Dharma Hip Hop: Listen to the new Buddhist hip-hop album by LT Midside

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Many years ago, Wu Tang Clan and NWA brought eastern thought to a hip hop audience but seldom are the spheres of hip-hop brought into eastern thought. LT2564 , the most recent album of Hue MC LT Midside, is the perfect amalgamation of rap and spirituality. Instead of community-focussed lyrics or street hustling anecdotes for better social stature, LT2564 promotes the mindfulness and inner-peace all so common in the scriptures of Buddhism. But what brought LT Midside’s music to the sutras?

‘‘It is Buddhism practicing.’ He laughs. ‘The first song I finished on this album is Sam Hoi – Penitent; which excited my friends a lot. From that moment, I thought about making this album. There are some personal reasons, I cannot share but my habits mainly contributed to making this album: having frequent contact with the Buddhist Sutras, chanting daily, taking up meditating, and taking steps to making positive actions in my life such incorporating a vegetarian diet and doing social charity. When those activities turned into habits, my mind wanted to write, my head only thought about these things and they became my lyrics.’

The Path to LT2564

LT Midside began dabbling with rap music in 2007, around the same time that hip hop made its first impressions on the Vietnamese music scene. Although his catalogue in sporadic, each moment since his beginning has contributed to the creation of this latest release:

‘Many years ago I also had a small album with a friend named Neway who also lives in Hue. But it is true that at that time I was too young to make things serious. If you want to talk about the level of seriousness and carefulness, LT2564 is the first time I have ever spent so much time on creating something.’

The meticulous crafting of the recent album is clear on first listen. LT2564 is LT Midside’s bildungsroman, reflected in the titles of the track listing.  First track comes self-awareness in TỘI LÕI (guilty) and followed by dissonant mixes over penance, frustration and anxiety. 

The storm eases midway through the album as LT Midside finds kindness (THIỆN TÂM) and NGỘ (enlightenment), where he urgently repeats his delivery of the single-lined chorus ‘ngộ ra buông bỏ là giải thoát’ (Enlightenment is liberalisation) as if racing against his own mortality to share his message of self-transformation. 

As the album nears its end, LT Midside comes to terms with his newfound inner peace in the present day, channeling it into his lifestyle and advocating the transition to his peers. We’ve included an overview to accompany each track at the bottom of this page.

Hip Hop and Buddhism

It is no coincidence that spirituality and hip hop comfortably sit alongside each other on LT2564. Hue, LT Midside’s hometown, is a key battleground for eroding cultural values in the face of Vietnam’s closer contact with the wider world, making it the perfect breeding ground for this unfamiliar fusion:

‘[the city has] an enormous influence on my life. Its tranquility gives us safety and peace. Thus, Hue gradually made me softer and more thoughtful, less competitive and more selfless. I really love this land. It is strangely calm and gentle. It hasn’t provided much towards rapping though. There are very few shows and the community is very small.’

Hip Hop in Hue

like all subcultures, hip hop also experiences fluctuations in its life cycle. While this may be LT Midside’s greatest release to date, he isn’t depending on the Hue rap scene to break any ground. He laments the closing of Cafe 054 which played home to Hue’s hip-hop scene between 2016-2019. 

‘Closing of Cafe 054 is my big sadness. Without 054, there is a lack of space to connect people, people are still there but communication is gradually fading between members.’

cafe 054
Former Hip-Hop Hub, Cafe 054

 

With the decline of the album format and Hue’s lack of attention from the Vietnamese music scene, LT Midside has financed the album alone. There were several occasions during its 4-year production that it faced abandonment:

‘The progress of the album stopped on several occasions because of my tight budget. Fortunately, there were [cafe] 054 brothers and friends in Rap Hue who encouraged and supported me to complete LT2564. Thus, I am very thankful to all of them.’

LT Midside and the future of Hip Hop

Like any older statesman of a creative scene, LT Midside hopes to see the next generation of the Hue hip hop community make positive developments on the foundations they have inherited up to this point. LT2564 is a primer for those rappers and DJs faced with big decisions further down the road.  

‘They must be very talented. However, they are yet to cultivate their talent. But I must send them a message: Try your best and go big, you only live once, because we might not have a chance to pursue music in our next life. Remember to keep your soul beautiful and be positive because it can make a big impact on the future in shaping the perspectives of people who intend to join the world of rap.’ 

‘LT just wants to say: Rap, it’s not just dissing each other, smoking, fucking… but being creative and diverse. Extremely diverse. It is important to dare to try different topics and styles. When you successfully do it, you will certainly be very proud of yourself [no matter its success]. And maybe when you get older, you might be proud that you used to be a really great rapper haha!’

Album stream and track-by-track commentary


#1 Guilty (TỘI LỖI – album intro)


Opening: NAMO AMITABHA BUDDHA (a popular buddhist chant which has several layers of meaning that takes more than a sentence to summarise here!)

The protagonist acknowledges the guilt in his present and previous lives. He realizes that he and the people around him have been bringing pain to each other. They cannot continue without falling into a circle of infinite pain without resolution. He shows readiness for inevitable karma.

 

# 2 Karma (NHÂN QUẢ BÁO ỨNG)

In this track, the protagonist accepts the certainty of karma; that every volitional act brings about a certain result. He acknowledges that acting on greed, hatred or delusion will plant the seed of suffering and have dire consequences. Examples he mentions are criminal acts, broken marriages and cheating loved ones. He complains about people’s greed and the egos of society. Conversely when generosity, love or wisdom motivate actions, then we are creating the karmic conditions for happiness. The protagonist refers to the distinct realities we experience from moment to moment and also to the actual planes of existence in which beings are reborn according to their karma.

 

#3 Penitent (SÁM HỐI)

Beg the Buddha

In this track, the protagonist talks to the Buddha about his sufferings: greed, hatred, competition and jealousy. He asked the Buddha to show him a direction on how to live with kindness, intelligence, peace. 

What he said reminds me one of the chanting at Plum Village (home of Master Thich Nhat Hanh):

The Refuge Song

I take refuge in the Buddha, 

The one who shows me the way in this life.

I take refuge in the Dharma, 

The way of understanding and of love.

I take refuge in the Sangha,

The community that lives in harmony and awareness.

I take refuge in these three jewels, 

In perfect oneness of body, speech, and mind.

 

#4 Mindfulness (NHẤT TÂM BẤT LOẠN)

The protagonist follows his conversation with Buddha by confronting the devil inside who had led him to negative actions, greed and anger. He believes that not all people who follow Buddhism are kind. Mindfulness truly comes from inside.
 

#5 Kindness (THIỆN TÂM)

After confronting the devil,  the protagonist converses with internal ‘good’ on how to control that devil and unite his mind. His experience in hell has set him onto the path of evil. He has come to terms with this and acknowledges his life needs change. He wants to live a kind life.

 

#6 Enlightenment (NGỘ)

The protagonist realizes that humans should let go of our materialistic tendencies if we are to experience happiness and freedom. Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything — anger, anxiety, or possessions — we cannot be free. The protagonist’s biggest enemies are himself and his ego. He used to want attention and fame but realises he is just a normal creature. 

 

#7 Inner peace (AN NHIÊN)

This track is about finding joy in the present moment. Internally we become more aware of our body and our mind while externally, we broaden our field of awareness. We then take in the external environment, leading to a sense of spaciousness, alertness, and stillness. The protagonist takes more enjoyment in the surrounding nature and slows down to observe society. He sees that finding an environment that is tranquil, fresh and full of love is ideal in escaping the noise and artificialness of the city.

 

#8 Alertness (CẢNH TỈNH)

The protagonist lists out lots of vices that others can get involved in. He asks the listener to pay attention to these and change their behaviors. 

 

#9 Awakeness (TỈNH THỨC)

Though the consequences of his past actions still exist, he is still peaceful in his mind because he confidently knows how to face them. The protagonist lets go of ego, he lets go of his anger, he commits to better habits and promises to continue his journey to live a wholesome life.

Thanks to LT Midside for taking the time to answer our questions. You can find the entire album on Youtube here. If you aren’t going to listen to the whole album. Do not leave without listening to the tracks NGỘ and AN NHIÊN

Photos and images provided by LT Midside
translation and track listing by Quynh Anh Nguyen
Writing and editing by Luke Digweed

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