[Editor's Note: James “Nocando” McCall is a critically acclaimed rapper, co-founder of the Low End Theory and founder of indie rap label Hellfyre Club. This is the fourth in a series of essays called “Unrivaled Under the Sun,” about his inspirations. Part one appeared in our Twin Cities sister publication, City Pages, and was about the late St. Paul rapper Eyedea. Parts two and three were about L.A. freestyle rappers Flawliss and Rhymin' Riddlore.]
I write this the day after playing a hip-hop show near Melrose and Vermont called Rhyme Fest L.A. The headliner was KRS-One and the bill included Haiku D’Etat, Planet Asia and many other hip-hop acts. I was the odd duck, young but not so young that I think real hip-hop is the only hip-hop, street but not too street to be fashion forward, conscious but not too conscious to use the word nigga as term of endearment or space filler whenever it felt appropriate.
I hadn't played that kind of rap show in ages. Just straight hip-hop, not alternative, not gangster, not ratchet, not hipster, not indie — just straightforward, unwavering hip-hop. Two turntables and a mic. It was raw.
It reminded me of past days when that was my only world. There was a backstage area lined with rappers and entourage, staff and the likes. Lots of different types of people — but, to be honest, there were not too many Koreans. Even though — as Chace Infinite, half of the mid-'90's underground rap group Self Scientific, reminded me — urban L.A. is mostly blacks, Mexicans and Koreans.
This is how it has always been in L.A. from what I can remember. Koreans were the minority amongst the minorities at rap shows in this melting pot — but nonetheless, they were present.
There have been a lot of Korean and Asian-American rappers that I've seen around in this decade, varied in style and agenda. These three kids called the Jupitersciples were absolutely mind-blowing in a jazz way; the Far East Movement are powerhouses in a pop way; Slant/Ted Chung was/is a West Coast hip-hop mogul; Misfit is a true G; and Mike B has the smoothest contemporary flow out west, in my humble opinion.
All these dudes affected the way I see race and its relation to media. The one Korean-American rapper that has had the strongest effect on me throughout the years — and one who's been featured in the Weekly a few times — is Dumbfoundead.
A 28-year-old Argentinian-born, Los Angeles-raised Korean wiseass. Jonathan Park, eldest of two kids to a single mother. An Internet star, local celebrity, a self-made man, and a kid who at one time just had a GED and a green card and figured out how to etch a living from art. This guy should've been rocking those “I Am the American Dream” shirts every day, though I'm sure his self-awareness and sense of humor stopped that from happening many times on the way out the house.
We met in our teens. I was 18 or 19 and he was 15, 16 or so. He and a few of his friends were the only kids that came to see my crew at a show in Mid-City at a spot called Fais Do-Do.
I was young and focused on all the peripherals, so I never really paused to notice that he was only Asian guy at most of these events. In retrospect I noticed him at Project Blowed a lot. The only Korean guy there usually. Then I'd go to a battle in East Los or the Valley and what do you know — he'd be the only Korean guy rapping there, too.
As time passed and Project Blowed started to envelope all who resided on its corners, most of us began bonding at functions and house parties and green rooms. In one of these settings I remember Dumb saying something about how he was proud of me for being one of the only black guys and Angelenos in the battle scene in the mid-to-late 2000s.
This coming from the only Korean teen sharing a blunt on a South Central street corner at 1 a.m. on a school night. That's that good irony.
This was way before Dumb realized that what he was an anomaly himself. This was before viral videos, or YouTube cyphers, or K-town club nights.
Dumb was a kid from Koreatown — which, by the by, is currently the most racially diverse neighborhood in the U.S. I'm sure it was already very diverse when he was growing up. He came from a world that was so far past labels that I'm sure he never looked at himself as the “Asian dude,” even when he was the only Asian dude in the room. He was just an L.A. guy.
Guys like Jin and Eminem weaponized rebuttals for racial stereotypes, planting them like land-mines for those who were silly enough to say an Asian joke or white joke in a battle. Even though he was probably hit with just as many slurs and racial disses, Dumb rarely did that. He was just a funny kid from the street, with a command of black gesticulations and Mexican slang, and what seemed to be an infinite knowledge of pop culture.
The year that Dumb shot from being a hood secret to a national name was his Chinese zodiac year, the year of the Metal Tiger. I never believed in the zodiac, not the Gregorian one, nor the Chinese, and especially not that wild-ass Aztec zodiac that a hippy chick from Petaluma tried to put me on in the mountains of Mendocino. But I may have been somewhat a believer in 2010.
That year, everything that Jonathan did was right and reverberated through the hip-hop world, past Los Angeles, past racial borders. I became proud of him. I was always proud of him, though now it was for a different reason.
A lot of people ask if Lil B is trolling or if Riff Raff is really “like that.” People ask why do Nicki Minaj or Iggy Azalea have to put their asses on display, or why do 50 Cent or Tyler, the Creator cause scenes. The truth is that these are intelligent and aware artists and they have just realized that good art may not be enough. Sometimes people just want to see blood.
It’s like that Dave Chappelle joke about people going to see Siegfried and Roy — somewhere in the back of their mind, they’re hoping the tiger might attack.
During his ascent in the Year of the Tiger, Dumbfoundead became aware of this truth in human nature and began to operate differently. He started to play with and manipulate the perception of the Asian man in media.
It started with an Asian vs. Asian rap battle that he accepted, knowing there were many other and more skilled opponents he could take on, but this would be the one that got the most attention. He shot vids in Korea, staged a rap battle that turned into a violent altercation with ninja kicks. He began to do things that were hyper Asian. He gave the onlookers in the coliseum the blood that they wanted — and were we not entertained?!
This all came together in the Year of the Tiger, 2010-2011. Maybe by the time the next one rolls around in 2022-2023, folks in this country won't have to be tricked into being a fan of a talented Asian male in media.
I really hope so because there's an Akira movie script out there and I'd like to live in a world where there's not a white guy playing Shotaro Kaneda. My heart just can't take anything that feels like another Spike Lee Oldboy shenanigan.