Interview with: JIN
Awhile ago I interviewed Chinese-American rapper Jin about his most recent album, ABC, which was recorded entirely in Cantonese.
Jin first gained popularity as a contestant on BET’s 106&Park show as a battle rapper. ABC marks a departure for Jin not only because of the switch-up in language, but also because he trades in his typical braggadocio for more personal songwriting (and here I’m going by reports, as I don’t speak or understand Cantonese).
Jef: So where are you right now?
Jin: I’m in New York right now.
What are you up to this week?
Just got off doing a couple shows and whatnot…But this week? Nuthin! I’m going to Shanghai in a couple of weeks.
Are you touring in support of the “ABC” album?
Yeah. A combination of that and also just exploring other opportunities that are out there.
So I was listening to the new album…I don’t understand any of it man.
So for your fans that don’t speak Cantonese, what’s the gist of the album? Is it a concept album?
Oh definitely. I think on all levels it certainly is. The concept of it is really like the whole ABC thing, which is an acronym for “American Born Chinese.” And that’s a title that’s been around way before me. It’s a term they use to label Chinese that were born here in the States. And there’s so many different perspectives to it. You got like the people back in Hong Kong or the Mainland who look at Chinese that were born in American as not as Chinese as they are. Then you have some that kind of envy ABCs, because ultimately a lot of times their goal is to immigrate over here and start a new life anyway. So it’s really an interesting situation, being an ABC. That’s what this album is all about.
How did the idea come about?
One of the questions I’ve always been asked, especially early in my career, is “Do you speak Chinese, and would you consider doing an album in Chinese?” And I was always really nonchalant about it, like, “Whatever. I’ve got an English album I’m trying to put out!” [laughs] But fast-forward six, seven years later, I was in Hong Kong. I just got the proverbial light-bulb over my head, and I knew it was time. I wanted to do an album in Cantonese. So I came back home and went to the studio, and banged it out in like two or three days. And here we are now.
Hip-hop in general always deals with race and identity. Has being involved with hip-hop from such a young age helped you to pursue your own heritage?
You know, I’ve always thought that the most beautiful thing for me has been that I was raised in an unorthodox household, being that my parents were young when they had me. So they were open-minded…but only to a certain extent. Because at the same time they were very traditional. We spoke Cantonese at home. Celebrated all of the cultural events, you know the Lunar New Years, and real just day-to-day stuff even. There’s just certain principles and values that are instilled in you as a child. And I’m blessed to say I was raised in that upbringing. But what hip-hop did, when I really got into hip-hop, was, in a sense, it created a clash. Because the biggest brick wall that I ran into when I really started getting into rap music and hip-hop was within my family structure. You know, my mom and dad were leaders of the anti-rap parade. They were at the front with picket signs. “No, we will not have our son doing that.” And you know, there was a lot of conflict at that point. I’m talking like 10 years ago. But I look back on it, and I don’t even blame them for it. I think overall it’s probably just a communication thing, and beyond that, it’s just their perception of what hip-hop may have been. And how can I blame them? All they knew of it was what they saw on the news and the TV, which was the “Rapper Arrested,” blah blah blah, “Shot at Concert,” blah blah blah. And that’s just only within the family structure.
Then I definitely ran into brick walls and obstacles outside of that. Being just general day-to-day people on some, “Yo look at Jin. He thinks he’s black.” And what really does that mean? He thinks he’s black. He’s trying to be black. So all of these different things is kind of the experience I went through. I convey it a lot of the times in my music. I wouldn’t change it though. I think all of that stuff made me who I am today.
I was surprised because your flow in Cantonese sounds pretty much the same as it does in English.
A lot people actually ask me, “Did you write a rhyme in English and then translate it? Like how did you do it?” And I was like…that sounds logical…but that wouldn’t really work! So what I did, I actually composed the lyrics in Cantonese. And being that I don’t know how to read or write the language–I speak it only and understand it, and there’s actually a song on the album called “Speak Can’t Read” which basically says that–so what I had to do was like…I don’t know if you’re looking at documentaries, like the Jay-Z one, “Fade to Black?
[Jay-Z] kind of broke down the process of how he was recording, where it was like he was more or less putting it together as he was recording it. As opposed to the traditional pen and paper and writing out a rhyme? That’s kind of how I did it and it worked perfectly.
You must relate to that process more because your freestyling background, right?
Exactly. Well you know I think the whole concept of freestyling and writing a rhyme, it almost goes hand in hand anyways because when you’re writing a rhyme, it all starts out as a freestyle at some point.
You’ve got Ken Oak on the album. You’ve got Daniel Wu on the album. These are guys I would not have expected to hear on a Jin album. One’s a traditional cellist, the other is a guy mostly known as an actor–
Yeah, Ken Oak is ill! That song itself, is called “Wun Lern Chon.” So I had that song done and me and the producer was like, “Yo this song is so ill.” It’s probably the most powerful song on the record as far as relating to social issues and themes that many people can relate to, Asian or not.
That’s the one track where, even though I couldn’t understand what you were saying, I could really feel it.
Exactly. So sonically we were just like, “Man we should get somebody to play that.” And [the producer] happened to know Ken Oak. Like I knew of him, but I had never met him before. But they had made music together, and [the producer] got him in there to play those strings live, and it just made it so much more lively. Once I heard the final version, I was like, “Yo, this sounds like a whole new song.” Then the other one, the one with Daniel…it’s funny because the concept of that record is about me dreaming and fantasizing about being a Hong Kong superstar. So were just like, “How ill would be to actually get a Hong Kong superstar on this?
And I had met Daniel a couple of years back when I went to Hong Kong for a show. And you know he’s just like this mega mega big icon out there on the movie tip. He was BIG, just churning out films. And we approached him with the concept of the record and he was like, “I’m with it.”