Korean-American Rapper Changing The Face Of Hip-Hop

Korean-American rapper Dumbfoundead used to get the mic pulled out of his hands at rap battles. But the Los Angeles artist has steadily won fans and made a name for himself in the world of hip-hop. Host Michel Martin talks with NPR'S Karen Grigsby Bates about what his success says about the evolution of rap.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

But first, speaking of race and politics, now we want to tell you about a new voice in rap from Los Angeles who has some new things to say. His name is Dumbfoundead. He's a Korean-American MC and, though he's young, he's already spent years trying to convince skeptics that he's the real thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COOL AND CALM")

DUMBFOUNDEAD: (Singing) Another underdog story for the books, but I promise that the story is as torn as I look. Waiting at the bus stop to touring on a bus, when the going gets tough, I keep it up. All I know is keep it cool.

MARTIN: That's Dumbfoundead performing the song, "Cool and Calm," from his 2011 release, "DFD." Bringing us his story is Karen Grigsby Bates. She's part of Code Switch. That's a new reporting team at NPR that's digging into stories about race, ethnicity and culture.

Welcome back, Karen. Thanks for joining us.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Thanks, Michel. It's great to be back here.

MARTIN: Before we dig deeper into Dumbfoundead's story, I wanted to talk to you a little bit more about Code Switch. Interesting name. Can you tell us who came up with it and why that name?

BATES: Oh, it was one of those team efforts when we've been going at it for several hours. You know, what do we call ourselves? What do we call ourselves? And there were a lot of things that you might call yourself in informal conversation that weren't going to fly as a formal name. And, at one point, this came up and, basically, it's a linguists' term, which means that you speak differently in different situations, although you're still you. You're not necessarily passing as anything, but you change how you speak to people according to who they are and, in some ways, what makes them comfortable.

MARTIN: The team is introducing itself with a series called Changing Races. The series is looking at how cities, neighborhoods and even people are changing. You've been following a Korean-American rapper who goes by the name Dumbfoundead. We can just play a little bit more of his music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW CHICK")

DUMBFOUNDEAD: (Singing) Why the hell you always broke, Boo? But all we got a pair of dope shoes. Oh, you need to borrow money, right? Girl, you're turning into old news. Hey, I need a new chick. Say it with me, y'all. I need a new chick. One more time, y'all. I need a new chick.

MARTIN: Now, tell me, why are you following him as part of this idea of changing races? How is he changing races?

BATES: Well, Dumb, as you noted, is Korean-American.

MARTIN: And Dumb is how he calls himself? That's...

BATES: Dumb is what all of his friends call him. I really hesitated at first and he's like, yo, Dumb, OK? It's like, OK. Well, he has chosen, as his art form, rap, which was an art form that was begun by African-Americans and broadened out to Latinos and eventually even to whites. He is American. He came to the U.S. when he was about three years old. He has always grown up with and run around with black and brown kids, in addition to his Korean-American friends and so he actually got pulled into this because this is what his friends were listening to and he's young. You know, if you're under 30, then rap is sort of what you listened to as you were coming up, chances are.

So he decided he wanted to do this himself. He is a gifted and natural storyteller and this was the form he wanted to use and they said, come on. You know, we're going down to this place in Leimert Park, which is a black neighborhood off the Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles, which is sort of the heart of L.A.'s black community. It's a forum where anybody can get up on the stage and rap, but if you're weak, you will be asked to pass the mic. If you get, oh, I have this down. I can go up and do it. He went up and did it and they asked him to pass the mic.

MARTIN: He wasn't ready?

BATES: He was not - yeah. He wasn't ready. It's like, young blood, you're not ready. So he decided that that was going to be impetus to make him be better. He said, I went home. You know, I practiced. I practiced. I tightened my flow. I came back and I had the mic passed on me a couple of times, but when I went back, you know, the next time, I kept the mic and I never had to give the mic up after that and it's just moving forward ever since. And he has a pretty significant following of young black kids.

MARTIN: We're talking about a new reporting group that will focus on race, ethnicity and culture. It's called Code Switch. With us is NPR correspondent Karen Grigsby Bates. She's sharing her first story for Code Switch. It's about Korean-American rapper Dumbfoundead.

You know, I'm interested in this whole question of - if you're interested in something that's identified with another culture, does that mean you are becoming that? I mean, isn't that something that people of color have labored with for, you know, however long? People saying, oh, if you like Scottish contra-dancing, you're acting white. Or, you know, any number of other things. He's not saying that people think he's black because he can rap, is he? I mean...

BATES: No. Absolutely not.

MARTIN: You know what I'm saying? Or that he has to pretend to be black or act black. That's not what he's saying.

BATES: No. Although he did say, at one point, to me, well, you know, like everybody in middle school, I went through my questing stage. You know, I wore Timberlands and a do rag because that's what real rappers did back then. But that's just stuff that young kids do, but this is naturally what I do. This is sort of the center of my comfort and it doesn't mean I'm trying to be black, but he says, I'm bringing my Asian-ness to this art form.

MARTIN: I have a clip to that effect. This is what he told you about finding his niche as an Asian-American rapper. Here it is.

DUMBFOUNDEAD: I think a lot of Asian rappers, when they were first coming up, they'd specifically just cling onto, like, black culture. It's not about really understanding your Asian-ness to make yourself unique as a Asian rapper. It's about being the most socially aware.

MARTIN: So, finally, you know, what about that? I mean, are you finding that in your reporting, that people are being able to kind of locate the essential value of something as opposed to having it just be about race? It's about the value of what it means or something like that? What are you finding so far?

BATES: Well, I think that young people are far more flexible than their elders about that and that they've grown up with a whole lot of multicultural influences. I mean, think about it. When I was young, you know, the world was mostly black and white because that's what American saw. My child is 21 and he's just, you know, had a United Nations of cultural influences. He runs around with some of everybody and can swear in about 12 different languages and they listen to all different kinds of music that, you know - me, in the '70s, we would have looked at him and gone, ew, that's not what black people listen to. And his response would be, well, this black person does.

And I think that that's what a lot of these kids - it's like, if I like it, I like it. If it's cool, it's cool. If I want to listen to it, I'm going to listen to it and not only am I going to listen to it. I'm going to put my own spin on it, which is what Dumbfoundead has done. I mean, he raps, but he also talks about the stereotypes that he often encounters as an Asian-American man and he flips those on their head and kind of laughs at the person who's doing the stereotyping in his flow. So he lets the audience in on his joke and sort of says, you know, stereotyping - that's, like, so lame. That's so, like, 1970s, 1980s. Get over it.

MARTIN: That's old. Get over it. So...

BATES: It's so old. So, you know, as a result, you know, the rhythm, the self-expression, the ability to incorporate all different kinds of instruments - you hear rap everywhere. You know, it might have been born in The Bronx, but now it's gone all around the globe, picked up some of those global influences so that, now, when we listen to things, we're often hearing instruments that we didn't hear 30 years ago because they came from listening to some guy in Mumbai do something or listening to somebody in Moscow try it or somebody in Lagos.

MARTIN: Some of the other stories that you're working on, Karen, are things that are - what - traditional reporting pieces, but they also bring people to light who might not otherwise be heard from, I think. Maybe Sal Castro?

BATES: He was a teacher in the L.A. unified school system and he became a pivotal point in the Chicano student movement when he led a walk-out in 1968 from L.A.'s public schools because he said, you know, people are telling you that you are failing the public schools. That's wrong. The public schools are failing you. There's no reference to your culture, no reference to your history, no respect for your language and it's wrong.

He eventually ended up being fired, but then reinstated because he protested this and a lot of people protested it and he's sort of looked at as one of the fathers of the Chicano students' movement, so he's an amazing man.

MARTIN: All right. Karen Grigsby Bates is an NPR correspondent. She was with us from NPR West, which is in Culver City, California. Karen, thank you.

BATES: You're welcome.

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