In a loud, poorly lit side street off Wilshire, wrapped around a parking plaza filled with Maseratis and Range Rovers, I watched the youthful elite of Los Angeles’ Koreatown coalesce around the uniting factor that gives people from all walks of life—even backpack-wearing joe shmoes like me—the opportunity to meet: Korean BBQ. I had gotten the opportunity to talk to Sean Miyashiro and Jonathan Park (better known as DUMBFOUNDEAD) about their new music collective CXSHXNLY. A working conglomerate of first generation artists across the globe, bridging the gap between the mother culture they were raised in and the hip-hop culture that took them in as youth, the emergence of CXSHXNLY is providing a face to a new development arising in the rap world; with Miyashiro as its main creative mind and founder, and DUMBFOUNDEAD as its inaugural artist.
As we witness the broadening of the overall perspective and reach of hip-hop around the world and the addition of new indigenous takes on the culture, collectives like CXSHXNLY are capitalizing on the skills and intimate connection to the culture that they’ve developed here in the States, focusing on bringing the native potential of hip-hop artists overseas to light—most evident with their artist Keith Ape and his still-buzzing viral hit “It G Ma.” This display of the appeal of international rappers – who don’t necessarily look like what we traditionally expect—is the future of hip-hop and represents the culture’s beautiful ability to absorb new contributors to revitalize its core.
We mobbed around Koreatown talking to CXSHXNLY about the success of Keith Ape, what it’s like to be an Asian-American in the rap world, similarities between immigrant and rap culture, and the markets overseas bubbling with native rappers to develop.
SENAY KENFE: Can you describe, for you, your experience growing up here in Koreatown?
DUMBFOUNDEAD: I mean, Koreatown is one of those ill, rare, hipster-type spots with no hipsters. Growing up, that’s what it felt like—it felt like, “Oh damn, this is like a dope cultural place that hipsters would fucking love.” 20 years later, they ended up moving in here and they love it. But it’s just dope cause there’s still places to this day that are fucking delicious that don’t even have the menus translated in English which is kinda dope. But, it is getting gentrified still, kind of at a slower pace, cause cats still hold it down culturally. It’s dope. It’s a good mixture of hood and hipster.
It’s very interesting to see you here, as far as like the west coast, with the presence you have within the battle scene. You were one of the earlier contributors, like Grindtime and stuff like that, and now you’re seeing this whole renaissance of attention towards that realm. How do you feel about that transition?
DFD: I mean it’s dope. The battle shit was one thing, but I always wanted to get into the music world and also kind of—I’ve also been an advocate for pushing more diversity in music, which also means, as far as Asians and hip-hop, especially me being one of the only Asian American artists in the states, it’s always rare for me to find other Asian American musicians, so when we formed CXSHXNLY, that is actually one of our main goals: to push more Asian faces, as well as anybody coming from an immigrant background, more in that forefront of the music. So, that’s kind of our mission statement and the reason I joined up with CXSHXNLY, and our roster as well. Because when I look around the roster, there’s so many different backgrounds that you don’t see in hip-hop. Like, a cat from Korea who don’t even speak English that well; a Taiwanese cat or Korean-American cat from Koreatown, Los Angeles who comes from the battle world and has heard every Asian joke from under the sun. It’s cool.
“THE GOAL IS TO BECOME THE MOST WAVY, ICONIC CREW OF CATS SINCE VOLTRON.”
That’s kind of a play on words “CXSHXNLY” as well. It’s like those two things that we saw at liquor stores or hood businesses when you go in the hood, you know? And a lot of them are owned by immigrants, and a lot of them—they just wanted to get the cash, directly, you know? Like, “Fuck credit cards, fuck that shit, give me the cash, we’re trying to survive here, we’re trying to live.” That’s kind of the essence we’re trying to bring to the music as well, like being the offspring of the cats who came here. A lot of us don’t even come from the music. A lot of our parents don’t speak English, they didn’t play hip-hop at the crib growing up. These are things we discovered on our own being immigrant children.
SEAN MIYASHIRO: I think we represent the first part, which is what Dumb was talking about, is the hope and the dream. Just trying, hustling, trying to make it, and then the opposite end of the spectrum of actually the feeling of victory and making it. We represent the opposite ends, the beginning and the end and everything in between, the journey to get there, which is what CXSHXNLY is trying to represent for not only Asian immigrants, but for all immigrants. Every immigrant has the same kind of experience in America, from Latino Americans to Jews to Italian Americans, it’s like all the same and we’re trying to embody that dream.
DFD: At the same time though, we’re not trying to put out music that’s just struggle. I think art, existence itself, is the dream and the hope being alive. The music is so different and alternative we don’t even have to touch on that to show that we are already part of the culture.
What do you think are the advantages, the two of you, of being first generation—the advantages of being immigrant children engrained within this hip-hop world? Or just... being absorbed in parts of American culture and synthesizing it with your own?
DFD: Well I think specifically if you’re talking about hip-hop music, that already, to me, is very reminiscent of immigrant hustle. The hip-hop hustle and the immigrant hustle are very similar. If you’re looking at South Bronx and black culture itself is very similar to the immigrant culture. We’re still minorities in music. I don’t think we’re coming at it on some cultural appropriation shit, we’re coming at it very similar to the actual struggle itself, not unheard voices. Asian Americans are the last ones invited to the party as far as mainstream media goes. Mother thuggers are gonna hear us and we don’t see ourselves. We got tired of that shit and cats you see now, we’re extra loud about it cause we want young cats to look at us and be like, “Oh shit these motherfuckers who look like me are doing it.” I know when I was growing up I didn’t see anybody like that.
SM: The difference too between a lot of Asian musicians out there is that they’re done by a process, like a manufactured thing backed by a billion dollar publicly traded company. You have artists like Dok2 from Korea saying we don’t have a shit with “It G Ma,” but he won’t be saying that once this remix drops and he sees how much this song resonates in a country that has NEVER embraced an Asian hip-hop artist the way Keith is getting love. These are dreams money can’t buy, fam. Keith is already a legend, no matter what happens because he has already made his mark in music history.
We’re coming at it from a completely different, very organic point of view—we don’t need bitches that look alike dancing like NSYNC or reality television shows or gimmicks. We know what we want to do. For instance, Keith Ape: there’s so many people from Atlanta and everywhere across the borders and different genres—from Southside of 808 Mafia to cats like Skrillex that are just embracing us and really fucking with what we’re doing and really appreciating what we stand for so its a great feeling to realize we are onto something hopefully important.
DFD: Like what he was saying about being manufactured, that’s a huge thing even in Asian culture. You’ve seen in obviously with K-Pop. There’s even rappers in Korea buying collaborations. With Keith, it was literally like, he put out a song, “It G Ma,” and people were fucking with, reaching out to him, wanting to collaborate, wanting to throw in beats. It was very natural. He wasn’t trying to buy into the culture... But, I think now it’s kind of the opposite way where as before, Asian cats in Asia wanted to be cool so they wanted to fuck with American culture. Now American culture is looking at certain Asian cats and being like, “This shit is cool. Yeah I want to have this Asian influence in my shit.” So the table is kind of turning a little bit.
Left: Sean Miyashiro, Right: DumbFounDead
I want to come back to Keith, cause you guys made a good point. Cause before when you see a lot of Asian American rappers connecting within hip-hop, for example like Jin becoming connected to Ruff Ryders, well now you see, as we’re witnessing on CXSHXNLY, you’re seeing a new generation—you guys are taking the aspects of what you’ve learned and creating your own organic businesses and labels with it. Can you describe where the idea of starting your own, in the indie sense, where that comes from?
SM: Great question; inherently, we are all extremely passionate individually with how we perceive and want to communicate our personal art. Naturally, we are indie-minded in a sense of not packaging anything in ways that are out of any creative boundary we hold. The biggest difference between CXSHXNLY and basically anyone coming from Asia, or artists who so happen to be Asian, is our single-mindedness in building a home for amazing art, for a very fucking long time. Longevity and constant learning, is what separates us… we are breaking new ground and will deliver on our own promise with really fucking good music. We have an amazing Taiwanese artist named Josh Pan that, mark my words, is going to take over the world. His record is legendary; I’m so damn excited for that to drop. It really embodies our spirit.
“WE REPRESENT THE OPPOSITE ENDS, THE BEGINNING AND THE END AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN, THE JOURNEY TO GET THERE, WHICH IS WHAT CXSHXNLY IS TRYING TO REPRESENT FOR NOT ONLY ASIAN IMMIGRANTS, BUT FOR ALL IMMIGRANTS.”
DFD: We definitely want to push Asians in the forefront with music and stuff, and I think with hip-hop and beats, that’s a great medium to start at. Cause obviously it’s the generation’s music. We’re not emulating anybody else’s shit, we’re actually telling our own stories. We’re not making up no stories, we’re sharing our stories. Like I know I like to incorporate a lot of references and things about where I come from as far as my immigrant background to Asian shit even in the thing. You know before, when I was growing up, I didn’t want to share that shit because I was like, “No one’s gonna know this or that” but I realized, yo, that’s the beauty about hip-hop. You can say these things that cats won’t even know and they’ll look it up and they’ll figure that shit out.
SM: And it makes your lyrics more unique.
DFD: It does. It’s shit that no one’s heard. Like how often do you hear even words like ‘immigrant’ in a lyric? Because cats, a lot of them, maybe they don’t come from that or maybe it’s something they don’t want to share or whatever. But honestly at this point, especially where we’re at in the world right now, these are the things where that’s where a lot of people come from. You’re going to have more people sharing this as immigrants get older and they’re at the point where they can actually spit shit. They’re gonna share these stories. Like, you’re gonna have maybe a gay rapper talking about his experiences coming up in the future. These are all things that are gonna happen, things are changing.
And there’s a market for it.
DFD: Exactly. And there will be a market and people will be more accepting of it. Rap has changed too. It’s become a lot less misogynistic and dudes can talk about their feelings more in rap. Where ten years ago you might not have seen a Drake.
Now, going back to Keith, can you speak on the relationship you guys have with Keith, how that started, how you found him, and what does it mean to catch on with him in the future?
DFD: Oh yeah, so how it all started was I linked up with Sean and Sean started managing me a couple months ago and pretty much we were out drinking to celebrate and stuff in Koreatown and he was asking me, “Yo what kind of shit are you playing, [what] are you listening to?” and I just named a bunch of stuff and I mentioned Keith’s song “It G Ma” with a bunch of Asian rappers and it was kind of early stages where the video wasn’t viral yet. I put him on to it and he checked it out and was like freaking out. All of these cats were starting to hit Keith up in Korea and Sean was like, “Yo, let me just help you.” And we ended up mobbing with him to fucking SXSW and it was like a mob of Asian motherfuckers... From there we just saw dots connecting where we have Keith; we have me, who’s an Asian American artist; and we have Josh Pan, who kind of came in the mix and it was like, “Yo, this could be a movement right here,” you know? So we came up with CXSHXNLY. Everything really just happened so fast.
SM: Really naturally too. With “It G Ma” I showed my girlfriend the song when I got back to NYC and she was like, “This is dope.” She is a good baromater for shit [and later] got obsessed with watching “It G Ma” reaction videos, and I was just like, Wow, fans love this, and for me, it was different to see black kids and Latino kids going ape shit to an Asian dude’s music. You can’t create this. Now I just hope that I can take everything I’ve learned and really help Keith cultivate his vision and make it a reality. He is such a hands on, driven, and savage, hardworking artist. He has a strong vision for who he is and where he wants to go… myself and my boy Tom Ngeezy are there to help him get there along with the rest of the squad.
DFD: [It happened] really naturally and real fast. And there was just an occurring theme there so we were like, “Yo lets just run with this shit.” Josh Pan [just signed and is] about to release his EP with Skrillex. I’m working on my shit. It just all made sense. Really organically, kind of not the way a Korean label would work for Keith. Over there, they’ll take 89 percent of your shit and they own you. Over here Sean was already doing mad shit for Keith without even signing anything. It was just based on word of mouth.
Can you talk about the potential Asian market in regards to hip-hop and how a lot of artists can fly under the radar here in America and be massive stars in Asia and have very lucrative careers?
DFD: There’s a huge untapped market over there. And honestly a lot of it does start from the states though. They’re very influenced by what’s going on over here. I think, like Keith over there, they didn’t even fuck with “It G Ma” heavy until Keith came out to the states and those cats started seeing this fool in pictures with Waka and fucking Ferg and people were like “Oh shit, this motherfucker making noise in America?” That alone, those Instagram pictures, created an appearance for them. And then it got ears on the music eventually. It’s like the youth shit isn’t poppin’. They’re still trying to ball out there with Rolls Royce and Bentley and shit. You still got that here, but the cooler, newer shit is some other punk rock type shit. I think Keith is more coming from that world.
“THESE ARE DREAMS MONEY CAN’T BUY, FAM.”
Where does this brotherly aspect of CXSHXNLY come from? ...Describe how you guys have been able to bring all these other [races together]? I mean, how the youth in this generation have been able to even out whatever past type shit.
DFD: It’s become universal where cats aren’t even—the language isn’t even a barrier anymore, which is fucking crazy. I’m not saying it’s common; it is a phenomenon. Even with Keith, him being able to resonate here doing Korean rap is fucking rare. I think you needed a lot of elements with him. I think people see the swag and see the look and feel of him and it seems very original, as opposed to someone trying to emulate it. I’m not gonna say it’s something that’s common. Only two cats who have ever even done that are like Psy with “Gangnam Style” and Keith with “It G Ma.” And those are two very extreme ends of shit. And me, I’m more like a cat here, made my own buzz and niche on the independent level. So being a part of this is exciting for me, even on a behind-the-scenes level. I love doing my shit but also helping a cat like that out—it helps me feel inspired.
Can you guys talk about the power of the Internet and how social media has helped CXSHXNLY expand in ways that traditional marketing...
SM: We haven’t launched yet officially. This is like the first thing. But we got a New York Times article, we got all this shit coming out, based on everything that we’re talking about. For Keith, and for everything we’re trying to do, the Internet was everything. World Star picking up “It G Ma,” that shit went viral as fuck too. I think for everything that we do, if we really embrace the heart of what we’re trying to do and communicate that with our art, social media will be everything to us. We’re just gonna try to do all of it and collaborate with cats like you guys.
DFD: But people have to like it. The really cool thing about the “It G Ma” stuff is like—even when Psy blew up with “Gangnam Style,” Psy was already a huge star in Korea. That video had a huge fucking budget. “It G Ma” was a video they shot in a hotel room in Korea, one take, on an SLR camera. That naturally, naturally, went fucking viral. Which is very, very cool. I still find it cool. And honestly I don’t think it’s reached the peak as far as viral and shit, like 7 or 8 million is not really that viral anymore. We’re talking about “Gangnam Style” which got that number in like half a day. I’m really excited to see where it goes because even the collaboration that Keith is doing right now is very interesting.
What’s the future for CXSHXNLY? What do you guys see the future as being?
SM: The goal is to become the most wavy, iconic crew of cats since VOLTRON. We want what we create to become meaningful, bring people joy, give people feeling, and also show the world that Asians don’t just do KPOP and weak ass manufactured shit.
DFD: Because that exists. I know, being an Asian American artist, when I was younger I tried to deny [myself]—I had identity issues—I wasn’t trying to be out there flexing Asian shit. But I gotta realize after all these years, when I’m doing shows and I’m on stage, motherfuckers will see an Asian dude on stage. I can’t escape that. You gotta understand that, you gotta be okay with yourself and then move forward from there. So I think we kind of flipped it on the whole end of that being like, we’re going full force with it instead of running away from it.
SM: Next week we launch CXSHXNLY through a historic release, and from then on, everything is limitless. Keith is working on so much material, Josh Pan record dropping at the end of summer, and Brian Puspos will be that new face of R&B, on some Tevin Campbell!
Photos by Julian Berman. Group shot courtesy of CXSHXNLY.