Yesterday, we asked three questions of an Asian-American comedy and performing arts pioneer. Now, we’re giving a different kind of Asian-American groundbreaker the three question treatment—this time, from the world of hip-hop.
Scott “CHOPS” Jung made history as a member of the Mountain Brothers, a Philadelphia group that became the first Asian-American hip-hop artists signed to a major label. Since their dissolution in 2003, Jung has kept busy as a prolific producer for superstar artists like Young Jeezy, Kanye West and The Lonely Island while also steadily working on his own music.
Jung is curating and speaking tomorrow at the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival’s main event, “Strength In NUMBERS” (trailer below). In anticipation of his appearance, we asked Jung three questions about his role in hip-hop history, AAPI artists in the game and that most-debated of topics: cultural appropriation.
The Mountain Brothers were real pioneers. When you guys were first putting out music, did you get a sense that you were breaking new ground?
We had the sense there were not many of us, for sure. There were definitely groups we checked for, people like Key Kool and Rhettmatic (Beat Junkies), and especially Lyrics Born, who’s had great output since even before us. Plus, there were groups we learned about later like PACIFICS, who we dug a lot, and Jupitersciples, who I only learned about recently, even though they were doing their thing back then. When we started—we’re talking about before YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, even Myspace—it was tougher to be seen, be heard and connect with people. We were definitely egotistical enough to feel like we were doing something special as a group though [laughs]. We believed in our art and knew that if you judged our music, we could be compared with anybody of any background and hold our own.
The process of getting signed, and then dealing with our label, did have hurdles due to us being Asian. An A&R for a well-known record label (that we were promised a deal with) suggested we wear "karate suits" and hit gongs onstage. The best thing we did to get attention from labels was to send our demos in with a note saying, “You might notice we didn’t include a picture. If you dig the music, we’ll gladly send you some. If you don’t, pictures don’t matter."
Later, after we were signed to a different label, the president sat down with us and said, "Look, we don’t know what to do about marketing you, as a white group." Even just that sentence is all kinds of problematic. But looking back, I think some of our difficulties being on a major label were creative ones, and had to do with being stubborn musically.
Although hip-hop has become more diverse, AAPI artists still typically don’t get nearly as much mainstream attention as black or (on occasion) white ones. Having worked for as long as you have in the industry, why do you think that is? Is it a question of labels not thinking that AAPI artists are marketable to white kids, or something deeper? Moreover, what kind of change do you think needs to happen so more AAPI artists can get the kind of attention that allows them to pay their bills with music?
I feel like things are changing in society … younger people are more open and understanding than older ones, which gives some hope for everybody. As the definition of mainstream changes, so will the representation. It feels like businesses are just now learning that people of color vote with our dollars, and our votes do add up.
Your question about artists not getting attention is exactly why I wanted to do the “Strength In NUMBERS” project, to help showcase some of the artists I believe in musically who happen to be of Asian descent but I would enjoy listening to with my eyes closed. The project is just a drop in the bucket; there’s lots of us making lots of great music. But it’s a statement, something I’m proud to be part of.
Nowadays, of course, visuals matter more than ever, and an artist’s appearance, including their race, is right there for people to judge, prejudge, etc. But for me as a musician, it’s important to have that standard: if you close your eyes, does it measure up?
I know a bunch of AAPI artists who pay their bills with music. Are they gazillionaires? No, but I could see some of them getting there. That said, we still have a lot of ground to cover and break before even the most-talented AAPI artists get the kind of mainstream attention certain other folks enjoy. That requires growth by society and by us as artists. I want to be clear, though: hip-hop is a black artform, and I firmly believe that no matter your color, if you’re not reaching some black folks with your music, maybe it’s not hip-hop.
You’ve worked with a lot of artists as a producer, on all ends of the cultural spectrum and of varying ethnic backgrounds. When you witness contemporary debates about appropriation of hip-hop culture by white artists, how do you react? Given that you’re not black or white and have stayed prolific in this industry for almost two decades, do you feel like you have some agency in addressing people’s critiques about appropriation?
As you said, being Asian is not the same life experience as being black or white. But if you get to know people of different backgrounds, you find out what people think about each other, especially when the other is not around. Mostly what I see is just lack of understanding, lack of information. Again, hopefully that’s changing.
But about appropriation, I saw a post somewhere online that summed it up pretty well. Appropriation is when you work hard to create a project all semester, and the teacher gives you a C minus … and another student copies your work, puts in minimal effort, misses important details, doesn’t credit any sources, and they get an A. That’s not okay. Culture is made of love, respect, originality, creativity and self-expression, and it has meaning and history. As the world becomes more connected, we all pick up influences from different places. But there’s a big difference between influence and shallow imitation. I believe people can sense which is which, even at a gut level, but especially if they know what to look for. Or listen for.