The scene used to be tight, Kev Nish remembers. Beats thumped through the concrete walls. Skinny girls in four-inch pumps poured out at three in the morning, stumbling and giggling off into the Koreatown night. The hum of the blue neon — spelling VIBE in capital letters — whirred all night, seven nights a week.
All that had changed.
There’s a type of Korean clubbing, Kev explains, called “booking,” when girls get “sweet comp tables” in exchange for “getting dragged around to different guys’ tables and saying hi.” Kev — aka Kevin Nishimura of electro-rap quartet Far East Movement — describes it as an old custom but not something modern girls would continue to tolerate.
“The Asian-Americans started realizing, ‘Why I gotta get dragged around when I can go to Hollywood and bottle it up, be my own woman?’?”
The girls were done with booking — which meant they were done with K-Town. And no girls in a club means no guys in a club.
One by one, the clubs of Koreatown started to die.
While this was happening, Far East Movement (“FM” to their fans) were overseas, promoting their global smash “Like a G6,” touring with Rihanna and LMFAO. When people asked where they were from, they said “downtown L.A.” If they said “Koreatown,” people thought they meant Korea.
Then, finally, FM came home.
The sight of their former haunts empty or shuttered spurred something in them. Suddenly the self-described “regular guys who like to get sloppy at clubs” wanted to make a change.
Far East Movement began more than a decade ago as a trio called Emcees Anonymous: Kevin Nishimura (Kev Nish), James Roh (Prohgress) and Jae Choung (J-Splif). Virman Coquia (DJ Virman), a radio jock on Power 106, came on board later.
Before they were even Emcees Anonymous, the three friends would barhop across K-Town (anyplace that would “let youngsters get a drink without trippin’ on ID”) before winding up in a parking lot behind a church on Kenmore, turning on the radio and rapping to whatever was on.
“There was nothing,” Kev says, as far as places for Asian-Americans to go rap. “There was a jazz café in Chinatown called Grand Star that’d have open mics for Asian-American artists and it’d be, like, 10 acts with one mic and a speaker.”
Eventually, they were able to do hip-hop shows at Café Bleu and Atlas (now the Novel Café). But mostly, they just started taking work where they could get it — hitting open mics from Artesia to Anaheim, anywhere with “a microphone and turntables.”
Often, they were rewarded with blank stares.
“I don’t know why we never gave up,” Kev says. “I mean, we realized how bad we were. We realized how bad the feedback was: ‘God, this music sucks, it’s not real hip-hop.’ We’d just kind of heard that all of our lives.
“We became fearless. We became delusional.”
Finally, in 2008, with the release of the sub-bass/synth splurge “Girls on the Dance Floor,” FM cracked the Billboard charts. Two years later they would sign with Cherrytree Records, a division of Interscope, and release “Like a G6,” the track that made them the first Asian-American artists to score a No. 1 hit in the United States. They had arrived.
“Man, it was slow though,” Kev sighs.
Kev says everyone knows everyone in Koreatown, which is how they cobbled together Spam N Eggs. FM teamed up with fellow Korean-Americans, DJ/producer Tokimonsta and rapper Dumbfoundead, to produce a “community event” in which young Angelenos could come experience the K-Town scene firsthand. The first of the free “one-night festivals” was held at VIBE last January.
“It was crazy. We had to literally turn away, like, a thousand people,” Kev laughs.
That first Spam N Eggs got the gears turning in FM’s collective heads. It had brought them back together with the DJs, rappers and weirdos they’d grown up with — the same group that once upon a time crammed into Café Bleu to catch their first show.
And that’s when they thought of the riots.
“Yo, we hate to bring up the riots, but it’s, like, at the same time, they kinda paved the way,” Kev explains. “A lot of the people who built the foundation as far as these clubs being here and us being able to now be in a Korean club with African-Americans and whites and Latinos… They’ve never got to tell their story.”
The members of Far East Movement were in elementary school when the Rodney King Riots crashed into Koreatown. But they can still remember. Everyone who lived in K-Town at the time can.
“A lot of the immigrant generations just want to bury it,” Prohgress says. “But my parents weren’t like that.”
Proh’s school, 3rd Street Elementary, let out early as looters tore up city streets, smashing windows, setting fire to cars. They were watching the riots on TV in his classroom when his mother pulled up out front.
“Her face was just white like a ghost, her knuckles holding onto the steering wheel like it was about to break,” Proh remembers.
His mother had never driven on a freeway before, so they drove to the safety of a friend’s house in Orange County — very slowly, creeping along at 35 miles per hour in the fast lane.
“We had to use our windshield wipers,” Pro recalls. “There was so much ash in the air — like snow.”
When they finally came back home to Olympic and Crenshaw, their house hadn’t been damaged, but glass littered their street. The six days of rioting had destroyed more than 2,000 Korean businesses and caused more than $400 million in damage. K-Town had burned.
Exactly why FM decided to produce the gritty, hard-hitting K-Town Riot EP — and make a five-minute documentary to go with it — is difficult to nail down.
In some interviews, the group says the idea was sparked by the outpouring of community support in K-Town for Spam N Eggs — not just from their artist buddies but also from shop owners and liquor store clerks and former security guards.
But Kev admits there’s another reason.
FM scored their first hit only when they stopped “giving a fuck” about what the community thought of them. Once they stopped trying to represent an entire group — Asian-Americans, Asian-American rappers. Koreatown.
“We were always sayin’ we have to represent. It has to be a movement, it has to be community,” Kev says. “But we thought those restraints were limiting. It doesn’t define us as human beings.”
But that other group, the party rappers behind “Like a G6,” didn’t define them, either.
“We felt automatically people were getting the wrong idea about us,” Kev says. “That there was no history, that we was just four dudes like an Asian *NSYNC. That there was no roots. We just got the sense, like, wow, people aren’t really understanding, and maybe that’s our fault.”
The quartet hopes to make it home again in November to throw another Spam N Eggs. But they’ve got a lot on their plates: 30 more songs in various stages of completion, hundreds of hours of footage left over from the K-Town Riot doc. Far East Movement are now a label, a production house, a documentary-film crew — and a rap group that is, ultimately, more sonically diverse than people give it credit for.
“We don’t have to explain who we are anymore,” Kev says. “Let’s just change up our sound every year! Now it’s just about having fun and making sure we represent us. A piece of us.”