Even if you think you don’t know who Shawn Wasabi is, you’ve probably at the very least seen his hands. Weird statement, I know, but Shawn’s viral 2015 hit Marble Soda was a mid-decade YouTube smash — millions of viewers were transfixed by Shawn’s ability to mash-up over 130 of his favorite sounds into a single performance on an at-the-time never-before-seen 64-button midi-controller. That midi, DJ Tech Tools’ Midi Fighter 64, was actually co-invented by Shawn, who felt limited by the 16-button version on the market and was made custom for him before its eventual commercial release.
The Midi Fighter 64 would get the spotlight in several more singles from Wasabi, the dancing LED lights acting as the perfect visual accompaniment to his hyper-energetic chip-tune influenced compositions. But in 2017, the artist himself began to step into the frame as his music became more structured. That was the year he dropped Otter Pop, his first composition with vocals, by way of guest singer Hollis. The video is a departure from Wasabi’s previous work — starting with a full framed shot of the musician sitting cross-legged on the floor before focusing in on his fingers dancing along the Midi Fighter.
This year’s single, SNACK, featuring vocals by frequent collaborator Raychel Jay is Shawn’s catchiest single yet, winning accolades from Anthony Fantano and producing Shawn’s most high-production music video to date (featuring friend of UPROXX Roy Choi!). I met up with Shawn late last month in LA’s Chinatown where we chopped it up over food from his favorite Filipino restaurant, LASA. We covered Shawn’s early days in music, his creative process, and some of his driving inspirations.
As a bonus, Shawn also keyed us into some of his other favorite LA Filipino food joints, from fusion cuisine to the mom and pop vibes of Lutong Bahay in Eagle Rock.
Check Shawn’s picks after the interview and give SNACK a listen below. Fair warning, it’s about to be stuck in your head all day.
Of all places, why are we at LASA?
We’re at LASA because the Filipino food here isn’t like any other traditional Filipino restaurant or like mom or dad’s cooking. The concept of Filipino food is to stretch really cheap ingredients to get the most bang for your buck. For the most part, growing up, I’d eat rice and chicken mixed with 50% soy sauce and vinegar, and that’s what chicken adobo is.
It’s just super simple and cheap ingredients but done in a way so that it lasts longer. In the Philippines, it’s hot and tropical, so food would go bad unless you found a way to preserve it. That’s why a lot of our cuisine is vinegar and soy sauce. But LASA is closer to the concept of fine dining. Here they have more expensive ingredients and they’ve figured out how to make it on the level of fine dining.
What would you say, in Filipino cuisine, are the gateway foods?
Definitely lumpia, which is our version of an egg roll. We take an egg roll wrapper and we just stuff it with meat. That’s what it is. So super simple. And also chicken adobo, which is literally just chicken mixed with vinegar and soy sauce. They’re super simple dishes. Those two, especially. I’m trying to think what else would be the gateway…
Pancit seems the easiest.
Yeah, that one’s easy too. There are so many different types of pancit. But basically, you take vermicelli noodles or some shit like that. And the way my mom cooks it, it’s filled with vegetables and lime. That stuff’s super simple. It’s so good, but when you find out about the recipe, it’s shocking how cheap and easy it is.
I want to ask you a little bit about the SNACK video. How come it was important to include people like Roy Choi, Guava Juice, and the Boba Guys founders?
When I first moved to LA four years ago, I moved to Palms in Culver City. I was on the west side, literally a block away from where Roy Choi opened up his taqueria, Kogi. When that opened up in my neighborhood, I went to the grand opening. I saw Roy Choi behind the counter and I was, “Damn, that dude’s a really famous chef.” I grew up in a small farm town. Living in a small farm town, it’s just a bunch of farmland and there’s nothing to do. It’s like living in a cave.
I understand Filipino food and Asian food, but to the extent of how my mom and dad cooked it, and what my family and friends and their parents made. Going to Roy Choi’s restaurant and seeing the whole concept of fusion cuisine, where Roy Choi would take kimchi and add it to tacos or take different Korean foods and seamlessly merge them with different other things that are popular in LA. Incorporate his own Korean culture into the local LA cuisine, that was super cool to me. And I was, “Woah, that’s tight.” It felt similar to the music I was making where it’s, “What can we put together? What can we throw at the wall, and what’s going to stick?” I relate heavily to that.
For Boba Guys — I grew up in Northern California, and I went to the original Boba Guys location in San Francisco in the Mission back when they first opened up, I want to say it was six or seven years ago. I went to that location with my friends who took me there and I was, “Yo, this is really good.” We had one boba shop in my hometown and I would go there a lot of the time, but the way they made their drinks, they just put powder into a cup, and they brew it that way.
My first time seeing tea and seeing milk teas actually being made with real ingredients was a big moment for me.
That’s kind of like the same thing as your fascination with LASA, a more carefully crafted version of something you already love.
Yeah, they caught me at the right time and also, “Yo, this is the shit that matters.” Growing up it’s, “Yeah, you caught me at the right time.”
What is the process for you of making music?
It’s changed a lot.
How has it changed?
I’ve grown up playing instruments. I used to do classical piano lessons back when I was a kid. I played piano since I was four. When I made my Midi Fighter 64 controller, I would load a bunch of sound songs and I’d just jam around. Now that I got into the world of pop music and working with other artists and rappers, they want you to make something on the spot. The easiest way for me to do that is to literally jump on a piano or a keyboard and build around chords until something sounds cool, and then build the rest of the beat around that.
So I’ll do the chord progression first. I’ll jam out to a chord progression, and build melodies over that, do drums next, and then the artists in the room can freestyle over it or write a song for it.
So it changes a lot. When I did Marble Soda, this was back in 2014, the way I made that music was by listening to a lot of songs on Pandora and SoundCloud and radio and TV and everywhere. I would rip those songs off the internet and chop out samples from each one and throw them into a folder. After several months I’d have a giant folder of samples, and I would make a song with that. And that’s how Marble Soda and stuff around that time came together.
Let’s talk about the Midi Fighter 64. Why did you feel like you needed to have 64 buttons?
Good question. A lot of the drum pads that were out at the time I didn’t like how the buttons felt on that. I really love the feel of rapid-fire arcade buttons, where it reminds me a lot of playing a video game, and it’s very satisfying because you feel the mechanical click, like pressing an arcade button. So what they had at the time was the smaller Midi Fighter Spectra 3D Pro or whatever. That one had 16 buttons. As a pianist, that was not enough for me. A piano has 88 keys. As someone that was classically trained, I would pick up all the options and play that. 64 buttons. That’s why I have 64 buttons because at the time of Marble Soda and Burnt Rice, it was very maximalist. I would try to fit in as much shit as I could, and that was just the way I wanted to make music at the time. It was, “What can we get away with?”
Interesting, I feel like doing the opposite, something that’s really minimal is harder because the individual parts need to really stand out on their own and be strong.
I’ve been trying to get my ego out of the way, and take out all the parts that — I try to purify things down to the point where it’s, “This is so good,” but at the same time it’s so dumb. Just because it’s so minimally pure. I try to do that with the pop music I do nowadays because when I make pop music, we need the elements that really matter and everything else just gets in the way.
What are some of your musical influences?
I got into electronic music literally through hearing Skrillex on YouTube. Back then, I played in metal bands. I played in a lot of bands playing guitar. When I was a kid, my mom had classical music and Beatles and Jackson 5 in her CD collection, and I would play that all the time. A lot of her other CDs was like soul and Motown and stuff. And then towards the later years of high school, I got into like Chiptune and Nightcore and SoundCloud. I listened to Anamanaguchi, and a lot of my friends made music, so I was listening to their beats as well.
I feel like you could hear some of the Jackson 5 in “SNACK” with its infectious glee.
Yeah, “SNACK” has so much Jackson 5 in it! Back then in Motown, there’s a lot of rhythms and patterns that are specific to that era. And even chord progressions, they would do this thing on the keyboard that was two chords, and I do it in “SNACK.” Or on the piano, they would- it’s hard to explain, but it’s a major group and then you move to the fifth. So it’s two chords switching back between each other. And in this song, I like do those Jackson 5 chord patterns on top of the chord progression that’s already there. There’s a lot of the bongos and the tambourines that a lot of instrumentalists in the Motown era used. It’s full of small music theory things that the songwriters back then really used all the time.
It’s interesting that you’re using so many- I guess it comes from your classical training, but using so many traditional music elements to make something that inarguably sounds like now or tomorrow.
It’s like taking something from the 1970s and putting it in 2030. Or trying to use it in a way where it feels contemporary-ish or making it be competitive again amongst the rest of modern music.
What about the pop songwriting process surprised you the most? In comparison to your early solo work.
I didn’t realize how simple it is. Before I was in pop sessions, I thought, “Damn, these people are super-geniuses and they’re coming up with all these song lyrics.” They’re still geniuses, but the way they do it, it’s just like having a conversation. It’s like you’re talking to someone and all of a sudden, it’s, “Wait, say that thing again.” And then you notice that whatever they just said would sound good as a song title or a song melody.
Just trying to find something relatable or something that resonates?
Exactly. It’s taking normal conversation. You pick out the things that would be relatable or that’s something that people say all the time but it’s, “Why isn’t that a song yet?” When we wrote “SNACK,” the whole song is conversational where it’s, “You know I’m looking at you. I know you’re looking at me looking at you.” It’s supposed to sound like Raychel’s having a conversation with people in the room or with someone else in the room.
Everyone writes songs differently. A lot of my friends freestyle, of course. But I’m such a concept person that I’ll have a note in my phone of a bunch of stupid words and phrases that would probably sound good as a song.
I noticed that all of your singles are food-based. What’s up with that? What’s your connection with food and music?
For me, food is very visual or it extends to the other senses a lot. When I hear a food optic in a song, I visualize the food itself, and also I can taste it or smell it or whatever. It’s not just a cool song lyric, it adds to your other senses as well. Or it builds its own.
My friend Hollis, who I write songs with a lot, the way she writes songs is she takes an object and describes it using as many descriptive words that she can. She wrote the song with Macklemore called “White Walls.” It was a big song back in those days. The chorus where she sings, it’s literally, off-black Cadillac something, something. I don’t know. How does that chorus go? It’s her describing Macklemore’s car, and it’s so catchy, and it’s also super visually descriptive. You visualize it in your head and actually think of that existing.
Secondly, food is a huge cultural marker. At least in my culture, Filipinos, eating dinner or eating a meal is the one time of the day that we’re all sitting together at the table. And we’re all having time with each other and talking to each other about our day. For a lot of Asian cultures too, we all have our unique food cuisines. We do a lot of socializing over food. Yeah, it’s a cultural marker. It’s a big conversation point. I ran with it. I love writing songs about food all the time, and I’m super ADHD where I need something to write about or else I’m going to be all over the place. It keeps my creative process grounded. When we wrote “SNACK,” we wrote the whole song about a situation where you’re a lot younger and you have a crush on someone, every once in a while you’ll take a peek at that person and check them out. And when they look back at you, you turn away.
What if I didn’t turn away? What if I looked at you and smiled back? Having strong concepts like that makes it so much easier for me to write songs. I think for other people too. If this concept is not strong enough, I’ll start to lose the plot, and I’ll lose the continuity of the songwriting.
I’ve read at least, that you were raised in a traditional Filipino household. So how do they respond to the — I mean you had classical musical training, but when you said, “I want to make music with arcade buttons and samples.” Did they understand that world? Were they supportive?
They want you to be musically inclined, but there’s a threshold.
It’s got to be grounded in reality?
Yeah. Yeah. “You can get really good at piano, but please don’t be a musician as your career.” We never had a real piano growing up. We always had mini keyboards. I think a lot of my connection to Midi was not having a real piano, and playing on a Casio keyboard or playing on a roller keyboard instead of an actual piano.
There’s a lot of self-actualization on my part, “What do I want to do when I grow up?” My parents really wanted me to go to college, of course, so I applied to UCLA, I got accepted. My parents were super proud of me, and I moved to LA to go attend the semester and I dropped out right before the first semester began. I was already living in LA, but my mom was super mad at me. My dad was disappointed. But that’s when I started making beats, and luckily it did well.
My parents weren’t musically inclined. They were an immigrant family. first-generation immigrants. Came to the United States right before I was born. Worked their asses off. Neither my mom or dad knew anything about music. They noticed me playing on a Casio keyboard when I was four, and they’re, “Well, you can play with piano lessons.” That’s how that happened.
We were talking earlier about music and fashion and art, and how they all parallel one another. Where do you see the future of fashion and the future of music going?
I feel like everything moves in parallel with the age of the internet, things merge even closer to one another. Even technology is getting simpler. When I made my Midi Fighter controller, I wanted it to look as simple and pure and dumb as possible. And I feel other music tech and fashion are heading in that same direction, filtering everything down to what’s essential.
Shawn Wasabi’s Picks For The Best Filipino Food In Los Angeles (Excluding LASA)
This is my favorite spot in Historic Filipinotown. During the time when we were discussing the creative for my music video SNACK, me and my director Tony and manager Kelvin met at Boba Guys and ate here across the street every time. I always got the ‘LA-ing’ made with shredded chicken and coconut milk.
Chef Justin makes some fantastic dishes and is always so warm and welcoming.
This spot is a little Asian grocery store with a to-go food counter. They have some of the most legit ‘Filipino Mom home-cooking’ style food. I used to walk here from my apartment and get the beef caldereta with rice.
Max’s Restaurant is one of my favorite places to get chicken. The food is family style so bring your family or a bunch of friends! Order the chicken and throw the banana sauce on it.
This is a Filipino food to-go spot with a touch of young East Asian style and a bit of Los Angeles flavor. The bowl with the chicken wings is really dank but perfect enough for me to eat at the studio and still have plenty of creative energy to work. The owner Ralph is really cool, I met him randomly one time I walked in.
Shawn Wasabi is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.