Ten years ago, a list of the ten Greatest Asian American MCs of All Time wouldn’t have been possible. Back then, there simply wasn’t enough rappers to fill a list. A lot has changed in ten years. Hip-hop as a genre blew up and took center stage in the music industry and the number of Asian American MCs exploded along with it. With the advent of the internet age, rappers were able to effectively self-promote, which was crucial for Asian artists who were generally overlooked by record labels. This had led to the creation of huge online communities dedicated to Asian American hip-hop and what could loosely be referred to as the “Asian rap scene”. In this short history of Asian American MCs, a few stand out from the rest, whether it was due to their lyrical ability, persona, deep meaning, impact, commercial success, or combination of traits. I took all those factors into consideration when compiling and ranking this list, trying to be objective as possible in my rankings. But what even constitutes an Asian American MC? My definition is that being Asian had to play a part in their career. In the Asian connection portion I included a short paragraph explaining the ethnicity and some background on how being Asian plays into their identity.
Asian connection: Dumbfoundead is Korean and was raised in L.A.’s Koreatown. Initially Dumb was coming from the, “I don’t want to be a dope Asian rapper, just a dope rapper” angle but he said after maturing and changing his perspective he now embraces the image and participates in the Asian hip-hop events and also tours in Korea.
Dumbfoundead, at 23, is the youngest emcee on the list. Due to his appealing style and the ubiquity of the internet has plenty of opportunity to move up if he keeps working and improving. He first blew up on YouTube through his Grindtime freestyle battles, especially one against another Asian emcee called Tantrum in which, naturally, some of the most in-depth Asian punchlines rap has ever seen were lobbied back and forth with Dumb having a couple of the most memorable (i.e. “…this pan-handling, Mandarin Asian, you used to manhandle pandas in cages for gambling wages”…”he ain’t just an Uncle Tom, he’s an Uncle Wong…”).
Final word: Dumbfoundead’s written material has a very underground sound but it’s easy to listen to, and with universal themes, it appeals to everyone. With a huge YouTube following, only time will tell where this talented emcee ends up.
Check out: Dumbfoundead vs. Tantrum Freestyle Battle
9. Southstar (formerly of Smilez and Southstar)
Asian connection: Southstar, who was born in Hawaii, is Chinese and Filipino. He didn’t talk about being Asian initially, but did later on mixtape tracks where he collaborated with Jin and Far East Movement.
A lot of people are going to be mad about this one. Why? Southstar, to put it in a nutshell, isn’t very good at rapping. However, in 2002 his group Smilez and Southstar did have a certified Top 40 single “Tell Me”, which is an incredible accomplishment. Plus, if you were around middle school age at that time and listened to rap, you probably still like the song. The video was in regular rotation on MTV and BET, technically making Southstar not only the first full-Asian rapper to blow up on the mainstream but also the most-played. To no surprise, this creatively named duo ended up being one-hit wonders but the legacy remains. In fact, he might be even higher on this list if it weren’t for the fact that nobody knew he was Asian during the height of his popularity.
Final word: Strictly speaking, Southstar could be considered the most commercially successful full Asian American rapper ever.
Check out: Smilez and Southstar – Tell Me
8. Bambu (formerly of Native Guns)
Asian connection: Bambu is a Filipino who was raised in Watts, L.A. In both his solo career and group career with Native Guns he speaks on Filipino issues affecting Filipino-Americans as well as the people in the Phillipines.
I heard of Native Guns a few years back but never heard any of their material. Then a few weeks ago I came across this song from Bambu featuring Geologic called, “Slow Down” where he absolutely killed his verses. It’s one of the best singles I’ve ever heard from an Asian American rapper. Based off that, I did some research into what turned out to be a wealth of past material and concluded that Bambu is deserving of a spot on this list. Bambu is also a reformed former gang member and criminal for those who take street credibility into consideration (if you’re going to be rapping about the block, street cred helps).
Final word: Having a militant edge, Bambu reminds me of Immortal Technique. If his new music is any indication of more to come, Bambu definitely has the opportunity to grow his fanbase.
Check out: Bambu feat. Geo – Slow Down
7. Roscoe Umali
Asian connection: Roscoe is a Filipino L.A. Koreatown native who graduated from UCLA. Being Filipino is a big part of his identity and he’s worked extensively in Korea with the group Drunken Tiger.
Roscoe has the most commercial style of all the rappers on this list, with the L.A. gangsta-bounce influence being apparent in both his lyrics and production. Umali has an imposing voice and his overall blend of lyrics, production, and vibes is solid. Roscoe has been out for quite some time now and from what I understand, has his industry networking game down pat, having done tracks with some big names like E-40, Talib Kweli and Bobby Valentino as well as having worked with some of the top producers in the game – all while being independent on his own label (he even has his own sneaker). This is significant because it shows that Asian rappers can make some headway in the mainstream industry by getting their business right.
Final word: Roscoe Umali’s lyrics and production come together for a slick all-around package. All said, Roscoe does a good job embodying the “boss” persona.
6. Geologic aka Prometheus Brown (of Blue Scholars)
Asian connection: Geo, who is Filipino has made various tracks about Filipino issues. The 2007 release from his group Blue Scholars was called “Bayani” which is Tagalog for “heroes of the people”. He is a graduate from The University of Washington.
Geo is the most famous rapper out of Seattle since Sir-Mix-A-Lot and the leader of an underground rap movement that can be described as, “intellectual conscious rap” – aka Seattle/Northwest boom bap. Geo has been featured on MTV, shared the stage with Mos Def and a Tribe Called Quest, done tracks with KRS-One, Talib Kweli and toured all over the country. He has a distinct voice and flow and an interesting thing to note is that a majority of Blue Scholar fans are non-Asian. What makes him so great? Blue Scholars are the leaders of their growing genre and have a diverse fan base across ethnic and cultural lines.
Final word: The style of underground hip-hop Geologic produces might not be your favorite, but bottom line: he’s nice on the mic and proud of his heritage. Plus Geo is a perfect example that Asians can stay true to their roots and carve their own lane in the rap game.
Check out: Blue Scholars – Joe Metro
5. apl.de.ap (of The Black Eyed Peas)
Asian connection: Apl is half-Filipino/half-black and was born in the Phillipines before moving to the U.S. at age 14. He has done two songs with BEP featuring Tagalog, “The Apl Song” and “Bebot.”
At first glance Apl doesn’t look very Asian and he isn’t first person you think of when the topic of Asian American rappers comes up. However, making immensely popular songs in Tagalog and being a part of one of the biggest hip-hop acts in history counts for something. There could be some debate on whether he’s actually a “rapper” or rather a “hip-hop musician” but at the end of the day – he’s helped create a ton of incredible tracks. His strengths are his eclectic musical background and knack for catchy hooks that have lent themselves to BEP’s unique charm and appeal.
Final word: Apl has definitely brought a consistent Asian presence to radio and multi-platinum hits – whether audiences knew it or not.
Check out: Black Eyed Peas – Bebot
4. Far East Movement (Group)
Asian connection: Of the L.A. Koreatown-based group: Prohgress and J-Splif are Korean, Kev Nish is Japanese/Chinese and DJ Virman is Filipino. Prohgress went to Loyola law school.
Far East Movement are like the new age Beastie Boys for the internet generation. They’re the biggest Asian American rap group in history and have yet to reach their peak. Musically they are the perfect example of the new growing “hiptronica” or “techno-rap” category and have a big hit with, “Girls On the Dance Floor”. Successfully crossing over from the underground, FM just got signed to major label Interscope. I’ve been a fan for a while and even though I would describe my musical taste as strongly inclined towards classic hip-hop, I enjoy the type of dance-focused music FM produces. Another benefit of creating your own genre, like Geologic did, is that there are no preconceived notions of how you should look/sound and you are able to appeal to different folks from all walks of life and not just Asians.
Final word: By creating music for everyone to dance and party to, Far East Movement has furthered the cause for all Asian American rappers by showing records labels, (who claim it’s too hard to market Asian artists) that talent and music can transcend all racial boundaries.
Check out: Far East Movement – Girls On The Dance Floor
3. Chan aka Snacky Chan
Asian connection: Chan is Korean and based out of Boston. Throughout his career he’s talked about the struggles of being Asian and trying to make it in the rap industry facing ignorance and disrespect. He is now a part of the Korean group Uptown.
I first got put onto Chan in high school when a friend of mine gave me a copy of “A Part of A Nation”. I was thoroughly impressed with the whole record, having passed my “would I still listen to this if they weren’t Asian?” test with flying colors. What made Chan stand out was his firm dedication to “real hip-hop” and his street but smooth East-Coast sound. Chan is also co-signed by well-knowns in the industry like Saigon, GZA, and Immortal Technique. Having worked with a lot of non-Asian artists, Chan has stressed that good music comes before everything else. Despite his talent, Chan was never able to get really popular in America. As a result, he recently moved to Korea and joined an mainstream/commercial rap group called Uptown, both surprising and disappointing his US fans.
Final word: Chan is an example of a talented Asian American rapper who tried to go the traditional route in the rap industry but ended up pursuing greener pastures overseas.
Check out: Snacky Chan – Lonely Road
2. Mountain Brothers
Asian connection: These three Chinese MC’s consisted of Chops, Peril-L, and Styles Infinite. They met at Penn State University and were based out of Philly. Their name is derived from a Chinese book called, “Water Margins” which is about the legend of bandits on a mountain. There wasn’t anything explicitly Asian about the way their music sounded however, being a person of color was a big part of their identity.
Most people haven’t heard of the Mountain Brothers, but they were the first Asian American rap act to gain any sort of traction in the industry. They were the first to deal with a lot of the problems Asian American MCs face. This lyrical underground trio did a few radio and TV spots for companies like Sprite and Nike (who initially didn’t even know they were Asian). They actually got signed to a major label Ruffhouse (who had The Fugees), but they split ties before they ever dropped an album. Mountain Brothers were proud of being Asian but didn’t want to focus on their race so they had two different sets of marketing material: one for the Asian market and one for the mainstream. They also have the distinction of having produced all their own beats (Chops made them and also happened to be the best rapper in the group). Eventually the group disbanded and only Chops is still in the industry, producing beats for an impressive list of artists that include Lil’ Wayne, Kanye, and Young Jeezy.
Final word: Way ahead of their time, the Mountain Brothers were pioneers: a dope Asian American rap group before anyone even had the concept of an Asian rapper. From being the first to sign (and experience problems with) with a major label, to grappling with how Asian they wanted to present themselves to the public, their story would foretell common situations encountered by many Asian American MCs after them.
Check out: Mountain Brothers – Galaxies
Asian connection: Jin is Chinese, born in Miami and based out of New York. Of all the MC’s on this list, Jin’s Asian connection is the strongest. He’s made numerous tracks that are Asian and Chinese-related as well as recorded several albums in Cantonese. He is currently based out of Hong Kong.
Jin is the single most well-known, written-about, revered, disrespected, loved and hated Asian American rapper ever. It’s hard to believe he’s been out in the scene since 2001 – it only seems like yesterday I was rushing home from school on Fridays to catch the next Freestyle Friday Battle. Before Jin, most people had never seen an Asian rap before (myself included). Sure, we had the AZN PRYDE songs from Napster, but Jin was real – he was on BET! It was also the first time mainstream rap had seen an Asian MC. That’s quite a few milestones. And because of all that, perhaps it only is fitting that Jin should receive the majority of titles – both good and bad, in the Asian American hip-hop world. Musically, Jin is incredible off-the-top freestyle talent and an excellent battler. His written material ranges anywhere from mediocre to pretty good, but I would say it’s generally better than most people give it credit for. The love for Jin comes from the good memories: Freestyle Friday, the first Asian to get “put on”, being the true underdog who won a few big fights. The hate from the missed opportunities, that Jin didn’t represent Asians right, that he was a overrated gimmick, etc. Love him or hate him, you have an opinion about him.
Final word: Jin changed the game as the first and only Asian American rapper to break into the mainstream. For better or worse, he’s still the only Asian the average rap fan can name. I think it’s for the better.
Check out: Jin – Top 5 Dead or Alive
- Denizen Kane
- Lyrics Born