Latter-day philosopher Terrence Howard once opined that it’s hard out here for a pimp, which may very well be true in a general sense. But for someone trying to launch a career in hip-hop, at least in the world of Hustle & Flow, there’s no better starting point. Stepping on the scene as a diminutive, young Asian-American woman from a relatively comfortable background and style lifted from the Clinton Hill Salvation Army, however — that’s hard.
That was the uphill battle fought by Awkwafina, a New York MC featured in the edifying new Tribeca documentary Bad Rap. (She’s doing pretty well for herself nowadays, with a handful of viral hits, a steady gig as a commentator on MTV’s Girl Code, and a role in this summer’s Neighbors 2 to her name.) She’s just one of the many colorful, charismatic, and dauntingly talented rhyme-spitters appearing in this patchwork survey of reluctantly underground Asian hip-hop. The documentary shines a light on one of rap’s most underrepresented factions and exposes a thriving culture of wit, dopeness for dopeness’ sake, and fraught negotiations between the social and the personal.
With roots spanning from Tribeca Film Festival’s own New York City to the K-Town district of Los Angeles, a roundtable panel consisting of rappers Awkwafina, Rekstizzy, Lyricks, and Dumbfoundead, as well as director Salima Koroma and her co-producer Jaeki Cho, convened for a conversation with Uproxx. In between fits of laughter, the tight-knit group discussed being a minority among minorities, reading YouTube comments, and Chris Rock’s “stupid” Oscar jokes.
After a day full of interviews, do y’all get tired of answering questions about Asians and hip-hop?
Dumbfoundead: Eh, we can talk about it still.
Awkwafina: I’ll talk about it all day!
Dumbfoundead: I’d say it’s not talked about enough.
How do you balance being visible in the public eye as Asians in hip-hop and representing that heritage, with not wanting to be branded that way or otherwise put in a box?
Dumbfoundead: I think that where we’re at, you can’t really help it. If we have to be the dudes that get it going at this early stage, and make a change, then that’s what’s gonna happen. I don’t think there’s any way of avoiding that.
Awkwafina: I don’t think that our kids or our grandkids will exist in a world where we can be labeled as anything but an Asian-American rapper. There could be a major Asian artist, even a mainstream one on the radio, but he’ll still have that aspect about him. We’re a minority in this country, so we can’t really act like we should be here. But we’re American enough that we’re not just bringing Asian to the table, either. We’re bringing what every race is bringing to the table. That’s the plight of this movie: If we’re as American as the next guy, how come? Why is that? And I don’t mean that in a complain-y way.
Do you consider yourselves trailblazers, that you’re making room in hip-hop for the next generation?
Dumbfoundead: [Laughing.] Yeah, so that they don’t have to do the shittier shows! Nah, definitely. Of course we wanna inspire, and if it’s not us, maybe it’ll be like the next Eminem. And that’s happening. Because there are tons of Asian rappers, it’s not like there aren’t any.
It’s about getting the exposure?
Lyricks: It’s about being good.
Dumbfoundead: It’s about being good and the exposure. It’s about speaking as loudly as you can for as long as you can until you can hang with the best of them.
Awkwafina: My dad came here as a young kid. He also doesn’t speak any Asian languages either. You gotta look even closer when you think about minorities. We have different immigrant stories. My dad doesn’t even remember his trip to America, he remembers playing Little League.
Lyricks: As for me, I don’t rap with that in mind, like, “Oh, I gotta trailblaze.” I just wanna rap well. But because I’m Asian, trying to infiltrate a predominantly black genre of music, that itself makes it a movement. I just wanna get rid of the prefix, you know, the whole “Asian rapper” thing. I don’t want leeway, I don’t want understanding, I don’t want that scrutiny. I just want to be judged for my work, not for my skin.
Dumbfoundead: But I’m not fully on that. I don’t care. When you say “Asian rapper” I’m like, “Yeah, I’m easily identified, I’m that motherfucker over there.” I think at the beginning I cared about it more, but now I don’t care about it as much. It’s about me understanding who I am, and being proud of who I am. I don’t think I had that much self-awareness when I was younger. It’s like— What was that Peter Parker shit about responsibility?
With great power comes great responsibility.
Dumbfoundead: Yeah! I can’t lie, I feel kinda responsible.
Awkwafina: If we signed up for that, we’d all fuck up at the end of the day. I can’t save shit! I can’t save hip-hop for Asians!
Dumbfoundead: I come from the battling world, though, so I felt that pressure. I was the only Asian motherfucker in that community, and that shit was like the United Nations! It felt like Street Fighter, everyone coming in from different countries and shit! [Laughs] It felt like that, and I was the most Asian.
For listeners trying to get into this world that don’t know much about it, what would you recommend as a good point of entry?
Awkwafina: There’s an industry term, where they call a hit song a “rocket.” You need one of those if you’re gonna get in. But those songs are usually formulaic with the 808s, and the synths, and the little doo-doo-doo-doo [makes Lex Luger noise]. But you also need the song that’s gonna set you apart. Like my song “My Vag,” which was just a cover of the Mickey Avalon song, but it was still different from what that song had, and it stood out. Without that song, I could make as many rockets as I wanted, but it wouldn’t be the same Awkwafina.
Jaeki Cho: “My Vag” was major, Dumb’s record “Are We There Yet,” that was a standout record. Rick dropped a song called “Seven Rings,” which was a very technical hip-hop track that went viral.
Koroma: Hey, if you want to learn about Asian rap, just watch Bad Rap, because all the music in the movie comes from Asian-American rappers.
Awkwafina: I gave out a lot of tracks for free.
Dumbfoundead: Just watch Bad Rap.
Rekstizzy: I see some comments. Whenever I see an article about Bad Rap, I check the comment section. And people say, “What about this guy, what about this guy?” about Cool Calm Pete, the Mountain Brothers, Das Racist. Heems is Indian. They’re all a part of the history, and we know them and respect them. They’re OGs to us. This documentary is for us, but it’s also for them, for our friends. We all got different lanes, and some people are like, “Yo, you trying to tell the history of Asian hip-hop?” But we’re just telling our stories.
Awkwafina: I grew up listening to this band Blonde Redhead, and this other band Deerhoof. The lead singers of both bands are Japanese women, and they’re not on magazine covers as Asian women in music. They’re not being asked to represent as Asian women and all that because they’re good musicians. I think the Asian label is not always necessary.
Lyricks: We’re not trying to put a badge on and saying we’re the authority. If you’re left out of the movie, know that the movie is for all of us. We’re paying homage to everybody.
Salima Koroma: Nah, y’all, he’s trying to ask if you had to make a three-song mixtape, who would you put on there? I don’t know how we got here.
Rekstizzy: I’d say listen to RZA, any song from the RZA. RZA’s more Asian than all of us.
Like in the Racial Draft sketch from Chappelle’s Show! What’d you guys think of that, by the way? Funny, or over the line?
All: [overlapping variations on “That shit was hilarious.”]
Rekstizzy: People think Asians are so sensitive to everything, especially now with the internet. If it’s funny, we’ll be the first ones to laugh.
Rek, you mentioned before that you had checked out the comments on an article. Are you a comment-reader in general?
Rekstizzy: Hell yeah, I love comments! YouTube, wherever, I’m down with the comments.
Awkwafina: I had to stop reading the comments. I turned bulimic from reading them. [Sees outwardly shocked look on interviewer’s face.] Holy shit, I’m just kidding!
Rekstizzy: The thing about Asian jokes is that they’re so elementary. In battles, the humor is so first-level. When you talk about comedy, the great thing is when it’s unexpected or nuanced. And that hasn’t been happening for Asian jokes! That’s why don’t get mad that we’re the butt of the jokes. We love to be the butt of the jokes because it’s fun to beat them.
Dumbfoundead: The thing people don’t realize is that the same Asian jokes that have been happening for over 50 years in America, those still hit. Those kill!
Awkwafina: But New York and Los Angeles, maybe throw in Chicago, these might as well be islands off the coast of the United States. There are people in the middle of the country who have never seen an Asian person outside of maybe that one Chinese restaurant. How are you going to explain the Asian-American experience to someone whose grandfather fought in Pearl Harbor and still hates Asians? There’s a whole big plot of Earth that doesn’t like us, and will never know differently.
Rekstizzy: When I was in elementary school, high school in the city, I used to write Asian pride stuff on everything. But now, when I see other people repping Asian pride, they’re townies. I saw a dude stomping a dude, saying, “Asian pride!” And I realized that they need that. That’s all they got to hold on to, when you’re Asian living in a white town. We don’t deal with it as much in the cities. We just want people to put a little effort into their shit.
Dumbfoundead: That Chris Rock joint, that was really no effort.
Awkwafina: That was stupid. And you know what, I don’t think he wrote that. I hope he didn’t. And there was not enough diversity at the Oscars for them to be throwing us under the bus like that, either.
There’s more of a conversation now about diversity, and progress has been made, but the conversation mostly concerns black people in the industry. Do you ever feel like Asian men and women have been forgotten by the mainstream?
Awkwafina: This is something I wrestle with a lot. You can ask the question, “Well, where are the Asian rights? Where are our protests?” But you can’t answer that question without first acknowledging that the way black people have been treated in this country is something you have to know. You can’t fight for Asian rights without first fighting for all the other people who are discriminated against in this country. But then also, there are black people out there who may be killing it, but won’t give a shit about Asian people. So until you have a unity and an understanding of how discrimination works, you can’t say, “What about us?”
Dumbfoundead: There’s no solidarity between minorities. The Oscars proved that, obviously, and those jokes work at the Oscars.
Awkwafina: If minorities are throwing each other under the bus and fighting for themselves, you can’t possibly move forward. You’ll be stuck in the same place, struggling.
Koroma: Before I talked to you guys, I’d see a William Hung on TV and think, “Okay, ha ha, that’s funny.” Now I see something like that, and it’s whoa.
Awkwafina: That shit was a minstrel show.
Koroma: It’s crazy, that they put that on TV! But I think a lot of people don’t have the awareness that Asians have been the butt of jokes for a very long time. At this point, that awareness isn’t even there.
Cho: And that awareness only happens when visibility happens. Visibility happens when you have more executives saying, “Yo, Awkwafina, you can get that TV pilot. Yo, Dumb, you can feature on this MTV show.”
Koroma: I have people who have seen the film coming up to me now and saying, “I didn’t even know this was an issue.” So before an executive can move on that, they need to know it’s a problem.
Dumbfoundead: This is how I know there’s such a lack of representation in mainstream media. Because there’s always backlash, but it’s blog posts. Mad internet shit, but we’re not out on TV or on the radio. We don’t have anyone reporting from D.C.
Awkwafina: This was on that Chelsea Handler show, because she made a joke about Angelina Jolie’s Vietnamese son. And she brought in all these different representatives of different races from the media, and the Japanese guy pointed out that if she had made that same joke about an African-American child, there would’ve been pickets. Asian people don’t always speak up when we are mistreated on the Internet.
Is that a cultural thing?
Awkwafina: I think that’s safe to say, yeah.
Cho: The saying that my parents used to give me was “the nail that sticks out gets hammered in.” Don’t stand out, stand back. Be a part of the pack. It happens because we come from a homogeneous society. When you’re in Korea or China or Japan, we don’t have to worry about racial identity, we’re good. No one’s gonna call me a chink if I’m in China.
Koroma: And the reason why black people can speak up more, is because the experience is just so different. We’ve had decades and decades of organizing, the NAACP, protests, laws passed specifically for us to ensure that we can have a voice.
Awkwafina: Like, gay marriage was just legalized. Transgender people are getting their rights, though it’s happening really slowly. And we’re not there yet. We are not on that level. And so first, we want to get rights for the people who have been fighting before we even had a foothold in this country. You don’t want to say, “Well, what about our problems?”
You don’t want to detract from someone else’s cause.
Dumbfoundead: Yeah, that’s like some All Lives Matter shit.
I think I got time for one more? Around the room — have we all heard The Life of Pablo?
Rekstizzy: A lot of my favorite albums are ones that I hate initially, but someone like Kanye, I really respect. So I gave it a lot of spins until I got it. I gave it a lot of chances, and it’s been getting better and better, and now it’s my favorite shit! Even the lyrics — I thought the lyrics were trash, and now I think they’re hot.
Dumbfoundead: I hated it at first, but I really like it now, but not every song. I like the first few a lot, I can play those every day almost. I don’t know about the lyrics, though, I can’t really get into them.
Lyricks: I actually liked it when I first heard it. I didn’t hear it in a controlled setting, I heard it bumping in a shop somewhere. And I listened through the whole thing, and I told myself, “I know this ain’t the final version!” I was waiting for the final version to come out, but they played us, so I listened to it anyway.
Dumbfoundead: I think the features are some of the best verses.
Lyricks: After Yeezus, which was such a production-heavy album, he comes back with the sixteens, he comes back with the rhymes.
Dumbfoundead: Which rhymes? Which verses?
Lyricks: “No More Parties in L.A.,” there’s one.
Dumbfoundead: I’m sorry, I think that verse was weak. That verse is a mess, he sounds really sloppy on it.
All: [indistinguishable yelling]