Los Angeles

Soul II Seoul: Is L.A. the Conduit for Asian Pop Success?

Aziatix (l-r: Jay Pak, Eddie Shin, Nicky Lee) | Photo from Aziatix.com

Out of the media coverage following the recent Grammy Awards was a small business story about Cash Money's latest signee: Aziatix. Cash Money is a hip-hop powerhouse, with rap stars such as Lil Wayne and Drake on their roster; Aziatix is a hip-hop/R&B hybrid trio made up of three Korean American artists: New York rapper Jay "Flowsik" Pak, Boston singer/songwriter Eddie Shin and Los Angeles singer Nicky Lee. Unconfirmed sources claim the deal was worth a staggering $11.3 million, which, if true, would be an unprecedented figure for practically any Asian American act, let alone a trio of artists better known in Seoul and Tokyo than they are in Los Angeles or San Francisco.

(Aziatix: "Nothing Compares To You." 2011)

Even if the dollar amount of the contract is being misreported, the Aziatix deal is still a fascinating development in what's been a few years of rollercoaster action for Asian American pop acts. There was Far East Movement's #1 hit from two years back, "Like a G6," and 2012 was the year of Korea's Psy, who, though not American, still is seen as being a key player in how American consumers might receive Asian/Asian American pop acts. Cash Money's A&R Joshua Berkman told Billboard, "we were courting Aziatix before Psy broke, but that certainly helped. We're reaching out more internationally now -- it's a global thing."

This is a stark turnaround for what had been the previous history of Asian American artists involved in so-called "urban contemporary" styles such as hip-hop and soul music. Given that "urban contemporary" is music industry code for "black music" (which was once explicitly called "race music"), one main challenge facing Asian Americans in the genre has been overcoming both audience and especially record industry skepticism around the marketability of a group with Asian faces. The idea of "racial authenticity" is relevant in many American genres -- you sense it in people's surprised reactions to the idea of, for example, a black country singer, and, besides Eminem and the Beastie Boys, few other white rappers have ever enjoyed the same level of commercial success.

For Asian American hip-hop/R&B groups, racial authenticity has been a complicated issue to negotiate. Historically, for Asian Americans, the perceptions/assumptions of "model minority" passivity works opposite from hip-hop's associations with equally stereotypical black aggression. To bridge that perceived gap, record industry personnel have sometimes resorted to fighting stereotypes with stereotypes. When the Mountain Brothers, a Chinese American trio from Philadelphia, made a splash back in the mid/late 1990s, they had record executives suggesting that they wear kung fu robes and come out onto stage with a gong. Rather than be forced into such indignities, the group released their music independently instead.

(Mountain Brothers: "Galaxies." 1999)

The racial authenticity question may not have been the sole force holding Asian American rap and soul acts back but until recently, most of them seemed stuck in a perpetually liminal, "on the verge" stage. That list -- it's a long one -- includes the Mountain Brothers, New York's battle rapper Jin, and the Bay Area's freestyle dance singer Jocelyn Enriquez and R&B group Kai. Then there's a newer generation artists on a constant grind to break out: L.A.'s Bambu and Dumbfoundead, Seattle's Geologic, the Bay Area's Rocky Rivera, et. al.

(Bambu feat. Rocky Rivera: "Rent Money." 2012. Produced by Chops, formerly of the Mountain Brothers.)

At one point, all of the members of Aziatix had been in a similar situation but they found greater opportunities by heading overseas to Asia, specifically South Korea and Taiwan. Whereas their peers in the States might struggle to solicit the resources to put out a single, Aziatix's crooner Nicky Lee released five albums between 2005 and 2010. However different Aziatix's path may have been, it's not a new one though.

The group's producer is Irvine's Jae Chong who may not be household name in the U.S. but is all but hailed a starmaker in Asian pop markets. Back in the 1990s, I often heard stories about a trio of Chinese American rappers/dancers -- The L.A. Boyz -- who came from the same San Gabriel Valley neighborhoods that I spent my youth in. Rather than pursue careers in the U.S., Chong took the three over to Taiwan where they became sensations, often considered Taiwan's first hip-hop stars.

(L.A. Boyz: "Jump." 1990s)

The logic of the L.A. Boyz's success made sense to me. Here, even in L.A, they would have faced the same issues around racial authenticity that stymied other Asian American acts. Moreover, the local market was/is small; if you're depending on your consumer base to identify with you, then for Asian Americans, that would have meant less than 3% of the total U.S. population back in 1990. Even then, you couldn't be sure if children of Filipino immigrants would want to buy your music if you were the children of Chinese immigrants and vice versa.

Overseas, in markets like Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea, being Asian isn't a liability for obvious reasons. Moreover, though there are bustling pop scenes in each region, artists seemingly aren't necessarily limited by nationalistic identities in crossing over between them. Aziatix's Lee was born in South Korea, grew up in L.A. where he attended Long Beach City College, but his musical career took off in Taiwan where he sings in fluent Mandarin. Likewise, when Aziatix first broke out in 2011, they were charting in Japan just as heavily as they were in South Korea.

In previous eras, that kind of overseas success sometimes lead record companies to attempt to bring those artists back to the U.S. in hopes of finding a similar reception (otherwise known as the "Shakira effect.") Back in 2000, I was sent a press kit for Coco Lee, a Hong Kong-born/San Francisco-raised singer who was then one of the biggest pop stars in Asia but whom Sony Music was trying to launch in the U.S. Her English language debut "Just No Other Way" never found footing, selling only 40,000 units (by 2000 standards, those are abysmal numbers for a major label album).

(Coco Lee: "Before I Fall In Love." 2000.)

One common explanation for why Asian American artists -- even those with massively popular careers in Asia -- have a hard time breaking out in the U.S. relies on the "talent theory." As the argument goes, there'd be more successful Asian American artists if only they were "good enough." It's a seductive line, feeding into and out of a deeply American/Protestant belief in meritocracy. Personally, I never found the L.A. Boyz to be compelling rappers and I thought Coco Lee sounded too much like a Mariah Carey to be truly memorable; on one level, it "made sense" that neither would likely have found sufficient footing in the U.S.

The problem with the talent theory though is that much of popular music history completely undermines it: not all talented artists do well and not all artists who've done well are universally praised for their talent. Tune into Twitter and Facebook chatter during the Grammy Awards and you'll find no shortage of outrage directed at "undeserving hacks" who, nonetheless, experience remarkable success. Put simply, talent matters but it's only one of many factors that help explain an artist's ability to connect with an audience and move units. As I'm stressing, race remains another one of those factors, but one that many seem uncomfortable in acknowledging since it completely undermines the fiction of meritocracy.

This is partially why I found the Cash Money/Aziatix deal so fascinating. Cash Money has credibility with black, white and Latino audiences, i.e., the core demographics of the American consumer public. If Aziatix wanted to make a go of their career in the U.S., Cash Money is a good vehicle to hitch onto. But I think I have this backwards. The label isn't gambling their titular cash money on Aziatix blowing up in the U.S., they want Cash Money to blow up overseas and Aziatix is a ticket into that game. Cash Money co-founder, Bryan "Birdman" Williams was quoted in that same Billboard story as saying, "It's important to have a full international impact, so we're grooming and growing international superstars." Putting Aziatix together with, say, labelmate Nicki Minaj might help Aziatix gain some favor with Minaj fans but it seems more likely that Cash Money wants Aziatix to help introduce Minaj to their Japanese, Korean and Chinese fans. If that's the case, Cash Money is pursuing a logic that Hollywood movie studios have come to understand: domestic box office makes headlines but global sales make profit.

That leaves the fate of Asian American R&B and hip-hop acts, hoping to become American stars, still unclear. Aziatix's current moment is a reminder that there have long been two paths for Asian Americans to pursue musical careers but these paths rarely intersect. You can choose to head to Asia, hardly a guarantee of success, but one with a higher ceiling of possibilities. Or you can try to grind it out state-side, where racial authenticity's grip on consumer imaginations still looms.

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For some, the pipe dream eschews either/or options; they want it all -- to become an Asian American global star able to fill arenas from Oakland to Osaka, Detroit to Dubai. If and when such a figure emerges, there's a good chance they'll come from, or at least through, Los Angeles. The city's long-standing entertainment industries makes it an obvious conduit but perhaps less obvious is how both local and global capital funds endeavors that range from multi-entertainment company mergers to movie productions to nightclub investments to the act of teens buying a new favorite song for their smart phones. Sawtelle saw Giant Robot Magazine start a mini-empire that gave many indie bands their first press and retail outlets, Koreatown's club scene was a platform that Far East Movement built their fan base from, and the San Gabriel Valley gave us both the L.A. Boyz and may yet yield a viable "626 Movement" to push a new generation of artists forward.

What L.A. has are better resources to balance the odds but it can't be stressed enough: every musical career is an experiment whose outcome is never predetermined. Michael Jackson and his brothers started with small, local R&B releases before Diana Ross brought them over to Motown. Beyonce's first girl group lost on "Star Search" when she was barely 11. The Beatles began their career performing in converted Hamburg strip clubs. These are not unusual stories. Almost every successful music artist in the history of pop music began small, even with a string of failures, before they stopped failing and got big. Today's Asian American performers singing in a Cerritos mall or rapping in a Koreatown basement face ridiculous odds but the important thing is that they're in those bright atriums and dark clubs to begin with.

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Top Photo: Aziatix (l-r: Jay Pak, Eddie Shin, Nicky Lee) | Photo from Aziatix.com.

About the Author

Dr. Oliver Wang is an associate professor of sociology at California State University, Long Beach.
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