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Not Just an “Asian Rapper”: MC Jin Talks Identity, Politics, and China Behind New Standup Special

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MC Jin is online. He has 76,000 followers on Twitter and 329k on Instagram. He has over 100,000 YouTube subscribers, and his brand-new, self-released standup special, What a Time to Be Asian, has already racked up 14,000 views there. “Social media has changed everything,” Jin tells RADII over Skype from his home in New York. “It’s changed the way all of us live our lives… [it’s] the most amazing as well as detrimental thing to happen to humanity.”

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Jin has, in fact, always been online. The Miami-born rapper rose to national prominence in 2001 through an epic, seven-week run as the champ of BET show 106 & Park‘s “Freestyle Friday” battle contest. That led to a deal with Ruff Ryders for his debut album, The Rest is History, which was released in 2004 after some delays. Jin broke with the label in 2005 and made the prescient move of using the social network du jour, MySpace, to build a direct connection with his fans. Speaking about his career-spanning, diehard fans, whom he calls “Jinatics,” the 37-year-old says, “They were with me through the Ruff Ryder era, and even when I split with Ruff Ryder and was like, ‘I’m just gonna release an album on my MySpace page, just Paypal me $10 and I’ll send you an album,’ these guys were there for that.”

Jin’s career has been through subsequent peaks and valleys: he achieved some fame in Hong Kong in 2008 on the back of an all-Cantonese album called ABC (an acronym meaning “American-Born Chinese”), and started toying with standup back in New York in 2015. Most recently he’s become big in China, picking up Mandarin to compete on season 1 of breakout iQIYI show The Rap of China as the masked HipHopMan and, earlier this year, on the Chinese version of Masked Singer.

But the most recent thing for Jinatics to stan is What a Time to Be Asian, a feature-length standup special that Jin recorded over the summer at New York’s Museum of Chinese in America, and self-released on Thanksgiving. He kicks off the special by noting something we’ve been covering in depth here at RADII: the global rise of Asian rap. “Make some noise if MC Jin happens to be your favorite Asian rapper,” he tells the crowd, before following that up with: “I just love the idea that we’re in a time where I don’t have to be your favorite. There’s options.”

Name-checking Democratic candidate Andrew Yang — Jin’s a fan — the rapper-slash-comedian tells RADII of his new special:

“It definitely has a celebratory vibe to it. For me, on a personal note, I look back on my own journey, both on the career side and just as a young man, and particularly a young Asian man. I can say that within my 30-something years of life, I’ve seen some pretty wild twists and turns, whether it’s on the entertainment front or the social-political front.”

Here are some highlights from RADII’s recent hour-long conversation with Jin, who talks like he raps: quick, bright, and full of positive energy…

On the New Generation

MC Jin: I’m 37 this year — if we go back 20 years to when I was 16, 17, and basically trying to make my way into the rap game, it was absolutely unheard of. It was like, “Yo, nobody ever seen an Asian rapper. Nobody wants to hear an Asian rapper. Nobody cares about Asian rappers. The thought of an Asian rapper is so outrageous and farfetched, why are we even talking about Asian rappers?”

20 years ago, when I was 16, 17, and basically trying to make my way into the rap game, it was absolutely unheard of. It was like, “Yo, nobody ever seen an Asian rapper. Nobody wants to hear an Asian rapper. Nobody cares about Asian rappers.”

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And here we are now two decades from that. Every person that you just named — Rich Brian to Bohan Phoenix to Higher Brothers — these are all individuals that not only am I aware of their growth and what they’re doing with their artistry, but in some cases I’ve met and even interacted and collaborated with, and there’s definitely an acknowledgement from all these individuals that, “We’re aware of what you did, Jin.” And I myself am always hesitant about, “Oh, who paved the way? Who didn’t pave the way? Who’s the trailblazer?” I just feel like stuff like that, even the simple term “pioneer,” I think it’s only meaningful when it’s a term that someone else uses to describe you, as opposed to you using it to describe yourself.

So for all of the ones that are like, “Man, Jin, you kicked down doors,” or “Jin, we used to watch you and we used to listen to your freestyles and we saw you come into the game and that kinda let us know ‘Oh, it’s doable and not outrageous for me to pursue this path’” — I love and cherish those types of sentiments, in the sense that it’s both encouraging and humbling. I would hope that maybe 10 years from now, this won’t even be a a topic of discussion because it’ll just be so prevalent and of the norm that we won’t have to be like, “Oh you know who’s really making waves in the Asian community?”

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On Identity

To me, hip hop culture has always been about identity. It’s been about your own heritage — you bringing that to the table. Whatever your experience is. And that can be as it pertains to your economic background, your cultural background, anything that pertains to your identity should be at the forefront. At the same time, I think the trick, specifically as an Asian-American artist in my case, [is that] you always want to find a peaceful balance within yourself where you’re like, “Yes, I’m an Asian artist, but I don’t want to be just a dope Asian artist.” I’d love to be just recognized for my art as well, as opposed to, “Oh yeah, he’s pretty dope for an Asian.”

But at the same time, anyone that says, “Yo man, he’s a dope Asian rapper” — I’m not gonna refute it. I’m not gonna say, “Uh, please refrain from calling me an Asian rapper.” It’s all about internal balance. Every person is looking for their own peace of mind in that way.

Yes, I’m an Asian artist, but I don’t want to be just a dope Asian artist. I’d love to be just recognized for my art as well, as opposed to, “Oh yeah, he’s pretty dope for an Asian.”

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On Social Media

Social media has changed everything. It’s changed the way all of us live our lives, and that’s the bottom line. But pertaining specifically to hip hop and me and Jin and my experience — I’m legitimately curious, if I was doing my seven-week stint on 106 & Park and there was this thing called social media, what would the hashtag be? Would it even be trending? You never know.

I think where I stand these days is trying to find the balance. This is kind of my love-hate relationship with social media: it’s great for anyone that’s doing any type of art or any business, because literally at the touch of your finger you can connect with your fanbase. You can connect with your demographic, your clientele. But it’s really, really — and I may be beating a dead horse here — it’s really scarily consuming if you let it be. Meaning, you can easily fall into the rabbit hole and be completely consumed by it, and think that to some degree that that’s reality. That online is reality.

I enjoy the social media world. I enjoy the interaction. Especially when I’m posting these videos like, “Hey! Watch me react to my own freestyle battles,” and “Where were you when this was on TV 15 years ago?” And then I get to connect with kids who are like, “Oh you know, man I wasn’t even born when this came out, Jin!” But then there are people who are like, “I was in 5th grade when I watched this run right here. We used to run home after school!” So on that note, social media is the most amazing as well as detrimental thing to happen to humanity, I guess you could say.

WATCH: MC Jin Reacting to Himself on Freestyle Friday From 2002

On 106 & Park and The Rap of China

In terms of production and participating in shows — from “Freestyle Friday” and then the huge leap to doing Rap of China and then Masked Singer… For me the whole China experience has been eye-opening, because it’s only really been the last two years. The scale of that, the production scale, blew my mind. I went into the whole Rap of China thing just as opened-minded as I could be in terms of, “How far will this go?” I think the main agenda when I really decided, “Hey, I’m gonna partake in this” was really more for the personal experience. It was like, “Man, I might not even make it past this first round. And if I don’t, then I’m probably not gonna take my mask off, truth be told.”

But in terms of just being in the midst of it and looking at the scale production-wise and the resources that they put into it, I think that spoke a lot to why the first season was what the first season was. It was something that China had never seen.

Let me clarify: there’s been hip hop in China since forever. There’s been a hip hop community, there’ve been artists, there’ve been rap battles. It’s been there. Iron Mic has been in China a decade plus, and the people behind Iron Mic have been in China doing shows and mixtapes and albums and music festivals since the beginning.

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But I think everybody, whether you’re part of the purists, whether you’re part of the new age Chinese trap group or whoever — everybody can agree that prior to Rap of China, there had not been something that was centralized around hip hop and hip hop culture on that large of a scale, and really pushing it into the public eye. So one, it was fresh and had never been seen. And two, iQIYI, for a lack of better words, they didn’t cut any corners in terms of making it a spectacle. And I mean a spectacle in a good way, I guess.

On #YangGang

I think there’s two levels that I look at it at. I like to be very transparent and blunt about it. From the superficial level, yeah, I would not shy away at all from the fact that there’s an appeal for me as Jin, an Asian-American, that there is potential for us to induct our first Asian-American president. So that’s the surface level. That’s the superficial stuff. And I’ll even say that I’m all about that.

However, I would also add on to that, that by no means would I be like, “Yo! This is the guy” just because he’s Asian, if I didn’t feel like he also brought something to the table in regards to the policy side, the platform side. And I said this 11 years ago in 2008, when I became very vocal and rallying behind President Barack Obama. At that time, I even said, man, I think there’s an excitement about it, and I looked into the policies, but I would never get to the point where I’d go, “I’m a political expert now. I’m ready to debate anybody about his policy.” There’s no real one candidate that I feel you can ever say, “Yeah, I believe in every single thing that this guy or woman stands for.” I think you just look for the one that speaks to you the most.

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But that aside, I [support] Andrew’s overall viewpoint in terms of how technology is shifting the way we live. Not just America, but the whole globe. And he has a way to tie that into universal basic income, into healthcare, into a variety of things. Technology being able to benefit as well as sometimes do harm to us as humans.

On Fatherhood

We have two boys now. Chance the son is seven and the little brother, Justice, is a little over six months now.

My natural thing is, I think about my own experience. I look at where I’m at now and if I were to assess, “Man, Jin, alright. Forget about your kids for a second. You yourself, Jin. How in touch are you with your own cultural roots and heritage and your ethnicity?” If we look at just the basic level of things, just being able to speak the language — for the most part I grew up speaking Cantonese, I’ve always understood Cantonese and I could engage in a conversation in Cantonese. But there there was definitely a high learning curve when I went to Hong Kong. Living in Hong Kong for the few years that I did really reinforced my Cantonese.

And then Mandarin is really the only last two, three years. I went into the first episode of Rap of China really only being able to say, “Hi, my name is HipHopMan and I love hip hop.” So the language, or even being in tune with Chinese culture, like being respectful to your elders. I’m not saying every single Chinese person or young person is respectful, but I think there’s definitely this notion that if you grew up in a somewhat stable household, regardless of what social-economic status you were in, it was just a standard approach to be respectful to your elders. Not only your own mom and dad and grandma and grandpa and uncles and aunties, but elders in general. Just this basic respect.

So these are the things that I think are the most important to me as I look at Chance and Justice. For the language thing, we try to speak as much Cantonese with them at home as possible. And that’s primarily because all of the grandparents speak Cantonese, it’s purely for communication between the grand kids and grandma and grandpa.

On China

It’s the newest chapter. Prior to Rap of China, I had been to China before for performances, more for work than for leisure. Prior to Rap of China I never had the opportunity to say I was gonna go to Beijing and just sightsee. Even the year that Rap of China happened, I was in a place where I was really trying to figure things out, both career-wise and family-wise.

I always had this notion of what I thought China was, and then going out there and being out there and working out there and connecting with actual people that live out there, it opened my eyes.

When I say Rap of China, I’m taking about the program specifically, but in terms of the China chapter and going out there and exploring both career-wise and as an individual, man — it’s been super rewarding. I think I’ve learned a lot more about myself. I’ve learned a lot more about what I’m comfortable with, what are the things I feel I need to improve on as far as my overall artistry. Prior to this chapter, I think I always had this notion of what I thought China was, and then going out there and being out there and working out there and connecting with actual people that live out there, it opened my eyes. And it made me see it for more than maybe I used to see it on TV and films.

It’s been eye-opening.

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Josh Feola
Josh Feola is a Shanghai-based writer and musician, and RADII's Culture Editor. His coverage of Chinese music and art has appeared in The Wire, Dazed, Artsy, LEAP, Tiny Mix Tapes, and more. He's been active in China's underground music scene since 2010 via his booking platform pangbianr.com, and is a former member of Beijing bands Chui Wan, SUBS, and Vagus Nerve.