HipHopDX's Alex Dwyer caught up with the former Ruff Ryders sensation about his decision to leave New York for China, making Christian Hip Hop, and the moving target life of being a battle emcee.
“I remember the first time I heard it, there was an initial sting, There was an ‘ouch.’ I never met him, it wasn’t provoked in any way. Then I took a step back and looked at the whole thing. This kid is 17. He’s rhyming on the ‘Forever’ beat, it’s a posse cut, he’s doing his thing. As someone who knows what Hip Hop is, the nature of it and was raised in it, after that initial sting went buy, I was like ‘Nice.’”
Oceans and years separate him from his battle-rapping prime and Jin still deals with emcees throwing jabs in his general direction. Also, as a racial Rap pioneer, he’s put into the same category as an Eminem...or a Vanilla Ice.
It’s a two way street. He has to put up with shots fired and most aspiring Asian rappers will face him, responding in interviews questions or in the booth. As an emcee a decade in the game, which side of the Eminem and Vanilla Ice quality line he stands on is still fiercely debated.
Jin knows his legacy is up in the air.
Jin Explains On Tribulations Of Being A Onetime Top Battle Rapper
Right now, though, he is reflecting on the latest up-and-coming Asian rapper to call him out. “I’m only at the point in my life right now where I can bring this up and you can tell by my demeanor that I genuinely don’t feel any real ill will. This guy has dissed me before in a rhyme. It’s recent too, in the last year or so.”
I believe that he doesn’t care and I don’t. There are too many qualifications.
His smile widens. He leans in closer and taps me excitedly on the knee a few times like he’s about to brag about a fight he got in. “D-Pryde is from Canada. In the last year or two, he’s really been buzzin’ in terms of building a fanbase. I’d like to think that he’s probably on the verge of signing a deal sometime soon. Anyway, everyone gets their 16s in,” Jin says. It was the directness of the diss that surprised him most. “Just bold out like that, no subliminals in the midst of his 16...which he killed by the way.”
He pauses for a second. As a battle emcee, he has a built-in tendency to want to retaliate. “I guess once a battler, always a battler as they say, which I agree with to a certain extent. I can still appreciate the art and the craft of freestyle battling but I will be completely honest with you, I don’t have the inclination that I once had to want to jump in the ring.” It’s a tendency he is trying to learn to shake.
“You been wack your whole career / Ain't there two billion people in China? / You can't even go platinum over there." - Serius Jones battling Jin, MTV’s Fight Klub, 2005
A decade after cementing his place in battle rap lore on 106 & Park’s Freestyle Friday, Jin is relaxing in a Starbucks in a busy shopping district in Hong Kong. Initially, the city situated on an island on the knuckle of mainland China’s Southeast Coast feels like a larger, more jittery version of the Chinatowns in San Francisco or New York.
Rockbottom prices and no sales tax fuels foreign visitors and mainland Chinese to rush around grabbing all they can carry. Christmas music is already blaring and decorations adorn the store’s windows. Even if it weren’t the holiday season, you get the sense that everyday in HK feels like a Christmas shopping rush.
If Hong Kong, like its nearby island neighbors of Taiwan and Macau, exists as a gateway to Western trade, it is also the midway point for Western culture and style coming from the U.S. and elsewhere. As a result, these places produce the majority of the successful music, TV and film acts for the mainland. Trends arrive in these censor ambiguous island zones up to a few years before they ever reach mainland China, if they ever get that far at all.
As much as rapidly growing tier-one mainland Chinese cities like Shanghai are considered developed by most standards, the fact remains that they still live behind a firewall, and behind culture’s biggest and most suffocating muzzle, censorship.
Jin Explains His Career After Moving To China
“In China, there are acts who rhyme ruthlessly and recklessly about anything but it will be difficult for it to reach everyone on a mass level,” he says but figures the censors only go so far into art prevention. To him it has more to do with how much the Chinese value pop culture. Entertainment, Jin argues, runs the lives of Americans, where it is only peripheral for many Chinese.
The priority and history of entertainment in the US has given it a unshakeable status in the industry that stretches beyond the English language. “The reality at this moment, English being the major entertainment language is one thing, but it’s undeniable that as an entertainment hub, America still sets the pace and that’s something that I don’t see changing anytime soon — even if the economic situation changes.”
In that sense, Jin isn’t exactly holding his breath for Chinese cultural exports to take over the globe. “I think that the more it changes, the more it will stay the same. For example, if you say, do you see a rapper from Beijing blowing up in Beijing, completely dominating China, doing a song with Kanye and somehow making it into the States? I don’t wanna say it will never happen but I might not see it. Maybe my child’s child might see it.”
The lack of interest in entertainment makes it hard for cultural industries to thrive, but the bootleg factor makes it damn near impossible. “I can’t even defend Chinese people on that. Piracy is wack. Does that prevent a music industry from flourishing in China? Absolutely.”
A British colony until the late 1990s, the island is as Western and open as anywhere under China’s guise. Hong Kong exists in an economic vortex that appears relatively unaffected by the recessions of the developed world as well as mainland China’s explosive rise to prosperity. In 2006, while everything was still gravy in the U.S. economy, Jin had already begun going through a career recession of his own.
His adept battling skills earned him a deal and subsequent debut album, 2004's The Rest Is History, from Ruff Ryders Entertainment (featuring the likes of Twista, Kanye West and Wyclef Jean), and a role in the film 2 Fast 2 Furious.
It’s hard to dance around any word for his album in a commercial sense besides flop. Critics booed, fans didn’t pony up the cash and by 2005, Jin had already parted ways with Double R. “It was hard because I had been stratosphered into the limelight and then shot back down to struggling artist mode. I don’t feel any bitterness or blame anyone, that’s just kind of the reality. Those two years were more of a reality check than anything.”
Frustrated, Jin decided to dip out of the Rap game. He released a revealing, scrappy recording called “I Quit.” He talks about his glory days being over, biting the dust and being his own opponent. Inwards, he was asking questions about the structure of the industry. “What is a fanbase? What is a loyal fanbase? What is this thing called the music industry? Dude, I’m sick. I’m done with this.’”
It was then he took his first step towards internationalizing himself. Growing up, his parents, both Hong Kong natives, spoke to him in Cantonese Chinese at home. He recorded a track in his mother tongue called “ABC” (American Born Chinese) and was fond enough of it to want to spin it into an entire Cantonese album. He finished recording the album in 2006 but found shopping it around to be tough, even in Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong.
“They were like, 'This was that dude that was on BET, battling the black guys?’ that’s literally what they said. They all pretty much gave me the, ‘Let’s keep in touch’ response,” he says. By 2007, Jin decided to release it on an independent scale stateside. “It struck me as peculiar, this is nuts, I can’t release an all Cantonese album in Hong Kong, but I can in the States? What is the world coming to...”
A few independent albums (The Emcee’s Proper?Ganda, 100 Grand Jin, and I Promise) later, Universal Records comes back into the picture and wants Jin to re-release the ABC album in Hong Kong, with a few new songs and a few videos — a proper roll-out. They also ask him to come to Hong Kong for a few months. Although he had never lived there, it was a no brainer.
“I’m kind of shooting myself in the foot when I share this but I don’t feel the need to dodge it or sweep it under the rug because it’s reality,” Jin says. “When I first came, one of the biggest questions that people in HK had was: ‘Why are you coming back here! You’re popping in the States!’ They all thought I was crazy but in reality I came because there was nothing really going on [for my career] in the States.”
It was a pivotal moment in his career and his life. Nearly four years later, the move, which was initially only meant to be temporary, gave him a second chance.
He hands me his sophomore all-Cantonese album, Homecoming, which came out in 2011. It’s made to resemble a Hong Kong state-issued ID card. Jin is proud of the packaging, a testament to the city he now calls home.
Darting eyes and muffled whispers emerge from nearby tables and passersby every few minutes as we continue our conversation. Jin sports a pair Ray Bans, inside on a relatively sunless November day. He needs to keep a somewhat low profile. He’s a celebrity in Hong Kong, not just a rapper. People know him here and not just for his rhymes.
His albums, videos and large-scale concerts made an impression on the city when he first came to town. Yet it was his appearances in five feature films, numerous TV dramas, hosting everything from music to variety to food shows, and mugging in commercials for lemon tea drinks and noodle shops that made him a household name. Even the upcoming Cantonese release of Happy Feet 2 has Jin voicing for characters.
His invasion of the Hong Kong media reached a pinnacle last winter when he teamed up with Hong Kong political head Donald Tsang, for a Christmas video urging citizens to “Act Now,” a thinly veiled call to support certain political reforms. It was an admittedly different turn from his first foray into politics in his 2007 “Open Letter to Obama” , calling for folks to “Take it to the polls” in support. The video is playful but people were outraged online and off about his alignment with the political apparatus.
His self-inflicted artistic integrity wound aside, Jin is most grateful for other gifts his new home provided.
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