Bad Rap follows four Asian-American rappers who are trying to break into a section of music that treats them as a novelty. The film documents their work and personal lives and gives context to Asians in the rap scene. Director Salima Koroma was kind enough to discuss the film and answer some question about the film making process and the concerns of entertainers. This interview was conducted over email. Bad Rap releases on VOD May 23.
What was the inception of the project? When did you know it was something you wanted to explore in a film?
Bad Rap started off as my grad school thesis. I reached out to Jaeki Cho [pictured above], a writer for XXL magazine at the time, because he’d just interviewed a K-pop singer/rapper named G-Dragon, who appeared in XXL. We got on the phone and started talking about how the entertainment industry sees Asians. How there are so many Asians in the hip-hop game flying under the radar. He started throwing names at me: Geologic of Blue Scholars, Chops of the Mountain Brothers, the legendary DJ Babu. I remember learning so much from him and then going, “Dude, has anyone done a movie about this?” Jaeki was like, “Nah, I don’t think so…” And we sat with it for a moment, wondering how there were so many great hip-hop films and none focused on the rich history of Asian Americans actually emceeing. The concept of Asian rappers itself was kind of interesting because of the stereotypes placed both on hip-hop and on Asians. Those stereotypes are the opposite of one another. So how can they fit together?
It was something that was very important to Jaeki, being a Korean immigrant and Asian American. For me, it was an opportunity to explore this world and help tell a story rooted in hip-hop, and emblematic of the American dream.
The subjects of the film are caught between wanting to embrace the Asian-American aspect of their identity in their work and also wanting to just create without needing to always be conscientious of this. What do you hope to portray with Bad Rap in regards to this dilemma of identity?
Yes, you’re right. I think that dilemma comes from the idea that at the time we started the film, most of the corny rappers were the ones spitting about being Asian. A lot of the rappers I spoke to at the time (2012, 2013) felt like the whole “Azn pride” music was lame because a lot of “YouTube rappers” were doing it. So the “real rappers” wanted to stay away from it, instead pushing the “Asian” thing out of their lyrics. They didn’t want to come off like they were whining, or using their Asian-ness as a crutch. I think gradually, those same guys realized it was hurting their craft. This is going to sound cliche as fuck, but hip-hop really is about speaking your truth, speaking your experience. And if you can’t speak your truth because you think it’s corny, then you become stifled in your writing.
Pretty soon, the same rappers who felt like they had to stifle that side of themselves, have had the epiphany that the only way they can succeed is to embrace it. Not whine about the obstacles of being an Asian rapper, but use their experience to their advantage.
Do you think today an artist can be appreciated solely on their craft and skill, or will the four artists in the film always carry this extra label of being an Asian-American rapper?
In this day and age, craft and skill is sometimes arbitrary. Crazy right? Lil Yachty drops songs and lyrically they’re not that great but the guy is one of hip-hop’s biggest acts. He’s got the visuals, the messaging, the branding, and the target audience. So any Asian-American rapper will tell you that the entire packaging has to be on point, not just the skill. If you look at it on one hand, yeah it can be pretty annoying for your “Asian-ness” to be the focal point, but on the other hand, I think a lot of artists are starting to use it to their advantage. It doesn’t matter how famous Eminem is, he’s always going to be that crazy white boy who isn’t afraid to say what he wants. But Em isn’t going around saying “Stop calling me a white rapper!” Instead, he used it to his advantage his whole career. It allowed him to say things black rappers would never, and it gave a perspective to hip hop that no one had ever heard before. So the Asian-American rappers I know are getting hip to that and embracing that “Asian-ness” in their music without being conflicted about it.
Obviously for everyone in the film their stories will go on but as a filmmaker when do you know to stop filming and start compiling all the pieces together?
Discipline. That’s all. You give yourself a date when you’re absolutely done shooting, and build that story in the editing room. People think that the worst thing is not having enough footage, but in some ways, having too much footage is even worse because you just get buried. When you’re forced to work with what you have, magic happens. So, it was really just sticking to a deadline.
Dumbfoundead and his story become sort of the focal point of the film, his experience acts as context to his other three contemporaries Awkwafina, Lyricks, and Rekstizzy. What was the process of finding the structure of the film?
This is a really great question and I could go on and on about it, but I’ll spare you and your readers. You’re absolutely right that Dumb is the thread that holds the story together. I agonized over the structure of the film for months. In fact, the first 10-minute cut of the film felt like something you’d watch on the History Channel or VH1 “Beyond the Music” and my advisor, doc filmmaker June Cross, was like, “This isn’t that fun.” I was trying to tell a history rather than telling a story. The dilemma was trying to tell a good story but also giving historical context. So then I decided to focus solely on the four main characters we ended up choosing. But Jaeki Cho, my co-producer, felt there wasn’t enough history. So I was caught between the story and the history. So what I ended up gradually getting to was using the four characters as the modern day narrative, and the surrounding characters as historical context and commentary. And within the narrative, Dumb was the guy who pulled everyone together.
A great scene in the film is where Rekstizzy and Jaeki Cho discuss the artistic merits and potential reactions to the video for “God Bless America.” In the film what is the role of this sort of unobtrusive, observational footage of the creative process beyond its entertainment?
Oooh, look at you Jason, coming through with the great questions! Thank you for asking this! One of the best things about making this film is that I was dealing with entertainers. They are comfortable being in front of the camera. In other documentaries you're dealing with normal people who don’t want a camera in their face 24/7 but these guys mostly forgot I was there. That’s the cool thing about being a one-man band, is people sometimes forget you’re shooting their most intimate moments.
When you watch a music video, all you see is the product. MTV used to have a show back in the day called “Making the Video” which went behind the scenes to how acts like Destiny’s Child or Janet Jackson or Justin Timberlake created their music videos. It was always dope because you got insight into why the artist chose to put certain things in their video. With Rekstizzy’s “God Bless America,” all you see is a bunch of guys squirting ketchup and mustard onto girls shaking their asses. And it’s easy to criticize it if you are so inclined. But when you see where Rekstizzy’s creative conception comes from, it becomes a bit easier to digest. I wanted to show that for Asian rappers, they’ll have to be able to explain their art in ways black artists won’t have to. There are considerations they have to make that black artists don’t have to think about. “What race of girls should shake their ass in my video? Does this feel like I’m trying to be too gangsta? I like this sound of the ironic gong in my song but, fuck, it sounds too Asian.” There’s a different process.
In the section where clips of each of the four’s work is presented to different industry figures, why do you think Dumbfoundead’s wasn’t as well received?
I think Dumbfoundead chose the wrong music. This is actually something people don’t know: all the artists chose the music they wanted us to play for the industry folks. Awkwafina, Rekstizzy, and Lyricks were very meticulous about it. Dumb was a bit more blase, and didn’t really know which songs to choose. He didn’t really have a strategy. But he was also going through a lot of changes in management at the time. He started managing himself and I think he wasn’t familiar with what an A&R would want to listen to. He was just getting to know himself as an artist and a person, believe it or not. If he could do it over again, I think he would have chosen music that is more representative of him.
Now that the film has played festivals and is readying for a more general release, has it impacted the artists in any way?
I can’t speak for the artists. Bad Rap definitely made them closer friends. But it was shot 3 or 4 years ago so they’re all at such different places in their careers. Each and every one of them is doing huge things. But watching themselves on screen has been eye-opening for them. I think a couple of them watched the movie, heard some of the feedback from the industry folks, got some encouragement from the film reviews and the audience, and who knows, it might have helped. I do know that they all loved watching their music get some constructive criticism from the music execs.