After finishing up a national tour with The Herd on the back of their 2011 albumFuture Shade, Shannon Kennedy – better known to most as Ozi Batla – received a peculiar offer for his side project, Astronomy Class. At the time, the collective had not toured or released music in over three years – and yet, an offer from a Cambodian hip hop group called Klap Ya Handz turned out to be too intriguing to refuse.
“We hadn’t really planned on doing anything with Astronomy Class, until that trip to Cambodia near the end of 2012,” explains Kennedy. “We’d been invited to perform at this festival there, and it turned out to be quite fortuitous. We hadn’t even planned to make an album, let alone one that had anything to do with Cambodian music. Still, it had been a few years since we’d put anything out – it felt like the right time and the right place.”
While in the country, Kennedy and his bandmates discovered Khmer – the traditional style of pop music that was prevalent within Cambodian culture from the ’50s to the mid-’70s. It inspired Astronomy Class so much that they began relentlessly crate-digging and looking for tracks and hooks they could sample for what would become their third studio album, Mekong Delta Sunrise.
“There’s quite a big revival movement going on over there for this pre-’75 Cambodian music,” says Kennedy. “It’s still really, really popular – pretty much any cab you could get in there would be playing it. There’s a real sense of pride that comes with it. It’s being driven by the hip hop scene there, who were able to point us in the right direction of quite a lot of the music we were looking for. When we got back to Australia, we were amazingly able to find more through some leads among the Cambodian community in Cabramatta. It’s all come at a good time, given there’s now an international interest in the music of that era. It really fascinated us – it’s so different and often so difficult to find.
“We were out in Cabramatta with [Cambodian vocalist Srey] Channthy not too long ago, looking for more of this music,” Kennedy continues. “This old Cambodian guy has just started a CD and DVD store out there, and he had some CDs with songs of them that even Channthy had been looking for for quite some time. She’s really deep in rediscovering all of this sort of music, particularly with The Cambodian Space Project. Along with the quality of the music itself, there’s a real thrill-of-the-chase value to it as well.”
The frontwoman of The Cambodian Space Project, Channthy was the puzzle piece that brought Mekong Delta Sunrise together. She appears on nearly every track on the album, singing in her native tongue and adding a distinct authenticity to the project. Her first appearance with Astronomy Class came at ET15, the two-day shows held in Melbourne and Sydney to celebrate the 15-year anniversary of independent hip hop label Elefant Traks (home to all of Kennedy’s musical projects). She has only performed with the group sporadically since – although Kennedy hopes this will change in the not-too-distant future.
“It’s essentially the four of us,” he says of the current Astronomy Class live show. “We had [Sydney MC] The Tongue on board for many years, but he’s doing his own thing at the moment. It’s me, [Sir] Robbo, Chasm and Johnny Maddox on bass. We’ve been able to do three more shows with Channthy on the Thundamentals tour, which went really well. At the moment, we’re just coming up with a few different variants of the live show – when Channthy’s schedule allows, we’ll get to do more stuff involving her. She’ll be performing with us at the launch show for the album in Melbourne, so naturally the set will be more skewed towards the new album. If we don’t have her there to give the full context, there’s probably only two or three songs off the record that we can work into the set. We’d like to perform with her as much as we can, but of course it can’t always work that way – and I think we’re adapting pretty well.”
The recent run of national dates with Blue Mountains hip hop act Thundamentals, who recently cracked the ARIA top ten with their latest album, So We Can Remember, saw Astronomy Class open to sold-out rooms across the country. Although their allegiances lie with different labels – Thundamentals with Big Village; Astronomy Class with Elefant Traks – Kennedy feels it’s important the local hip hop scene never gets whittled down to cliques and inner circles.
“We’re really good friends with Thundamentals and all the guys from Big Village,” he says. “I guess with those guys, we kinda see a lot of ourselves in them and the way they go about their business, making it about being a community and a collective with a focus on making good music first and foremost. They’re sort of our natural allies. Sydney’s hip hop scene may be spread out, but it’s still pretty small when you break it down.”