.
Who would you like to have baby rappers with?
Nicki Minaj? No. Lil Kim. Too many rappers have been with her already. Missy Elliott? She’s very talented. But she’s not so attractive to me. I know! Yolandi from Die Antwoord. She’s from South Africa and I’m from Vietnam. That would be like an alien and a monster.
What would you call the baby?
I thought about this already. Wowy Jnr. Or Legend!
We saw there’s a Wowy brand of frozen yoghurt. What flavour would you be?
What’s the last thing that made you say ‘Wow’?
Money in my safe.
Could you tell us a bit about this playlist?
Just roll it! And you can tell me about it.
Finally, how would you spend your time if you retired?
I’d spend my time on renewable energy ... solar power. Here we have two seasons, rainy and not. And we pay a lot for electricity, so...
Listen to Wowy’s specially selected YouTube playlist below:
Words by David Kaye
Photos by Tuan Tran
Graphics by Thanh Duong