Transcript: Hip Hop Redemption
Odd One In episode 1
ODD ONE IN is a podcast that shares stories of misfits making their own way. The show is hosted and produced by 2021 AIR New Voices Scholar Kristin Leong. This podcast is a production of ROCK PAPER RADIO. Listen and subscribe here.
Odd One In episode 1: Hip Hop Redemption
HOST KRISTIN LEONG: Hi friends, Kristin Leong here. And this is our very first episode of Odd One In. This is our podcast about outsiders making their own way. I'm so excited to be here with you. This show is a project of ROCK PAPER RADIO. That's our newsletter for misfits and unlikely optimists. You can subscribe for free and find this show at RockPaperRadio.com.
And now, before we dive in, since this is our first episode, I wanted to share a little about why everything I create ends up revolving around outsiders. It may have taken me a while to see the through lines, but when I look back at the last two decades of my work, people who've never neatly fit in anywhere, are at the heart of everything I do. And that makes sense. I'm a misfit myself in a lot of ways.
But if I had to call out one experience that really showed me that giving up trying to fit in was the only way I was going to make it in this world. It would be having my son on my own at 27. See, this was a long time ago. In my early days of being a parent, images of single moms pretty much came in two stereotypes: struggling teen moms, and privileged, middle aged women who were owning their solo parenting with pride. I was neither. I was a nightclub bartender with a baby. So as I watched my college friends, get married and start PhDs, I changed diapers and poured drinks. And I went back to school and realized, I'm gonna have to figure out my own path. It turned out being a mom - and then later becoming a middle school teacher - helped me to do that. Because the thing about kids is that they are weird, too. They just haven't figured out how to hide it yet. Like we get really good at as adults.
So. Here's my hope. I hope that this Odd One In podcast feels like a home for my fellow misfits. I hope that the stories you hear on this show of outsiders making their own way reminds you that your weirdness might just be your biggest asset. And not only for yourself and the people who already love you, but for the world.
After all, if it weren't for misfits doing their own thing, we wouldn't have electricity or airplanes or sushi burritos. I also hope that everything ROCK PAPER RADIO shares - from the newsletter, to our community events, to this podcast - becomes like a beacon, calling outsiders together to connect with each other. Because a freeing as it is to finally let go of trying to fit in, it can also get a little lonely sometimes. So let's do this. Together.
Here's what you're going to hear today. You're going to meet a Korean American misfit musician on the rise who launched his career after a night in jail talking to God while high on Ecstasy and Acid. Then I'm going to be joined by an old friend who happens to be Seattle's coolest professor, who I promise will forever change the way you understand a hip hop battle. For real. We have got a great show lined up and I am so glad you're here. I'm your host, Kristin Leong. And this is Odd One In.
OLD CHINGU: Because I could have gone one of two ways, you know. I could have kept, you know, abusing drugs and just get messed up and just die. You know, or go to jail. That's one path. Or the second path would have been, I would have just taken over for my parents' deli or uncle's food truck, and I would have just continued the food industry. You know. But without faith, I wouldn't be where I am now.
LEONG: That's 24-year-old Korean American musician Philip Lee, better known by his stage name, Old Chingu. It means "old friend" in Korean. Old Chingu's music is a mix of hip hop, pop, and...Christianity. It's an unlikely mix, but it's working for him. He just released his first full length album and one of his songs, Closer, recently passed over a million listens on Spotify.
[Old Chingu’s song Closer plays]
LEONG: His life now as an artist on the rise and also as a man of faith is a lot different than his life not too long ago. In 2015, Philip was picked up by the cops at a show. He was drinking and high on Ecstasy and Acid. They took them to the hospital and then they took him to jail. The whole time, high out of his mind, he thought he had died. He was 18-years-old.
OLD CHINGU: I was totally out of my mind, for sure. But in the jail, that was the first time where I'm like, okay, if I'm really dead, I literally have nothing to lose, right? I'm like, it's the first time, like, I really tried talking to God, or first time I like really tried to pray to God. It wasn't like a prayer to make my grandma happy at Thanksgiving. It was - it wasn't like, you know, a little prayer before I'm about to eat my meal. It was like, God, if you're real, can you give me a second chance? And I said, if you give me out of this, I will live for you. That's what I said.
LEONG: The next morning, Philip woke up in his cell still high, and still worried he might be actually dead and wandering around in some kind of in-between world. On the chance that he might be alive and still in the real world, once he was released, he set off to try to get back to his friends. As he left the jail and made his way to the bus stop, Philip wept.
OLD CHINGU: I look so out of place - Asian kid with a trippy t-shirt, you know, from EDM concert, like, in downtown Hampton, Virginia, You know, I just look super out of place. And I'm crying so much - the most I've ever cried that day - because I'm 18, I'm thinking, like, I really died?! Like, you know, what are my friends gonna do? What are my parents? The girl I was dating, you know, we could have got married. I walked by a dog poster, and I said, I didn't even get a dog! You know, I really think I'm dead. You know. [laughs]
LEONG: Phillip eventually made his way back to his friends. And although it took a few days, he also eventually sobered up and realized he hadn't died. He had gotten his second chance. He resolved right then to change his life. He stopped partying. But because they were still in the scene, he lost almost all of his friends. He started focusing on his music. He decided that this would be how he would share his new faith with the world. But first, he had to break into the hip hop scene as a Korean MC. That was complicated. But he says things are changing.
OLD CHINGU: Now is like it's almost, it's almost tight to be Korean. It's almost tight to be Asian. Because they'll be like, Oh, Squid Games? I'm like, yeah, yeah, just like that.
LEONG: In his early days of performing in Baltimore, Old Chingu was often the only Asian guy in the room, let alone on stage. He says standing out was an advantage. But the pressure that came with that - it was real.
OLD CHINGU: I come into any, like, room or whatever, it's open mic or something. It's like, yo, why is this Jackie Chan man in here? And every time it's always just like, it may stem from like insecurity or like, "no, you're not supposed to be here, you don't fit in," but once I perform, they're like, "Okay, I get it. You know, I respect it."
LEONG: In some ways, Philip Lee has been preparing to become Old Chingu his whole life. He said he's always felt like an outsider. Early on, he stopped hanging out with other Asian kids. He said their interests felt "stereotypical" to him. Homework, piano practice. What Phillip doesn't say is how that opinion of his Asian peers reflected how he felt about being a second-generation Korean American himself. By high school, Phillip was known as the class clown. And most of his friends are Black, Latino, or White. He moved in and out of a lot of different social circles - from jocks, to nerds, to the drug dealers.
OLD CHINGU: It always felt like I could just bounce everywhere. But the challenge for me was like, I didn't feel at home in any of these places.
LEONG: Old Chingu told me his new album, Anxious Kids, is for misfit teenagers who are like he was growing up. He says it's for restless college students and 20-somethings who are asking themselves, "What am I going to do? Who am I going to be?" There's even a track called Coming of Age.
[Old Chingu’s song Coming of Age plays]
LEONG: When he's talking about the album, he sounds like an enthusiastic youth pastor selling hard work and light at the end of the tunnel. This is Old Chingu's baseline tone these days. He's upbeat, funny, and constantly rallying all of his fans to be better versions of themselves. But the title track, Anxious Kids, is different from his usual catalogue. It's slower, with more R&B influences.
[Old Chingu’s song Anxious Kids plays]
LEONG: At first, Old Chingu tells me that this song is for his partner, and then that it's for the misfit kid he used to be. But then as he kept talking, I couldn't shake the sense that the audience for this track is actually Phillip's family, and the anxious kid that he still is today, despite his success.
OLD CHINGU: I wish I could tell my parents about my passion, but they just kind of want me to get into a normal job.
LEONG: Growing up, Old Chingu's parents worked long hours at the deli they owned in Maryland. He was in charge of looking after his little brother while they worked late. When they did have a chance to share a meal together as a family. He says there was never much talking. Sometimes when he'd go to the houses of his non-Asian friends, he'd help wash the dishes, just to swap stories with their parents. He said he always felt jealous of his friends' relationships with their families.
OLD CHINGU: As a kid, I didn't know my worth as much growing up. It's just like, because my parents wouldn't tell me like, "good job," or like, "I love you." It would be, "Have you eaten yet?" And that's the greatest - and that's, that's awesome. But like, you know, at the same time, I grew up not feeling like I had a lot of worth.
LEONG: "Have you eaten yet?" For a lot of us in Asian families, food, and this question in particular, is our love language. The more I listen to Old Chingu talk about his parents, I realized his feelings of being a misfit didn't start in middle school, when he decided he didn't want to hang out with the Asian kids anymore. It started at home. When he talks about his mom and dad, it's like there's a gap between them, that he still can't figure out how to bridge.
OLD CHINGU: We're living totally different lives. Totally different generations. I'm second-generation, and they come from - their parents will beat them, you know, for not doing what they what they said to do - work hard. And that work ethic has stuck with me. But there's so many different things that I've grown to learn here that my parents have no idea about. So explaining that, or having those conversations can be tough. It's definitely better now. But yeah, in the moment, like growing up, it was tough for sure.
LEONG: These days, Old Chingu says his parents are starting to take more of an interest in his music career. He also says that if he has fans out there who are feeling his music, but who are not moved to follow his faith, that's okay. At the end of the day, he has to keep doing what he believes in. And if his work isn't for everyone, whether because he's Christian or Asian or not classically Hip Hop enough. He knows there are still a lot of people out there looking for great music.
OLD CHINGU: Let's create something that people have not heard before. Let's create something that we want to listen to. And really just reach different people, different demographics that aren't typically reached.
[Old Chingu song plays]
LEONG: That was musician Phillip Lee, AKA Old Chingu. His debut album is Anxious Kids. You can find a link to it along with this episode and photos of Old Chingu in our newsletter, where at RockPaperRadio.com. I'm Kristin Leong. I'm your host and you're listening to Odd One In and we are heading into our final segment of the show for which I am thrilled to be joined by Hip Hop professor extraordinaire and my old friend, Dr. Daudi Abe. Daudi, welcome to the show.
DR. ABE: Kristin, thank you so much for having me. I'm happy to be here for this launch. Congratulations to you.
LEONG: Thanks, Daudi. Dr. Daudi Abe is a Professor of Humanities at Seattle Central College. He's also the author of Emerald Street: A History of Hip Hop in Seattle, which by the way, includes a foreword by none other than Seattle's own Sir Mix-A-Lot. Now, Daudi, real quick for our listeners who are meeting you for the first time, can you share a bit about your cultural backgrounds and how you identify?
DR. ABE: Yes, so I am - my father I mentioned is an immigrant. He immigrated to the United States from Uganda, where he met my mother, a White woman. They moved to Seattle in the fall of 1970, where my dad took a position as the first - and at that time only - Black instructor at North Seattle Community College. And so as I identify as a Black, hetero male, that is in his early 50s.
LEONG: Thanks, Daudi. So, we just went on a journey with Old Chingu. And so much of what he shared was about his path was about how he's always felt like an outsider - and not just as a Korean emcee in hip hop, but also as a second-gen son, and even amongst his Asian peers as a child. Of course this Odd One In podcast and our partner ROCK PAPER RADIO newsletter are meant to be a sort of haven for misfits So Daudi, you know I have to ask because you are I have known each other for a long time - so I can imagine that as you were pioneering a history of hip hop college class 20-something years ago, you were probably rocking a Kangol hat and kicks like you do today. So what I'm wondering is, are there parts of Old Chingu's story that you personally relate to? Have there been times where you have felt like a misfit too, especially in your early days as a professor?
DR. ABE: As I'm hearing you speak and kind of ask that question, I'm thinking about how, back about how I relished that time feeling like an outsider. Because at that time, it kind of felt like hip hop was ours. And, you know, it's not for, you know, the people out there in the mainstream, it's not for them. You know what I'm saying. That's why they don't like it, because it's not for them. And so I - and as it started to get more popular, I remember being like, you know, having some angst about it. Like, oh, now all of a sudden, now now, people want to be that. You know what I'm saying. You didn't want to listen to it, you know, MTV, you don't want to play it. You know, a few years ago, now, Yo! MTV Raps is your most popular show. I mean, so.
So there was some defensiveness and there was some uncertainty as the culture started to grow. This is kind of circling back to your, to your question about the whole misfit thing is, you know, people asking me what I would teach. And I would tell them, well, you know, a hip hop class. You know, obviously everybody in higher ed already thinks that they're the smartest person in the room, no matter what room they go into. So, you know, I started I would, I would get these responses of like, "Oh, interesting. Oh, that's cute." You know, I'm saying people would just kind of "a hip hop class, really, in college? Awww, aren't you-- isn't that special," you know, I'm saying that kind of thing. So definitely within kind of the sphere of academia, I can I can definitely feel about the idea of being kind of viewed and treated as a misfit.
LEONG: Daudi, what can you tell us about the history of diversity in hip hop?
DR. ABE: The notion, kind of the mainstream narrative, that hip hop was always, and always has been, and is still today, to a large extent, a Black thing. There is truth and there is also some myth in there. Certainly, the hip hop movement, hip hop culture comes out of the African American experience, but in practice, it has always been as multicultural as the United States itself.
LEONG: And in fact, Asian representation in hip hop is nothing new. Let's talk about 2 Live Crew for a minute. Two Live Crew, of course, is one of the most famous and notorious hip hop crews in history. They were really the first hip hop group to rise to mainstream fame in the 80s and 90s. And one of their front men was Chinese. What can you tell us about 2 Live Crew and their co-founder, Christopher Wong Won, one better known as Fresh Kid Ice?
DR. ABE: Fresh Kid Ice represented one of the few Asians, right, in early hip hop. And not only was he just a guy in a group, but he was one of the guys in one of the largest groups and one of the most popular groups of all time. It's my understanding that he was born in Trinidad, Tobago, but his ancestry is Chinese.
LEONG: Right. And, in fact, his debut solo album was called The Chinaman. Let's take a listen. This is From the Bottom to the Top by Fresh Kid Ice from that album.
[Fresh Kid Ice song From the Bottom to the Top plays]
LEONG: Now Daudi, I was hard pressed to find even part of a 2 Live Crew or Fresh Kid Ice track that we could share on this family friendly episode. What role did sex and shock value play in bringing hip hop to mainstream listeners?
DR. ABE: You know, if you were around in the 80s, in the late 80s, you kind of are in the early 90s, you kind of remember 2 Live Crew as this over-the-top, got into this whole thing with the Supreme Court about freedom of speech because of the tone and the content of their records, which was heavily sexually explicit. And in a lot of ways, the group itself was pioneering not, you know, not only in the sense of the X-rated material, the kind of blue material that they were releasing, but also pushing the envelope. And in a lot of ways, they were one of the primary groups responsible for the parental advisory stickers that started showing up on albums in the late 80s.
LEONG: Ah, yes, those familiar black and white parental advisory stickers. Those were like a beacon to us growing up. I think we can safely thank those stickers for propelling hip hop into the mainstream. Now. That court case you mentioned that was in 1992 after a sheriff tried to ban the sale of 2 Live Crew's album because it was so sexually graphic. 2 Live Crew winning that case was framed as a win for the First Amendment. What striking to me about all of this is that here we have the pioneers of hip hop, rapping so explicitly about sex and women, that they end up in court in a fight that sparked a national debate about misogyny, artistic integrity, and freedom of speech. And one of the front men of the group is an Asian rapper. Now, this explodes so many mainstream stereotypes about Asians and Asian Americans. You know, Fresh Kid Ice's work is in complete contrast to that "model minority" image of Asians is quiet, well behaved, and for Asian men at least, as asexual. And yet, despite Fresh Kid Ice and 2 Live Crew becoming nearly synonymous with hip hop itself, because of that case, anti-Asian exclusion and stereotypes in the hip hop community still seem to persist today, which Old Chingu alludes to, in regards to his own journey, even if he indicates that things are starting to change for the better. Daudi, how do you make sense of that?
DR. ABE: You know, even within hip hop, and even within this culture, that is, is made from struggle and it favors the underdog, and it, you know, leans on struggle, that even with all of those things being true, that there are still elements of prejudice and bias and people not knowing, you know what I'm saying, where to draw the line in terms of, of at least acting like you have a little respect for other people and their stories and where they come from.
LEONG: Let's talk more about drawing that line. Daudi, in your book, Emerald Street, you share a story about one particular victory for underdogs from the early days of hip hop involving Filipino American rapper Geologic from Blue Scholars. What happened there?
DR. ABE: That's talking about a freestyle battle where there was a White guy, and he was kind of, he was facing like, three maybe, Asian American rappers in terms of his opponent in this freestyle competition. He started going for just the lame kind of stereotype rhyme type of stuff. No matter where they were from, calling them "tourists." You know, "You need your camera. So you can take more pictures," and stuff like that. You know what I'm saying, and so I think that guy, this White guy ended up winning the competition that year. And there was there was discussion, or when it happened, there was discussion around, you know, how's this guy just going - you know, is that okay? How's that okay, you know, within hip hop, for this to be happening? And so, the next year, Geo, ended up facing this guy, the previous year's winner, in like the round of 16. It was like a bracket tournament. And he faces this guy in a round of 16 and ends up eliminating him, while in the process of bringing up some of the racist stuff that he had said in the previous year's contest in his freestyle. You know what I'm saying, to put him off. I just felt like that was tremendous poetic justice.
LEONG: Wait, wait, wait, hold up for a second. We're all familiar with a picture of a high stakes freestyle battle where rappers are trading insults and taking witty shots at each other in order to take down their opponents. But are you saying that racism is one step too far?
DR. ABE: That is - that would have to be subjective. You know what I'm saying. However, in the story that I'm referencing that I was talking about from the book, yeah, there were there were - I mean, and this was, you know, this is this is someone like Geo, who was doing the questioning. And he you know, he was kind of like, okay, I understand it's a freestyle battle. And I understand you're supposed to go in on people. And that's how you win a battle like that. But, you know, we understand that. That's part of hip hop. But then, on the other side, where is that line? Is that line always a big, bright, shiny line? Or does that line sometimes get blurred? Would it have been okay, for one Asian rapper, Asian American rapper, to go in on another Asian American rapper like that? You know, take out the White guy who was doing it. What if this was two Asian guys? Would that have been okay? I mean, so it can be complicated. And like I said, it is subjective. But there was certainly people who were saying that stuff that that guy was saying - that non-Asian guy was saying to Asian people, that was out of bounds. So there was certainly discussion around that.
LEONG: And here we are still today, all these years later, still having a version of that discussion. You know, and I'm here for it. I think that when the conversation gets complicated, that's where things get interesting. And that's where real change starts to happen.
DR. ABE: That's a real thing.
LEONG: Daudi, it has been fascinating talking with you today, as always, I am so grateful to be kicking off Odd One In with you.
DR. ABE: Ah, Kristin, it was it was my pleasure. Again, congratulations. And I would like to just give a shout out to Old Chingu and wish him the best on his career and just encourage him to keep being himself.
LEONG: Thanks, Daudi. That's great advice for all of us. And that's our show. This has been our first episode of Odd One In. We're a podcast about misfits making their own way. This show is a production of ROCK PAPER RADIO. My guest today was Seattle Central College professor, Dr. Daudi Abe. His book is Emerald Street: A History of Hip Hop in Seattle. Earlier we heard the story of Philip Lee, also known as Old Chingu. His debut album is Anxious Kids.
The music you heard today was by Old Chingu and his producing partner Tyler Parker. You also heard a track by Fresh Kid Ice, rest in peace. You can find this story as well as photos and links to Old Chingu's music and Dr. Abe's book in our newsletter. We're at RockPaperRadio.com. And while you're there, subscribing for free, find us on Instagram and Twitter too. We're @RockPaperRadio.
This episode of Odd One In was made possible with generous support from The Slants Foundation, which works at the intersection of arts and activism to amplify underrepresented voices, especially those within our Asian American communities. You can learn more at TheSlants.org This episode was written and produced by me. Yowei Shaw and Diana Opong provided editorial support. Our sound design is by Matt Martin.
I'm Kristin Leong. I've been your host. You can find me on Instagram @leongstagram, and I'm on Twitter @KristinLeong. Thanks for listening, friends. Until next time, stay weird and be kind. This has been episode one of Odd One In.