Asian-Americans garner greater attention in hip-hop

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Rapper Roy Kim, aka Snacky Chan

Far East Movement reaching the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s Hot
100 this fall with “Like a G6,” a musical high-five to better living
through beautiful women and bottle service, probably didn’t strike most
pop-music listeners as pioneering. It’s just the latest in a long line
of hits celebrating playboy partying and living stretch-limo large.

But for Eric Nakamura, publisher/editor of Giant Robot, a magazine devoted to Asian pop culture, who also launched Giant Robot retail outlets in Los Angeles and San Francisco, it’s so much more. Far East Movement, who came together in Los Angeles’
Koreatown neighborhood and are of Chinese, Japanese Korean, and
Filipino ancestry, is the first Asian-American hip-hop act to break
through to a wide audience.

Nakamura compares it to Jeremy Lin signing with the Golden State Warriors in July to become the first Asian-American in the NBA since 1947, back when it was known as the Basketball Association of America.

“I didn’t know when it was going to happen but I
knew it was going to happen and they made it happen this year,” he
enthuses. “These are amazing times. There’ve been amazing changes.”

The track has also soared on the rap, pop,
dance/club play, ringtones, and digital-download charts and helped
their latest album, “Free Wired,” get into the Top 25.

Their success has even inspired other Asian-American performers who’ve been around much longer.

“For a long time, I felt like I was out there on a desert island,” says Japanese-American rapper/singer Lyrics Born (Tsutomu Shimura),
who has been active in the music business since the early ’90s and has
just released a new disc, “As U Were.” “Across the board, in pop
culture and in the arts in general, I hope to see more of this … When
I’m doing a “Jimmy Kimmel,” I might be the only guy who looks like me all year on that stage.”

But it remains to be seen if “Like a G6” acts like a
wedge — propping open the doors of pop success to let other
Asian-American hip-hop acts through — or is a fluke, an answer in some
future version of Trivial Pursuit.

“I would consider it a fluke but, then again, I’m a rap purist,” says Andrew Ryan, a visiting professor at the University of District
of Columbia who teaches a course on hip-hop and is the author of the
upcoming book, “The Responsible Use of Hip- Hop in the Classroom.”

He feels it’s similar to what happened in 2003 with
the British Indian Panjabi MC, whose collaboration with Jay-Z, Beware
of the Boys, became a global hit.

“Some folks felt that the artist would break
through. It never happened,” he says. “Someone who has done well is
(British Sri Lankan) MIA but she doesn’t really rap nor is she
mainstream.”

“I’m not sure I can say it’s a movement,” says
Nakamura. “Are there 10 groups behind them who are ready? They could be
underground and coming up. I just don’t know.”

Oliver Wang, an assistant professor of sociology at Cal State Long Beach and former music critic for such hip-hop publications as URB, The Source and XXL, is more forgiving. “Even if Far East Movement’s
current success proves to be a fluke, they’d still represent a
breakthrough for Asian-Americans in pop music,” he says in an e-mail.
“While the Billboard charts don’t mean as much today as they used to,
there’s never been an all Asian-American group who’ve enjoyed a hit
single as big as ‘Like a G6’ in well over a generation.”

While Far East Movement may be the first
time many have been exposed to Asian-Americans in hip-hop, they are
hardly the first. Going back to the early ’90s, such acts as the
Mountain Brothers, Asiatic Apostles, Yellow Peril, the Seoul Brothers,
Chops (formerly of the Mountain Brothers) and Jin (who earned a
fearsome reputation with rap battles on BET’s “106 & Park” show) built followings on the hip-hop underground.

Andrew Ryan notes, while there may not have been a
flood of Asian-American rappers over the years, that doesn’t mean
Asian-American kids haven’t partaken in hip-hop culture. “I think they
were just into different elements of it. The breakdancing scene in D.C.
and Virginia is 90 percent Asian-American. There’ve been lots of DJs too.”

However, unlike some of those acts that preceded them and despite their name, Far East Movement
— whose biggest lyrical concerns revolve around which club to go to
next — stay away from topics dealing with racial consciousness or
politics. “We never really made race our basis,” says Far East Movement’s Kev Nish (Kevin Nishimura).
“We just grew up as L.A. kids … 95 percent of the kids just want to
party rock and they don’t care about race. They just want to wild out.
That’s refreshing to us.”

While the band has been involved in the
Asian-American community — whether it’s organizing a benefit show in
L.A.’s Koreatown or staging International Secret Agents concerts
featuring other up-and-coming Asian artists — Nish says that’s not what
they want to sing about. “We keep it separate,” he says.

He’s also the first to admit that, musically, Far East Movement
is anything but hardcore hip-hop, that its pop-electro sound pulls from
a variety of styles. “What we do we call ‘free wired,’ an alternative
style with dance-style beats,” he says. “We’d go to hardcore electro
clubs and later a rock bar, we would take all that in, hit the studio
after we’ve had a good night and put it all together.”

This is why Wang thinks Far East Movement
is the one that broke through. “Earlier Asian-American rap artists were
aiming for a different audience,” he says. “Those older rappers wanted
to resonate with conventional hip-hop listeners … FM took a page from
the Will.I.Am playbook and instead went after a slightly younger, more
pop-friendly audience.”

In fact, Wang thinks to consider Far East Movement
hip-hop at all is mistaken. “It could absolutely be the case that FM’s
success inspires other Asian-American artists,” he says. “But they
won’t be creating a new space in hip-hop for Asian-Americans; they’ll
be carving out a space in the dance/electro scene instead and that
follows a different historical path, one where acts like Jin or Lyrics
Born are less the forebears and it’s more like 80s freestyle singers
like Jocelyn Enriquez or Buffy, both of whom were Filipino-American.”

But, however the music’s defined and whatever happens now, it seems that Far East Movement have made an indelible impression.

“I am so proud of those guys personally,” says
Lyrics Born. “We don’t necessarily do the same style but, from my
perspective, I’ve always said I was rounding the bases for everyone
else. But those guys hit it out of the park.”

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A BRIEF HISTORY OF ASIAN-AMERICAN HIP-HOP

Far East Movement may be the most successful Asian-American
hip-hop act but they’re far from the first. With a little help from the
Music In Asian America blog (musicinasianamerica.blogspot.com), here’s
some of what came before:

1991 — The Mountain Brothers, a group from Philadelphia whose members met while attending Penn State, formed, becoming the first Asian-American hip-hop group to sign a deal with a major label (Sony-distributed Ruffhouse). Though they were the first to draw national record-company attention, other acts such as California’s Asiatic Apostles, New Jersey’s Yellow Peril and Seattle’s Seoul Brothers were making noise on a local level.

1993 — The Japanese-born, Northern California-raised rapper known as Asia Born, who would later change his name to Lyrics Born, releases his first disc, “Send Them.”

1995 — The rap twosome of Key-Kool and DJ
Rhettmatic, Japanese-American and Filipino-American respectively,
release the album “Kozmonautz.”

1998 — A big year for Asian-American hip-hop with
releases from Filipino-American DJ/turntablist Qbert, Korean-American
rapper Jamez?, and the Mountain Brothers.

2000 — “Hybrid Theory,” the first album from rap-metal outfit Linkin Park, featuring Japanese-American singer/rapper Mike Shinoda, is released.

2001 — The debut disc, “In Search Of …,” drops by N.E.R.D., the critically lauded collaboration between African-American Pharrell Williams and Filipino-American Chad Hugo.

2004 — Miami-born
Chinese-American rapper Jin, the first solo Asian rapper with a major
US deal, releases his debut, “The Rest Is History,” after making
memorable appearances on BET’s “106 & Park,” where he
became a rap-battle champ. His first single, “Learn Chinese,” is
produced by Wyclef Jean. He now resides in Hong Kong.

2010 — Far East Movement reach No. 1 on Billboard’s pop chart with the track “Like a G6”; Lyrics Born releases a new album, “As U Were.”

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