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Model Minority: Three Chinese Americans shuttle between racially colored humor and politics

March 22, 2011 |  2:53 pm

Cover Last fall, when Pittsburgh rapper Wiz Khalifa released his Steelers-inspired “Black and Yellow," he sparked a musical meme followed by everyone from Lil Wayne (“Green and Yellow,” for the Packers) to Snoop and the Game (the Lakers’ shout-out, “Purp &  Yellow”). The least expected remake may have come from Model Minority, a trio made up of two Seattle brothers and a third rapper in Beijing, by way of New Haven, Conn. Featured on their recent “Model Minority Report” mixtape, their “Chinese Remix” flips “Black and Yellow” into its Mandarin equivalent -- heisè huángsè. Try saying that four times in a row, quickly.

Made up of three Chinese American artists -- Jason “Grandmaster” Chu, Andrew “Inglish” and David “D-One” Fung -- Model Minority shuttles between racially colored humor and politics. The Fung brothers caught the ear of The Times’ Daily Dish blog last fall with their “Welcome to the SGV,” an ode to Asian eateries in the San Gabriel Valley (sample lyric: “No, I’m not lying/No, I’m not frontin’/Forget Din Tai Fong/J&J for the dumplings”). “The Model Minority Report” is no less playful, with Inglish recording the jerk-inspired “Dim Sum Truck” (“Inglish, can you teach me how to dim sum?”), while the group’s “Whitewashed” mixes jokes and jabs about clueless suburbanites (“When I rap/They sayin’ I want to be black/And how I act/They sayin’ I needed to change that.”)

The earliest waves of parody raps in the 1980s were usually more painful than funny because the “rappers” involved lacked much interest or respect for the aesthetics of the form. That includes 2 Live Jews’ “Oy! It’s So Humid” or Shawn Brown’s legendary “Rappin’ Duke,” which re-cast John Wayne as an old-school pioneer, drawl and all. Similarly, the first cohorts of politically minded Asian American rappers from the early ’90s -- think the Bay Area’s Fists of Fury or Seattle’s Seoul Brothers -- often came with great intentions but subpar experience in beat-making and lyrical craft. In contrast, even today’s “amateurs” are almost all hip-hop natives and, whether aiming for laughs or making a serious statement, they recognize the importance of credible performance.

Songs such as Affion Crockett’s hilarious Lil Wayne/Jay-Z spoof, “Mr. Carter,” or the viral granddaddy, Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell’s “Lazy Sunday,” have the key dimensions of the form down -- good beats, decent rhymes. “I Just Had Sex” (featuring Akon) by Samberg’s group the Lonely Island has 70 million YouTube views.

Model Minority’s MCs may be spitting lines about Hong Kong-style cafes and identity confusion, but they understand the nuances of timing and inflection; in other words, these cats can flow, bilingually no less. In fact, with a wink and a nod to the past, they cover the 2003 single “Learn Chinese” by Jin, the first Asian American rapper to release a major-label album. However, Jin rapped his song almost exclusively in English, while Model Minority renames “Learn Chinese” with its Mandarin equivalent, “Xué Zhongwén” and shifts between Mandarin and English in language lesson form (not unlike Kid Frost’s “La Raza” or Big L’s “Ebonics”).

Model Minority emerges at a fascinating point in the evolution of Asian Americans, hip-hop and pop culture. Jin brought battle-tested cred. Koreatown’s Far East Movement has recently demonstrated commercial viability. There’s also the general bum-rush of social media by the likes of Hawaii’s Ryan Higa and the UC San Diego-founded Wong Fu Productions. Model Minority triangulates itself within all this, describing itself on Facebook as “The Wong Fu of rap. The Asia-centric dead prez. The 2010 Mountain Brothers. The activist Far East Movement.”

That self-description captures how the group fits into a new (media) breed of artists working with an array of outlets rather than solely fixated on a record contract. The Fung brothers are relocating from Seattle to Koreatown, but mostly to pursue comedy careers. Chu has more focused aspirations on professional music-making, but he’ll also be moving to Pasadena to attend the Fuller Theological Seminary, thus keeping his feet planted in multiple worlds too.

Yet, when needed, the three can quickly get the crew back together. They recently cut the standalone “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Sons,” deftly flipping doublets and triplets in a thoughtful engagement with Amy Chua and her ballyhooed book on parenting. Weeks later and they’re back to their separate projects. That’s the intriguing aspect of new-media performance today -- what may seem like a lack of permanence may instead be a reflection of how one can engage with creative expression through multiple forms without solely committing to any single one. As such, hip-hop hasn’t necessarily lost its relevance, or reverence among practitioners. But for rap natives of all stripes, the form has become an  important tool to master -- one of many hooked to people's belts.

-- Oliver Wang

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