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Hip-Hop history: Dropping the beat on AAPI artists

Posted at 6:36 PM, May 13, 2021

A new album from hip-hop artists Jason ChuAlan Z and Humble the Poet tackles Asian American history and spotlights the Asian hip-hop community. 

"Listening to this album is kind of like the reminder that we’re all in this together and we’re coming together as a united front," said Rapper Alan Z.

Hip-hop has always been a genre about “empowerment and liberation” for marginalized people, and it's long-inspired countless Asian American artists. 

"Groups like Public Enemy, NWA — all these people that were defining and that had something to say about the society around us," said Rukus Avenue CEO Sammy Chand.

"I felt understood, because a lot of these stories are people that are disenfranchised, people that are underdogs, outcasts," said Rapper Alan Z.

"It hit an emotion. I think I was an angry kid. I was confused. I was angry at the world," said audio engineer David Yungin Kim

"I think that is something that really identified with all of us immigrants, of course, right?" said Chand.

In 1979, Afro Filipino disco artist Joe Bataan debuted "Rap-o-Clap-o" — now considered to be one of the earliest rap songs ever recorded and built off the cultural influences of New York City's hip-hop community and pioneers like DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash. 

From the seventies and eighties onward, hip-hop grew with the success of artists like NWA, Run DMC and Public Enemy, inspiring a major wave of Asian American rappers, break dancers and producers entering the scene in the nineties. And artists like The Mountain Brothers, RhythmX and the rap duo of Key-Kool and DJ Rhettmatic contributed to the growing hip-hop culture.

"A lot of people go 'yo, why is there such a deep tie between Asian American communities and this Black and Brown art form.' And I think because so much of Asian American culture as we've been wrestling with identity for about 50 years, parallels the birth of hip-hop culture as it grew and it had its growing pains," said rapper Jason Chu.

Chu, an expert on the intersection of Asian American identity and hip-hop culture, says that the two communities developed at the same time — building from the shared histories of racism and identity in the U.S.

"I think there's been such a parallel to where now, you have a ton of young, 15- to 25-year-old Asian Americans who literally grew up with hip-hop as the dominant voice of not just marginalized cultures, but of pop culture in their lifetime," Chu said.

"You got groups like 88rising here … Far East Movement and Drunken Tiger from Korea, who I grew up listening to. That was the first person, first Korean that I related to, because it was a player in the hip-hop industry that looked like me," said Kim.

Today, the representation of Asian American artists is still growing in hip-hop, with labels like Rukus Avenue pioneering South Asian hip-hop both in the U.S. and internationally. 

"We really had a lot to do with how young South Asians in this country also viewing themselves as potentially being artists. … Not only was hip-hop conducive for us, but I think that that story itself was very unique to us. And I think that we needed the hip-hop forum for it," Chand said.

This story originally reported by Casey Mendoza on