When it comes to Koreatown, Dumbfoundead doesn't just wear his heart on his sleeve, he literally wears his hometown on his chest. The Korean American rapper rocks a massive tattoo homage to K-Town that's become so iconic that even his Austrian fans pay tribute to it. Yet Dumbfoundead (né Jonathan Park and a.k.a. DFD) has always held a complicated relationship to the 'hood that inks his chest. He is arguably K-Town's most visible and accomplished MC but in this sprawling, dense neighborhood, it's easy to get lost in the shuffle of overlapping communities. "I always felt like an outcast amongst the Korean kids," Dumbfoundead says, having attended predominantly Latino schools, but come every Sunday, "I knew this other side, the Korean side, when I would go to church."
Despite those ambivalences, Dumbfoundead grew up in a family that could have been a posterchild for K-Town's diversity. His parents are both ethnically Korean but they actually met and married in Argentina before moving to the U.S. with Park and his infant sister in the late 1980s. Growing up in a trilingual environment might explain his particular gift of gab but it may also be inherent to his personality: "I was always the class clown in school," he says, joking, "I always say that the classroom was my first stage."
My first major impression of Dumbfoundead came with his 2009 song/video, "Bullets of Truth." Shot atop the roof of Ashbury Apartments, overlooking MacArthur Park with downtown spiring up in the distance, the video finds the rapper launching into a near breathless set of verses tackling government surveillance, foreign policy hypocrisies, and global recession. The song may be conspiracy-minded but for all its thematic darkness, DFD sounds positively exuberant, with syllables spilling out as fast as his mouth can form them.
It's a garrulous, cerebral style, formed and honed in basement battles and sidewalk ciphers. Those human rings of flowing freestyles lured DFD in at an early age: "every house party in my high school, I was just hopping into these ciphers," he said, admitting that, at the time, he was, "just amateur, not really that great, just hopping in every chance. I just wanted to be heard."
The turning point came his freshman year in high school, circa 2000, when a friend took him out of K-Town and down to Leimert Park, where the Project Blowed sessions were in full effect. This vaunted Thursday night weekly had evolved out of the old Good Life parties that helped produce such L.A. luminaries as the Freestyle Fellowship, Pharcyde, and others. By the early 2000s, Blowed had become the proving ground for any aspiring MC to test their mettle. It was a humbling experience for Dumbfoundead. "I seriously was convinced that I was one of the best or something until I went there," he said. "I stuck my head in a cipher and I almost shit my pants just because they were on a whole other fucking level. After that, that was every Thursday, 10 p.m. to 2 a.m...a school night where I would sneak out and sneak back in and be tired at school the next day. I was just addicted to that open mic."
During Dumbfoundead's teen years, Koreatown had steadily built its nightlife attractions with countless bars and clubs but from his perspective, there was no real music scene (let alone a hip-hop scene). Any given night might see packed karaoke lounges but as DFD pointed out, "I never felt like that was a thing that was cultivating any kind of artist. There was definitely certain homegirls or homies that were killing it but they never took it beyond that, into a recording booth."
Project Blowed helped push Dumbfoundead towards the recording booth but so did finding a community of likeminded aspirants in his own neighborhood. In 2001, a local Koreatown promoter/activist who went by Kublai Kwon approached DFD after seeing him perform at MacArthur Park. "The dude was serious," DFD recalled. "He wanted to organize a bunch of Asian rappers and really build that community. [Through Kwon], I met all these other Asian rappers I wasn't aware of living in a couple-block radius of my house in Koreatown."
In 2003, Kwon and Dumbfoundead began to host their own weekly open mic: Jeet Kune Flow, a play on words of Bruce Lee's Jeet Kune Do style of martial arts philosophy. From practically that first session, Dumbfoundead began recognizing locals he had known as kids in church yet had no idea that they, like him, were hip-hop fanatics. From the beginning, Jeet Kune Flow was meant to be centered in Koreatown; its first main location (besides Kwon's house) was at the offices of KIWA (Korean Immigrant Worker Advocates). "We actually had to change places because we were just being stupid and smoking blunts on the patio and leaving beer bottles and stuff," Dumbfoundead laughed. Regardless of where it landed, the fact that he, Kwon and others were committed to doing it every week steadily built Jeet Kune Flow from a K-Town anomaly into a subcultural institution.
"Over the years after we were doing that every Sunday, almost every Asian rapper was coming through from everywhere," DFD explained. That included Los Angeles's Far East Movement in their early years but Jeet Kune Flow's reputation soon went national, with East Coast acts like Jin and Snacky Chan making sure to make their stop their anytime they came through Southern California. "We really did something here," Dumbfoundead boasted.
Meanwhile, Kwon, on his own, was already mounting annual Asian Hip-Hop Summits, designed to draw Asian American rap talents from around the country. The Summits eventually grew into national tours (in 2012, they did nearly two dozen dates). The Summits literally took DFD onto the road: "[they were] my first time ever traveling outside of L.A. and going to different cities and performing. I was going to cities like Milwaukee and Madison and there would be random Asian kids would come to the show just because [they] randomly saw a poster; they didn't know about any of us. None of us had a fan base at the time."
Fast forward to 2013. The Summits are on hiatus, at least this past year. Jeet Kune Flow ended as a regular party a few years back, a victim of slowing momentum, exacerbated by the lack of a consistent venue. But at least for Dumbfoundead, those years he spent, contributing to a local K-Town scene, proved pivotal. "It built a lot of confidence in me and in a lot of the artists who were there. It made us practice our craft, provided a space for us and filled it in with different types of people. That would just keep us going, you know what I'm saying?"
It can be easy to overlook how important a reliable space for performance is. L.A. hip-hop parties such as the Good Life, Project Blowed, Low End Theory, Jeet Kune Flow and others almost never began with massive reputations or recognition. Those were built and earned, week to week, month to month, through lean years where only hyper-locals knew or cared about them. But in providing a space, they helped artists to engage each other and improve their craft and equally important, created a way for audiences to find them, building the kind of local communities that make a scene, "a scene."
In February of this year, Dumbfoundead released his own love letter to "the town."
Like the insider/outsider he grew up as, DFD sets himself up as a prodigal son in the song, away from his hometown but soon to come back, bearing the spoils of his success. At times, it can seem strange to Dumbfoundead how he's become a representative of his childhood 'hood, given that as a kid, so many of the people he knew, "thought I was a weird Korean because I had weird interests...rapping and stuff, I was into Nirvana...that wasn't the usual K-Town vide that you would see amongst a lot of the kids, even still now." Yet years later, "I just really started attaching to the community. I wanted to help the community grow," he says. Like they say, you can take the boy out of K-Town but you can't...well, you know the rest.
The Dumbfoundead Guide to Koreatown
The Key Corner: "Olympic and Normandie would be that O.G., K-Town intersection where you look around and every sign is in Korean. You've got the Seoul International Park there, but in that park you see Latinos playing soccer and shit."
The Hot Corner: "6th and Normandie, right by Chapman Plaza. That's where pretty much all the major nightlife bars [are] and that's where you would go barhopping if you were to go out."
The Chill Corner: "If I were to just go out around coffee shops and different places...6th and Western."
The Proper Dinner: "Dong Il Jang, which was actually in that Anthony Bourdain, No Reservations special. There's no English translation for this place, you know what I mean? They actually have Korean dishes and shit. I think most people, when they think about Korean, they just think about Korean BBQ restaurants and they forget about all these other great dishes."
The Late-Night Snack Attack: "El Taurino, that's like the go-to Mexican food spot after 2 a.m. Like, when you're drunk, you go there. You'll see a lot of Koreans that go there. They love that place."
The Watering Hole: "Café Bleu is like the Cheers of the neighborhood."
The Hipster Hangout: "Beer Belly. There's been a lot of interesting bars that have been opening up that I actually like. They've given a kind of a new flavor to Koreatown. You go there and you see a lot more Korean American types that aren't necessarily traditional bar [patrons]. They're more like hipster-type Asians blended in with white hipsters and different ethnicities there."