Cadence, Rhythm, Flow: An Interview with Vietgone Composer Shammy Dee Part Two

By Elspeth Sweatman

Vietgone composer Shammy Dee began performing at a young age, but it was in junior high school that he discovered his medium: hip-hop and the smooth turntables of the DJ deck. Since releasing his debut album Transcripted Thoughts in 2006, Shammy Dee has produced and performed on many other music projects, such as DJing for top brands including Louis Vuitton, Jimmy Choo, and Burberry, as well as for celebrities including Mary J. Blige, Michael Bublé, and the Kardashians. We sat down with Shammy Dee to chat about his process and the inherent energy of hip-hop. This is Part Two.

Vietgone composer Shammy Dee performing. Photo courtesy Shammy Dee.
What makes hip-hop a good medium for telling a story about immigrants?

That’s where hip-hop came from. When hip-hop culture was birthed back in the day, it was a subculture of primarily Black and Latino people in New York. It wasn’t on a mass stage. It was something akin to punk when it came around; it was very underground. Hip-hop contained this raw energy that the mainstream culture didn’t understand. People initially thought it was a fad, that it would pass; they didn’t think that it could be something bigger. But, if you lived the culture, you knew and felt the energy behind it. There’s something about outcasts, being an outcast and having this music and culture you can relate to, that gives you this sense of belonging. There’s a palpable feeling that comes with loving this music and knowing that there are others who vibe with it too.

What advice would you give to a young performer who wants to become a better emcee?

Google, download, and stream the top 20 classic hip-hop albums of all time, including JAY-Z’s Blueprint, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders. Eric B. & Rakim, Paid in Full. Dr. Dre’s Chronics, Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele. ATLiens by Outkast. Ready to Die by The Notorious B.I.G. Nicki Minaj, The Pinkprint. Eminem—he has a lot of albums. . . . I’ll say The Marshall Mathers LP. Oh, Lauryn Hill, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.

Tong (Jenelle Chu) rapping to Quang (James Seol) in A.C.T.'s 2018 production of Vietgone. Photo by Kevin Berne.
Also, look at Shakespeare’s plays. Inherent in a lot of Shakespeare’s writing is a built-in cadence; study the way a sentence flows with its various inflections, rhyme schemes, and tone. If you memorize the words and the flow of Shakespeare and these hip-hop emcees, get their cadences under your tongue, you’ll become a better emcee. To any future rapper who reads this advice and wins a Grammy, I expect my obligatory shout-out. [Laughs]

Vietgone runs through April 29 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about the hip-hop in Vietgone? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

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