Arts and Entertainment

Asian Americans in Hip-hop

Despite struggles to reach the mainstream, many Asian American hip-hop artists have managed to leave their mark on the culture.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Darren Liang

When asked to think of a rapper, an Asian American isn't the first image that comes to mind for most people. Despite this viewpoint, Asian Americans have been involved in hip-hop for decades, and there has been a massive increase in the popularity of Asian rappers. However, there still hasn’t been a single Asian American hip-hop artist who has managed to truly break into the mainstream. To understand why they haven’t achieved great success in the genre, we need to look through the history of Asian Americans in hip-hop, and understand both the stigma they face and the opportunities they've had.

The story begins in Riverside, California, 1984, with three members of the U.S. Air Force. After meeting at the March Air Force Base, David “Mr. Hixx” Hobbs, Yuri “Amazing Vee” Vielot, and Christopher “Fresh Kid Ice” Wong Won formed the group 2 Live Crew, which helped pioneer the genre “Miami Bass,” known for its high tempo production and sexually explicit lyrics. Later, Fresh Kid Ice, whose family immigrated from Hong Kong, became the first Asian American rapper to achieve success solo. In 1992, he dropped “The Chinaman,” an album that celebrated his Chinese heritage, becoming the first popular music artist ever to do so. “The Chinaman” sold 200,000 copies, peaking at #38 on the Billboard charts, and set the stage for future Asian American artists.

Ten years after 2 Live Crew was formed, three Asian American classmates at Penn State University formed The Mountain Brothers. Whereas 2 Live Crew had one Asian American member, the Mountain Brothers was the first all-Asian-American rap group, consisting of Scott “CHOPS” Jung, Christopher “Peril-L” Wang, and Steve “Styles Infinite” Wei. The Mountain Brothers released two albums, “Self Volume 1” and “Triple Crown,” which showcased their lyrical, jazzy, laid-back style. Despite commercial success, the group consistently had to deal with racism and stereotyping. After signing to the record label Ruffhouse (making them the first Asian American act to sign to a major label), executives displayed ignorance about their Asian background. Retired Columbia professor Daisy Nguyen’s article “The Color of Rap” describes an instance where an executive said to CHOPS, “There’s only one problem. You’re Asian." Other executives wanted to use stereotypes about Chinese culture as a marketing tool, suggesting the use of karate outfits and gongs for performances. Despite this, the group couldn't just find another label, as their Asian identities were an economic risk in such a homogenous genre. The group also had trouble booking shows, often needing to hide their Asian identities. The troubles they had cooperating with their label and venues led to them leave Ruffhouse and eventually to disband.

The last major Asian American act of the late ’90s and early 2000s was MC Jin, known for his lyrical ability, energetic production, and use of Cantonese in his songs. Jin broke out onto the scene following his success in BET freestyles, earning a record deal with Ruff Ryders. He came extremely close to breaking into the mainstream with his singles “Learn Chinese” and “Senorita,” but failed to achieve the success he desired, losing his record deal in 2005.

Why was it so hard for these rappers to achieve mainstream success? MC Jin and the Mountain Brothers both garnered significant critical acclaim and popularity, but were unable to break through, instead falling into other jobs or roles. The answer is not simple, and still affects artists trying find their place in the mainstream today.

A large part lies in the record industry’s business executives’ ignorance of Asian culture, leading to both poor marketing decisions and lack of respect for their artists. The musicians rejected the use of their cultural background as a marketing vehicle, leading to a lack of proper marketing and promotion.

The racial stereotypes present in our society also hurt the image of Asian American rappers. Hip-hop was, and still is, a predominantly Black and Latino genre of music, and the stereotypical Asian American is in many ways the antithesis of Black and Latino culture. Asian Americans, the “model minority,” are supposed to keep their head down and remain complicit in white power structures. However, the intrinsically rebellious nature of hip-hop meant that Asians who participated were, and still are, seen as cultural appropriators or completely out of place. Pop culture made the idea of an Asian rapper almost seem oxymoronic, and trying to market to an audience that sees you as a joke is almost impossible.

Resistance also comes from Asian families, which are traditionally socially conservative. “The Asian stereotype is real. The whole guilt trip, like we came on a dinghy from Hong Kong to give you a better life, we work at a friggin’ sock store, and we want you to become a doctor so you can take care of us for the rest of your life,” Asian American rapper Awkwafina said in an interview with journalist Elyssa Goodman. She goes on to say that the reason there aren’t any other notable Asian women in hip-hop is due to the fact that women who come from those communities are taught to be less outgoing. Despite these cultural setbacks, Awkwafina has managed to unapologetically put herself out there, and her example will hopefully inspire other Asian American women to join her.

Enter the internet, where the new wave of Asian American hip-hop artists has increasingly been able to confront and overcome the challenges faced by older generations of Asian American rappers. The internet has opened up hip-hop to a much larger audience, with variance in race, economic situation, and location. This new audience means that anyone can market themselves to people more willing to give them a chance. Asian American rappers have become more unapologetically themselves, using Asian influences and challenging stereotypes in their music. The advent of social media and the internet is also attacking the stereotypes of the model minority and the place of Asian Americans in society.

Rappers like Awkwafina have been able to use the internet to go viral and develop a dedicated fan base. Her song “My Vag” became a viral feminist anthem, fighting the fetishizing nature of the hip-hop industry. Ricegum, an Asian American YouTuber, has been able to take advantage of the viral nature of the internet to release songs that rack up millions of streams. Virality ignores color or culture, and has shot these rappers past the barriers that would traditionally bar them from success.

The ability for Asian American rappers to market their music to other Asian Americans has created a new place for their artistry. Traditionally, hip-hop hasn’t been a prominent music genre in Asian, white, and brown communities, and the internet has allowed artists who would have been rejected in the ’90s to thrive in the modern day.

Year of the Ox, Far East Movement, and Dumbfoundead are all examples of Asian American rappers and groups that have embraced their Asian heritage in their music. Far East Movement’s album “Identity” draws largely from Korean culture and music, Dumbfoundead raps in Korean and battles with the idea of the model minority, and Year of the Ox references Asian culture consistently. The spread of hip-hop to Asian communities and the ability to market their music to both Asian Americans and overseas audiences has allowed modern artists to thrive and explore their own identities.

New Asian American rappers have also been able to avoid the pitfalls of major labels. Dumbfoundead created the label BORN CTZN to promote Asian and Asian American artists. 88rising is an up-and-coming label with artists like Rich Brian, Joji, and the Higher Brothers on their roster. The ability for Asians and Asian Americans to seize business opportunities and promote their own culture has allowed, and will continue to allow, a new wave of Asian and Asian American artists to step into the light.

The entrance of these artists into the scene is indicative of a greater cultural shift. The diffusion of culture and breaking down of historical stereotypes has opened up an entire new audience to Asian Americans in hip-hop, which is bound to have truly monumental effects on the genre.