How many Asian-American rappers can you name off the top of your head?
No cheating, no Googling.
For the average music fan, let alone a hip-hop head, it’s a challenging task. Asian-American rappers, despite being present on the fringe of mainstream music for decades, have rarely been able to break through to that next level.
Bad Rap, an excellent new documentary that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, explores that current purgatorial state, telling the story of four Asian-American rappers — Dumbfoundead, Awkwafina, Rekstizzy and Lyricks — all vying to be on the cusp of something greater.
Directed by newcomer Salima Koroma, the film is a fresh, creative and fulfilling journey about the territorial history of hip hop — who’s allowed to be a rapper? Who deserves to be taken seriously? It also captures the universal struggle of being an artist.
The desire to make it in a dream field, to connect with an audience, to have a legacy — it’s all deeply explored, through this super specific rap lens.
Though Bad Rap has four main protagonists, Dumbfoundead is our core thread, the lyrical veteran of the industry with a rap battle past and a strong fanbase. Despite his output — three solo albums in three years, among other collaborative works — and a shoutout from Drake, he’s far from being a household name.
The documentary gives historical context, quickly going through a laundry list of pioneering Asian-American rappers over the years, from the Mountain Brothers to Jin. The latter, who seemed destined to be the first Asian-American rap superstar back in the early 2000s, speaks quite frankly in the documentary, explaining the challenges and pitfalls of being the first act of his kind. After blowing up on the battle rap scene and getting signed to DMX’s label, Ruff Ryders, he seemed poised for success.
But then it all crumbled. He released a single, the poorly received “Learn Chinese,” and faded away from the limelight. Part of that is because his label didn’t know how to market him. Pure talent wasn’t enough. He was still an outsider.
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