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Building Strength: The Grassroots Growth of Asian American Hip-Hop In L.A. and Beyond

There's a shelf in my office upon which sits a cassette tape, "Two New Dogs-Soundtrack" hand-scrawled on the spine. "Two New Dogs" was meant to be the debut feature film from Bay Area director Sung J. Kim, who originally shot this Korean American gangster yarn circa 1993. The project wasn't envisioned as a "hip-hop film" but Kim was a fan of the music and for the soundtrack (assembled between 1994-95), he reached out to nascent Asian American R&B and rap acts around the country, including Philadelphia's Mountain Brothers, the Bay Area's Pinay Divas and Los Angeles's in"¢cite. Alas, "Two New Dogs" never made it past the rough cut stage and the soundtrack died with it; had it come out, it would have been the first collection of Asian American hip-hop and R&B talent ever released.

It seems appropriate that, nearly 20 years later, one of the people heavily featured on the "Two New Dogs" soundtrack is now behind a new Asian American hip-hop compilation entitled "Strength In Numbers." Back in the early '90s, producer/rapper Scott "Chops" Jung was with the Mountain Brothers and since then, Chops has become one of the more successful Asian American hip-hop figures out there, with production credits ranging from Houston icon, Bun B to the comedic rap trio of The Lonely Island. "Strength In Numbers" was a way for him to finally collaborate with the many other Asian American rap and R&B artists he's crossed paths with over the the years; it even gave him an excuse to get the band back together.

Given that I've been following his career since his earliest days, Chops was gracious in offering me a "first listen" to the finished album. Dipping through its 22 tracks was a powerful experience, one that inevitably made me think back to "Two New Dogs" and similar cassette-only demo tapes that I collected back in the early 1990s, when I first began to write about Asian American hip-hop artists.

In some sobering ways, things haven't changed all that much. From the perspective of an imagined "mainstream" rap fan, I'm not certain if many of "Strength In Numbers'" contributors are any less obscure in 2013 then their 1995 counterparts might have been. The conventional music industry -- or whatever is left of it -- still hasn't shown much enthusiasm in embracing Asian American acts either, unless they demonstrate some international, cross-market potential. The challenges here are numerous, complicated and long-standing, ranging from the perception of Asian Americans as too "racially inauthentic" for a street culture like hip-hop to the limited consumer clout held by a community that itself is made up of many culturally and linguistic different sub-ethnic groups. 20 years ago, we kept thinking that Asian American rappers were on the verge of "breaking out" (at one point back then, I penned a painfully corny neologism "GenerAsian Next"). Today, it still feels like we're waiting to cross that threshold.

Lest I sound too cynical though, it's clear that other things have changed. Several of the artists on "Strength In Numbers" have built strong, promising careers on their own, regardless of industry support. Those ranks include Chops himself, New York's Rekstizzy, and Prometheus Brown of Seattle's Blue Scholars. Notably, many of the most renown artists on the comp have ties to Los Angeles, including Bambu, Kiwi, Dumbfoundead, plus soul singers Ann One, Paul Kim and Connie Lim. That's not a coincidence.

Sheer demographics could provide a simple explanation for the predominance of Asian American hip-hop talent in L.A., i.e. "more Asians = more Asian MCs" but that's a case where the forest obscures the trees. A community is a sum of not just people but also the organizations, businesses and institutions that those people interact with. The history of Asian American hip-hop acts traces through those networks, feeding off and into them.

For example, back in 1995, the sole L.A. act on the "Two New Dogs" soundtrack was in"¢cite, formed in the early 1990s between three men who all met one another through the massive Japanese American Buddhist church network: Kevin Sakoda and brothers Randy and Ryan Onishi. Many of their early gigs included community festivals and Asian American college shows.

Likewise, former Native Guns bandmates Bambu and Kiwi have one song each on the new comp and both have deep roots in Filipino American community groups. Kiwi -- who now lives in the Bay Area -- works extensively with AnakBayan-East Bay, a youth group based in Oakland, while Bambu has ties to the international Kabataang Maka-Bayan (Pro-People Youth) and both men found an early, supportive partner in Search for to Involve Pilipino Americans (Black Eyed Peas' apl.de.ap. is another SIPA "alum.") Both Bambu and Kiwi have used hip-hop as both an outlet for personal expression but also as an organizing and activism tool; the idea that they make music "for the people," isn't just romantic rhetoric, it's been a major reason why they've found such staunch support from community-based organizations and their youth membership.

And then there's Dumbfoundead (whom I recently wrote about) whose rise was partially fueled by a burgeoning Koreatown hip-hop party scene capable of providing platforms for practice, performance and competition. The point being: these artists have certainly drawn fans through their talent but even the sharpest of skills won't float a career in a vacuum. Local support via community groups, open-minded venues, and other grassroots institutions are the small but crucial stepping stones upon which a long-term career can travel.

Obviously, part of a broad idea of "community" today inherently includes the powerful (though fickle) online audience. Paul Kim, a Bay Area transplant to L.A., originally came to fame on an "American Idol" audition but after those 15 seconds ended, he began to began his career in earnest, largely through creating both original songs/videos as well as cover versions of current hits. By Youtube standards, Kim is still up-and-coming by any standard; even his most viewed video hasn't netted over 500,000 views. But this do-it-yourself approach, combined with lower costs to audio and video production, means that Kim's been able to put together a catalog of over three dozen professional-quality videos in the past three years. In contrast, the Mountain Brothers -- who once drew interest from major rap labels such as Ruffhouse -- have exactly two videos, the second of which was for "Strength In Numbers." In short, it's become a vastly different media landscape to navigate and while the odds are still unfathomably long, artists at least don't have to wait on some elusive industry blessing to get things started. "Like Strength In Numbers'" contributor Rocky Rivera once put it, "f--- a cosign/I put myself on."

Perhaps the biggest change of all over the last 20 years is how we distribute and access albums themselves. Many of the songs on "Two New Dogs" were never released to the public; besides the artists' original copies (assuming they still have them), the few tape dubs filmmaker Kim made of the soundtrack may be one of very few pieces of media that have any trace that these 15 songs ever existed. In contrast, the unfortunate fate of the "Two New Dogs" soundtrack could never happen with "Strength In Numbers." Feast or famine, Chops's labor of love will be easily and widely available to as many people who want to buy or listen to it, not left to collect dust on an office shelf.

Strength In Numbers logo | Artwork by Hoya Chung
Strength In Numbers logo | Artwork by Hoya Chung

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