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Sat January 19, 2013
Music News

Jin, 'The Chinese Kid Who Raps,' Grows Up

Originally published on Sat January 19, 2013 7:25 pm

His name is Jin — short for Jin Auyeung.

But as a high-schooler in Miami, he was better known as "the Chinese kid who raps," a reputation he's developed after frequenting local talent shows and rap competitions.

In 2004, at 22, he became the first Asian-American to release a solo rap album on a major label in the U.S.

Almost a decade later, Jin, now 30, has sold thousands of records, won awards and even acted in TV shows and movies — not in America, but in Hong Kong.

After a failed career at home in the U.S., the Chinese-American rapper found an unexpected second chance at stardom on the other side of the world.

The 'Elephant In The Room'

The American-born son of Chinese immigrants, Jin says he remembers sticking out as a teenager growing up in Miami in the late 1990s.

"There was the inevitable elephant in the room [at local rap competitions]," he says. "Everybody's like, 'Hold up, hold up! That Chinese kid is going to go on stage and rap?'"

In 2002, after moving with his family to New York City, Jin hit the national stage with live appearances on BET's music-video countdown show 106 & Park.

For seven consecutive weeks, he dominated the program's "Freestyle Friday" rap battles, fending off his challengers' ethnic insults with rapid-fire retorts like:

"Yeah, I'm Chinese / Now you understand it / I'm the reason that his little sister's eyes are slanted / If you make one joke about rice or karate / NYPD be in Chinatown searching for your body."

His success led to his signing with the hip-hop label Ruff Ryders Entertainment as the first mainstream Asian-American rapper. It set the entertainment world abuzz.

"I thought I was heading to the moon," Jin says. "Everybody was writing about me. I'm appearing on ESPN. I was in movies [and on] Entertainment Tonight. And I allowed myself to believe that 'I'm here!' "

In reality, "here" wasn't what Jin had in mind. There was a two-year delay before his debut album, The Rest Is History, was finally released in 2004, and it peaked at No. 54 on the Billboard 200 album chart.

"The reception and the album sales just did not live up to the hype," he says.

Breaking Down Doors

Most of the media hype over Jin's debut focused on his ethnicity, a topic Jin addressed head-on with his first single, "Learn Chinese." The track begins with, "Yeah, I'm Chinese, and what?" and later declares, "The days of the pork fried rice and the chicken wings coming to your house by me is over."

Jeff Chang, a former music journalist and author of Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, sees Jin as an Asian-American pioneer in mainstream hip-hop, which, he says, may have been why Jin's career failed to take off.

"Oftentimes, history isn't kind to the people who break down the doors," says Chang, who now runs Stanford University's Institute for Diversity in the Arts. "Jin was trying to basically break the old mold of Asian-Americans being sort of kung fu artists or the folks who kind of stood in the background to play the supporting role. And so it might have simply been a case of Jin being there too early."

Chang says Jin may have also been too late, starting his career at the tail end of hip-hop's dominance of pop music in America.

As for Jin's own theory about what went wrong, he points to one main factor: the music.

"The album [The Rest Is History] lacked direction," Jin says, "because at that time, I didn't have direction in my life."

Finding A New Direction

It took a few years before Jin found a direction that would restart his career. It happened unexpectedly after he released a rap album in Cantonese, the Chinese dialect he grew up speaking with his parents.

Jin named the album ABC — not after the alphabet, but shorthand for "American-born Chinese" like himself. The album's lyrics often touch on what it means to be an "ABC," an outsider both in mainstream American society and in the Chinese community.

Jin says he'd thought about recording a Cantonese album for a long time. But he always brushed off the idea, until 2007, when it seemed like his career had stalled completely.

He originally planned to release the album as a small independent project in the U.S. But a few months after ABC's U.S. release, record executives at Universal Music Hong Kong came calling. They saw an opportunity for Jin to tap into Hong Kong's growing Cantonese hip-hop scene, so they re-released ABC locally in 2008.

"I went out [to Hong Kong and] three months turned into six months, six months turned into a year, a year turned into two, to three," Jin says, "and I've been there for four years now."

Becoming A 'Full-On Entertainer'

Known there as "MC Jin," Jin has become a household name in Hong Kong — and not just for his rapping skills, according to Ben Sin, a journalist who covers music there.

"I see him on TV shows and movies a lot, so he's completely branched out, like most Hong Kong celebrities, into just a full-on entertainer," Sin says. "He's not just a rapper anymore."

In addition to receiving accolades for his music, Jin even won an award in 2011 for "most improved actor" from Hong Kong's top television station, TVB, for his roles in TV dramas and hosting gigs.

Sin says Jin's relatively smooth entry into Hong Kong's entertainment world is partly due to the significant influence hip-hop still has on Asian pop music. Jin's past experience in American hip-hop brought a sense of authenticity to Hong Kong's local scene.

"I think the fact that he competed in rap competitions with black people was a big selling point [when Jin was first introduced to the Hong Kong audience]," Sin says. "[TV programs] were just showing clips of it and cut back to reactions of Hong Kong people going like, 'Oh my god! He was rapping with black people!' So it was a bit playing into the stereotype at first."

Back To America

Now, at 30, recently married and a new father, Jin has come home, back to the U.S., ready to tackle another stereotype — the "has-been musician."

He recently released a new English-language EP called Brand New Me, which he hopes will reintroduce him to an American audience. He is working on a full-length English-language album, tentatively titled Hypocrite.

Last year, Jin also put out a free album of faith-based music called Crazy Love Ridiculous Faith. It's yet another reinvention for the rapper, who's now eager to share his new identity as a born-again Christian.

"You know, I'm conveying and proclaiming, 'You know what? This is where I'm at. This is where my mindset is,' " says Jin — the Chinese kid who raps and is all grown up.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Here's some music trivia for you: Who is the first Asian-American to release a solo rap album on a major label in the U.S. Can you use a hint?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEARN CHINESE")

JIN: (Singing) Yeah, I'm Chinese, and what? Yeah, you know who this is - Jin. And let me tell you this: The days of the pork fried rice and the chicken wings coming to your house by me is over.

SIMON: His name is Jin. And he's not trivial. Jin has sold thousands of records, won awards, and appeared in TV shows and movies in Hong Kong. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports on how the Chinese-American rapper from Miami got a second chance at stardom on the other side of the world.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Jin grew up in Miami with a few different names.

JIN: My name is Jin Auyueng - that's my full name. And my Chinese name is Auyueng Jing.

WANG: He was also known as...

JIN: The Chinese kid that raps.

WANG: A reputation he developed as a high schooler after frequenting local talent shows and rapping competitions, where he says...

JIN: There was the inevitable elephant in the room, so to speak, 'cause everybody's like hold up, hold up. That Chinese kid is going to go on stage and rap? (Singing) Yeah, I'm Chinese. Now you understand it. I'm the reason that his little sister's eyes are slanted. If you make one joke about race or karate, NYPD be in Chinatown searching for your body.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: All right. There it is.

WANG: That was Jin about ten years ago, just 19 years old, on the verge of his big break, live on BET, Black Entertainment Television. Jin competed in freestyle rap battles. And for seven consecutive weeks, he dominated, fending off his challengers' ethnic insults with rapid-fire retorts. His success led to his signing with the hip-hop label Ruff Ryders in 2002 as the first mainstream Asian-American rapper. And it set the entertainment world abuzz.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JIN: I thought I was heading to the moon. Everybody was writing about me. I'm appearing on ESPN. I was in movies, you know, "Entertainment Tonight." And I allowed myself to believe that I'm here.

WANG: In reality, here wasn't exactly what Jin had in mind. There was a two-year delay before his debut album "The Rest is History" was finally released. It peaked at just 54 on the Billboard 200 album chart.

JIN: The reception and the album sales just did not live up to the hype.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JEFF CHANG: Oftentimes, history isn't kind to the people who break down the doors.

WANG: Jeff Chang is a former music journalist who's followed Jin's career. He now runs Stanford University's Institute for Diversity in the Arts.

CHANG: Jin was trying basically to break the old mold of Asian-Americans, you know, being sort of kung-fu artists or being the folks who kind of stood in the background to play the supporting role. And so, you know, it might have simply been a case of Jin being there too early.

WANG: Chang says Jin may have also been too late. His career started at the tail end of hip-hop's dominance of pop music in America. As for Jin's own theory about what went wrong, he points to one main factor.

JIN: And that was the music. The album lacked direction because at that time, I didn't have direction in my life.

WANG: It took a few years before Jin found a direction that would restart his career. And it happened unexpectedly - when he went back to the basics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

JIN: (Singing) ABC, (Foreign language spoken)

WANG: This is the title track from Jin's first rap album in Cantonese. That's the Chinese dialect he grew up speaking with his immigrant parents. Jin named the album "ABC" - not after the alphabet. It's shorthand for American-born Chinese, like himself. The album's lyrics often touch on what it means to be an "ABC," an outsider both in mainstream American society and in the Chinese community. Jin had thought about recording a Cantonese album for a long time. But he always brushed off the idea, until 2007, when it seemed like his career had completely stalled.

JIN: I was like, well, there's really nothing else left. I don't have anything else to do. So, I recorded it with the intentions of releasing it.

WANG: Just as a small independent project in the U.S. And soon, record executives in Hong Kong came calling. They saw an opportunity for Jin to tap into a growing local hip-hop scene.

JIN: I went out there - three months turned into six months, six months turned into a year, a year turned into two, to three, and I've been there for four years now.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Hong Kong superstar.

WANG: Jin's become a household name in Hong Kong - and not just for his rapping skills, according to Ben Sin, a journalist who covers music there.

BEN SIN: I see him on TV shows and movies a lot. So, he's completely branched out like most Hong Kong celebrities into just a full-on entertainer. He's not just a rapper anymore.

WANG: Sin says Jin's relatively smooth entry into Hong Kong's entertainment world is partly because of the significant influence hip-hop still has on Asian pop music.

SIN: And I think the fact that he competed in rap competitions with black people was a big selling point at the time. They were just showing clips of it and then cut back to reactions of Hong Kong people going like, oh my God. Like, he was rapping with black people, you know. So, it was a bit playing into the stereotype at first.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WANG: Now, at age 30, recently married and a new father, Jin's come home - back to the U.S. - ready to tackle another stereotype, the has-been musician.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRAND NEW ME")

JIN: (Singing) How you doing? You might not recognize me. But guess what? That don't even surprise me. Lately, I've been through so much, but as you can see I ain't lose my touch.

WANG: Jin hopes his latest single, "Brand New Me," from his new English-language EP will reintroduce him to an American audience. Jin also recently put out a free album of faith-based music. It's yet another reinvention for the rapper, who's now eager to share his new identity as a born-again Christian.

JIN: You know, I'm conveying and proclaiming, you know what? This is where I'm at. This is where my mindset is.

WANG: The mindset of the Chinese kid who raps and is all grown up. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRAND NEW ME")

JIN: (Singing) Me and my crew, feeling like, feeling like, I'm brand new. You know how I, I, I...

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.