Asian Rappers Flip The Hip Hop Script

Photo: Gina Wetzler/Redferns (Getty Images)

A fresh class of Asian MC’s are here to make us forget all about “Gangnam Style”. This rising rap subculture defies the “model minority” stereotypes by flipping the script on tired cliches, earning respect from the rap community by keeping it real, which has always been hip hop’s #1 rule.

Rich Brian

Brian Imanuel’s backstory reads like a hip hop fairy tale. The teenage Indonesian rap phenom grew up in West Jakarta, working at his parent’s cafe and learning English by watching YouTube videos of Childish Gambino, 2 Chainz and Tyler, the Creator. His only connection to the outside world was his social media channels where he would post twisted comedy sketches. His life changed when he released a music video called “Dat $tick,” under a rap moniker, Rich Chigga.

The 90 million views and counting video showing the nerdy, 16-year-old repping a pink polo and a Reebok fanny pack, while rapping about “popping shells” and dropping the “N-word”) ingeniously strayed the line between biting satire and ignorant mimicry. Labels and A-list collaborators came calling (Skrillex, XXXTentacion, 21 Savage) and now Brian Rich (he’s called his original alias a “mistake”) finds himself as the face of the Asian hip hop movement, albeit a somewhat reluctant one in that he would rather be considered just a “rapper” rather than an “Asian rapper”.

Year of the Ox

You can hear why this Virginia rap duo took their name from a Zodiac symbol. In many Asian cultures, Oxes symbolize relentless strength, wicked tempers and cultural loyalty. Lyricks and JL are all of the above, taking a classic approach to hip hop that focuses on minimal beats and rapid fire wordplay. Where they standout from flavor of the month rappers is in their real talk lyrics, which don’t laugh at or with racial stereotypes, but instead slap them silly. Their latest single, “A-Zn Foods” gives props to authentic Asian dishes, while criticizing cultural appropriation in the foodie world.

Keith Ape

Whereas most of his cultural contemporaries have tried to establish their own rap identity, the South Korean rapper has embraced the wild ’n out Southern trap trappings (groggy studio-enhanced vocals, baring gold grills, facial tats) of the likes of Future, Waka Floka Flame and OG Maco, who incidentally accused Ape (real name Dongheon Lee) of stealing beats and mocking black stereotypes in the video of his breakout hit “It G Ma”. The controversy hasn’t slowed down the rising star’s status as the next big thing, but he did quit social media to focus on his music. Ape’s last single, “Gospel” with XXXTentacion and fellow Asian rapper Rich Brian prove that he isn’t a one hit wonder.

Dumbfounddead

Jonathan Edgar Park is one of Asian rap’s elder statesman, earning street cred over a decade ago in epic rap battles that were posted online. Despite being rap royalty in the thriving underground scene, Dumbfounded describes himself as a “working-class rapper”, who didn’t have a hit that put him in the next tax bracket. Born in Argentina to Korean parents and raised in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, the high school dropout is armed with a quick wit and big picture world view, which served him well when he finally scored a needle mover in “Safe”. The viral video confronted Hollywood whitewashing with biting humor (Park’s mug superimposed on faces of white actors in iconic movies like The Shining, Titanic, Ghost) and a sharp tongue that was hard to ignore. Ironically, Park has branched beyond music with a recurring role on 50 Cent’s Starz series Power.

Jason Chu

A Yale degree and a devout Christian faith aren’t what you find on the typical rapper resume, but this hip-hop artist, poet, and activist isn’t your ordinary rapper. The Delaware-born Chu went back to his motherland to establish himself as a rapper in China before making a name for himself in the States as a member of the rap trio Model Minority Report with YouTube stars the Fung Bros. With a thinking man’s approach and a sly, playful, adaptable style, Chu is a storyteller who can switch from biting satire to spitting fire at the drop of a dime.