Rising Dragon

The Grab driver keeps getting lost in the maze of alleyways trying to find Vietnamese artist 16 Typh‘s crib. We hit a few dead ends and ask for directions but get different answers each time. Once we finally find his building, Typh is sitting outside smoking a cigarette and smiling. His thrift shop, Cycle Psycho, is tucked away from any foot traffic, but he made it work. “When I first opened, I only had the ground floor and would sleep in the shop, but now we have the whole building,” he says, leading us to the fourth floor where his apartment and music studio are. “It was really hard to get customers at first, we definitely started at zero.”

Typh is best known as a rapper these days, but when he moved to Saigon four years ago, he was still hustling, doing anything that would make money. Selling clothes, trappingโ€”whatever it took. He has two other stores in his hometown of Haiphong, far up north near Hanoi, and he figured he could launch another in the south. “Saigon moves really fast, the people and fashion here really inspire me.” When his music started to gain traction about two years ago, he focused his attention on being an artist. “I was just lucky, like, OK,” he laughs. “I make more money from rap than anything else now.”

Haiphong is a port city with a reputation for its gangsters, and Typh says it’s the truth. “I got into a lot of trouble as a kid, I was fighting every day,” he says. When he turned 16, he was already making enough money to move into his own apartment. But he doesn’t think the culture deserves to be looked down upon. “In Asian culture, gangsters are not always fighting or criminal, it’s more about family. We’re famous for brotherhood.” He says he still goes home every month. “I’m a family guy.”

The 16 in his name comes from his crew, 16 Northside, borrowing their area’s zip code. “I was the first one to move here and brought all my homies here,” Typh says proudly. 16 BrT and 16 3Q started rapping before he did, encouraging him to join in. “When I started, it was just for fun. I never expected to get famous. I’m just a businessman.” The fact that people already knew who he was definitely helped him gain listeners. “To make it as a rapper in Vietnam, I think you need to have the whole culture, not just music. We build a lifestyle. Make a family. Everything about hip hop.”

He mainly listens to foreign artists, but now that the regional scene is blowing up, he’s excited to see other rappers grow. When he was a kid he also listened mostly to American rap, but he points to Portland rapper Viet Thai G as an early influence. And he says that the now-defunct German gvrproduction.com forum for Vietnamese rap was also inspirational. One reason the local scene has recently exploded is because of local rap television shows, which he says is good because it helps artists make real money. “But it also means that most these new fans don’t understand the culture.” Another reason it’s become popular is because of fashion, which is also growing exceptionally fast there. “Saigon is very much a fashion city. Fashion and rap help each other.”

Typh performs every week now, criss-crossing the country to perform at festivals and clubs, with huge crowds singing along to his lyrics. He’s even going to Europe this month on a mini tour where his fans are mostly Viet kieu. Because of his success, he has to be more careful about his lyrics. To stay out of trouble he keeps them vague. And when he performs at a high school or college, he mutes anything controversial. But a trick he points out is that if a rapper wants to be blatant, they can just use English and it will fly under the radar. One thing he won’t do, though, is sell out. “I don’t want to make love songs to keep my fame, which a lot of rappers do. I get some negative comments because they think I can’t change it up, but I just don’t want to. This is me, it’s who I am.”