Dumbfoundead On the Future of Asians in Hip Hop
The 29-year-old Korean-American rapper believes he and his crew have the potential to make waves in the States.
Words by Eric Diep
When Keith Ape dropped the remix to “IT G MA” at the end of July, it was a shining moment for Korean hip hop.
For the first time since the explosion of Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” there’s another potential candidate to cross over into the United States and become a huge star. Even if he’s not rapping in English all the time, the 21-year-old emcee from South Korea has your attention. “IT G MA,” the “U Guessed It”-inspired trap anthem, became a viral sensation this year, mainly due to its resemblance to OG Maco’s original. But as the song started gain traction internationally, it’s evolved into a beacon of hope for Asian hip hop, where Keith Ape has a strong chance to make it cool again to be your ethnicity, rap your language, and make dope shit in the process.
Keith Ape might have all the media attention right now, but the remix’s collaborators—Waka Flocka Flame, Father, A$AP Ferg, and Dumbfoundead—mark a merger of underground and mainstream, experimental and traditional, international and American pride that embodies hip hop in 2015. Dumb, a battle-rap veteran from Los Angeles who’s been bubbling in the Korean hip hop world, arguably shined the brightest with a straight, no-frills verse that opened doors for newer listeners to check him out.
Dumb is part of CXSHXNLY Records, a new management and label collective formulated this year, that’s also home to Keith Ape and his Cohort crew, which includes Okasian, producer Josh Pan, and choreographer Brian Puspos. With the momentum of “IT G MA,” they believe their brand of rap music will bring a necessary voice in hip hop for Asians that’s long been missed.
We recently caught up with Dumb to discuss how he met Keith Ape, how “IT G MA” is helping to break Asian rap stereotypes, and what the future holds for Asians emcees in hip hop.
Mass Appeal: When did you first hear of “It G MA”?
Dumbfoundead: It was probably when the video was around the first 30,000 views or something like that. I think I want to say that was February. I’m not sure what day, but it was around 30,000 views. I got this group chat with some friends of mine, and we just share all sorts of dope shit. I think just one of my boys just threw that in there. A lot of the group chat is young Asian cats in the States rapping too, so we’re always sharing some ill Asian cat doing some shit on there. We were just fucking with it. They’ve shared a bunch of Korean hip hop in there, but this one was super different and that’s when we were like, “Oh, shit. This is pretty hard.”
I happened to share that with my manager, and he was fucking with it too. I don’t think I had any intention of just all moving forward and maybe putting Keith on too. But he was just fucking with it. He just reached out on some “Yo, I’m fucking with this music and video.” He just wanted to see what he was all about. Keith and his camp became mad cool with us, and they ended up building with us. The rest is setting up the remix and all that.
You hadn’t met him until recently?
Yeah. I met everybody else in his crew in Korea. I guess Keith is like the youngest dude out the camp. All the other cats, I’ve actually met him several times in Korea. Like Okasian and lot of the Cohort cats. I’m very in touch with the Korean hip hop cats. I go there like once a year and build with a lot of the hip hop cats out there. But Keith, I had never met. But he’s known about me and I’ve actually known about him before he was Keith Ape. He was going by a different name—Kid Ash and I’ve listened to his stuff before.
The remix to “IT G MA” features you, Waka Flocka Flame, Father, and A$AP Ferg. Why do you think the song is picking up so quickly?
I think there are different elements to it. First of all, obviously, there’s like the cultural element, where you got a dude who spits like straight in Korean and you also have a Korean-American cat that is spitting in English – just two different types of faces that you usually don’t see in music videos. And also mixed in with cats like Ferg and Waka and Father, who come from different areas where it is super turnt up. But Father with that chill Atlanta shit. I think it’s a dope combination of cats because it’s also not a song where it’s on some drug shit or some typical rap struggle shit. It’s kind of just a fun joint—like a fun posse cut.
It’s also interesting to see different levels of celebrity on there. You got bigger guys like Waka and Ferg, as well as Father and yourself. The chemistry works really well.
Yeah, that’s mad dope, and that was a long time coming as far as forming that collaboration too. I’m super happy on when you read the comments; some cats are just like, “Oh, Father had the illest verse! Waka had the illest shit!” It’s so all over the place. I fuck with that element a lot, just the fact that people have their favorites on it, which tells me that we’ve tapped into all these different areas of rap.
Is this something you’re looking to gain more exposure for your work?
Yeah, it’s just one joint and I just gotta follow it up with some iller shit. I definitely appreciate the opportunity where I can get brand new eyes and ears on me. New cats, new fans listening to my shit. I think more of me just being part of a collaboration with super big cats—whether it is Waka or Ferg—I’m more happy being part of something that’s more boundary breaking. Korean artists being able to go into this rap world and do shit in Korean. And have a chorus that’s in full-on Korean. I was more excited to be a part of that than anything else.
Rap blogs and hip hop sites like VIBE, AllHipHop, and NahRight posted the song. Normally, they wouldn’t put something up like this. How do you think it’s helping to break Asian rap stereotypes?
I think in a big way. First of all, you have Keith and it just translates [itself]. Whatever it’s the hook and the verse, it just translates whether you understand or not. Cats have obviously fuck with it and they think it goes from the original to the remix. And you have someone like me, after they met Keith, they’re like, “Okay, who’s this other Asian cat? He must be another cat from Korea in his crew.” But I’m just spitting in English and going in on English. It’s just a dope [way to see] two ends of being Asian. I hope it does break down more stereotypes. I hope cats tag me up, and they also see a bunch of my battles where I’m holding it down for Asians on that level and serving motherfuckers.
I think it’s the first time I’ve seen something like a rap collabo crossing boundaries as far as that shit, but in a non-corny way. I’ve seen a gang of these hip hop, one-world-type videos and songs that are so corny at times. This has happened super naturally. It was mad natural, where he made a fucking turn up song and people were just fucking with it. It wasn’t forced. They didn’t put KRS-One with some cats from Korea and some guys from South America all together and shit. To me, that was dope. And to me, that’s how it should be done. If you have to point it out, “Oh, the unity,” then I don’t think it’s natural. But if you just do it, then it’s tight.
Why do you think rap sites don’t generally post Asian rap and box it in as such?
I would say there haven’t been the most amazing cats out of [Asia]. There’s a lot of dope Asians spitters, but it takes a lot of different elements where it’s not just you spitting in this industry. There’s a lot of shit as far as branding with your whole swag and everything. You need everything and everything at the right time to kind of breakthrough as well. So timing is important and other shit, like besides you being able to spit is important too. I have a group of ill-ass Asian homies that rap fucking amazing, but there’s other shit I know they’re lacking too.
It has an element of that factor, but also the factor of how Asians are perceived in the media. Being Asian hasn’t been cool for a long time, and that cool factor is so important in rap. You gotta be the coolest motherfucker in the room. When Asians aren’t considered that cool for mad years—which I think is changing. Obviously, shit is changing. That’s why you see these young motherfuckers with Twitter profiles with Asian characters and shit like that. It’s becoming cool, but it took a long time for us to be considered cool in a non-ironic way.
Even for you, in the “IT G MA” video, you’re rocking braids and not giving a fuck. I’m sure that’ll make Asian rappers proud to be themselves.
More than anything, it has to come from a level of confidence from the Asian cats themselves. I followed a lot of Asian cats in rap from way back in the day, and I’ve studied a lot of the history of Asians involvement in hip hop. From whether it was like Mountain Brothers to Jin and all that stuff, there was a lot of transitional stuff. I remember when I was growing up and I saw a lot of the Asian rappers who was trying to get the street team off and promote them. Everybody was trying to be super hard and gangsters and shit like that. At the time, it just wasn’t a good look. Nobody took that shit serious. I’m not saying there isn’t such a thing as Asian gangsters, which there are and I’ve seen that shit where I’m from, but the rest of the world didn’t take that shit seriously, like Asian dude wildin’ out. They just made fun of it.
At the time, it was already kind of changing where you had cats like N.E.R.D., Pharrell, and Kanye. Rap was starting to merge with everything else like skateboarding and rock and all that shit. There wasn’t a lot cats just being themselves in the Asian community too because the Asian community alone already had identity issues. When I was growing up, what did it really mean to be Asian? It was either like you were gonna roll with the white cats or you gonna roll with the black dudes. You were gonna be a rocker cat or a rap head. I think that identity is still starting to get figured out as far as the Asian community goes. For people to take it seriously, we are gonna have to have an identity first.
What have you heard typically about Asian rappers? In 2015, are they progressing pass those stereotypes or are they still doing the same things?
I think there’s one side where you got the Asian rappers still use the Asian shit as a crutch. I’ve heard those Asian rappers constantly saying shit like, “You’ve never seen an Asian motherfucker spit this hard.” Like, shit like that. Like, “C’mon fam. Chill, like we get it.” That era we kind of already passed a little bit. You shouldn’t really on that. When Jin came in and he was serving motherfuckers, doing the Asian shit. That worked at the time. We needed somebody to flip that. But after that, I don’t think we need to keep hearing about you being Asian and how you gonna stab somebody with chopsticks. That shit ain’t clever or anything. That’s like that whole Eminem thing where he flipped being trailer trash and beat them to the punch. “Okay, we’re done with that era.”
You also have other elements too. You just have cats who don’t have the ill shit. They got no joints or whatever. I know for me, too, the constant struggle for me is to make better songs. I come from the freestyle, battling world, where I had that stigma of not making good music because I was actually really late to making songs and shit. I’m working on that every day to get better. I believe in my head that I’m a dope-ass rapper, but I haven’t made that joint that I feel like could cross over and they’re really fucking with yet.
What do you think the mainstream will embrace now? Jin was one of the first through his Ruff Ryders connection, and Asian kids loved him.
If you look at the biggest Asian-American rappers now, who would they be? Keith, right? I got an underground following. It’s so crazy. Even as a veteran, I still feel so new as far as the rap world goes with now and all this shit happening. I don’t know what they are looking for. Honestly, I always feel like a female Asian rapper might make it before a male one does. I just feel like the mainstream would accept it more than a male Asian rapper. Especially with the fact at how America looks at Asian males, we’re mad emasculated in America. I think that has a big element with hip hop. It’s just like a very masculine art form. For me, I’ve always been the non-gangster, skateboard-type kid in rap. That’s why I say it’s gonna be some super hood Asian motherfucker who cats can actually take serious or some female Asian girl. I think that one element of why Keith is dope is he’s a foreigner. He comes in and in tune with the youth and fashion, as far as the sound goes.
So what’s your motivation to break through the mainstream?
Even as I grew as an artist, I started telling more personal stories and less vague stories about the struggle. I started telling more stories coming from an Asian perspective more recently too. Just because I think it’s a void that needs to be filled, and cats don’t like talking about it; maybe because it was so discouraging as an Asian person, you can tap into things like that. It has to be done right with right production. Just like modern times. I feel lucky to have grown in this industry as not such a bitter OG. I’ve been around so many bitter hip hop OGs.
I’m from Project Blowed, where a lot of cats like Freestyle Fellowship and all these cats came up from and those were my mentors. I was the only Asian cat there, but I remember a lot of cats there too that were mad bitter. And now, I’m still friends with them on Facebook, but they are constantly posting mad status updates about how wack Drake is or some shit like that. It’s like, “C’mon fam.” I’m so lucky that I’ve stayed in tune, and I think that’s one of the reasons why I’ve been able to do this for 10 years.
What’s the move now going forward? How will you and Keith Ape fulfill the lack of representation of Asians in hip hop?
One thing that’s very important is doing a lot of collaborations. Keith needs to be collaborating with obviously a lot of young cats who doing shit right now. I’m not talking about jumping to the big artists, whether it’s Waka and Ferg, I’m talking about cats on the come-up level who are making noise right now. And I think he’s doing that. I think his last release was with Slug Christ from Awful Records. He has a joint coming out with Robb Bank$. These are cats that are on the come up and the youth are into. I got collabs coming up too, not just with Keith, but a lot of other cats who are on the come up and doing shit. I think that’s a good way to do it—share fanbases with these cats too. I think slowly doing it that way, you’re kind of sinking it in without having them acknowledging that this is an Asian rapper.