THE COLOR OF RAP
Itís a Tough Climb for Asian Hip-Hop Artists
By Daisy Nguyen
The story of how the Mountain Brothers, a Philadelphia-based rapping trio, found instant fame is the stuff that thousands of hip-hop kids dream about. In 1996, the threesome, all Chinese-American students at Penn State University, entered a national singing contest sponsored by Sprite - and won. For rapping about their love for the lime-flavored soft drink, they received an invaluable prize: instant exposure on the radio. Their 60-second commercial spot was heard on urban frequencies throughout the country.
Soon, Ruffhouse Records, known for producing albums for such successful hip-hop groups as The Fugees and Cypress Hill, knocked on their doors. The Mountain Brothers became the first Asian-American hip-hop act to sign with a major label. But the rocky story following their triumph is what many aspiring Asian hip-hop artists worry about.
After they recorded an album for Ruffhouse, the Mountain Brothers say that some executives there displayed remarkable ignorance about the groupís Asian background. "Apparently, they thought we were a difficult act to sell," said Scott Jung, 27, the groupís producer whose stage name is Chops. One executive, says the baritone voiced Jung, complimented their music, but bluntly explained, "Thereís only one problem. Youíre Asian." Another wanted to use their ethnic backgrounds as a marketing vehicle and suggested they perform onstage wearing karate outfits and wielding gongs.
Eventually, the group severed its relationship with Ruffhouse, whose former president Joe Nicolo, declined to comment on the breakup. The Mountain Brothers added that they broke the contract because of "artistic differences," because they disagreed with Ruffhouse about putting samples on their songs.
As more Asian-American rappers such as the Mountain Brothers enter the fiercely competitive hip-hop recording industry, they face an uphill battle among skeptical label executives and audiences. Because hip-hop has been seen strictly through the black-white lens of American race relations, artists and music industry observers say, the inclusion of Asian-American performers has complicated matters.
Furthermore, persistent stereotypes about Asians run counter to the most common manifestations of hip hop, making it difficult for Asian performers to break into the musical mainstream. The prejudicial depiction of Asian men as self-effacing, for instance, collides with rapís machismo culture.
"Asian hip-hoppers already have a strike against them," said Oliver Wang, 27, a University of California-Berkeley graduate student in ethnic studies who writes about Asian-American youth culture. "They donít fit the mold and people are skeptical."
According to Wang, there is a long history of seeing Asian men as emasculated. "Asians have always been seen as foreigners in America," he added. "Theyíre not accepted as a part of the American fabric and thereís nothing particularly sexy about being Asian." While a recent Newsweek article suggests that the image of Asian men may be improving, the magazine also notes that American society has labeled them as "weak, sexless geeks."
"People are surprised when they see an Asian man who can rap," said 26-year-old Steve Wei, a member of the Mountain Brothers whose stage name is Styles. The baby-face rapper with a closely shaven head was sitting in Jungís West Philadelphia apartment that doubles as the groupís recording studio. He said that listeners initially had difficulty accepting them after seeing their ethnicity.
"In the beginning," he said, "when we appeared on stage, people would be so thrown off because they hear us rhyme skillfully but we werenít black."
Wei, Jung and Chris Wang, 25, the third group member who is known on stage as Peril-L (because he creates rhymes in parallel format), came together in 1991 when, as college students, they discovered a common love for hip-hop music. The three men grew up listening to and admiring such rappers as Slick Rick, Big Daddy Kane and KRS-1. Jung, who majored in biology, was taking a course in electronic music and began to record demo tapes with Wei and Wang. In 1996, when they decided to enter the Sprite singing contest, they named their group after a Chinese legend.
"The Mountain Brothers were a bunch of bandits that lived on a mountain," Wang explained. "They stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Each one had special powers; we liked that idea."
Since the beginning of their musical career, the group has been careful about their presentations. They say they are more quickly accepted by the hip-hop community if their music precedes any knowledge of their ethnicity.
"We avoid initially making explicit references to ethnicity so that we can be given a fair unbiased listen based on the merits of our music, lyrics and style," said Jung. "As opposed to avoiding making explicit references to ethnicity so that we can pass for black."
Over the years, they have created two separate sets of promotional material, one directed toward Asian-American audiences that includes explicit references to their ethnicity and another in which their Asian-American identity is methodically concealed. When they mailed their cassette and press kit to Sprite for the contest, for instance, they did not include photographs and referred to themselves only by their hip-hop names.
After breaking off their contract with Ruffhouse, the Mountain Brothers released their first album in 1999 under their own independent label, Pimpstrut, and promoted it on the Internet. The album is entitled, "Self, Vol. 1," but none of the songs alludes to the groupís ethnic background. It received favorable reviews (SF Weekly praised the albumís "clever wordplay, stellar organic production, and sense of humor") and the group has sold about 20,000 copies. The Mountain Brothers have established a small but loyal fan base and their music video has appeared on MTV. At the height of its fame, the group opened for the venerable hip-hop group Tribe Called Quest at Chicagoís House of Blues, performing to an audience of 3,000.
The Mountain Brothers say that they are glad they produced and promoted the album by themselves, saying that theyíve succeeded in getting a small but loyal fan base. But they are pessimistic about reaching a mainstream audience. Currently, they are working on second album and plan to promote it by using the Internet and targeting sales to their fans. While all three hold day jobs - Wei and Wang work in pharmaceutical laboratories, Jung produces and promotes albums for other Philadelphia rap groups - they occasionally perform for Asian-American community events and in smaller "underground" hip-hop concerts. Last month, they played to a packed house in New Yorkís popular Knitting Factory club.
"The mainstream hip-hop listener these days is white, and weíre not really white or black, so people donít know where to put us," Jung said. "We want to focus on our musical and rhyming skills rather than worry too much about our presentation."
Other Asian-American hip-hop artists say that they must exhibit a wide range of skills to win over skeptical listeners. Kuttin Kandi, a female deejay of Filipino origin, says that she rarely emphasizes her ethnicity or gender on stage. "I donít want to use the race card to win respect," she said, "but out there people see me that way so I have to spin and mix really well to prove them that Iím as good as any other deejays."
Deborah Wong, an ethnomusicologist at University of California-Irvine, said that historically Asian-American artists tend to have a more powerful role in the world of "turntablism," or the art of scratching records and selecting samples to perform with a group of deejays. Many Asian-American artists, she points out, have dominated national deejaying contests.
"Thereís less of an element of race when it comes to performing on a turntable," Wong said. "Thereís more of an emphasis on with what you can do with your hands as opposed to words coming out of an Asian mouth."
Some, however, argue that Asian-American artists should be encouraged to express their culture and not hide their heritage. James Chang, a Korean-American musician from Queens, is known on stage as Jamez. He said that Asian-American artists should "be real," echoing the mantra of hip-hop culture. "We should be proud of our own culture, music and Asianness," Chang said.
Chang released his first album, entitled "Z-Bonics," in 1998, under his own label, F.O.B. Productions. He explains that he named his label FOB, or fresh off the boat, as a way to reclaim a derogatory term for newly arrived Asian immigrants. "ĎFresh Off the Boatí acknowledges this immigrant history and celebrates it," Chang said.
Chang blends Korean folk instrument and hip-hop beats, along with lyrics that make pointed commentary about the status of immigrants, the Asian-American experience and the clash between Manhattanís wealthy and the working class masses of Queenss. According to Chang, the style emerged from his visit to Korea several years ago.
"I went to a Korean record store and Seotaiji, the preeminent rap group in Korea, was everywhere, but to me they were just yellow people imitating black people," he said. "Then I saw another section [in the store] with traditional Korean folk music, and bought some CDs of what I later found out was pansori, an operatic Korean form that often deals with folk themes. It was used as a metaphor to satirize the ruling classes while they were singing right in their faces. At the heart of it, it was social protest for the people-just like rap."
But according to Babito Garcia, host of a hip-hop show on a local New York radio station, arguing for or against revealing oneís ethnic identity is pointless. "It shouldnít matter," he said. "Asians should feel accepted in the hip-hop world whether they rap about being Asian or not. What matters is if they display their musical talent."
Garcia, who writes about hip-hop music for Vibe and The Source magazines, says that hip-hop culture, with its roots in the African-American community, has become more diverse over the years. He points out that Eminem, who is white, and the late Big Pun, who was Latino, are both well-known rappers because they displayed great rhyming skills. The color of their skin, in effect, did not affect their success. "I think hip-hop embraces all colors and culture, but maybe Iím being too idealistic," he said.
Jason Kao Hwang, a composer who teaches a course on Asian-American music at New York University, is more skeptical. "Often I hear artists and music fans talk about the inclusiveness of hip-hop," Hwang said. "But I see a lot of contradictions. It hasnít shown a lot of openness towards homosexuality or gender equality. I donít see the One World-ness that so many tout about."
Hwang points out that some form of Asian culture has seeped into hip-hop culture, but that it is black rappers who are successful at selling it. The Wu-Tang Clan, a group from Staten Island, are fans of the martial arts. "This group has been able to sell a certain sort of 70s nostalgia for kung-fu movies, and has done pretty well doing so," Hwang said. But, he asked, could an Asian group do the same thing and not be laughed at?
Jung, Wang, and Wei of the Mountain Brothers say that it is possible for an Asian-American group to succeed in hip-hopís mainstream without having to resort to selling gimmicks or revealing a performerís ethnic background, but it may take several years for listeners to adjust to seeing an Asian-American rap. "You can impress people musically and artistically," said Wang. "Thatís how you make it."
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