Thursday, October 5, 2017

Bad Rap is a timely and often funny look at Asian American rappers who want to have a radio hit like P-Lo or Far East Movement do

Dumbfoundead in Bad Rap

A longer and heavily-updated-in-2020 version of the following blog post can be found in If You Haven't Seen It, It's New to You: The Movies and TV Shows Some of Us Regretted Not Catching Until Later. The 2020 book was written and self-published by yours truly. Get the paperback edition of If You Haven't Seen It, It's New to You now!


This is the 12th of 14 or 15 all-new blog posts that are being posted on a monthly basis until this blog's final post in December 2017.

Back in 2011, I typed out an outline for a graphic novel or screenplay I wanted to someday write about the Minneapolis rock music scene in 1985, and the story was to be told from the point of view of a female Filipino American Prince fan who leads a band of otherwise all-male musicians called the Beautifully Complex Women. In the outline, I explained that a rumor spreads around Minneapolis that Prince, the city's favorite son, is looking for a new act to sign to his Paisley Park label, and the Beautifully Complex Women and a whole bunch of other local bands vie, often over-aggressively, for the attention of the unseen Purple One.

I called the script idea The Beautifully Complex Women. It was going to be my way of exploring why it's so difficult for Asian American artists--whether they're the power pop band Moonpools & Caterpillars in the '90s or the Philly rap group Mountain Brothers in the early 2000s--to find mainstream success in the recording industry:

Bad Rap, African American filmmaker Salima Koroma's 2016 documentary about the various hardships Asian American rappers have to deal with in the industry, covers all those above questions and more in a lean, efficient and enjoyably provocative manner that makes me say, "Wow, I think I'll let this 1985 Minneapolis battle-of-the-bands script idea remain a script idea." Her film turned out to be better than my script idea.

Koroma's documentary was the 2016 film I most eagerly wanted to watch last year, even more so than a tentpole blockbuster like Captain America: Civil War or a critics' darling like Moonlight. (Sorry, Barry Jenkins.) Now Bad Rap is streamable on Netflix after a run on the festival circuit, and, man, the doc was worth the wait.

Bad Rap producer Jaeki Cho and director Salima Koroma

Bad Rap, which was crowdfunded on Indiegogo, took Koroma and Korean American producer Jaeki Cho--the (now-former) manager of one of the film's four main subjects--three and a half years to make. The doc follows four Asian American spitters who either have often toured together or have done guest features on each other's tracks.

The amiable and quick-witted Jonathan Park, who's now in his thirties, was an L.A. skater kid who, as a teen, stumbled into the battle rap scene--the Detroit version of the battle rap scene was famously depicted in 8 Mile--and fell in love with the art form, or as I like to call battle rap, "Don Rickles insult humor by people who, unlike Rickles, have rhythm." Park, a.k.a. Dumbfoundead, is a hero in L.A.'s Koreatown (judging from his music videos and YouTube shorts, he is to K-town what De Niro is to New York: the unofficial mayor) and in battle rap circles, but he's unknown elsewhere. Bad Rap reveals--and I wasn't previously aware of this--that Drake is a fan of Dumbfoundead's battle raps, which makes me like Drake a little more.

Drizzy in Bad Rap

Dumbfoundead vs. Tantrum

If, unlike the 6 God, you've never heard any of Dumbfoundead's freestyles before, the best place to start is the enjoyable Dumbfoundead half--and just his half of it because the other half is skippable and so one-note--of the classic Dumbfoundead vs. Tantrum battle, a viral video that's featured in Bad Rap. Koroma's doc finds Dumbfoundead at a point in his recording career when he's feeling burnt out creatively, and he's becoming frustrated by two different kinds of difficulties: the difficulty of the battle rapper trying to write music under a more conventional pop music structure and the difficulty of an Asian American indie artist trying to make it in hip-hop. So to recharge himself, Dumbfoundead gets back into battle rapping after a five-year absence, and Bad Rap follows him as he tries to regain his creative spark.

Meanwhile, New York native Rekstizzy, a younger Korean spitter whom Dumbfoundead admires, is unapologetic about embracing shock value in his music videos and is aggressive about sticking a fork in the stereotype of the emasculated Asian male and calling it done. He's fond of saying "Me being a rapper is offensive to people" every time he defends either his preference for a career in hip-hop (instead of opting to do the clichéd Asian American thing of pursuing either medicine, law, accounting or classical music) or his strange artistic choices. (Koroma's doc ignores the existence of Rekstizzy's now-defunct Gumship, his attempt at running an Asian American pop culture news site during the time Bad Rap was filmed. A self-proclaimed "Asian Men's Guide to Lifestyle and Entertainment," Gumship was a bizarre cross between Maxim and Justin Lin's YOMYOMF.)

Awkwafina, another New York native and the doc's lone female subject, wants to make Asian Americans--who are so underrepresented or poorly depicted in pop culture--proud via her irreverent music. "Visibility is 100 percent the most important thing for Asian Americans, for all minorities right now," says the rapper from Queens in a clip of her speaking at a Greene Space panel that centered on Fresh Off the Boat's historic first season.

A capture of Awkwafina, Timothy DeLaGhetto and the elderly DJ Chizz from Awkwafina's YouTube talk show Tawk

The Chinese American MC's cocky--or rather, cawky--and slightly dorky persona is a welcome contrast from the image of the submissive and hypersexualized Asian woman in songs like Day Above Ground's much-maligned 2013 single "Asian Girlz." At the time of its controversial release, Awkwafina nicely roasted Day Above Ground's stereotype-filled piece of shit by referring to it on Twitter as "this new... video by LFO."

Awkwafina is most likely the only Asian American rapper in the film your Teen Vogue-reading female or gay co-worker who thinks Too $hort is the name of a Fast and the Furious sequel will be able to recognize. That's mostly due to viral sensations like her video for "My Vag," a female response to Mickey Avalon's "My Dick" that ended up being a better tune than "My Dick."

"Her nonchalance is her swag," says Lyricks, Bad Rap's fourth subject/main interviewee, about Awkwafina. The Arlington, Virginia-based Lyricks is the only one of the four main interviewees I'm unfamiliar with. The most earnest rapper of the four, Lyricks has an interesting conflict--a deeply religious Korean, Lyricks is torn between his attachment to Christianity and his enjoyment of some of the vices that are inseparable from a hip-hop lifestyle--that the film doesn't really delve into as often as I would have liked.

"They want you to be that karate-kicking, orange Civic-driving, SAT-taking dude. And like, a lot of us aren't like that. I'm American at heart, you know? That's why I'm fighting for hip-hop. Because I am American. I'm going against the grain. I'm going where I'm not accepted. And what's more American than that?" --Asian American rapper Decipher, who grew up listening to the Wu-Tang Clan and recorded the 2011 track "Angry Asian Man," from Bad Rap

Much of Bad Rap is about how Dumbfoundead, Rekstizzy, Awkwafina and Lyricks are as American as apple pie, and yet, the people who hold all the power in hip-hop, whether they're white record label execs or black tastemakers, continue to either treat Asian American artists as outsiders or completely otherize them in various ways, like that lame industry excuse of "It's difficult as fuck to market you" or the corniness of "Learn Chinese" by Chinese American battle rapper Jin. That Wyclef Jean-produced 2003 single was supposed to launch Jin--a hero to Dumbfoundead, Rekstizzy, Awkwafina and Lyricks because of the clever bars he came up with while he competed in rap battles on BET's 106 & Park--like a rocket into the mainstream but ended up pleasing nobody. (Jin, who expresses some regret in Bad Rap over recording "Learn Chinese," should have been aware back in 2003 that a producer who took part in the racist Chinese restaurant skit during the Fugees' The Score is going to be allergic to nuanced portrayals of Asians.)

All four rappers are not signed to any major labels (they, like Oddisee, prefer to stay indie, although Dumbfoundead would like it if some major labels would pay attention to him) and are East Asian, and that relates to one misgiving I had about Bad Rap, ever since I first read about the film when Koroma, Jaeki Cho, Dumbfoundead, Rekstizzy, Awkwafina and Lyricks made the press rounds together last year. The film implies that longtime tensions between African Americans--including black purists who are fiercely protective of an art form that was started by black folks and are skeptical about any non-whites who participate in this art form because they have to constantly put up with one of white America's favorite pastimes, cultural appropriation--and East Asians are partly to blame for Asian American rappers not being taken seriously (outside the context of Bad Rap, these tensions became heightened during last year's NYPD/Peter Liang scandal). But I wish Koroma and Cho had expanded the doc's scope a bit and brought their cameras over to the Bay Area, where the camaraderie within the HBK Gang--a hip-hop collective that's full of black and Filipino artists from Richmond, Fairfield and Pinole and was the subject of lengthy profiles within the pages of Spin and The Fader at the time of the filming of Bad Rap--is the opposite of the tensions between black folks and Asians.

A few seconds with the HBK Gang on-screen--like how the members of Far East Movement, the Asian American pop-rap group best known for the radio hit "Like a G6," get to give their two cents about battle rappers for a few seconds in Bad Rap--could have shown that there's a different side to the interactions between blacks and Asians in the industry, and that there are examples of Asian artists not being treated as outsiders. Filipino American rapper P-Lo--who currently has a Bay Area radio hit in the form of "Put Me on Somethin'," a catchy collabo with Bay Area legend E-40 that's blowing up right in time for Filipino American History Month--comes from the HBK Gang.

Although Thai American YouTube comedian Timothy DeLaGhetto, who raps under the name Traphik and is a Wild 'n Out cast member, briefly appears in the doc as an interviewee (as well as in clips of either Awkwafina's non-musical on-screen work or Dumbfoundead's return to battle rapping), Bad Rap suffers a bit from the lack of a point of view from a Southeast Asian MC, and any time we Southeast Asians are downplayed in an epic and wide-ranging Asian American narrative like Bad Rap's three-year time span, it reinforces the misconception that the Asian American diaspora is only an East Asian one. (Actually, I'm way more offended, by the way, by an A&R guy from Atlantic Records being selected by the filmmakers as one of several high-powered recording industry representatives they bring in to candidly evaluate the music of Dumbfoundead, Rekstizzy, Awkwafina and Lyricks during Bad Rap. Atlantic is the same label that continually fucked over Lupe Fiasco and recently handed a record deal to the white "Cash Me Outside" girl. Fuck anything anyone from Atlantic says.)

Fortunately, Bad Rap doesn't ignore the accomplishments of Filipino beatmakers within the industry and includes footage of DJ Qbert's wizardry on the turntables from his days as a member of the Invisibl Skratch Piklz. Because without the footage of an Asian American hip-hop historian pointing out to an off-screen Koroma how Filipinos were pioneers, whether on the mic or in the lab, early on in the history of Asian Americans in hip-hop, the first few minutes of Bad Rap would have been trash.

Bad Rap's Filipino hip-hop pioneers segment

Bad Rap's clips of legendary Pinoy turntablists

And that kind of omission would have been so disappointing, especially since Bad Rap triumphs in a whole lot of other areas. For example, Koroma is astoundingly somehow able to take a battle rapper competition--the King of the Dot battle rap league's Blackout 5, sponsored by Drake's OVO Sound label in the Canadian rapper's home turf of "the 6," a.k.a. Toronto--and make the 2015 competition one of the most nerve-wracking sequences of any movie from 2016, this side of Green Room.

With the help of some canny editing and the wise decision of not getting a composer to do a bunch of on-the-nose, reality TV-style score cues to tell you how to feel, Koroma effectively makes you feel every ounce of Dumbfoundead's isolation at the competition (the only other Asian rapper on-stage during Blackout 5 is Traphik) and his nervousness about getting back into verbal fighting shape after a long time away from battling.

"Those [battle] rappers are vicious. They'll pick apart any racial attribute to get an edge in the battle." --Kev Nish of Far East Movement, from Bad Rap

Adding to the nerve-wracking feel of Bad Rap's Toronto sequence is footage of a cringeworthy Blackout 5 press conference where Dumbfoundead has to deal with a bunch of journalists who stupidly think that just because the battle rappers they're grilling get to toss the most offensive racial jokes at each other in battles, that gives them permission to be racist to those battlers in a press room setting. The press conference footage intriguingly shatters two different notions: the notion that hip-hop, a culture that a lot of mistreated people of color find to be an empowering one for them, is always inclusive--it sometimes isn't, especially to Asian Americans and anyone who's a woman (and Awkwafina happens to be both)--and the notion that Canada, the country almost every American liberal thinks about fleeing to every time a far-right Republican ballbag wins the presidential election, isn't racist. Canadians can be as racist as a MAGA cap-wearing Trumputo supporter too, and the black and white hip-hop journalists who act unprofessionally towards Dumbfoundead and attempt to make him feel unwelcome at the KOTD/OVO event in Bad Rap are an example of that.

One off-screen journalist even fucks up the delivery of his racist and hacky joke about Dumbfoundead's Asianness by referring to David Carradine from the Kung Fu TV series as "James Carradine." It's like listening to an uneducated and racist YouTube comments section emerge in sentient form. The situation gets so tense and uncomfortable that Drake has to step in and politely (and very tersely) get the dumbfucks from the press to back off from trying to roast a mildly irritated Dumbfoundead because of his race.

At Blackout 5, Dumbfoundead faces off against Wild 'n Out cast member Conceited, who rose to fame in the battle rap world while Dumbfoundead had his hiatus. During the Toronto sequence, it's nice, for a change, to be able to see a Dumbfoundead freestyle in longer intervals and without the blurry image quality and second-rate audio quality of Bad Rap's viral clips of Dumbfoundead's previous battles (the KOTD channel's professional cinematographer has a lot to do with that).

In "the ring," the black Wild 'n Out regular pretends to mistake his fellow Wild 'n Out comedian Traphik for Dumbfoundead and launches into a barrage of tasteless Asian jokes that can be difficult to listen to, especially if you're an Asian who's not familiar with the battle rap world (the kind of world, by the way, that, in addition to all the racial jokes, can get really homophobic and transphobic in its humor too). But to Dumbfoundead, they're jokes he's accustomed to hearing all the time in battles, and he doesn't get upset about them. (In the battle rap world, expressing that you're genuinely upset about them is like a sign of weakness.) In the L.A. Times last year, Dumbfoundead pointed out that there are good Asian jokes and there are bad ones, and outside the battle rap world, Chris Rock's controversial Oscar joke about Asian child labor was, to Dumbfoundead, "kinda wack, and super stereotypical" and was not a funny and tasteful joke. "I notice that when I battle rap I hear the best of the best Asian jokes," said Dumbfoundead to the Times.

That's why it's uncomfortable to watch the late Don Rickles targeting Asian folks in the audience during his stand-up act. Never in those ancient Rickles clips (or, shit, any other clip of a hacky '80s stand-up doing lots of Asian-bashing) is there an Asian target who turns around and gets to clap back like how, during the most crowd-pleasing moment of Bad Rap, Dumbfoundead overcomes his insecurities and just satisfyingly rips apart Conceited verbally after all the racially charged insults Conceited subjects him to on-stage. In a move that's atypical for a battler, never once does Dumbfoundead take his clever insults--I'm especially fond of Dumbfoundead dragging Wild 'n Out and referring to Conceited as "Lil' Romeo"--to a racial slur-filled place.

8 Mile may be the definitive movie about battle rap in the eyes of people who put together all those listicles about hip-hop in movies, but in just one sequence with Dumbfoundead at Blackout 5, Bad Rap winds up being a slightly more intriguing and accurate movie about what it's like inside the mind of a battle rapper than Eminem's hit movie. (Sorry, Curtis Hanson.) Also, it doesn't have Mekhi Phifer in fake dreads that look as convincing as Jerry Jones taking a knee.

The ample amount of screen time Dumbfoundead has in Bad Rap is evidence that Koroma finds Dumbfoundead to be the most compelling of her four subjects, and every Asian American rapper Koroma interviews, from Awkwafina to Traphik, is similarly awed by Dumbfoundead. They have nothing but praise for Dumbfoundead's indie hustle and his skills at insult humor and wordplay during rap battles. Bad Rap makes a convincing argument that the charismatic Dumbfoundead deserves to be as big a star as his admirer Drake or Kendrick Lamar. But the doc also suggests that sometimes Dumbfoundead himself gets in his own way and could be to blame for why he's not the bigger star he wants to be.

If Rekstizzy is the crass and loud skirt-chaser/party animal of the quartet in Bad Rap, Dumbfoundead comes across as a more gentlemanly ladies' man and a more relaxed party animal. But to Dumbfoundead's supermarket worker mother, who shows up to hassle her son in Korean during his entertaining 2013 video for "Huell Howser," his tribute to the deceased Southern California travelogue show host, that relaxed manner of his is too much of an interference in his work as a musician.

Bad Rap presents two different examples of Asian immigrant parents. Lyricks' dry-cleaner mother is the type of parent who doesn't understand her son's music and his decision to pursue a career that doesn't pay as handsomely as medicine or law but has learned to accept those things--for now. (At one point in the film, Lyricks is reminded in Korean by his mom that "You made a promise with Mom that you're going to do something you love until you're 25. After that, you said you're going to do what Mom wants you to do.") Meanwhile, Dumbfoundead's mom is the parent who's completely supportive of her son's choice to be a creative instead of a doctor or lawyer but thinks he should be more disciplined about his art.

"If a person wants to be successful, he has to give up something," says Dumbfoundead's mom in Korean to the filmmakers while her son stands near her and solemnly listens to her addressing the camera. "He's my son, and I think he's doing a lot to get his work done. But honestly, I don't think he's making that sacrifice... Those that are in Koreatown are very into hanging out and drinking. They always call him and want him to come out, and I don't think he's able to control that."

The nuanced opinion of Dumbfoundead's mom is an interesting departure from the more cartoonish, all-angry-about-their-kids'-preference-for-showbiz-all-the-time parents in all those semi-autobiographical indie movies from Asian American filmmakers about the immigrant families that raised them, whether it's American Chai or The Debut. (Sorry, Gene Cajayon.) But the star of Bad Rap's segment with Dumbfoundead and his mom has to be her multi-colored nails, and those assorted nail colors prove she's where Dumbfoundead inherited some of his quirkiness and sense of humor from.

Something in his mom's words must have struck a nerve in Dumbfoundead and convinced him to work harder because after the end of the filming of Bad Rap, he added screen acting to his work (he's currently starring as--what else?--a battle rapper in Bodied, Korean American music video director Joseph Kahn's latest feature film, while Awkwafina is also shifting to movie roles like her role as one of the all-female thieves in the upcoming Ocean's Eight), and shortly after Bad Rap's Tribeca Film Festival premiere, he dropped my favorite single of his to date. It's even better than his 2011 track "Are We There Yet." (Sorry, "Are We There Yet.") In fact, Koroma is so fond of Dumbfoundead's poignant and contemplative 2011 tune--"'Are We There Yet' was and is the spirit of what the film is," said Koroma to Vice--that she chose it to conclude her film before the start of its end credits.

"Safe" is Dumbfoundead's anthemic and witty response to a year that saw several Asian American celebrities speaking out about both the need for more Asian American representation and their frustrations with the blinding whiteness of the people in power in Hollywood, which has led to continual whitewashing (and wack Asian jokes during the Oscars). Dumbfounded added to the conversation his two cents in an amusing and visually inventive way: through the magic of CGI, "Safe" video director Jay Ahn and visual effects supervisor Alex Oh inserted Dumbfoundead's face into everything from The Great Gatsby to the Brady Bunch opening titles.

The "Safe" video is one of Dumbfoundead's biggest viral hits, eclipsed only by his videos for a collabo with a pre-Dre-era Anderson .Paak called "Cellphone," "Are We There Yet" and his remix of Aloe Blacc's "I Need a Dollar." The 2016 video is Dumbfoundead's way of saying, "If Hollywood's not going to give us juicy or non-stereotypical roles that are just like the roles white folks always get to play, then fuck it. I'll put myself in all their roles on my own."

I wouldn't be surprised if "Safe" caused Koroma and Jaeki Cho to think to themselves, "Damn, maybe we should have held back the release of Bad Rap so that we could have added 'Safe' to the end credits." The placement of that 2016 Dumbfoundead joint in the end credits would have resulted in a credits sequence as rousing as that time the Malcolm X end credits were accompanied by the anthemic "Revolution," an Arrested Development track I always thought was a more impressive tune than "Tennessee." (Sorry, "Tennessee.")

Bad Rap is precisely about the same things that are on Dumbfoundead's mind in "Safe." As Dumbfounded says during the track, "What you talkin' 'bout there ain't no space, guess I gotta go and make more space," and since the heated conversation about representation, whitewashing and erasure shows no signs of ending, Bad Rap will continue to be a timely film, long past its mid-2010s time frame.

In the push to "make more space," Dumbfoundead and Awkwafina (and after the film's time frame, Lyricks) wound up with joints that became viral hits, but not even a viral hit is enough for them. Throughout Bad Rap, the four rappers express how thirsty they are for a commercial radio hit along the lines of something like 2010's "Like a G6" or, to give a much more recent example, "Put Me on Somethin'."

Early on in the film's time frame, Rekstizzy hasn't been as lucky as his fellow Asian rappers from L.A. and Queens, so he talks Cho, who's his manager, and his music video collaborators into getting involved in an over-the-top video concept that he thinks is so innovative it will attract lots of eyeballs to his summertime single "God Bless America." Without a narrator who would have been unnecessary for the doc's easy-to-follow character arcs, Bad Rap raises--in addition to questions about the racism of the recording industry--the question "At what point does the ambition to create a much-needed radio or viral hit go too far?"

"Like you said, motherfuckers is gon' check us just because we rap. You don't think motherfuckers gonna check us for fucking spraying ketchup on a black girl's ass, dude?" --Jaeki Cho to his client Rekstizzy in Bad Rap

Rekstizzy's strange stubbornness about sticking to his vision of a July 4 barbecue where black dancers are being treated like burger patties while they twerk is the Bad Rap equivalent of the This Is Spinal Tap scene where Nigel Tufnel hears the word "sexist" in regards to his band's album cover artwork of a submissive naked woman on a leash and his response is "What's wrong with bein' sexy?" The video concept leads to a pair of provocative and long-overdue conversations I've never really seen in a doc about hip-hop before: Cho, who's worried about the optics of a Korean man doing such a crass thing to a black woman's body, argues twice with Rekstizzy about his idea and pushes him to "think about some of the repercussions that might happen."

Rekstizzy in Bad Rap

I'm astounded by how Koroma, a black woman, remained as objective as possible while capturing footage of the dancers at the "God Bless America" video shoot and didn't take five to go strangle Rekstizzy à la Burt vs. Chester and Chuck vs. Bob at the family portrait shoot at the end of the opening titles of Soap. "Dude, you really think [the people that are going to get involved are] gonna think this is something innovative? Seriously?," says an exasperated Cho, who becomes the quasi-hero of Bad Rap's video shoot storyline, to Rekstizzy. You can tell how young Rekstizzy is compared to Dumbfoundead and Awkwafina because the concept he calls "innovative" has been around since the early years of MTV, in the much less condiment-strewn form of wet-lensed ass shots during racy '80s videos by the likes of Rod Stewart and any white motherfucker who looks like David Lee Roth.

Cho has a brief cameo in Rekstizzy's final product--unsurprisingly, the video itself is not excerpted in the film--but he's conveniently not part of any shots of condiments all over twerkers' booties. The "God Bless America" video shoot storyline is wrapped up at the very end of Bad Rap by the film's most amusing non-Dumbfoundead-related punchline: Cho no longer manages Rekstizzy.

From left to right: Dumbfoundead, Awkwafina, Lyricks, Salima Koroma, Jaeki Cho and Rekstizzy

For a film that juggles the weighty topic of the exploitation of the bodies of women of color in pop music with equally weighty topics like cultural appropriation, stereotyping, assimilation and Asian Americans' struggles to be taken seriously as artists and creatives, the 80-minute Bad Rap is, fortunately, neither an overstuffed and unwieldy mess nor an undernourished exploration of those topics. "I hope that this [film] starts a conversation and maybe then another film can come in and talk about the political aspects and the historical aspects," said Koroma to Fast Company. Her conversation-starter of a film is so good it even stopped somebody from totally botching a story about Prince and the Revolution wannabes in 1985. (Sorry, '80s Minneapolis period piece script. Your time will come someday, fam.)

A new addition to Netflix, Bad Rap is now streamable on the same streaming service that brought you the racist-as-fuck Iron Fist and the whitewashed live-action version of Death Note.

No comments:

Post a Comment