MC Jin's Second Chance
Over a decade ago, MC Jin was signed to Ruff Ryders — the first Chinese-American rapper to approach mainstream success, only to vanish from the scene as quickly as he arrived. Now, after becoming an unlikely star in Hong Kong and overcoming stereotypes he helped promote, he's attempting a comeback. But is anyone listening?
The Chinese-American rap artist MC Jin is the last act scheduled to perform on the final evening of the Orange County Night Market, a series of outdoor festivals inspired by the culture of strolling open-air, dusk-to-midnight bazaars in Asia.
Jin, 32, bounds up the stage erected at the center of the fairgrounds. His voice booms from the speakers, shouting for those standing near the back to come closer, while he glides across the length of the stage to slap palms in the pit. He wears black and gold high-tops, black cargo shorts, and a black long-sleeved tee printed with a glossy white Mercedes-Benz logo across the chest but parodied by the words MERDERES DEMZ. A black five-panel cap sits backwards on his head.
A natural performer, Jin stalks the stage with charisma and confidence. Watching him rap is a delight. It all feels effortless, the sprezzatura with which he spits rhymes, the intimacy created between the rapper and the legion of upturned faces that Sunday night. Jin basks in the glow of attention. He conscripts the crowd in singing, chanting, and clapping along throughout the first few songs; he hams it up admirably for all the phones bobbing in the air. When he snatches one out of a young woman's hands and plants a kiss on the screen, she shrieks with glee.
Photos and video footage later proliferate Instagram and Twitter with the hashtags #MCJin and #JourneyTo1459, a nod to his new studio album entitled XIV:LIX, or 14:59, which references the dwindling seconds of a clock counting down the proverbial 15 minutes of fame.
More than a decade ago, Jin freestyle rapped his way to sudden stardom on BET's flagship hip-hop television program, 106 & Park. In 2002, Jin Au-Yeung was 19, the baby-faced newcomer on “Freestyle Friday,” the show's weekly battle segment for aspiring emcees. Swimming in an oversize navy blue sweater, the brim of a bucket hat angled over one eye, the 5-foot-6-inch Chinese kid from Queens annihilated the returning champ that first week, and went on to collect six more consecutive wins to earn a spot in 106 & Park's “Freestyle Friday” Hall of Fame.
Touted the first mainstream Asian-American rapper, he had the ears of the hip-hop world and the devotion of every Asian-American kid with even a passing interest in rap music. Following the BET run, Jin scored a deal with Ruff Ryders, the label that developed artists Eve, DMX, and Jadakiss. To say that hype surrounded Jin's studio debut is an understatement. Back then, he endured constant comparisons to Eminem, as much for a shared history of coming up the freestyle battle circuit and because of his race. Jin was another outsider trying to come up in a genre dominated by black artists.
You might count a handful DJs and producers — Q-bert and Invisibl Skratch Piklz, DJ Babu of Dilated Peoples, the Fifth Platoon crew in New York — but Jin was undeniably the only rapper out there calling himself “the original chink-eyed MC.” In a New York Times Magazine profile, Ta-Nehisi Coates once wrote of Jin as “the Great Yellow Hip-Hop Hope.”
In 2003, Rolling Stone had named him one of the year's top new artists to watch. The producer credits on Jin's The Rest Is History reads like a murderer's row of hitmakers — Just Blaze, Wyclef Jean, Swizz Beats, Kanye West — but when it was released in 2004, the record received tepid reviews and underperformed in sales.
“I didn't realize it, but when I first got into battling, as early as age 13, 14, that [freestyle battling] would be my gift and my curse. There's this stigma about being a battle rapper,” Jin says. "There was a chip on my shoulder, like, 'Yo, I gotta prove that battle rappers can make songs.'” He shakes his head. “It was just one more thing to add on to the distractions that pulled me away from being able to be truly creative.”
We're sitting in The Arche, pronounced "ark," the recording studio at the SEED Center, the vast warehouse in downtown Los Angeles that Jin's manager and longtime friend, Carl Choi, stripped and transformed into the home to the Great Company, the artist management and event production venture Choi heads up. The Jin in front of me now is toned-down version of the boisterous, ebullient rapper stomping around on stage at the Orange County Night Market a week ago. He is easygoing, and quick with spitfire wisecracks. He speaks fast, sometimes interrupting himself to clarify a detail, jumping forward or looping back to the topic at hand. Jin is always in command of the conversation, even while his mouth appears to rattle on extemporaneously.
In the decade and some years since his 106 & Park and Ruff Ryders days, Jin's star has blotted, if not faded entirely. Word spread that he'd quit the rap game and had moved to Hong Kong to capitalize on all that new China money.
Jin is back, though in truth, he'd never quite arrived in the first place. “What was driving me then? Fame, money, self-glorification,” Jin admits. “The difference between now and 10 years ago is that [I have] so much more clarity now. So much more purpose. The XIV:LIX mind-set is 'Yo, Jin, this could be the last interview you ever do, so be honest, be authentic, be grateful, be sincere. This could be the last song, the last album.'”
Jin and Ruff Ryders parted ways after the disappointing reception to The Rest Is History. “It was looming in the air. We all knew it was a matter of time,” he says of being released. A few independently released mixtapes came out to little notice. By 2007, he was living back home in Queens, the Au-Yeung family of four (Jin, his parents, and younger sister Avah) all crowded into a desolate basement apartment.
“It was the darkest two years of this whole past decade,” Jin says. “I was in the depression zone — and I don't use that word lightly.”
“I was on the verge of hanging it all up: Maybe troop on over to Best Buy and see if they're hiring.”
“I was on the verge of hanging it all up: Maybe it's time to really let this music thing go, and troop on over to Best Buy and see if they're hiring,” he says, describing his mind-set then. “At least I'd know I have a job, and it's not based on popularity and acceptance and hype. I just clock in, stock the TVs, and clock out.”
Jin moved to Hong Kong in 2008; he released a Cantonese-language album through Universal, which led to acting gigs in Chinese film and television. Jin calls the choice to attempt resuscitation of his music dreams overseas a “no-brainer.” He says, “There was absolutely nothing going on for me here in the U.S. at the time, career-wise.” Around the time, Jin found a renewed faith in Christianity. He says, “God really allowed me to blossom. To me, that was the biggest thing to come out of the Hong Kong experience. The last thing I [expected].”
Though Jin was a household name in Hong Kong by then, acting on TV and in films, hosting variety shows, cashing checks for paid endorsements, even appearing alongside a top government official in a state-sponsored holiday greeting spot, he packed it all up and moved back to New York to be a full-time dad to baby boy Chance, who arrived in 2012.
He quiets, and his hands stop moving; he's not scratching his head, pounding a fist into an open palm, shooting gun-fingers, waving a hand in the air while the other mimes holding a microphone. Mando Fresko, a radio personality on L.A.'s hip-hop station Power 106 who advised on the production of XIV:LIX, says of Jin, “He's fast at everything. He's fast at writing songs, fast at recording. Once he feels it, he runs with it. He doesn't second-guess. He'll hop in the booth and knock it out.”
In putting together the new album, Jin recorded 35 songs in total. Fifteen tracks ultimately made it on the record. The first single is “Chinese New Year,” a revelatory celebration of Jin's Chinese-American identity, the story of his family's immigrant, working-class roots, and a candid acknowledgment of the failures in his rap career thus far — including regret over “Learn Chinese,” the first single off The Rest Is History, and probably still the most recognizable song in Jin's oeuvre.
“I'm at a point now where I don't cringe if I hear 'Learn Chinese,'” he says now. “But I don't think there was ever one point when I was genuinely, genuinely proud of that song.'” He adds, “I definitely still cringe at that video.”
The video for “Learn Chinese” is a study in the hackneyed stereotypes of Orientalist fantasy. Jin plays two characters in it: the villain in an eye patch and thin mustache who leads a gang of karate-chopping henchmen, and the hero who rescues the sexy Asian girls from some den of iniquity deep in the bowels of a glamorized Chinatown ghetto. The concept is intercut with shots of Jin in a maroon jogging suit rapping underneath an arched, neon-lit Chinese gate, a diamond-encrusted “R” chain swinging from his neck, the famous logo of the Ruff Ryders.
Jin recalls the awe he felt collaborating with Wyclef, who produced “Learn Chinese” and makes a cameo in the video as hype man, bouncing and weaving with his palms pressed in prayer hands, and occasionally bowing, high-kicking. “If Clef said, 'Yo, you should do this,' whatever it would have been, I probably was like, cool, let's do it. Everything he's suggesting was gold to me.”
Oliver Wang, a music writer and professor of sociology at California State University, Long Beach, has criticized the song for its failure to actually break racial stereotypes of Asian-American men. “It's still wholly conservative in its ideal of what masculinity looks and sounds like,” Wang asserts. “The video still ascribes to all the same tropes of hegemonic masculinity that we're familiar with in terms of capacity for violence, sexual prowess.”
“I had this opportunity to make a statement. My criticism of it now is: You had this opportunity and that was the statement you made?”
Jin blames his youth and industry naiveté for the misguided execution. “I look back, and I had this opportunity to make a statement. That was my first single to the world that the label was going to get behind. My criticism of it now is: You had this opportunity, Jin, and that was the statement you made?”
He has higher hopes for the single off XIV:LIX. “I have absolute peace when 'Chinese New Year' comes on right now. Whether I'm in a room by myself or it's in a room full of strangers, or people I do know. Just that alone tells me it's different from 'Learn Chinese.'”
At least one critic is cheered; Wang writes to me by email, “It's like Jin made an 180. On 'Chinese New Year,' it's all about looking inward via introspection and he basically apologizes for his 21-year-old self on 'Learn Chinese,' which is striking since it's rare to see many rappers walking back their own earlier catalog."
Steven Y. Wong, curator at the Chinese American Museum, is more skeptical. Wong has written about the challenges that artists and arts institutions, like the one where he works, face when addressing culturally specific stories. He says, “Too often, our own ethnic communities celebrate the four F's (famous people, festivals, fashion, and food), with good intentions, to perhaps demonstrate success, acceptance, and assimilation.” In his estimation, these themes fail to present the nuanced complexities of a community of people, and actually perpetuate “the misconceptions and cultural reductions that prevail in the American imagination” when it comes to Asian-Americans.
The song hits three of Wong's four F's: Bruce Lee (famous people), Chinese New Year (festival), and wontons and dim sum (food). The musical production, too, grates Wong's ears, with its “guzheng- and erhu-sounding pentatonic loops,” stringed instruments that Wong dismisses as “a stereotypical strategy to incorporate an essentialized Chinese-ness.” And that “gung hay fat choy” chorus? Wong calls it “cliché.”
Other listeners are not as discerning and despite his long absence, still seems to have a core following interested in seeing how his Hong Kong detour might bode well for his revived music career at home. Not that he's overly worried.
“To me right now, fun is taking a drive to Home Depot,” he says. “How's the album doing, planning for this, got a gig there, social media, all that stuff is out the window. I'm just pushing the cart, Chance is sitting there. We're talking about we need to get new shingles, whatever. To me, that's living.”
The night of the XIV:LIX launch party at the Sayers Club in Hollywood, a line of a hundred or so people stand listlessly against the brick-wall facade of the nightclub, waiting for a stoic woman with waist-long black hair to find their names on her clipboard. About 50 have been admitted into the front of the house, where a step-and-repeat is set up next to a long wraparound bar. There are men in vests and shirtsleeves, and brightly colored bow ties. The more casually dressed have affected styles of studied dishevelment; ironic logo shirts, cuffed jeans, Nike Air Force 1s. The women wear high-waisted shorts, sheer tops, and heavy gold necklaces, eyelids glittering in iridescent colors.
At 8:20 p.m., guests are ushered into the black-box theater space decorated in the manner of a 1920s speakeasy. Edison bulbs hang from the vaulted ceiling. Half a dozen chesterfield sofas circle the stage, leaving a small aisle for the cocktail waitresses in black hot pants to deliver bottle service. Private booths line the periphery of the room, but most of the attendees remain standing in the aisles or leaning against the massive stretch of bar at the back, dimly lit by a row of wrought-iron candelabras.
Mando Fresko, the Power 106 radio host, commands the DJ booth, spinning a mix of old and new hip-hop joints by Common, Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Macklemore. Jin is somewhere in the room greeting old friends and fans, but when Mando jams Outkast's “ATLiens,” he gallops to the booth and bumps fists, then raps along to every word in the first verse.
Jin runs through all 15 songs on XIV:LIX, performing parts of tracks live, wisecracking with Fresko, narrating the story of how the album was conceived and brought to light. He is accompanied by a drummer on stage. At one point in the night, he indulges the audience with a freestyle rap session over the snares and kicks, and the crowd goes nuts for it, whooping and whistling for more.
The morning after the party, Jin is visibly drained. “I wanna go home.” Then, he softens. “That's how I feel, you know? Want to go home. See the fam.”
I recall a moment near the end of our first interview session, when he tells me that he's not as confident as the persona he projects on stage. He'd just finished giving a blow-by-blow account of how he came to win his first “Freestyle Friday” battle on 106 & Park, from the open casting in Harlem, to how he felt about his chances after the audition, getting the callback (“The taping's on Wednesday — that blew my mind right there. 'Freestyle Friday' isn't even on Friday!”), the story on defending champ Hassan who stood over a foot taller than him, his strategy going into the battle, down to the David-defeats-Goliath moment when the judges announced him as the winner.
“Sometimes, man, these different chapters don't always end up panning out the way you think.”
In those quiet seconds after this elaborate, detailed account, his eyes cast toward the rug on the floor, I glimpsed some vague, irretrievable sadness about him. The last thing he'd said, before we stopped recording, was this: “Sometimes, man, these different chapters, different seasons, don't always end up panning out the way you think.”
I never see that Jin again, not once, in the two weeks I spend trailing him at radio interviews, meet-and-greets, and club shows where he's mobbed by drunken, crushing crowds. (One determined young woman sidled up to me at Emerson, a nightclub in Hollywood, and demanded that I take a photo with her: “You're MC Jin's wife, aren't you?”)
The day of the album launch, the accompanying XIV:LIX merchandise also arrives in office: CDs with 15 different covers, T-shirts, embroidered hats. Jin studies the liner notes in silence, then quips: “The Great Company, with two O's, though?” A dreadful silence, then he says, “I'm just kidding!” The staffer in charge of merchandise wails and nearly collapses, while everyone else guffaws.
“I would like to think that XIV:LIX will open up a lot of doors in 2015.” A tour is in the works and he hopes to pursue more acting, picking up where he left off in Hong Kong. Late last year, he appeared in Revenge of the Green Dragons, a crime drama directed by Andrew Lau and Andrew Loo, and executive produced by Martin Scorsese. Jin's performance as a rookie NYPD detective is nothing spectacular, but he delivers his lines adequately and manages to hold his own opposite Ray Liotta.
I ask him if it's a goal to be signed to a major label again. A long pause, then he says, “That's a good question.” Another pause, and then he decides, “Yeah. It is.” His approach now, however, is vastly changed from the Ruff Ryders days — acknowledging that the industry, too has changed. “Now, I'm not in the mind-set of 'I'll do anything to sign, whatever deal you give me I'll take.' At one point, that probably was the reality. I was just thirsty for a deal, whatever kind of deal it is.”
Carl Choi, Jin's manager, says “some sort of collaborative deal makes sense,” which means retaining creative control, but with a major label's financial resources. Though Jin has been under Choi's management for years now, the Great Company is a startup venture; XIV:LIX was made in part through crowdsourced funding via a successful Pledge Music campaign.
Choi is no neophyte, however. He has previously managed another Asian-American rap act to platinum success. For years, he was inseparable from the dance/hip-hop group Far East Movement. The relationship imploded after the quartet signed with Interscope in 2010.
At the time, Choi felt strongly that Far East Movement should've gone it alone, without the mainstream label deal. “Their songs were getting picked up on the radio, we had traction with touring,” Choi says. “I told the guys, I think we can do this indie, but because I was trying to get them out of that deal, I became the enemy.”
Since breaking with Choi, Far East Movement has gone on to open for Lady Gaga, Calvin Harris, and Lil Wayne. Their hit single, “Like a G6,” has sold over 2 million copies. Kevin Nishimura, one member of Far East Movement, declined to speak on his relationship to the group's former manager, though he allowed that upon signing with Interscope, the label suggested a name change for the band.
“Right then and there, it really struck us, that's something that's not negotiable,” Nishimura says. All four members of Far East Movement are Asian, but their lyrics have never explicitly referenced race. Nishimura explains that that's partly why the foursome from L.A., with deep roots in Koreatown, have insisted on keeping their original name. “It's been our way of representing,” he says.
Jin, on the other hand, has never shied away from discussions of race. “People always want to debate, are you black enough or not-black enough, are you Asian enough or not-Asian enough. Like, how do you gauge that?” He chuckles, and continues: “These last few weeks, I've been at the OC Night Market, [which is] predominantly Asian. I'm there speaking Cantonese, being myself. And then there's the Christian music conference I attended in Tampa. Completely opposite, totally not Asian, a good diverse mix of folks. To me, that authenticity, people can feel it. I don’t feel like I have to turn off or on something.”
Though he no longer suffers the comparisons to Eminem (“Number-one reason people don't call me the Asian Eminem anymore is because he went on to sell billions of records, build this magnificent career, and I went the opposite way,” he says, with a wry laugh), Jin acknowledges that he is a “stan” of his, as well as Macklemore. But he distinguishes himself from another popular white rapper who’s been at the center of recent heated debates in hip-hop: Iggy Azalea. Last year, Azalea was derided by many rap purists, including Q-Tip, for being dismissive of the genre’s cultural roots. “I'm very vocal about saying that we have to remember hip-hop is black culture,” Jin says. “It can grow and evolve, yeah, but my own personal take is that we can never get to a point where we forget that, or not acknowledge it. It comes from respect, and I'm big on the history of hip-hop.”
A couple nights after his album release party, Jin is feted by chef Roy Choi at POT, the hipster Korean restaurant at the newly revamped Line Hotel. The comedic female rapper Awkwafina is there, eating dinner with Dumbfoundead, the Korean-American emcee who's now going by the stage name Parker. Both are featured in Bad Rap, a documentary on Asian-Americans in hip-hop, directed by Salima Koroma.
In a glib deadpan, Parker says, “Asians in rap? That shit is a very hard mix.”
“If you don't address race, then people are like, why don't you talk about the elephant in the room,” says Awkwafina. She adds, “But you have to do it right. It can't be gimmicky.” A native New Yorker, she calls Jin a “hometown hero,” and she remembers seeing him years ago, “rolling around Flushing with that Ruff Ryders chain, just chilling with friends.”
The two sit at the bar, drinking beers and sharing several plates of food between them. A few feet behind them, an Asian family tucks into their meal wordlessly: grandparents, parents, and two teenage daughters. Jin is on a break. In the meantime, the DJ spins old-school rap songs and cuts from Jin's XIV:LIX. When he returns behind the bar and grabs the mic again, one of the teenage girls, her hair dyed a shocking pink ombré, turns around in her chair and starts recording with her phone. Jin freestyles a few bars, then leads off chanting, “What's for dessert, Chef Roy? What's for dessert?” The entire restaurant chimes in; one of the waitstaff dances exuberantly for a moment by the host stand, popping and locking.
Later, Choi answers by handing Jin a round cake with white icing. The rapper grins, then looks around, and asks innocently, “What do I do with this?” His eyes widen, as if threatening to dump the cake over one of his team. Someone takes the cake from him, and then Jin runs off again, ready to grab the mic and entertain the restaurant's staff and guests.