various artists :: Presents No Looking Back ::
as reviewed by Matt Jost and Steve 'Flash' Juon

A few months ago, the Asian rap community in the United States witnessed a landmark event when rapper Jin won seven consecutive "Freestyle Friday" battles on BET's "106 & Park", making the show's hall of fame. While he was still in competition, he managed to sign with Ruff Ryders. Let's hope we'll soon be able to review his album on this site.

It is very important for any minority to see themselves represented in the media and mainstream entertainment. It's part of their integration process into society. The stars themselves have to excel at what they do, in order not to get mistaken for the token minority character. If we focus in on rap music, the first rapper of Asian descent to gain notoriety was Fresh Kid Ice from the 2 Live Crew. Although the sex-driven 2 Live Crew might not have appealed to everyone, they made some damn good music and Fresh Kid Ice was able to avoid the trap of exploiting his ethnic background and using it as some type of gimmick.

Fast forward to the early '90s when a lot of up-and-coming Asian artists who had some significant beats and rhymes of high quality got dissed just for not being black, like so many white rappers did too. Still a lot of them persisted, and those who have are now big names in the field, like the Mountain Brothers or Dan 'The Automator' Nakamura.

For better or worse their success has inspired a second generation of Asian rappers, one that now takes up "Asian pride" as a rallying cry. By making their ethnic heritage the focus, they almost seek to set themselves apart from the broader hip-hop community - instead of being rappers who just happen to be Asian they become Asian first, rapper second, and they make music by Asians FOR Asians instead of a universal rap and hip-hop audience. Still, this isn't exactly a new trend: the rise of "backpacker rap" in the '90s is yet another example of a group that often tries to cast themselves as the outsiders to hip-hop's core and then cries foul when they aren't respected as real rap artists later.

But even though the 'Azn Rap' trend can be seen as having negative consequences, that does not mean the rest of us should just ignore it or sweep it under the rug. Besides which, it is still possible for rappers to make their nationality a source of pride and not have it interfere with dopeness. Wyclef Jean constantly points out he's Haitian and gets props. Everlast has always talked about his Celtic pride and Irish roots. In fact for both of these artists it probably +helped+ because they related their struggles for identity and recognition to the core rap values, yet still maintained a uniqueness to their personas that made them attractive to massive fanbases. If the Azn Rap trend turned out these kinds of artists, so much the better... but will this album?

Let's see - the aforementioned Jin is on it, so why not put his mass appeal to the test? He makes the 'bitch' that life is supposed to be come alive on "Life's a Bitch". He's not the first to do it, but it shows that Jin possesses talent as a writer. Peep this:

"Remember when we got engaged, went on our first date
I could picture us together growin' old and grey
She showed me the light and gave me my first breath
I put her through stress when she caught me flirtin' with death
Since then I never ever cheated on her again
Cause when a woman's fed up she could see plenty of men
I often wonder: do all the things really come to an end?
and if we split up, will I ever see her again?
I thought I had her in check until she started actin' reckless
had me doin' wrong, almost made me snatchin' necklace
for her affection I put in mad effort
but I never got credit for all the hard work
She started actin' different, mature, she got older
Yesterday is more than just a look over the shoulder
I played the cool cat but couldn't fool jack, my heart was colder
had me filled up with anger and hate
My boys said it was my fault, I made her that way
I relapse on the past, it was all love on our first date
now I wanna kill this shady bitch in the worst way
She threatened me, said it was destiny
if she goes, then it would also be the end of me
At this point I'm thinkin' it was either do-or-die
Forget it, cause this chick ain't worth suicide
Stories like this always end with a twist
Instead of slittin' her wrist I told her, gimme a kiss"

Pretty good, huh? If Jin woulnd't rap in a boyish voice over some amateur drum programming, while some supposedly sentimental strings fade in and out and a female singer la-la's her way through the track as if it was his little baby sister, it would be much better. Good luck on making him a Ruff Ryder...

But young rappers don't need a makeover, they need to grow. That's what this CD is for. Let them be themselves, develop their styles, get some feedback. It's only right that while they're at it, they try to come to terms with their Asian identity in a white society and in a black music. The promising KasT-OnE does so in "Guaranteed Like That", as he discusses exactly these issues:

"My pops never liked it when I rocked a mic stand
but yo, he could never understand
cause to me music isn't just another lost summer jam
I get the feelin', man, that this ain't home
sitting up late nights, "Illmatic" humming in my earphones
Kids say I sound white, you wanna battle KasT?
Talk ya shit and get hit, straight with my battle ax
Stop a second, I've just lost all of my patience
'Look at him, he thinks h's black, he's really Asian'
Fuck you and everyone who talks behind my back
'KasT is wack, he couldn't rap if his uncle was black'
I'm in a state of confusion, you too, but I'll admit it
I don't act black, bump thug rap, cause I don't live it
So while you're on the side, dissin' while I'm writin'
you're singing DMX, acting more thuggish than I am"

That's deep. Interestingly, parts of this very battle are being fought on "No Looking Back", because there's this one guy, Young Gatt... his "All About da Skrill" certainly doesn't have ANYTHING Asian about it but EVERYTHING West Coast gangsta rap. Ain't nothing wrong with that, it just goes to show you that even in this case rap carries a universal message:

"Sit back, spit this rap, that's what I know
that's what I do, that's what's gonna get me out this ghetto"

While "All About da Skrill" is musically poor, Gatt's "Youth Gone Wild" will catch your ear with some Oriental instrumentation and singer Tarah setting this one up properly. Gatt again sounds off like your average gee ("fuck the white man law...I'm a thug, since my childhood days they couldn't hold me down...I'm nothin' but a hog, lock and load like a dog"), but at the same time he makes sure that him and his partner YB represent their Laotian background. Still, even if Gatt is not just playing a role he has heard on CDs and seen on TV, this is VERY odd.

But ultimately, we shouldn't hold it against anyone that he's attracted to a certain style and tries to emulate it. It's just that some fare better than others. Sanny D comes with an incredibly cheesy rehash of the contemporary club format, "Crashin", and the only slightly less worse "Sanny Land". Fresco Tee ("Xscape", "Beacon of Light") is the nerdy, nervous type of character that spits and slurs a million syllables a minute, hurrying back and forth between insecurity and confidence. Khmer KID's "Smoke Weed 2" can be traced all the way back to the heyday of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. "You Will Never Know" by the Slant Eyed Descendants undoubtedly shows a 2Pac influence, right down to the track and the very true words "your fuckin' wardrobe don't make you a thug." And finally, with their funny stylings and funky sounds Maniak Sypha Crew ("Method Neo", "Beyond Werdz") bring the early Mountain Brothers to life, when they still were D.O.A. (Da Other Asiatics).

It would be very mean-spirited to deny these Azn MC's every bit of originality and reduce their identity to quotes that reference their culture, like "we hotter than tae bo burnin' calories" or "the wack MC completes the yin and yang." Still, some things are fundamentally wrong here. Like when Sanny D uses the n-word three times in one verse to describe himself. Wait, maybe he has every right to do so? How would we know? And THAT's what's wrong with the concept of Azn Rap. Because of it, you expect only Asians on this CD. So when you hear someone use the n-word, you automatically think it's an Asian lacking sensibility in this very sensible area. When it could be someone black who just happens to be in an Asian group, or someone who's Afro-Asian or something. You see, designations of 'race' and color of skin don't really work in music. Hip-hop is an increasingly multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-national event, and to emphasize one's ethnicity is somewhat of a throwback. It's evident that there is a need for something like 'Azn Rap', something young Asians living in the US might take pride in, but still the emphasis on ethnicity is contradictory to the all-including nature of hip-hop. But there sure as hell ain't nothing wrong with representing who you are and where you come from or to "bring the culture into the mixture" as Infinite Limit do on "Asian Love" and especially Noose does on "Part of My Nature", which deals exactly with the issues brought up here.

Rather than giving a detailed review, what we tried to do here was bring up some basic points. No need to further alienate the Asian rap community by trashing this CD just because most of those involved are rookies. Because they're as much a part of hip-hop as anyone else. And like anywhere else you got cats that are more advanced than others, sometimes on the same cut. The CD's opening track, "Infinite Anthem", probably could have told us right away that this generation of Asian rappers is not aggressively promoting 'Azn pride'. There's a radio interview featured at the very beginning, where they outline their philosophy. And even though the crucial parts are not discernible, you get the message: these are some "young cats just lovin' the music." Or to quote KasT-OnE:

"This is for those late nights, those inner hate fights
this is for my dreams, fuck five, I want my eight mics
so when my shit drops I hope you think my shit rocks
cause above all this shit is made for hip-hop"

Music Vibes: 3 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 4 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 3.5 of 10

Originally posted: July 9, 2002