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Behind Koreatown's Far East Movement, a deep history [Updated]

November 10, 2010 | 12:15 pm

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Far East Movement, the Los Angeles electro/rap group, reached a notable milestone recently. Not only did its third album, "Free Wired," debut at #24 on the Billboard charts, one of the highest charting debuts by any all-Asian American group, but its latest single, “Like a G6,” is the #1 single in the country (having already crowned digital charts for weeks).

[Update: The chart position of "Free Wired" was misrepresented in the original version of this post. The text in the above paragraph has been changed to reflect the correct chart placement.]

By coincidence, on Oct. 12, 2010, the day "Free Wired" dropped, TV’s "Glee" featured Asian American actors Jenna Ushkowitz (Tina) and Harry Shum Jr. (Mike) joyfully singing and dancing their way through “Sing!” from "A Chorus Line." Three nights earlier, "Glee" star Jane Lynch hosted "Saturday Night Live" with musical guest Bruno Mars, the Filipino-Puerto Rican crooner whose iTunes-topping “Just the Way You Are” was just pushed aside by "Like a G6.”

This confluence seemed to be a long time coming. Prior to FM, the last group of Asian Pacific Islander descent to run the dance floor might have been the Jets, the Tongan-German, Minneapolis-based family band that had a string of dance/R&B hits, including “Curiosity” and “Crush on You.” That was back in 1985.

When I began writing about Asian American artists in the early 1990s, the common hope was for a “breakthrough” superstar that could pry open the gates of the record industry by convincing skeptical label execs that “we” were marketable. Perhaps the sales of "Free Wired" will create a trickle-down effect for other Asian American artists. However, FM's success is the culmination of a long-term movement to part the doors of opportunity with a thousand nudges rather than a single magic bullet.

Behind FM’s climb to the top are at least two intersecting histories of “Asian American music” (an ill-defined term, but bear with). One history begins in the early 1970s, at the very birth of the idea of “Asian America” as a social and political term unifying disparate ethnic groups. (FM, a group whose members are of Chinese, Filipino, Korean and Japanese descent, practically stand in as a poster child for pan-ethnic Asian America). Besides rallies and newsletters, activists used music to promote this nascent, umbrella identity.

For example, arguably the first album by a self-identified Asian American group was the 1973 eponymous debut of the folk trio A Grain of Sand. In line with the political source of their creative inspirations, their songs tackled cross-ethnic unity, labor solidarity and antiwar sentiments. A lost history lies behind these groups and their now-obscure releases, be it the eclectic, jazz/spoken word stylings of the Bay Area band Yokohama, California, or “The Ballad of Chol-Soo Lee,” a 1978 single released in San Francisco to raise awareness about the case of a Korean immigrant wrongly convicted of murder. By the time my generation came of age, the musical vehicle for social and cultural outreach shifted from that of folk and jazz to hip-hop. In the first half of the 1990s, a wave of politically charged collegiate rap artists came and went, including UC Davis’ Asiatic Apostles and Rutgers University’s Yellow Peril.

Most of these groups followed the Funkadelic principle of freeing minds and hoping butts would follow, but on an album like "Free Wired," with its catchy club anthems such as “Girls on the Dancefloor” and “Like a G6,” FM has gone the other way: butts first, minds maybe. Yet the group certainly walked the same path as many of those now-forgotten, Asian American rap pioneers.

Early in its career, FM paid its dues at countless college and community performances, many sponsored by Asian American student organizations. That grass-roots circuit dates all the way back to the days of A Grain of Sand and serves as a crucial outlet for exposure and revenue, not just for rap acts but for guitar-wielding singer-songwriters, up-and-coming comedians and moody indie rock bands too. However, as much as FM represents a kind of capstone for this 40-year movement for cultural visibility, they affirm a deeper, longer history as well, less political in intent but no less passionate.

After all, “Asian American music” exists only as far back as the socio-political concept of Asian America itself. But long before the late 1960s' social movements brought about such awareness, music and performance were a distinct part of Asian lives in America since practically the earliest waves of immigration.

George Yoshida’s remarkable history, "Reminiscing in Swingtime," traces Japanese American jazz bands in Los Angeles back as early as 1920s. Earlier this year, the San Francisco Historical Society hosted an exhibit, "Swinging Chinatown," chronicling the colorful history of Grant Avenue nightclubs from the late 1930s onward. Also in the 1930s, author Carlos Bulosan famously wrote of listening to Filipino American jazz musicians play along Seattle’s King Street.

Then there was the soundtrack for "Flower Drum Song," the novel turned Broadway musical turned film, which, in 1961, enjoyed three weeks atop the pop album charts. Though Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote the music, almost all the singers were Asian American, including Seattle’s Pat Suzuki, who went on to enjoy a prolific solo career singing pop standards.

This roll call runs deeper than many realize and includes everyone from Hawaii’s Don Ho and his bestselling “Tiny Bubbles” (1966) to 1970s disco divas like Bombay-born, New York-made Asha Puthli and Filipino-Chinese-Irish singer Yvonne Elliman to '80s "Star Search" winner Gerry Woo. This doesn’t even touch California’s dense, decades-old network of Asian American DJs from San Francisco to Cerritos, Stockton to Carson, spinning the kind of energetic hip-hop and freestyle dance tracks that form part of the DNA of FM’s club hits.

If these various histories laid down the kindling, the emergent Internet tools of self-expression and distribution of the last 10 years showered down sparks. Popularity metrics are now calculated by more than simply Billboard sales; they’re also tracked in YouTube hits and re-Tweets. Technology alone won’t provide Web stars self-sustaining careers, but after generations of invisibility in the conventional pop industry, at least Asian American youth now master more means to achieve visibility.

It would be premature to call this a golden age of Asian American musical performance, but the modicum of success attained by artists such as Far East Movement, Bruno Mars, New York’s Legaci (Justin Bieber’s backup singers) and others serve as a reminder of a simple but powerful truth: Despite stale caricatures of Asian Americans as introverted model minorities (a stereotype found all too easily elsewhere in the pop world), their desire to perform is neither new nor unusual. I think of my 5-year-old half-Chinese, half-Japanese American daughter. She took her recent kindergarten pictures on an auditorium stage and came home to tell us what it was like, standing up there: “It felt good.” Yeah, it does.

-- Oliver Wang

Photo: Far East Movement's Prohgress, from left, DJ Virman, J-Spliff and Kev Nish before a concert at the Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles in November 2009. Credit: Stefano Paltera / For The Times

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