F.HERO has reached the pinnacle. At 40 years old, he’s not only one of the most accomplished artists not just in Thai hip hop, but he’s also become one of the industry’s biggest champions.

He is both a mentor and a student—his openness to learn and appreciate the merits of work or type of music he might not always necessarily do himself (but he’s since proven he has the willingness to at least try) is just one of his many admirable traits.

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It is only fitting to name F.HERO, born Natthawut Srimok, HipHopDX Asia’s second Artist of the Month. A formidable figure at first glance, F.HERO exudes warmth and grace: welcoming, engaged, and surprisingly accessible for someone of his status—and above all, an astute storyteller.

A country boy witnessing the boom of Thai hip hop

The prolific hip hop artist and one of the most consequential musicians in Thai music history was born and raised in Mae Sai District in Chiang Rai, a province in northern Thailand that shares a border with Myanmar.

A self-confessed “country boy,” the now-imposing, adorned figure we all know today grew up with little to no access to hip hop. “It’s very difficult to get news,” he tells us. It was through a friend from school that he first discovered hip hop music in 1992, the year “Jump” by American rap duo Kris Kross was released.

As a 10-year-old at the time, hearing boys rapping who weren’t much older than him was instrumental to a young F.HERO, who satiated his curiosity by learning more about a genre he previously didn’t know about. “I started listening to MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice. At that time, Kris Kross’s hip hop dance style was like a culture for the local kids in my neighborhood. I once was on a dance team where I rap and dance with my friends. I even performed in a sports day show at school. But it’s just for fun,” he recalls.

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But it wasn’t until he heard Joey Boy’s self-titled debut album in 1994 that F.HERO said he “started to focus on being a real rapper.” Listening to the widely considered ‘godfather of Thai hip hop,’ for the first time, F.HERO said, “I felt that, ‘Wow, Thai hip hop is happening!’”

He elaborated, “As I’m a country boy living really far away from the city, I didn’t have a cable TV [where I can] watch music videos like others. This means I never knew who is Dr. Dre, 2Pac, Snoop Dogg, etcetera. But what I know is Thai rap like Joey Boy and KHAN-TEE (Khan Thaitanium).”

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Although both Joey Boy and Khan were only a few years older than F.HERO, the latter considers them not necessarily as his peers but seasoned artists he can learn a lot from—even without the intention of becoming a rapper, at least in the beginning.

“I grew up in a generation that involved Thai rap. I really love Thai rap so much that I started to learn the lyrics so I can imitate the rapper at that time. I sit and rewind the cassette again and again in order to learn each word and tried to practice the rap. This is where I got the rap skill automatically without any intention that I will also get a rap writing skill.”

Moving to Bangkok and discovering his all-time favorite rapper

To learn that F.HERO only got to listen widely to American hip hop in the 2000s—around the time this writer also started listening to hip hop in my prepubescent years—was somewhat surprising, to know it was becoming part of our lives at the same time. He told us he knew of Dr. Dre in 2001, who was well into his solo career as a superstar producer and rapper, a decade after N.W.A broke up.

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He explains, “Earlier, I only listened to Thai rap and only knew about nu-metal bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit. The only American hip hop [rappers] that broke through the Thailand countryside was Eminem and Dr. Dre.”

F.HERO told us that after he graduated from high school and moved to Bangkok, the country’s capital, he “got to know what real hip hop is.” He was moved by how it gave a sense of belongingness. “[I got to know] the feeling of the hip hop community where people in the same interest gathered together.”

Being in Bangkok also allowed him to get to know more Asian hip hop music as well, particularly by Japanese and Korean rappers, many of whom he met through Joey Boy in the early aughts.

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During this time, he started to listen to more American rappers, including early Def Jam artists, as well as DMX and West Coast rappers such as Snoop Dogg and Warren G. “At the time, the American hip hop trend really boomed in Thailand. I was already a rapper by then but I didn’t know any English so I continue to write only Thai rap lyrics.”

No other American rapper made a greater impact on F.HERO than East Coast hip hop giant Nas. “My goal of living changed because his lyrics contain all of his passion and belief,” F.HERO describes. “Even though I don’t know much English, I can feel the meaning that he tries to convey. This shows that hip hop music is more than just a club thing, a dance thing, a fun thing, or a girl thing. But it also contains a soul that makes the listener feel it. Nas changed how I write rhymes: It is more of a life story and has more meaningful things. Nas is my favorite rapper of all time.”

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He also credits the New York icon as a major influence in his songwriting. “I used to think that making a diss track was cool, so I would only write vulgar rap lyrics, but listening to Nas convinced me that rapping about life is better,” he explains.

“There was a time when I read a lot of books and made raps about what I read, so my rapping style has evolved into something more realistic and old-school. From that time until now, I feel like I’ve accomplished everything. I’ve done over 200 songs so far, in every genre. So I believe I can now do any type of music: whether it’s a representative style, about lifestyle, a diss track, or a party style.

Becoming F.HERO

Asked about the first time he started rapping, F.HERO tells HipHopDX Asia that in the beginning, he used to write diss raps. “At the time, Eminem and [Thai rapper] Dajim were very famous for diss rap. It made me think that writing a diss rap is cool. The first song I wrote was called ‘I Hate RS.’”

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He went on to explain that in the early 2000s, “there was a lot of anti-pop music” and that “It made me think that what Eminem did was so cool that I followed his footsteps.”

When writing the track, he said he “tried to bring the real person that really existed into the lyrics and thought that it would be very satisfying to hear it by the listener. After I finished the lyrics, I presented the demo to Joey Boy. He liked it. I rapped this song for the first time on stage at the Fat Radio Music Festival. The audience’s reaction was loud and good. That time, I really looked like a country boy wearing shorts and sandals and went on the stage with a song full of curses. But because people loved it, it made me feel awesome.”

Credit: Chawanvit Lertnimanoradee

Despite earning the nod of his local rap hero and warm reception of his debut, F.HERO told us he didn’t intend to pursue a career in being a musician, let alone being a rapper—and that he had something opposite in mind. “I didn’t want to be an artist when I came to Bangkok. I intended to come to study law at Ramkhamhaeng University [Thailand’s largest public university] because I want to be a prosecutor.”

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“However, from the day I met Joey Boy, I didn’t want to be a prosecutor anymore and wanted to be a rapper. After being a rapper for a while, sometimes I think, ‘Can rapping be a real job that I can do for a living?’”

Despite a budding rap career, F.HERO went looking for and worked different jobs. “In the past, rap was not the mainstream thing that people consume so I left it to try for other jobs such as a magazine column editor, creative, etcetera. But in the end, the job I like the most is still being a rapper, an artist. Therefore, I tried so hard to be a rapper and earn money from it for a living and yes, I made it.”

He told us if he didn’t rap, he would be a librarian. “I really love reading books, like comic books and others.” He told us he recently got into listening to podcasts. “The topics I like to listen to are about economy and history.”

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A hero—and champion—of Thai hip hop

A rapper’s ego sometimes overshadows their skill, and at times it manifests in resistance. Either in disinterest or aversion to change or innovate, which is, contrary to hip hop’s nature of evolution.

F.HERO has an outsized influence not just because of his lengthy career and a long list of accomplishments but also he understands that he doesn’t stand alone or exist on his own. Times change and so he becomes pliant. He told us he’s made music in every genre and throughout this process, he tries to incorporate elements of other genres in his version of hip hop.

It comes down to his personal growth and finding his own voice. “I used to be quite extravagant. It was because, during my youth, I was always trying to prove something, so I made everything difficult by using difficult words. The meaning is quite hard to figure out, as is the utilization of difficult song compositions,” he confesses.

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“However, once I got older, I realized that hip hop is a form of communication, and I tried to do whatever it took to make the lyrics match the feelings, which is the core of it. I will not write as hard as I did before but I became more focused on communication.”

The Thai hip hop legend is well-known for his collaborative nature, not just with rappers or fellow local artists but also within Asia. In fact, he told us he wanted to also learn other Asian languages, like Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. “I feel these languages can be used to communicate with other Asian countries really well,” he says.

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As for how he chooses artists to work with, he said, “[My] method for selecting artists is primarily based on the mood and tone of the song. When I write a song, I always think about the music video: will this person be compatible if the video is like this? It will determine who I see in it.”

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With over two decades of being in the Thai music industry, F.HERO dispensed some advice on longevity. “Something you need to do: be yourself. Something to not do: be yourself but not trying to understand others. You have to be yourself, but you also have to understand what is going on in the outside world, too.”

Special thanks to High Cloud Entertainment for the translation.