Repping Chinatown

Mainstream Americau2019s first Asian-American solo rapper battles myths, markets and the tightrope line between exposure and exploitation.

By Kevin Y. Kim Dec 21, 2004

Before a single album sale, Jin tha MC’s story already rings like a well-worn street tale. Born in Miami, raised on bok choy and Biggie, Jin (née Jin Au-Yeung) hustled hip-hop undergrounds while most kids his age were sweating high-school algebra. The 22-year-old met his manager outside New York’s landmark Fat Beats music shop, then—in the tale’s coup d’etat—announced a historic record deal to millions of viewers after he made Black Entertainment Television’s “106 & Park” freestyle Hall of Fame, having slain seven race-baiting opponents with retorts like “You wanna say I’m Chinese, sonny here’s a reminder / Check your Timbs, they probably say ‘Made in China.’”

True, hip-hop’s come a long way since Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five sent “The Message” out during the Reagan recession of 1982. Conventional wisdom holds it went West, swung back East and somewhere between riled a poor Midwestern white boy, Eminem, whose palatal pyrotechnics changed the face of hip-hop forever. But a Chinese kid telling another kid on rap’s marquee channel to ask his girl how “she had my egg roll and my dumplings in her mouth ”?

The New York Times, Newsday and National Public Radio recited Jin’s tale as the latest sign of hip-hop’s diversifying demographic. Rolling Stone dubbed him a new artist “[making] your world a better place.” New York grouped Jin, gay rapper Caushun and shul-spitting, Jewish 50 Shekel among a “new wave of novelty rappers.” Then came the cameo: Boyz ‘N the Hood director John Singleton tapped Jin for 2003’s 2 Fast 2 Furious, an update on The Goonies’ Data, pairing potty-moufed Southern rapper Ludacris with Jin, the Asian-geek-turned-rapping-mechanic.

Razor wit, Eminem-like flow, cocksure delivery—Jin flexed all the elements of a dope MC on BET seven straight Fridays in early 2002. Dope enough that Ruff Ryders Records, known for tough-minded acts like DMX and Eve, cannily defied its street-reality formulas, signing the first major label Asian-American solo rapper in a predominantly black industry.

But instead of trimming the tale’s excesses or tracing the racism constraining Jin’s every move, most observers turned to street-wise model minority myth. The protagonist was still stereotypically Asian, but this time the culture penetrated decidedly black. Asians were set against blacks (“Chinese in a black world,” one suburban headline blared). Hip-hop’s multicultural history as the dominant urban youth culture since the 1980s—from Caribbean tastemakers and white graffiti pioneers to Latino breakers—was ignored. Jin made a pat case for good, old-fashioned equal opportunity, democracy marching to a P-Funk-sampled beat. Few wondered why the industry likes to keep it black, why today’s paradigmatic MC is nine-bullet-ridden 50 Cent (instead of, say, metaphysics-kicking KRS-ONE) or how instinctively labeling non-black rappers weird novelties belied their growing conviction that hip-hop was everywhere.

"Not to take from anyone before like (Asian-American hip-hop trio) the Mountain Brothers, I can sum up all the ‘first Asian rapper’ hoopla in two sentences,” Jin says from a New York studio. “Whether anyone never got the chance or got jerked, it’s all because no Asian has yet made an impact of this proportion in the industry. All this criticism is because it ’s so different.”

Not just different—invisible, unnoticed, sometimes suppressed. From the more egalitarian underground to the MTV-driven mainstream, Asians have long crept through American hip-hop. Foxy Brown, 2 Live Crew’s Fresh Kid Ice (who made a forgettable album titled The Chinaman), Beastie Boys DJ Mix Master Mike and hip-hop soulstresses Kelis and Amerie all boast Asian blood. Japanese ethnically, near-galactic musically, Dan “The Automator” Nakamura produced two alt-rap classics: Deltron 3030 and Dr. Octagonecologyst.

That Asian hip-hop events occur daily in major U.S. cities is uncontested. That Asian Americans have participated in black-dominated genres since the 1970s is a near-mystery to most. And with mainstream ignorance comes historical invisibility.

"Jin reminds me of Chinese and Filipino Americans I grew up with in 1970s Seattle, some involved in gangs, sports, Kool & the Gang-era rhythm-and-blues,” says Robin Kelley, a Columbia University African-American Studies historian. “Their culture was distinctly Asian-American, but like Southern California Chicanos, it shared a culture with African Americans. They combined bits of African-American speech and style with a certain unique coolness. ”

Whether revolutionizing DJ techniques (Invisbl Skratch Piklz), producing Billboard chart-toppers (the Neptunes’ Chad Hugo) or rhyming their post-ethnic asses off (Lyrics Born, the Mountain Brothers), Asian Americans have helped keep hip-hop live for over 10 years. But till Jin, none tried to snatch a central spot in the commercial rap marketplace as a self-declared, clearly identifiable Asian American shouting out fellow Asians in the same breath as black predecessors and collaborators like Notorious B.I.G. and Wyclef Jean. None had outrapped non-Asians and defended Asian ethnicity on a major venue like BET—a tsunami-sized rejoinder to the collective disses any Asian American ever received for eyes a bit too narrow, skin tone too ochry for his peers.

"No one has been able to direct their talents toward this much exposure,” says Oliver Wang, a music critic and former URB editor. “Jin isn’t necessarily the best Asian-American MC, but he’s been able to work what he has further than anyone before. ”

"Being Asian, not to me but everyone else, sets me apart,” Jin concedes. Even more than prodigious skills, what sets Jin apart is his large-scale attempt to change how stereotype-suckered hip-hop consumers perceive an entire population as imitators, meek violinists and foreign aliens instead of creators, brash wordsmiths and native sons fluent in the native tongue.

"Will mostly white and black BET viewers and record buyers get over the fact Jin’s not black?” Wang asks. “Any rapper fights for acceptance based on charisma and talent, but for Jin it ’s also really based on race.”

Filled with Cantonese exclamations over a sooky-sooky beat, Jin’s debut single, “Learn Chinese,” was mediocre music that deftly preempted the inevitable assaults on Jin’s authenticity. It showed Jin attempting the unthinkable: assert a space for Asian-American identity in an industry where Asian Americans are internationally renowned behind-the-wheels DJs but locally obscure center stage MCs, multiracial artists forcibly identify as black (“I identify actually as Korean and black,” Amerie told KoreAm Journal, “but you know in this country, I’m a black female”) and where the most prominent keep their identity on the DL, whether by choice or compulsion.

"Lucy Liu’s an excellent actress, but what roles do they have her play?” Jin asks. “Beyond making a name for myself, what I’m trying—why success is so important to me—is to change the whole spectrum of Asians in mainstream media. ”

Tales of Chinatown

Behind the ghetto-fab sheen of Jin’s stardom is the mundane reality of his family’s immigration. His Hong Kong-born parents, Joe and April Au-Yeung, moved to Miami in the early 1980s, part of a wave of immigrants with declining fortunes in an increasingly harsh, large-scale Chinatown economy, on one hand, and a racially segmented U.S. labor market on the other. From the start, they toiled in restaurants, one of a few fields with a slim shot at upward mobility, slowly earning enough to open their own.

“ My earliest memories are being four-years-old running in a restaurant,” Jin recalls. Parents worked day and night, extended family provided child care and the bilingual only son spent most of his spare time at the family store, working on everything from deliveries to buying toilet paper for parents who spoke English as broken, eventually, as their American dreams.

“ Things were level. It was, ‘Are we going to pay electricity this month, or another bill?’” Jin says. When not taking phone orders, Jin attended North Miami Beach Senior High School, a mostly minority suburban public school. Most friends were black and Latino. His high-school sweetheart, a black girl, was a subject of debate at home along with Jin’s plummeting interest in school, work and anything non-hip-hop. After Jin told his parents he was pursuing a rap career at age 16, countless rhymes got ripped and pitched in the garbage. “When I told them I’m skipping college for rap, it was ov-uh,” Jin says.

The Au-Yeungs relented. Jin’s burgeoning successes helped. A few years after his first battle in a junior high cafeteria, Jin was winning modest cash prizes from the battle rap tourneys he entered, from Miami’s Grab Tha Mic to New York’s Braggin’ Rites and battles. Within six months of his family’s post-9/11 move to Queens to be near his Chinatown-residing grandparents, Jin inspired a website with over 7 million hits ( and earned his BET crown and Ruff Ryders deal—later touring nationwide to over 100 shows at colleges, import car fests and obscure clubs. Today, mom gives Confucian-inflected career advice while dad scours Canal Street for the latest mixtape starring his once wayward son.

More than a street grind to make one of Jin’s idols, the consummate hustler-MC Jay-Z, proud, Jin’s rise remixed his parents’ conservative aspirations at the same time it rebuked the Booker T. Washington school of assimilation telling Asians to go slow, get educated and quietly meld into the mainstream. But that commercial success and cultural revolution don’t easily mix is a fact of which Jin seems dimly aware.

"The music industry is a different world from hip-hop,” Jin says. “I know where to draw the line. If a label’s like, ‘Go on stage with wild swords,’ I won’t, that doesn’t reflect me. If they want my Chinese name on flyers, I’ll ride with that. I’m Chinese, that’s my name, I can meet you halfway.”

From Azn Pride to Chinxploitation?

From hip-hop’s beginnings in late-1970s Bronx to the present, MCs have done what DJs do: build an ever-changing cosmopolitan culture by sampling the clothes, styles, languages and music of the diverse groups sharing the same alleys, parks and streets. Haitian-American Wyclef Jean producing “Learn Chinese” and heavily black BET crowds cheering Jin on aren’t miraculous breaks from the past. They continue decades-old traditions.

"Black artists have always appropriated Asian-American, Chicano, heavy metal youth cultures—but it doesn’t get talked about that way,” Kelley says. “When non-black artists enter hip-hop, people look for the appropriation, assuming the core culture is African-American without realizing even if it is, it’s always been a synthesis.”

As of press time, Jin’s long-delayed album is set to drop in October. Kelley, Wang and others hope it refreshes a worn-out mainstream and reignites a cross-racial dialogue that’s largely flagged after revolving, narrowly, around martial arts and Asian gangsta lean. But if his first three singles are any indication, Jin’s debut, The Rest Is History, trumps the social reality-distorting market over everything else, pushing the ongoing Colin Powellization of pop: white neo-soul crooners like Joss Stone and half-black rockers like Fefe Dobson keep faces fresh, while the music and politics get nowhere.

Its hackneyed sample of James Brown’s “Blind Man Can See It” and Orientalized synth-line aside, “Learn Chinese” is a four-minute argument for Asian identity glamming up New York Chinatown as hip-hop’s new ghetto. Packing Jin’s lyrics are Crips and Bloods, sexual conquests and more gun metaphors than needed for the purpose of non-literal, bullet-laced boasts. Instead of tapping the despair and rage of class immobility or turning a socially critical eye on intracommunity violence and exploitation—as early black gangsta rappers did—Jin depicts, slightly tongue-in-cheek, a lawless world of pumps, undercover cops and plentiful weed and women. Asian identity is legitimated by threatening non-Asians to take Chinatown’s seedy rep seriously: “Come to Chinatown / Get lost in town, end up in the lost ‘n found / Eyewitnesses? You must be crazy / We don’t speak English, we speak Chinese.”

Toning down the thug factor, Jin’s “I Gotta Love” and “Señorita” reveal his other strategy for mainstream acceptance: to reinvigorate traditionally emasculated Asian-American men by denigrating women as one-dimensional accessories and Prada-groping gold-diggers. (Eminem did it more savagely, bashing women and gays lower than him on hip-hop’s totem pole.) Production help from Kanye West, one of the industry’s most artful and commercially successful, isn’t enough for “I Gotta Love.” Next to the rhythm-shifting sound collage of West’s own “Through the Wire” or the neck-snapping guitar-and-bass licks of “All Falls Down,” “I Gotta Love” sounds as flat and uninspired as its bottom line: “You never been / No good for me, I guess I was / Just way too ‘hood for you to be with.” Strung over a predictable Spanish guitar loop, Jin’s clichéd interracial romance, “Señorita,” explores little lyrical terrain beyond its moaning Latina samples.

To Jin’s credit, he downplays last November’s shooting reportedly instigated by gang-affiliated youths at a Chinatown bar. “There’s no beef. I didn’t know them, they didn’t know me,” Jin says. “It boils down to a young man trying to do his thing and not everybody supporting that.” To his credit, his “Learn Chinese” video subtly critiques Chinatown stereotypes at the same time it exploits them (and his raps on women aren’t nearly as crude as early mixtapes). But by framing Asian identity primarily in terms of street thuggery and male domination, Jin seems less interested in challenging hip-hop’s dominant paradigms than presenting yellowness as a spin-off on the bling-blinging blackness now in fashion.

Asked if he’s glamorized Chinatown’s ghetto qualities, Jin demurs that he was simply providing exposure to a little-known ethnic enclave, claiming such critics are the same impossible crowd crying foul were nothing Asian stressed in his work. “I’ve come to the conclusion I can only please myself,” he says, “and whoever else wants to come along, cool.”

Those words suggest a lot. Whether Jin’s middling work so far derives from his battle rap background, creative control issues or the bamboozling dictates of commercial success, his disarming, self-driven narcissism raises bigger questions. Before complete mainstream acceptance, will Asian Americans have to endure an era of full-blown chinxploitation—as African Americans did in the 1970s—to which “Learn Chinese” is a preview? An era of problematic, complex, English-speaking protagonists facing constricted choices instead of Chinese-babbling villains and cartoonish do-gooders? Where they finally get to speak, albeit through distorted reflections of themselves—self-empowered yet self-doomed, beautiful yet terribly misguided—and social lessons emerge between the lines of tired, degrading stereotypes? The pimped-out image of Asian America that “Learn Chinese” maps out might have to be exhausted in all its ambivalent, politically mixed glory before the street prophets can overtake the hustlers to tell America of the real Chinatown.