The most famous Asians in hip-hop aren’t even Asian. Okay, Wu-Tang Clan never claimed to be of East Asian descent, but they adopted numerous concepts from Asian mythology, including the nomenclature of a Chinese fighting style founded by Taoist monk Zhang Sanfeng, and the sentiments of anti-colonial hero Bruce Lee. His memory lives on: “Sup, Bruce Lee,” an old man said to me, referencing my Asian fea-tures, as I walked near 145th street in Harlem the other day, though I took it as a compliment.
One can imagine Asians might be incensed that Wu-Tang, who profited immensely from kung-fu nostalgia in the ’90s, were not, in fact, Asian. But the favor was repaid: similar to the way a group of black rappers adopted the mentality of Asian martial arts to describe their struggle, a growing community of Asians have superimposed the voice of hip-hop onto their lives as a way to challenge their marginalization.
To get a better sense of the relationship between Asian-Americans and hip-hop, I spoke with a handful of practitioners — from a Little Saigon b-girl to a member of one of the most notorious acts in the history of rap.
Among them was Mike Gao, an Asian-American DJ and producer. Gao was born in Beijing but moved to the states when he was young. One of the first things he saw in America was Coolio’s “Fantastic Voyage” video on MTV. “I just thought that was the hottest shit,” he told me.
Gao suggested that, unlike many other groups, Asians don’t really have a popular music form that’s represented in American media. “An impressionable Asian kid comes to America and sees how music forms in the commercial space are segregated,” he said. “As they grow up, they see how their own opportunities are often drawn on these race-based lines.” While many Asians try to “upwardly assimilate” (which usually doesn’t work), some have chosen to hold it down and fight the good fight, using the language of hip-hop.
The first big Asian rapper was Fresh Kid Ice from the Miami outfit 2 Live Crew. The only Southern rap group to go platinum in the 1980s, 2 Live Crew dealt in wildly explicit songs like “Me So Horny” and “Face Down Ass Up.” Fresh Kid Ice (legal name Chris Wong Won) never shied away from his Asian heritage: he named his label Chinaman Records and released songs like “Long Dick Chinese.” By inverting stereotypes into prideful declarations of self-identity, he showed there was a way for Asians to exist in hip-hop after all.
I called Fresh Kid Ice, who still lives in Miami, to get his take on the matter. “Our people” understand the culture of hip-hop, he said, because “the plight is different but also similar. Both [Asian and black people] came to the states; some were brought here as slaves, and some were brought here to do railroads. Both cultures got the short ends of the stick. And this is one way we can make things even.”
He explained that there were always Asians in hip-hop, but many were into DJing. Indeed, out of the four original elements of hip-hop — MCing, graffiti, DJing and b-boying (breakdancing) — Asians have traditionally thrived in the last two categories. Many of the original turntable DJs were Asian, represented in groups like the Beat Junkies and the Invisible Scratch Piklz.
As the years went on, Asians accrued their mile-stones in rap. There was New York’s Lin Que, the first Afro-Chinese female rapper, associated with Brooklyn’s X Clan. There were the Mountain Brothers, the first Asian-American group to sign to a major label. After winning a national rap competition hosted by Sprite, the trio signed with Ruffhouse Records in the mid ’90s. I spoke to one of the Mountain Brothers, Steve Wei, also known as Styles Infinite, who left the game after a decade to become a doctor.
“We all really liked hip-hop music,” Wei said, “and it felt totally natural. We never thought that, as Asians, we shouldn’t be doing this. It wasn’t until we started doing it in public that we realized that we were the only Asian people there.”
Some of the racial obstacles the Mountain Brothers experienced came not from malice but sheer cultural ignorance. Wei recounted a label meeting: “They pressed up [our] single, it got some response, but the album was just [waiting] on the shelves. And we were wondering what was going on, so we had a meeting with the head guy, and he was just like, ‘We don’t know what to do with you guys. We don’t know how to market a white group.’ So there’s so many layers there, of him not seeing us Asian, and the guy was white too!”
The 2000s would birth MC Jin, probably the biggest Asian-American rapper to date. Jin started out as a battle rapper on BET’s 106 & Park, killing the crowd with lines like “Ask your girl, I was doing something in her house / Matter of fact, she had my eggroll and my dumplings in her mouth!” He became the first Asian-American rapper to sign a solo major label deal. Similar to Fresh Kid Ice, Jin was able to rep his Asian heritage (his biggest single was called “Learn Chinese”) while integrating himself into modern rap, sounding comfortable on beats produced by Just Blaze and Kanye West. But while Jin was big in the Asian-American community, he never fully crossed over to the mainstream.
All this time, American hip-hop was captivating audiences on the other side of the Pacific. Hip-hop not only found its way into K-pop, one of South Korea’s biggest exports and a massive global phenomenon, but it also created a direct lineage of Asian MCs, including Keith Ape, JayAllDay and Kohh. These rappers would appear in Ape’s 2015 music video “It G Ma,” which at 15.5 million views is arguably Asian rap’s biggest statement yet.
“It G Ma” presented a defiantly Asian-centric interpretation of hip-hop. For years, Asians watched as alternative hip-hop artists jacked their fashion through Japanese brands like Bape and Commes des Garçons, and as Internet hip-hop artists like Yung Lean appropriated their aesthetic and calligraphy (see the young Swedish rapper’s video for “Kyoto”). “It G Ma” boldly re-claimed those cultural makers. It was time to remind everyone that Asians had contributed much to hip-hop’s modern visual palette, and that they were the first to look good in Bape.
The video may incur a cultural diaspora a la the British Invasion (Keith Ape made his way to the United States shortly after its release), with implications for the whole Asian-American community: is this how to express ourselves? In the coming years, young Asian-American rappers and artists such as Mike Gao, Josh Pan, Dumbfoundead, Azure, Danny Chung and Lyricks will answer that question. As Fresh Kid Ice told me, “[Asian rappers] are underrepresented in hip-hop right now, but we’re coming. There’s more of us than anybody else.”
One artist embodying Fresh Kid Ice’s prediction in her field is b-girl Dorothy Ho, who hails from the Little Saigon neighborhood in Garden Grove. In the ’90s, Little Saigon was a hot-bed of violence and gang activity. Ho, who split time between foster homes and her grandparents’ house growing up, described to me a life experience as hip-hop as hip-hop gets.
“Growing up in Little Saigon,” she said, “it would be a bunch of immigrants and kids who didn’t know what they wanted to do. The alternative was gang life and selling drugs. But what recently happened in Asian communities is that people opened community youth hip-hop dance teams. Because of those, a lot of students took an initiative in their lives. Hip-hop influenced them, and in a lot of cases it will save them and give them a means to do something better with their lives.”
“Hip-hop is a universal culture,” Ho said. “I’ve seen how many people in the Asian community it has inspired and saved. And I believe hip-hop is what is going to bring the world together.”