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Far East Movement hits the dance floor

December 25, 2009 |  5:00 pm

Asian American hip-hop hasn't received quite the props that it deserves. Far East Movement has come along to change all of that.

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Few local venues are tougher to pack for an up-and-coming artist than the Art Deco digs of the 4,000-capacity Palladium. But on the third stop of the Party Rock Tour, the dance floor of the recently refurbished theater resembled a multiracial wailing wall of teenage girls, largely there for the Koreatown-based Asian American rap quartet Far East Movement and urban radio royalty LMFAO.

Two hours before showtime, the mention of Far East's name by a braying master of ceremonies elicited cheers audible all the way backstage, where Kev Nish, Prohgress, J-Spliff and DJ Virman had congregated in advance of the only hometown date of their first nationwide tour. Organized chaos reigned: Representatives from Interscope Records stood point; a sasquatch-sized security guard barged in to explain show logistics; a camera crew barraged the group with questions about whether they feed off the crowd's energy during their performances.

Had they waited a bit, the answer to that  query would have been obvious. During a frenzied 30-minute set from Far East Movement, in which the musicians sported Kanye West-style Shutter Shades, futuristic chrome-colored hoodies, astronaut helmets and the occasional gorilla costume, it was clear they were drawing inspiration from the  audience. Cheering reached its zenith when FM played its hit single "Girls on the Dance Floor," which rose to No. 1 on the Power 106(105.9 FM) playlist this summer.

If the Internet has created dozens of overnight success stories, the Far East Movement is a testament to the old model: steady grinding, building a solid hometown fan base and paying dues. Ask nearly any local underground rapper and chances are that performer has shared a bill with FM or at least has seen the band hawking fliers and mix tapes in front of shows -- many of which were held in Koreatown halls where they played to exclusively Asian American audiences.

"It was rough, we were playing places that had never had rap performances before," said Prohgress, who grew up as James Roh only blocks away from the Palladium. "It was a trial by fire. We endured everything from getting electrocuted to getting grapes thrown at us."

"They had huge fruit platters and they weren't afraid to throw them," added Nish of the sometimes unfriendly patrons who came to see them. Born Kevin Nishimura to a Japanese American father and a Chinese American mother, Nishimura and the Filipino American DJ Virman constitute the non-Korean half of the quartet.

Produce pelting aside, Nish said the group also has enjoyed "the highest of the highs," including playing Power 106's Powerhouse  and performing in a Brazilian airplane hangar before thousands of excited kids. "They were slanting their eyes at us, not because they're ignorant but because that's how they acknowledge your race."

Although it gradually has started to approach  a level of ethnic diversity fitting for the Obama era, the world of hip-hop remains largely dominated by heterosexual male African American acts. When the Far East Movement formed six years ago, the notion that four Asian American rappers could ink a deal with Interscope, achieve widespread airplay on urban radio and earn spokesman spots for Verizon Wireless and McDonald's seemed unlikely.

Indeed, until the 2004 debut from the performer Jin, no Asian American rapper had released a major-label album (in the '90s, the Mountain Brothers inked a deal with Ruffhouse). Although  performers of Asian descent had contributed to hip-hop culture since its inception, the ones who had the most success were typically DJs such as Kid Koala or DJ Qbert; underground MCs including Lyrics Born, Cool Calm Pete and MC Geo of Blue Scholars, or were part of a larger multiracial group (Chad Hugo of the Neptunes & N.E.R.D., Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park, apl.de.ap of the Black Eyed Peas).

Realizing the preconceptions they were up against, the members of FM originally went by the name Emcee's Anonymous, part of a strategy to divert attention  from their race and toward their skills. They adopted their current moniker while they were recording their first demo, which included a song titled "Far East Movement."

"We were trying to convey our lifestyle: street wear, racing, hip-hop and clubs, so we wrote a song called 'Far East Movement,' FM on your dial," said Nish. "We decided to make it our name. Emcee's Anonymous is wack -- that's about being scared to own up to who you are. We respect and take pride in our culture."

Though each member of the quartet currently resides downtown, the collective's origins stem from after-hour freestyle sessions in Koreatown parking lots where Nish, Prohgress and Spliff, then in their early 20s, would rhyme over beat CDs after the coffee shops closed. A former customer service representative, Nish believed in building relationships with individual listeners, insisting that the group personally respond to every MySpace message, comment and friend request.

This diligence helped FM graduate from scattershot nightclub dates to promoting a series of International Secret Agent events geared to the Asian community, each of which drew an average of 1,500 attendees. In the last 24 months, the group has expanded its footprint; two overseas tours have helped  amass a sizable fan base concentrated in China, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Of course, other cities, including Seattle, have a thriving Asian American hip-hop scene, and the local community has spawned other rappers, including Dumbfoundead. Kublai Kwon, the executive director of the Asian Hip-Hop Summit, has helped nurture L.A.-based performers since 2001, and through relentless promotion and a slow grass-roots build, he has been able to expand his Summit nationally. It now boasts a tour of colleges and small clubs that recently played 30 cities in 30 days.

"When I first moved to Koreatown, the Asian American arts scene was lacking. It inspired me to throw events and plant the seeds of a subculture," Kwon said. "We created the audience."

The turning point came in 2005, when the group organized Movementality, a hip-hop night to benefit a Koreatown drug rehabilitation center. Looking for people to spread the word, FM turned to its future manager, Carl Choi, a Hong Kong-born, Koreatown-raised promoter who had built an extensive network of Asian club nights that at one point extended to 13 cities. He also was involved with promotions and management for Jin, the Ruff Ryders-signed, BET freestyle champion, who until that point had been the most successful Asian American rapper in history.

"Before FM, Asian artists often lacked the authenticity and support of the Asian community," Choi said. "If a Latino guy sees Jin or FM on screen, the first person they'll turn to to find out whether or not they're credible will be their closest Asian friend. It was about building an attachment to our fans in order for them to grow with the group."

FM soon entered the sights of filmmaker Justin Lin, who used the band's track "Round Round" in his 2006 feature "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift." The song also appeared on the movie's soundtrack and a related video game.

"We took the money and invested it into a music video, which got over a million views," said Prohgress. "It gave us legitimacy. People would start referring to us Far East Movement, as featured in the 'Fast and Furious' soundtrack."

The director of "Better Luck Tomorrow," the 2002 independent film that helped redefine racial paradigms of Asian Americans in popular culture, Lin sees the Far East Movement as kindred spirits of sorts. Yet he stressed that their success owes only to their creative abilities.

"Talent and hard work always transcend race," said Lin, who was born in Taipei but grew up in Orange County. "It was and will always be about the music and its connection with the audience."

When "Round Round" became a breakout hit, the part-time rappers realized that music could be a full-time career. Prohgress, the son of a piano teacher and a radio show host, dropped out of Loyola Law School to pursue his art, a decision to which his parents vigorously objected.

"After I quit law school, I'd come home to visit and my mom wouldn't even leave the piano room to say hello," said Prohgress, who later opted to finish his degree.

J-Spliff (born Jae Choung) worked as a Burbank office manager by day and played shows and recorded at night. He was confident that his parents would scoff at his aspirations; his family  learned about his musical endeavors only when they spotted him on Korean television two years ago.

"Los Angeles has the largest Korean population outside of Korea, so whatever media they receive over there, we get here," said Choung. "We did videos and newspaper interviews for the Korean market, and one day my parents caught the feed of us doing a promo tour in Korea. I thought they were going to throw things at me, but they were more surprised than anything."

In 2007, the three founding members invited DJ Virman into the fold. It was a savvy move that not only brought them a venerable local DJ but also opened up a world of contacts through his brother DJ E-Man, assistant program director at Power 106 and DJ on the national radio program "Big Boy's Neighborhood."

That access and related airplay helped break a pair of singles -- "You've Got a Friend," featuring Mexican American rapper Baby Bash, and the car-culture ode "Lowridin", from the group's independently produced debut "Folk Music" -- earning Far East Movement  a following in the Latino community.  Its songs also were featured in such TV series as "CSI: Miami" and the VH1 reality show "The Pickup Artist."

Jin recruited the group to produce his 2007 Cantonese-language debut, "ABC Jin," which went platinum in its first week, making it the highest-selling debut album in Hong Kong history.

"They've built their brand from the ground up," Jin said. "From Day One, they've always been about good music that appeals to all walks of life. They're  not intentionally setting out to redefine the role of Asians or break stereotypes, they just do it by virtue of being good artists."

The independent release last year of the band's sophomore effort, "Animal," which featured "Girls on the Dance Floor," further elevated Far East Movement's profile. Produced by the Stereotypes, the single, a pulsing house track, augurs a return to hip-hop's disco roots and places it squarely within the contemporary zeitgeist of dance floor-focused rap, a genre that Choi calls "hiptronica." The pop shift positioned the group well for mass appeal. Martin Kierszenbaum, head of A&R at Interscope and the chairman of Cherrytree Records, the Interscope subsidiary that recently signed FM, sees the group as a part of the continuum of his imprint's progressive pop stars, including Lady Gaga, Feist and Flipsyde.

"Pop isn't supposed to be a dirty word; it's a craft and an art form, and FM are pushing the envelope of pop music within the hip-hop tradition," said Kierszenbaum, who plans to release FM's  major-label debut next year. "Their 'hiptronica' sound is exciting and new, and they're great songwriters. They represent the future kind of kid, one that's more inclusive, who lives on the Internet. I think they have huge global potential."

-- Jeff Weiss

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