The Mountain Brothers, one of the first Asian American hip hop groups, are back after a long hiatus. After performing with A Tribe Called Quest, having their music featured in Sprite and Nike commercials, and dropping 2 albums and an EP, the pioneers of Asian American hip hop recently released “Keep On” for CHOPS’ (Scott Jung) new project, Strength in NUMBERS. I catch up with CHOPS, Styles Infinite (Stephen Wei), and Peril-L (Christopher Wang) to talk about the new project.
It’s been ten years since the release of your last album Triple Crown. What have you been up to since your last major album release?
Peril-L: My education and training background is in life science (molecular and cell biology), and I’ve been working as a scientist for the last 10+ years.
Styles Infinite: After Triple Crown, I went to medical school and now work as a teleradiologist.
CHOPS: Unlike these guys, who are also good at other stuff, and went on to become actual productive members of society (haha), I only focused on music. I was fortunate that people liked the sound of Mountain Brothers music, so I worked as a producer around the Philly area and branched out from there. I’ve worked with a bunch of different rappers from around the world since. Some of the better known are Young Jeezy, Talib Kweli, The Lonely Island, Nicki Minaj, Bun B, Lil Wayne, Kanye West, Ice Cube, Snoop, and Raekwon.
Though I’ve followed you guys for a while, I only recently found out some of you have a connection to Taiwan. Can you elaborate? What’s your favorite thing about Taiwan?
Peril-L: My father is from Taiwan, so I consider myself to be half Taiwanese. He still has some family there. I got to visit about 20 years ago and would love to go back again.
Styles Infinite: Both of my parents are from Taiwan and we still have a lot of family there. I haven’t been back there since I was around 18. I think my favorite part is the great food. I’m sure it’s changed so much in 20 years, and I would love to go back and visit again.
What’s your opinion on the state of hip hop/rap music today and how have your opinions on the matter changed over time?
CHOPS: My opinions have definitely changed. I started out with a very specific view of what success meant, artistically. People knew Mountain Brothers for a very specific, niche sound which we were great at, but I always had a lot of influences and a lot of interests that I didn’t get to pursue until connecting with people from different regions, scenes, and so on. I think my taste leans a lot more toward commercial than it once did too, but I also think there’s less restrictions these days for rap / hip-hop artists than there were before. Exploring different sounds is more possible, and accepted.
Peril-L: I think my views have stayed pretty much the same over time. I’ve always had an appreciation for a wide range of styles and sounds. After the Mountain Brothers disbanded, I didn’t listen to much hip-hop/rap at all for several years. I was a lot more into other genres like electronic music and other stuff. I’ve gotten back into hip-hop/rap to some extent recently and it’s interesting to hear the influences from those other genres. It’s also cool to see newer and younger artists still making music similar to what we used to call “true hip-hop”.
Styles Infinite: I’m pretty much not listening to any hip-hop nowadays. I basically live in a cave and listen to all my old stuff from when I was really into hip-hop. But I do think there are some artists doing some really good stuff nowadays so I would like to discover some of these artists and get back into it a little more.
CHOPS: Most of all I just love hip-hop music and its roots. My family is pretty Americanized you could say, but I think culturally there’s a thread connecting Americans who are “other,” who are not treated as being part of the mainstream, who are marginalized in different ways. There’s some shared experience and pride in heritage.
Styles: I probably haven’t thought about this question enough, but I’m sure being a member of a pretty small minority ethnic group in America as a Taiwanese American had something to do with it. Hip-hop is a music and culture for the marginalized member of society. At least it was when I got into it 25+ years ago. Now it’s pretty popular.
Peril-L: Growing up as a minority in a majority white area, hip-hop music and culture was very relatable. Especially in the late 80s and 90s when social consciousness and politics were major themes in rap.
Since your mainstream breakthrough, we’ve seen various Asian Americans in media from Jin to the Wong Fu guys to the Far East Movement. Do you think your legacy contributed to the breakthrough of these artists and what’s in the future for Asian American media?
CHOPS: It’s nice to see Asian American artists break through in all facets of entertainment. I do think we helped out with that, and I’m proud. But at the same time, everybody you named had their own struggles and hurdles getting to where they are. They all earned their own respect.
Peril-L: Agree with CHOPS. I like to think that we helped increase visibility of Asian Americans in hip-hop culture and perhaps paved the way a little bit for the current wave of Asian American artists. It’s a really positive feeling when some of them tell us that we inspired them to make music or pursue their dreams.
Styles Infinite: I think we did our part, but you would have to ask those artists whether we had any influence on them specifically. I know there are some artists that count us as one of their inspirations. In the future, with YouTube and the Internet where the filters and hurdles between the artist and the fan are lessened, talented people can have much more of an opportunity to take hold and become popular. This can only be a good thing for Asian American artists who traditionally have been excluded from more typical avenues.
CHOPS: Strength In NUMBERS is a compilation album featuring over 30 of my favorite Asian American rappers and singers, with special guests from Japan and Korea. Styles and Peril-L were kind enough to make some new music for it too! With everybody’s help I’m trying to make the statement that Asian Americans have as much talent and diversity as anybody else, and some of us are really a force to be reckoned with, especially if we can show a little unity. Even before we became the Mountain Brothers we talked about how cool it would be to have, say an Asian American version of Motown (a 60s record label that brought black musicians into mainstream music) where people came together and made great music. The best way to learn more is check out http://chopsmusic.com/numbers or if you want to cut right to the chase and see & hear everybody on the project, go here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z0G32B0OeZU
Tell me about some of the artists that collaborated with you on this project. How’d you get in touch with them and what was the creative process like?
CHOPS: Some of the better known ones are Dumbfoundead, Tiger JK and Tasha, Lil Crazed, Prometheus Brown aka Geo from Blue Scholars, Bambu, and Verbal from m-flo / Teriyaki Boyz. A lot of them I got in touch with via Twitter, even ones I knew before. A few artists really helped with ideas and with getting more artists onboard, especially Joanlee, Rekstizzy, Ann One, and Bambu. Geo and Connie Lim both ran successful Kickstarter projects and gave really helpful advice. The creative process varied. For some songs and artists, it was possible to get in the studio and work together in the same space, but for others we worked over phone, Skype, email, etc.
You guys created a new song called “Keep On” specifically for this album. What’s the message behind the song and what was it like reuniting again to produce creative music?
Peril-L: Not to sound overly cheesy or anything, but I think “Keep On” is just a perfect reunion track for us. CHOPS captured the essence of the classic Mountain Brothers sound without sounding dated. Ann One was a beautiful addition, since we never really used vocal hooks in the past and she has an amazing voice. Creating the actual song was very much done in the traditional Mountain Brothers fashion (which is a trade secret). It was great that the three of us could get together and record our verses in CHOPS’ studio, shoot the video in Philly, and just hang out and chill like the old days.
Styles Infinite: I think it was a lot of fun. Chris and I have been away from making hip-hop music for 10 years now and getting together to do this project and all the memories brought up as it’s been moving along is a great joy.
CHOPS: I joke about how the guys have “real jobs” but it’s true, we’re all busy with work and life, so making new music together was a big deal. I’m grateful they made time for this. Having a new Mountain Brothers song is our way of letting younger APA artists know we went through many of the same things they do. Being able to actually reunite in person and record as a group was super fun for me. I expected them to be rusty, but ironically I was the one who had a couple issues on the technical side – they locked in like it was old times again. Working together was almost shocking for me, not only do they still have it, but we still had that synergy you only get from really knowing somebody for so long. Plus it was a great time just being around each other again.
After this project, what’s next for you guys?
CHOPS: My main focus for the past couple years has been this project, and there’s opportunities I haven’t pursued that I’d like to really go after, production-wise. I’ve gotten back to work with a few artists, and happy to be working more with some of the artists from Strength In NUMBERS too.
Styles: This project was a great time-traveling trip back to a really fun time in my life. Now it’s back to being a boring radiologist. I have a pretty heavy work schedule but when I’m not working it’s pretty much trying to spend as much quality time with the family as I can…and a lot of soccer games.
Peril-L: Back to my regular job and life as well. Thanks to this project, I am thinking about getting back into making music occasionally on the side though!
Do you have any advice for Taiwanese and Asian Americans interested in music? How can they achieve the success that you all have had?
CHOPS: It’s definitely tough, and it takes more than talent to even make a decent living. It takes a certain amount of ignoring how bad the odds are. Perfect example, Steve and Chris are still two of the best rappers I’ve ever worked with, to this day, and they chose other paths which ultimately was the smart thing to do. I will say if you really really need to do music as your only thing, and absolutely can’t do anything else, make sure to learn as much as you can about the business of it, and study what works and what doesn’t, in addition to learning your craft.
Peril-L: Believe in yourself, constantly work hard and improve your craft, network as much as possible, and use all the resources and avenues available to get your music heard.
Styles Infinite: All that’s really needed is to get a YouTube account and get on there and do your stuff. But the one caveat for that is that because the filters are not really there anymore, we are seeing artists much earlier in their development. Music that the three of us were doing in our bedroom in the early part of our career would now be on the internet with a video. That’s not necessarily a good thing! We see artists in their raw talent but we also see some underdeveloped or undeveloped work and so there’s a balance there.
If you want to learn more about the Mountain Brothers and CHOPS’ music project “Strength in NUMBERS”, check out the Kickstarter for the project and offer your support.
Justin Yang is a hip hop and rap music fan and a recent graduate from Columbia University. He works as a marketing manager in Silicon Valley. He is a longtime participant and leader in the Taiwanese American Foundation (TAF). Follow him on Twitter at @justin_yang for more of his musings.