Dumbfoundead can condense a quarter-century into four minutes. Watch the YouTube video for the Koreatown rapper's life story disguised as a single, “Are We There Yet.” The track introduces Jonathan Park, born in 1986 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to a pair of South Korean nationals.
It describes his journey to Los Angeles at age 3, alongside a baby sister and a mother who was nearly raped by human smugglers trafficking them past the Mexican border. It charts Park's evolution from a freestyle king and stoned Marshall High dropout to a charismatic storyteller and star, selling out venues in Seoul, Singapore and Malaysia.
During two hours in Koreatown's Chapman Plaza, meanwhile, Park is stopped three times. He's something of a local celebrity in this part of town, and one group even asks to pose for a photo with him.
“Everything changed when I really discovered YouTube two years ago,” he says, sipping soju and OB beer at Gaam Restaurant, a phosphorescent late-night lounge for the upwardly mobile. “Success on YouTube isn't only about rapping well. It's letting viewers share your life experiences and daily routine. A lot of them have followed me on every step of my journey and feel a personal connection.”
“Are We There Yet” has racked up more than a million views since its release this summer. Some of its thousands of commenters are international fans unable to access the iTunes store, who note that they've ordered U.S. gift cards just to legally download DFD, this month's formal debut from the 25-year-old DIY rapper. For someone without a label, publicist, blog buzz or big co-signs, that's fairly remarkable. Park has tapped into the silent majority who don't read Pitchfork, who watch little TV and rely on online video for their entertainment.
Though Park has fans of all ethnicities, his core base is under 25 and of Asian ancestry — many of whom have followed him since day one, when his first freestyle-heavy, diary-style entries would depict him waking up on floors, taking meetings and attempting to further his career.
“I'd been freestyling at house parties and at [rap academy] Project Blowed since I was 15 but never thought that I'd do it for a living,” he says, fresh off a flight from Florida, where he played before an Asian-American student association in Gainesville.
DFD — which briefly soared as high as No. 2 on the iTunes hip-hop charts — heralds Park's emergence as a songwriter. He's both a goofy weed head quoting The Ladies Man and a relatable underdog overcoming poverty, romantic foibles and domestic violence. It posits him as Asian-American Atmosphere or Horatio Alger by way of Harold and Kumar. After all, until a year ago, Park paid the rent via odd jobs, from food service to Farmers Insurance to a stint as a bail bondsman.
The mastermind of Park's Internet strategy has been his manager and business partner, Brian Lee. A longtime hip-hop head, the Koreatown-raised impresario convinced the initially skeptical Park to direct his energies toward online video. This was early 2009, about a year after Soulja Boy leveraged YouTube into stardom but when most rappers were still releasing innumerable mixtapes rather than videos that offered a clear window into their daily operations.
Expanding beyond regular video uploads, Park and Lee began offering scavenger-hunt giveaways and even asked fans to submit their designs for Dumbfoundead merchandise. To cultivate younger audiences, they held a contest for fans under 18 to submit their best tracks. The winner, a 17-year-old Australian, who got to appear with Dumbfoundead on a song. Not only were the promotions cost-effective, but they also built a sense of community and made fans feel invested in the growth of a movement.
“You have to be more than a good artist to succeed these days,” Lee says. “The ones that really win are brand managers who engage and reach out to their fans better than everyone else. Touring doesn't mean what it once meant. Why play for 45 kids in Wyoming when you can put out a video and reach 20,000 people?”
Park's clips over the past few years see him smoking blunts, acting in parodies of The Office, spitting spoken-word pieces, even speaking at an Asian-American association at Harvard. His most popular viral video features him fucking up a battle-rap opponent with a Ninja Turtle kick. (It's staged but looks real.) He also has collaborated with K-pop star Jay Park and a former Ruff Ryder, Jin, gaining exposure to international audiences.
“We never wanted to marginalize ourselves by only targeting Asians,” Lee says. “It was about being the best entertainer he could be. By circumstance, a lot of Asian-Americans gravitate to him. It's a symbol of the times. Until recently, Asians were portrayed as the Long Duk Dong nerd scientist or the Jackie Chan–type action hero. A big part of why Dumbfoundead has been so embraced is that he's so different from the stereotypes. He's an L.A. street hippie stoner kid.”
It helps that Park's a rapper's rapper, with a flow sharpened in countless Project Blowed battles against former Scribble Jam winner Nocando and his Swim Team crew (Open Mike Eagle, Psychosiz, Sahtyre, Alpha MC, Verbs). Park has played countless free shows in Koreatown; he impressed folks at the yearly local Asian Hip-Hop Summit and cut his teeth alongside the pop-minded Far East Movement, who in the last year have emerged as the most popular Asian-America rappers ever.
Nor does it hurt that Park fits the hip-hop image. He might not be particularly large, but with tattoos across his forearm and chest plate, cockily slanted fitted cap and koi fish facial hair, Park has a look of vague menace. He never got past the 10th grade, and describes his adolescence as something out of Kids.
“My crew was black kids, Latino kids, even a Native American kid. We'd throw rocks at cars, steal shit, smoke weed and rap,” he remembers.
Last year, he and Lee founded Knocksteady, an online music and lifestyle portal that earns 200,000 hits a month and employs a graphic designer, videographer and blogger. An online merch shop sells stickers, beanies and shirts for men and woman. Recent podcast guests in their downtown studio have included DJ Qbert and Evidence of Dilated Peoples.
In addition to his rap efforts, Park has become obsessed with stand-up comedy, performing monthly at the Laugh Factory. His routine includes his favorite racist lines rapped against him in battles: “When it's raining cats and dogs/you run out with packs of sauce”; “You came here in an Acura wearing Nikes/and the chance that your family made both of them/is very likely.”
Ironically, the guy who grew up in K-Town with few Asian friends has emerged as a telling symbol of the Obama era. He hasn't become huge because he's an Asian who raps; he made it because he's a good rapper who happens to be Asian. He has succeeded by fulfilling the earliest tenets of hip-hop: being original and telling your own story.
“I never set out to try to get the following of my people. Initially I had self-identity issues. I wanted to be black or Latino,” he admits. “But as everything progressed, Koreans would come up to me and thank me for representing them. I started to realize it was bigger than me.”