‘All I know is pain, so I gotta grind’: How Long Beach shaped rapper G Funk Supreme

Sometime in the middle of November, rapper G Funk Supreme drove me in his silver sedan from a little studio along Cherry Avenue to his adolescent strongholds. The year 2019 was big for him. His music was streamed 5,400 hours collectively across 64 countries, a 141% increase from last year, according to Spotify statistics. He released his sophomore hip hop album “Unapologetic,” penned a 148-page written narrative detailing the past 30 years of his life and rapped a verse on R&B artist J Dep’s “Cambodian Queen.”

His musical odyssey in creating “Unapologetic” was efficient and reflective. Themes of pain, hardships, relationships and grind culture ooze beneath beats of funky rhythms or smooth jazz, a musical maturity from his 2015 debut album “Forever and a Day.”

G Funk Supreme’s music derives everything from his life experience. Adopting today’s contemporary hip hop beats and the G Funk instrumentals that influenced his childhood, the Long Beach rapper enters his music with a smooth flow and rhythmic cadence that serves to teleport you back to that ‘90s era. He raps about staying on his grind and putting on for his city, all the while implicitly acknowledging a hardship growing up as a minority in the poorer part of Long Beach.

“I feel like everything resonated with who he was because he tends to stay very true and genuine with what he represents,” said sound engineer Ronald Dominic.

Although I expected a great degree of candor from the 30-year-old rapper, I didn’t think he’d be so stripped back. This sunny November afternoon, G Funk Supreme was Borey Chau, a man with a mechanical engineering degree and a job at an aerospace company. He donned a pair of white Nike Air Maxes, basketball shorts, and a hat with “Cambodia” stitched across the crown. Instead of spitting lyrics into a microphone, he was driving across Long Beach, reminiscing about the yestercades that cultivated his youth and informed the themes of his newest album.

He lectured me on personal Long Beach landmarks as we passed them. Gospel Memorial Church of God, where he and his mom used to pick up groceries via a welfare program. California Recreation Park where he got into his first real fight. Newport Dental Plaza off the intersection of Long Beach Boulevard and Wardlow Road, where a high school version of himself was “taking out the trash, raking leaves and shit… We was like just working to make a couple hundred bucks a month.”

We stop for an hour and sit down at an outside table at The Merchant coffee house. On this Saturday, the streets bustling with activity, the coffee shop was an obvious choice to talk about this life; it was the location where he wrote his 2019 narrative, “If My Eyes Could Talk The Things They Would Say.”

Though he reveals a lot while sitting there, it’s when he’s back in his silver sedan, slicing up his personal Long Beach, that things begin to cut deep. We pass an apartment complex along Alamitos Avenue. From the outside, it looks like any other apartment, its two-story cream walls and blue wooden strips overlook a busy street filled with beauty salons and Salvadoran cuisine.

Nearly 20 years ago, a young Borey watched his seamstress mother sewing clothes on the kitchen table for 10-cents apiece. He’d spend days in front of the TV screen watching BET, often changing up the lyrics to popular ‘90s hip hop music videos.

There were many mealless nights when he’d drink water just to have something in his stomach before sleeping. If he was lucky, he’d have a dinner of rice with soy sauce or Top Ramen noodles. His days of meager living have translated into lyrical gold, personified in songs like “Better Dayz” and “All I Know.”

“Our house was like a sweatshop… and as far as the things we have to eat, it was just rice and soup all the time,” Borey’s sister Sorya Neang said.

Rapper G Funk Supreme in front of Polytechnic High School. Long Beach, CA on November 16, 2019. Photo by Sarahi Apaez

Their parents were Khmer immigrants who, like many in the local Cambodian community, escaped their war-ravaged home country and settled into under-invested areas of a city already teeming with established ethnic enclaves vying for the same limited resources.

Battling with a deprived socio-economic position like other minority groups in the area, Cambodian youth formed their own groups and gangs for survival and a renewed sense of identification. And they engaged in the same fights as other ethnic groups, a scene Borey is all too familiar with.

“Back in Cambodia, they were on the brink of a war,” he said. “Coming to America, you’re fighting another war but against different races… [Gangs] started off as something to protect each other from shit like that.”

From ages 4 to 8, Borey was already exposed to hate crimes. He vividly remembers one instance where a group of Asian men climbed the roof of his apartment complex to escape a car filled with another group yelling at them. Initially, Borey’s family was reluctant to praise his rap career due to the gang activity surrounding them.

“I think being from an immigrant family where you know other people’s families have nodded to this type of stuff and either got murdered or shot, we were definitely wary of it,” Neang said.

After a brief stop, Borey keeps on driving, away from the apartment complex where he grew up. We park along a curb across the street from a high school and walk across the empty green lawn until we reach the front gate. He relaxes his posture and rests his arms on the school’s tan bars barricading him from a campus he once roamed.

Long Beach Polytechnic High School.

Poly is where Borey spent much of his formative years. He remembers eating $1.50 fries at Tommy’s (now Poly’s Burgers), ghostwriting poems for his homies’ eternally angry girlfriends, smiling over the memories of fights he broke off or joined in.

Before he was spitting rhymes about his ‘96 Previa, he was spitting game to girls, something he’d been doing since his days at John Marshall Middle School (now Marshall Academy of the Arts).

“In middle school, [if] I’d write you a poem, I like you. And girls like it, like ‘yo I’m getting girls and shit,’” he said, with a small smile revealing his bright white teeth.

Rapper G Funk Supreme, standing in front of his alma mater, Polytechnic High School. Long Beach, CA on November 16, 2019. Photo by Sarahi Apaez

In high school, he traded in romance rhymes for flows about real relationships and real hardships. Long Beach Poly was the thematic training ground where Borey officially found his rap moniker in “G Funk Supreme.” He remembers recording his first studio song in ninth grade in his friend’s closet; the highs and lows of his voice mixed and cracked with pubescent fervor.

“We burnt [sic] a CD with the songs we had just made and played it for all the homies at school, and it was crazy, the type of energy I was getting from everyone,” Borey wrote in his book. “Everyone was complimenting me on my voice and how it sounded, while I was over here thinking I just sounded hella young.”

It wasn’t long for his sister to become a supporter of Borey’s music. After watching his interest in poetry grow into early freestyle performances and then into self-released rap demos, Neang realized music was his passion.

“I asked him, ‘How did you even think about that kind of stuff, where are you coming up with these words in your mind?’”

In 2016, G Funk Supreme released the “Cali Grammar” music video in collaboration with fellow Long Beach rapper Tayf3rd, who’s signed to DJ Big Boy’s The Neighborhood. The song was featured on the AMC TV series “Lodge 49,” and accumulated more than 120,000 views on YouTube, as well as more than 40,000 streams on Spotify.

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But what remains constant is his humility, a trait that won over the hearts of teachers in his days in middle school and high school.

“I had a lot of kids who over the many years thought they were going to be the living end; they were going to be celebrities and all of that,” said Amy Matthews, Borey’s former poetry teacher. “You would’ve never thought that with Borey. Very humble, very quiet kind of personality…To come as far as he’s come, I’m so over-the-top proud of this kid.”

The words ring true since, on a car trek through time and place, it’s easy to forget Borey is a rapper whose music reaches listeners in the hundreds of thousands, easy to forget he has mounted the stage alongside hip hop legends Mobb Deep and Warren G.

And for him, it will be enough to be remembered as a man simply passionate about his craft.

“A thousand years when CDs are dead and gone,” he said, “[when] Bluetooth is gone. If they can still play my music and it still relates to people, I think that’ll be dope.”

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