By Zachary Schwartz [VICE]
The paucity of successful Asian-American rappers converts into a scarcity of fans. But to one man, a white man from Staten Island, Asian-American rap is the world. His devotion is rare and real enough to make an impact on the artists themselves.
When pressed to name just one Asian-American rapper, most people can’t. I’m Asian myself, and a year ago, I couldn’t identify any besides Heems and Big Baby Gandhi. Asian-American hip-hop is an oft-ignored demographic of hip-hop artists still chugging on light milestones—the Far East Movement (tangentially hip-hop) became the first Asian-American group to have a #1 hit in October, 2010 with “Like a G6.”
The history of Asian-American rap goes back to the 80s, starting with Fresh Kid Ice, one of the co-founders of Miami’s legendary 2 Live Crew. In the 90s, there were the Mountain Brothers, the first Asian-American rap group to sign to a major label, who were beset with cultural ignorance—alternately being asked to wear martial arts outfits on stage to being told that the label “didn’t know how to market a ‘white’ group.”
Being an Asian rapper in America is complicated. On one hand, Asian rap actively fights the “model minority” tag, the passivity that Asians have been branded with in America. Yet the more traditional Asian community often disapproves of rap music. To this day, an Asian face in a sea of hip-hop often stands out as the odd fish, not quite white and not quite black.
In the 2000s, emboldened by their predecessors, a new generation of Asian-American rappers emerged, arguably helmed by Chinese-American MC Jin and Korean-American Dumbfoundead. Jin’s popularity peaked in the mid-2000’s, becoming the first Asian-American to sign to a major label, but his lead single “Learn Chinese” never really took off. Dumbfoundead got his start as an ingenious battle rapper in Los Angeles, but today his fans include top-tier artists like Drake, who invited the artist to perform at the OVO-hosted King of the Dot‘s Blackout 5 battle rap event last year.
All this time, Asians on the other side of the Pacific were growing their own popular strain of hip-hop. K-pop, influenced by hip-hop, has become a global cultural monolith. But to succeed as a rap artist in Asia is different because the majority of the fans are Asian and the musicians aren’t competing within the over-saturated mainstream hip-hop scene that thrives in the States. The Asia-based musicians can define it on their own terms (sometimes even getting away with problematic caricatures). There’s no one to tell them it’s “not black enough”or “not white enough.”
In America, in the mercurial lens of hip-hop, Asians have to wonder about where they fit in. Asian-American hip-hop doesn’t necessarily sound any different from other types of rap, but in an art form where personal history, identity, and geography often provide the backbone for the music, especially with regards to lyrics and narrative, ethnicity can be a defining characteristic. Asian artists can either downplay their race, as the Mountain Brothers did by not including their picture with their demo, or embrace it, as Jin did with his song “Learn Chinese.”
In the last few years, a variety of rappers of South Asian decent have become popular, too, including Heems and Honey Cocaine, whose music videos have racked up millions of views on YouTube. But many of these rappers grew popular in the age of social media and the internet, and though it doesn’t necessarily define their music, it’s tough to consider their releases without the term “blog rap” floating around in the periphery. Regardless of unique views, it seems there is still a bamboo ceiling in hip-hop that Asians just can’t penetrate through. There have been players in the game, but there has never been an Asian superstar in American rap history.
The paucity of successful artists in the genre has translated into a scarcity of fans. But to one man, a white dude from Staten Island, Asian-American rap is everything. His devotion is rare and real enough to make an impact on the artists themselves.
I’ve written about rappers multiple times for VICE, and during my conversations with different generations of Asian-American rappers, the name “Mark Seaquist” kept coming up. I first heard it from producer and DJ Mike Gao. “If you’re interested in Asian-American rap,” Gao said, “You have to find this guy. He’s a white guy from Staten Island, but he knows more about Asian-American rap than anyone else.” Other Asian rappers I talked to confirmed Seaquist’s commitment. It was clear: to understand the genre, I had to find its biggest fan. “Go soon,” an older Asian rapper urged me. “He has a pretty severe health issue right now. He might not be around for much longer.
I found Seaquist through a trail of YouTube comments and tweets. He goes by the handle “daewooparts.” He is obscure—his profile pictures are of Korean miscellany—but his tweets are rich in links and artist handles of Asian-American hip-hop artists. According to some, he’s the biggest fan of Asian rappers, generally, though online it appeared as if he favorited Korean and Taiwanese artists. After talking over the phone, Seaquist agreed for me to visit him on Staten Island.
A week later, on a Friday afternoon, Seaquist picked me up from the Staten Island ferry station. His car was Korean, of Daewoo make, evinced by the Korean Hangul writing on the side mirrors. The car’s roof was covered in more signatures than a dive bar’s bathroom wall. “That’s the biggest collection of Asian rap signatures in the world,” he said. “That’s everyone. That’s over 150. I got them all to sign it.” It was like reading the all-star roster of Asian hip-hop: The Mountain Brothers, Dumbfoundead, Awkwafina, Rekstizzy, Far East Movement, Jin, Decipher, Timothy DeLaGhetto, Jay Park, Manifest, Lyricks. “And that’s Keith Ape right there!” he said giddily as we drove.
Seaquist speaks with a slightest whine of a New York accent, as if a small balloon in his esophagus occasionally leaks air. He’s an older guy, born in 1968, but his passion for hip-hop culture is always evident. When I first heard about Seaquist and his love of Asian-American rap, he sounded like an eccentric white guy with a cultural fetish. But when more and more artists vetted the claim that this guy was an important thread in a rather disparate music scene, I became curious.
Seaquist drove me to his parent’s house, where he lives, and brought me to his sparse childhood room. He began bringing down boxes of his Asian-American rap memorabilia. There were crates of albums, rolls of posters, and dozens of shirts. Many had multiple signatures from multiple artists.“This one, I drove six hours down to Virginia for this show, back in November 2010,” he said, unfurling a poster. “Dumbfoundead and DJ Zo.” Seaquist considers Dumbfoundead, the popular Korean-American rapper, a good friend.
Seaquist held up a Wu-Tang white shirt. “I’m never selling this, or giving this to anyone.” He showed me the back, which was was signed by the Asian-American rapper Lyricks. “That’s one of my closest friends,” he said. “He wrote this message to me personally.”
I read the message: “Mark, you are one of a kind…Ephesians 4:31. Read it, imma test you! One love. Fuck haters, love em. They hate it, Lyricks!”
“There’s a dark side to some of this, which I might tell you about later,” Seaquist said as he folded up the shirt. “And Lyricks helped me out during that time, so he was a true brother.”
I wondered how did Seaquist get into Asian-American rap? The only reason I learned about Asian-American rap is because I wanted to find where my ethnicity intersected within mass hip-hop culture. But the white dude rattled off names, shows, and esoteric trivia like it was common knowledge.
“Because I grew up with it,” he answered. “Something real bad happened to me as a kid… but my family wasn’t there for me.” When pressed for more details, he wouldn’t answer. However, he did explain, “The people who kept me going were my good Korean friends. My friend’s dad was a Korean pastor, so I grew up listening to the music and culture and started learning everything about Korea. I’ve gone to Korean churches since I was little… I still go to Korean Church now.”
For the rest of primary, junior, and high school, most of Seaquist’s friends were Korean, Taiwanese, or Vietnamese. “I saw the obstacles they faced. Some of them tried to go into music in the 80s and they got mad hate,” he said. “Hip-hop, rock, everything—no matter what they tried, they just got shitted on. They got no love whatsoever.”
I nodded. I knew from experience that Asians can have a hard time being taken seriously.
“I had friends that almost committed suicide because they got shitted on,” he said as he stared at his collection of memorabilia. “It was just so unfair.”
After high school, Seaquist started to go back and forth to Korea, accompanied by his friends from high school and college, the College of Staten Island. He then started working in Korea, buying and selling car parts for Korean car manufacturer Daewoo. “That’s why they call me ‘Daewooparts,'” referencing his online usernames, “and that’s why I have a Daewoo car.” Seaquist speaks “broken Korean,” as he describes it, enough to shoot the shit, but not carry a full conversation.
While in Korea, in the mid-90s, he was introduced to the budding hip-hop scene. “The first time I listened,” he said, “I was like, this is good! They sounded real, most of them rapped in Hangul, the Korean language, but they were keeping the flow good.” He began following Korean and Taiwanese hip-hop, “before it became big,” he said, referencing the former’s descendants, which includes modern K-pop. “I don’t really like when it becomes big like that,” he added.
Seaquist wouldn’t become obsessed with Asian- American rap until the early 2000s, when he was in his 30s. As a friend to the underdog, and perhaps seeing himself as one, it was here he would find his calling. At the time, Seaquist was regularly traveling to Korea, New York City, and Los Angeles for work. A friend, knowing his penchant for Korean rap, told him about the burgeoning American scene, where a kid named Dumbfoundead was making a name for himself as a hilarious and witty battle rapper.
“My friend said, ‘Yo check out this underground scene, check out the Asian-American people coming up. Check this cat out, Dumbfoundead; check out this other guy Sean Rhee. This was before they were popular, but I liked what I was hearing,” Seaquist told me.
“There was something about it that was real,” he continued. “The old hip-hop scene in America was true. They rapped about real stuff, real meaning, they always had a story. It’s not like the new shit today that’s bling bling, and drug drug, and molly molly, you know what I’m talking about? I’m not into the fakeness.”
Seaquist listed some of his favorite old-school rappers as KRS-One, Rakim, Raekwon, and Wu-Tang. He doesn’t listen to many new rappers or “super-commercialized-stuff. “In fact,” he said, “I’ve seen more of that old-school spirit in some of the Asians than the new generation of [mainstream] hip-hop artists.”
A shortlist of his favorite Asian-American rappers includes Lyricks, Manifest, Decipher, Dumbfoundead, Souleaf, and WONHYO. Although he mostly follows East Asian artists, he’s familiar with many from other areas—”I was at a Honey Cocaine show last Spring,”he said.”I got it on Youtube. I know the Filipinos, the Cambodians, the Laotians, I know’em all.”
By the end of the decade, Seaquist had arguably become the American scene’s biggest supporter. He’d go to all the shows (some of which are documented on his Youtube channel), buy all the merch, and provide an endless supply of positive online comments. “I spent about $20-$80 at each merch table plus tickets to the show,” he said. “Plus I’d buy friends’ tickets too if I had a few extra dollars.”
A week after my visit to Staten Island, Seaquist and I attended the first private screening of Bad Rap, an Asian-American rap documentary, in Manhattan. The film follows four rappers—Dumbfoundead, Lyricks, Awkwafina, and Rekstizzy—as they face cultural hurdles and pursue success as Asian-Americans in hip-hop.
Afterwards, there was a Q&A featuring the director Salima Koroma, producer Jaeki Cho, and rappers Lyricks and Decipher. Seaquist walked up to the microphone. “Brothers, I’ve been watching you guys since the 80s,” he started before abruptly tearing up. “I just want to say, you’ve come so far.” The balloon in his throat lodged there and he stopped. Applause erupted.
After the screening, I talked to Lyricks, the Korean-American MC who had signed Seaquist’s Wu-Tang shirt. I knew about Seaquist’s relationship with the scene, but I wanted to know about the scene’s relationship with Seaquist. I asked Lyricks to clarify, and he smiled as soon as I mentioned the superfan. “Mark’s name [in the scene] is almost as big as an artist’s name,” Lyricks said. “His moniker is Mr. BTS, Mr. Behind-the-Scenes, cause if you look at any footage of any show that we’ve done on the East Coast, you’re bound to see Mark in the front, with the camera, just capturing everything.”
His support “goes beyond one or two shows and just status updates,” Lyricks said. “I could arrive in New York at 5:30 AM he’d be in his Daewoo to pick me up and drive me wherever I want to go.” In the last several years, Seaquist has become the New York City point-man for many Asian rappers. He gives them rides to the airport, helps out at shows, and acts as a one-man entourage.
Seaquist has friends in radio that he sends Asian-American rap to, getting the artists airplay and interviews. He also once facilitated a show in Korea for artists Dumbfoundead and David Choi. “I do stuff for free that people would charge,” Seaquist said. “Which is why I think some people started talking shit… It might have been a promoter who didn’t get his cut.”
Seaquist was alluding to the blowback he received at one point early in his fandom. Before he became friends with Lyricks and others, a lot of Asian hip-hop artists viewed him with the skepticism given to many white people who take a interest in the culture. “People [in the community] would see my comments on YouTube or Facebook and say stuff like, ‘Who’s this white guy who’s following us?'” he said. “They treated my presence as if I was a stalker, and that’s where I think the hate came from. Even some artists dissed me and shit.” But those negative impressions didn’t last forever.
In the fall of 2013, Seaquist was hospitalized and diagnosed with a brain tumor. He was reluctant to speak on the details, as if saying them would add to their burden. The future of his health remains an uncertainty.
“I was so down [because of the online hate], so depressed, I didn’t have the support of family, and then this shit [with the tumor] started happening,” he explained. “It was like a dark side of me. I almost committed suicide from all this shit. Then Rick came forward.”
Rick, AKA Lyricks, reached out to Seaquist. “When I was in the hospital, you want to know the few people I kept in contact with? Lyricks and CHOPS [another Asian rapper and frontman of The Mountain Brothers]. They always kept in touch with me. That’s when I really started to become friends with some of the rappers,” Seaquist said. Lyricks helped clear Seaquist’s name among the artists and introduced him to more.
“Mark is one of those dudes whose passion [at one point] was unfortunately taken as fanaticism… He had a negative connotation,” Lyricks explained to me at the screening. “His name was synonymous with creepy. We’d have a show in Boston, we’d have another show the next day in New York, and another show in Virginia the day after, and Mark would be at all three.”
“So it was kind of at the point where we were like, ‘Who is this guy? Why is he so interested in Korean-American rappers? He looks like an undercover cop…'” Lyricks laughed. “But when I met Mark, he told me a story of how he got to know us and why he [supports] Asian hip-hop and music, and he just became a brother to me. He went from fanatic, to fan, to friend, and now brother.”
Lyricks’ words inversely paralleled a previous conversation I had with Seaquist a week before, as he drove me back to the Staten Island ferry. It was our final conversation of the night, and the tone had been colored somber by discussion of his illness. At one point, he stopped the car and pointed to the CD player, which was playing Lyricks’ music.
“To be honest,”he said, “this is what keeps me going—the idea of these guys being successful. I feel like I have to live, to keep supporting this new generation, my brothers and sisters.”
Mark Seaquist doesn’t have a job right now, he doesn’t have a permanent home, and his long-term health has been compromised by his brain tumor, but he’s someone who has—dollar-by-dollar, ride-by-ride—helped nurture Asian rap in America. He’s a white man who has spent his life advancing an Asian cause, when it’s usually the other way around. That may challenge cultural expectations, but that’s part of what rap is about anyway.
‘Bad Rap,’ the Asian-American rap documentary, is beginning its film festival run this year. One can find more information about it here.