2018 was a big one for Bohan Phoenix. Almost exactly one year ago, the bilingual, bi-cultural rapper dropped his most comprehensive statement of purpose to date, OVERSEAS, and in March put out a piano-burning, eyeball-melting interactive music video for the title track produced by multi-format creative outfit 18 Uppercut. Bohan spent a good part of last year in China, plugging into happenings on the ground in Shanghai and Chengdu and taking the pulse of the surge of popularity of rap in China, while at the same time maintaining a critical distance from the more egregiously commercial forms that’s taken.
Building off that momentum, Bohan has a big 2019 planned as well. He kickstarted it with the release last week of “YMF”, a video that sees him continuing a fruitful relationship with producer W.Y. Huang and taking aim at rappers who are — in his mind — juicing the novelty of Asian identity in hip hop without being truly committed to the craft.
Interested to scratch below the surface of this latest missive, I caught up with Bohan to take his temperature on the current Rap of China boom, the growing profile of artists like Higher Brothers in the US, and what else he has in store this year:
RADII: “YMF” takes aim at Asian stereotypes, like Asians should be doing math, not rapping. How do you think the image of the Asian rapper in the US has changed in recent years, in the post-MC Jin era, now that some Asian rappers are reaching bigger audiences in the West and there is also a mature hip hop scene in China? What have been some positive changes and what have been some negative ones?
Bohan Phoenix: The image of Asian rappers is still such a new concept in the West, even though Jin happened in 2003, 2004. It was such a singular event that ended so anticlimactically with him being dropped from Ruff Ryders, that people don’t even seem to remember it or consider it a thing. I think Higher Brothers are really the first to hit the mainstream, even more so than Jin did. With the help of social media, rappers are now able to blow up with the fans collected from around the world, but how are they perceived in the heart of hip hop, in the US? There is still yet to be an Asian rapper that has broken into the black-and-white world and been taken seriously. Jay Park recently signed with Roc Nation, but as far as I know, not much has come out of that, nor has Jay-Z endorsed him even though it’s Jay’s label.
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I think more people are making better music than we are aware of, because of lack of highlight in that aspect. I meet many Asian artists whose goal is just to make good music, regardless of race or color, even if the “blow up of hip hop” had never happened, [or if] Rap of China had never happened. Me and these artists I’m talking about would have kept making music, it was the initial goal before anything else. I guess the negative changes since the blow up are that some artists think this is the time to capitalize on “being Asian,” using names like Chigga, and other slang. There’s another rapper named Chow Mane, who has reached out to me to collab, and whose music I really do enjoy. But, for me, anything furthering the stereotypes is being counter-productive.
Chinese hip hop is a misleading title to me in a sense
I think the problem is that Asian hip hop is such a strong, and unique, and interesting selling point in itself, that a lot of Asian artists are just riding on that instead of making the goal to be making good music. That’s the only way I see that can gain the respect of the West, especially in a genre such as hip hop. Asian/Chinese hip hop is a misleading title to me in a sense — I see Chinese rappers out here saying, “We are here to spread Chinese culture.” Really? With what, hip hop? It’s black culture. It’s like saying a black person starts to practice Shaolin and starts calling it black martial arts. He’s just a black person participating in another culture, which is beautiful, and we are just Chinese people doing rap. We are Chinese rappers sure, but there is no such thing as Chinese Hip Hop, unless we are strictly talking about the language of the songs.
On “YMF” you also take on Black stereotypes, calling out Asian rappers who use the n-word or pose with chains or guns to appropriate an image pioneered by (mostly black) gangsta rappers. You don’t specifically name-check anyone, but Rich Brian is kind of obviously alluded to, and his label-mates Higher Brothers are always murdered out in chains these days. Any artists in particular you think are appropriating Black rap culture in a harmful or backwards way?
The idea of appropriating is also a dangerous one to me, I think what’s most important is the intention behind the actions. If the thousands of Asian rappers out there are getting dreads because they like the hairstyle, that’s totally awesome. But if someone is getting their hair like that so they can be “blacker” or “closer” to the imagery of a “popping rapper,” then that’s totally wack to me, and I’m certain that most kids out here doing that are doing it in that light.
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I talk about drinking Hennessy and smoking blunts too, and I’m not ashamed to say I only started doing that because Tupac did, but I didn’t want to be black, or be better at rapping — I wanted to be like Tupac. I loved his intentions, his character, his goals, his everything, and I wanted to emulate that individual. So it’s hard to say what’s being appropriated in a bad light sometimes, but stuff with dropping the n-word and having your name as Chigga is a clear example, an intentional attempt to draw attention to yourself. Sure, it’s smart marketing, and it’s 2019 so who cares, why am I being so politically correct? Because I fucking care. And I don’t want other groups of people to see “our” most popping rapper, and see that on his biggest song he goes by Chigga, and drops the n-word. [Editor’s note: Indonesian rapper Rich Brian originally went by the name Rich Chigga, before changing to his given name last February.]
Or rappers like Kid Trunks, who uses the n-word on a daily basis and is always in videos with drugs and guns. I think my verse is less of a diss, or a call out, and more of a comment on things as they are. I miss when hip hop had the use of commenting on what’s happening around us. I think that’s happening less and less, and I’ve had some people on the internet tell me “stop hating” in response to the contents on “YMF”.
I’m not knocking these kids’ hustles, or how hard they work, and they might think they are doing the right thing, maybe they think they are pushing boundaries or breaking down the norms by being Asian and dropping the n-word, trying to normalize it… But nah, to me that’s just wack, and a lack of awareness, and not knowing better. But who am I to say? Iunno.
In a recent Billboard interview you said, “I’m always looking for ways to add fun Chinese elements to make sure my music is not just a New York beat with Chinese rhymes. But, at the same time, you don’t want to overdose and make it too tacky.” Can you talk more about this? I’ve always thought the work of W.Y. Huang kind of hit the sweet spot between being recognizably Chinese but not like, super obvious zithers and gongs or whatever. He has a talent for subtly incorporating traditional musical elements while sounding fresh, and he delivers that on “YMF” as well. When you’re listening to a beat what kind of “fun Chinese elements” appeal to you?
Yeah, working with Huang is always nice because he has such a wide range of reference when it comes to music and sounds. He really knows how to blend the elements naturally, where it doesn’t stand out too much but still demands your attention. I think his production on “Product”, “Party No More” and “YMF” can attest to that. Scott Storch was always able to make ethnic sounds blend naturally with his beats, even though he was a white Jewish boy and none of the artists he was working with at the time were really ethnic (50 Cent, Fat Joe, etc). But he understood it’s about how everything sounds together.
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I think my thinking and process may have changed a bit since that interview, even though it wasn’t too long ago. I don’t always need some sort of Asian “ting” in my beats, that was the idea maybe a year or so back, when I thought it could help me stand out. But it’s not necessary, it’s about the song. But when there are Asian elements, such as instruments and samples, it just has to be done in good taste.
What are you working on in the coming year? What US and/or China plans do you have?
Lot of new music in 2019, after dropping so many EPs, finally working on a nine-song album with Jachary, entirely produced with a band, it will be a fresh sound for sure. Going to tour China in the second half of March, hit eight cities and try out some new music on the road. I’ll have Tony G and Jachary with me on the road. Generally though, just a lot more music, more content, looking to work harder this year and although it means very little in essence, I’m going for that Grammy 2020, 2021. Maybe it is still validation I’m looking for after these years. Maybe it’s just something I need to prove to myself.
Stream/buy “YMF” on Bohan Phoenix’s Bandcamp, and stay plugged in to RADII for his latest moves throughout the year.
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