Snacky Chan paused in reflection. "I was introduced to hip-hop probably in middle school by my neighbors," he said. Together they listened to LL Cool J, Run DMC and other household names from mid '90s hip-hop. "But, I didn't have anywhere to align myself. I was Asian, one of the few Asians, so the black culture really made sense to me to gravitate towards. I guess their culture, the whole struggles they were having as minorities attracted me."
Nowadays, Chan runs a record label, schedules appearances on an MTV network channel and finds his music videos playing on Asian and Asian-American music channels around the world. As one of the most pervasive presences in the Asian underground hip-hop scene, Chan's cool demeanor and frank accessibility almost represent the patience exhibited by the entire culture as it waits in the wings for its introduction to the mainstream.
"I think hip-hop is something that everyone can identify with-be it the sound, the tunes or what someone is representing or saying," said Simon Yin, a VJ on MTVChi, an MTV station geared toward Chinese-Americans. Established in December 2005, MTVChi is yet another indication that, slowly but surely, Asian Americans are having a greater say in popular culture.
"Indie labels are definitely a lot more open because they don't have anything to lose really, where major labels would consider it too much of a liability or risk," said Phil Chang, a manager with FAM Group. "You see a lot more half-Asians, like Rachel Yamagata, KT Tunstall."
This Asian presence in the Western music industry, however, is far from a novelty. Almost every genre can lay claim to a well-known Asian in its ranks, ranging from Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha, Ladytron keyboardist Reuben Wu, Bloc Party bassist Matt Tong, world-renowned DJ Kid Koala, super-producer Dan the Automator, and the list goes on and on. Hip-hop, however, more than other forms of music, has seemed to resonate with Asian-American fans.
"The way hip-hop captures life, it's very unique," said John Park, Trinity '06, also a hip-hop artist. "When you speak a certain way, when you write a flow a certain way, you connect with people. Any art form is like that-dance too. It breaks barriers."
As an established rapper, president of the Defining Movement dance group and a staple in campus cultural showcases, Park said he is looking forward to the time when he will finally have the freedom to cultivate his art.
"Freshman year I was at home doing some church event, and someone asked me to do two songs," Park said. "Out of the blue [manager Danny Kim] came up and mentioned recording my stuff."
Kim, of Full Blast Music and a grade school friend of Park, said he convinced Park to peg his rhymes to tape. "We pretty much took him under our wing, gathered the minions and started selling his single. Eventually we sold them all out."
Park admitted, however, that there are certain obstacles in place for Asian rappers. "I am strongly rooted in my Korean identity, and I am strongly rooted in my American identity-it's inseparable," he said. "But when kids that aren't the typical minority kids do that they just get laughed at. For them, it's a much bigger decision to get involved in hip-hop."
Andy Won, UNC '07, who goes by the stage name Rousseau, understands the dilemma but, like Park, is determined to persevere. "Anytime you go into a situation where people aren't used to you, they'll judge you and knock you. But once you prove yourself they can't deny it."
Kamikaze Grey, a prominent rapper who is also half-Filipino and half-Puerto Rican, said he believes that the racial issue is something that can be overcome under the right pretenses. "In talking to labels, I get two responses," said Grey. "One, it's going to be hard to sell you because Jin didn't make it; and two, it's going to be easy to sell you because there's no one like you."
The story of Jin, also known as Emcee Jin or simply The Emcee, has reached almost mythic proportions. Gaining notoriety on BET's TV show 106 & Park, Jin won seven straight freestyle battles on his way to a record deal with the Ruff Ryders/Virgin records. He was publicized everywhere from the New York Times to Rolling Stone and even acted in 2003's 2 Fast 2 Furious. However, his debut The Rest is History suffered many delays and encountered paltry sales at just over 100,000 units when it was finally released. In addition, the brandishing of the Asian-American identity in such things as his "Learn Chinese" music video caused some controversy even among his peers.
"He was sort of pushing himself as an Asian rapper, but he didn't want to do it that way-the label made him do it," said Grey. "Nobody cares that you're Chinese. Good music is good music. When you push that out there, it's a gimmick. He was pushing it like a crutch."
The result, said Grey, was resentment from members of the Asian community. "Everyone I knew basically told me, 'I don't want to Learn Chinese,'" he said.
Jin's ordeal with a major label serves as a warning to other Asian artists who have to dance the fine line between their art and their identity.
A key example is Joe Han of Linkin' Park, said manager Chang. "He reached the white demographic, the MTV demographic, the everything, before Koreans even knew who he was, and then Koreans followed suit and were like, 'Hey we've got a Korean in the mainstream.' You sort of have to mute your Asian identity in deference to getting yourself out there first."
Grey said his business plan relies on talent over demographics.
"You can't be an Asian artist and just focus on the Asian community," he said. "Like Eminem, he wasn't the first white rapper, but he was the first prominent one to be respected by everybody. If I'm successful and everyone likes me, then the Asian community will come out and support me, but it has to start from somewhere else first."
While the blueprints for an Asian rapper to break out may be in place, most artists remain uncertain about the possibility of an "Asian Eminem" breaking out in the near future.
"Do I think it'll happen?" Rousseau asked. "In two or three years, no, probably not even five. But I think it's something that isn't too far out there, because the talent is there. If enough people came knocking on the door eventually the record companies will have to answer."
In the meantime, life goes on. Grey is in the midst of finishing his fourth mix tape. Chan and his Dynasty Muzik label are prepping the release of a debut album by The Devil'z Rejects, followed by a compilation of Chan's best works, which might find its way into chain music store shelves by summer. As for Duke student Park, upon graduation he plans to return to New Jersey to work on his musical career.
"I'm going to basically disappear for a month or two, go into training, write a lot, read a lot, work on my breath control, performance style," he said. "It's going to be like Rocky."
Among so many cultural factors, Park said he wants to follow the model of Nas on his debut album Illmatic: no fluff, no cameos-"just someone who has a lot to say, who cares about his community, who's not out there for the money, just out there for his family and friends and to be positive," Park said.
John Park and Rousseau will perform tonight from 9:30 to 11:30 p.m. at the Open Mic show in the Mary Lou Williams Center.