Every neighborhood produces its own legends. Hip-hop’s hyper-regional traditions date back to the borough and block-party rivalries of New York but thrive even in this Snapchat epoch. In the East Bay, Mac Dre will always outshine Dr. Dre. Boosie might as well be the ratchet Buddha of Baton Rouge. And in Koreatown, Far East Movement could win congressional seats.
This might surprise you if you only knew the trio (formerly a quartet) for their 2010 smash, “Like a G6” — one of their three hits to crack the Billboard Top 40 between 2010 and 2012. In the process, they defined rap’s early flirtations with the then-nascent EDM boom and became the first and still only Asian-American hip-hop artists to see mainstream stardom.
Should you live west of Crenshaw, you could be forgiven for not knowing what happened next. Despite two follow-up singles, “The Illest” and “Bang It to the Curb,” that won Power 106 rotation, boomed at Lakers games and racked up roughly 10 million YouTube plays apiece, Far East Movement found themselves at a career crossroads.
“We had to take a break,” says Kev Nish, over bulgogi at a friend’s restaurant in Koreatown. “We lost J-Splif to family stuff and felt like we’d lost our label. There was no engagement. We heard the same things from executives — it’s too Asian, too hard to market, everyone [featured] on the songs connects more than you guys.”
The message from their label, Interscope, was as simple as it was untenable: Give us another “Like a G6.” So they amicably left and experienced a lengthy bout of soul searching. They debated quitting as artists to focus on their label/management business (Transparent Agency) and booming Spam N Eggs parties (presented alongside Tokimonsta and their management client, Dumbfoundead).
“We pride ourselves on being American as a mofo. We drink beers, grew up in L.A. and party, but it felt like something wasn’t connecting,” Nish continues, sitting next to his partners, Prohgress and DJ Virman.
“We always assumed that we were no different than, say, Mike Posner, but we started realizing that it wasn’t true anymore,” he says. “And when we went to Asia, we weren’t viewed as regular Chinese or Korean people, either. We decided that we needed to go out there and meet other artists from there and learn about who we were as people.”
Like the election of Barack Obama, Far East Movement’s ascent hinted at the potential for a postracial America — until the initial glow evaporated and those claims seemed absurd. Some saw them as a gimmick, or refused to take them seriously. Troll commenters hissed at them with language lifted from Breitbart News.
Yet their turmoil and travel yielded their best album, last month’s Identity, which hit No. 1 on the iTunes dance chart with zero marketing — and placed at or near the top of the overall charts in Korea, China, Malaysia and other Asian countries. On it, Far East Movement achieved exactly their intent: Create and perform well-written and irrepressibly catchy songs fusing dance music, pop and rap.
It’s the latest turn in a career that dates back to freestyles in the parking lots of Koreatown coffeehouses. Now you can find their picture hanging on the wall of the award-winning Park’s BBQ. Avatars of one of L.A.’s most vibrant neighborhoods, Far East Movement have created a thriving marketing and music distribution network with partners in most major Asian countries. They’ve solidified their legend by living up to their name.