Interview: Jaeki Cho and Salima Koroma talk “Bad Rap,” Music, & Representation

When I tell people I’m watching Bad Rap, a documentary about Asian-American rappers, people have one of two reactions. Either they giggle and ask, “Are there really Asian American rappers?” Or they’re interested in a whole new subject they’ve never even considered.

Thanks to Dumbfoundead’s Safe back in 2016, I started immersing myself more and more into Asian American hip-hop. The lyrics about the feeling of “otherness” that pervades the Asian American experience was something that really hit me. Safe led me to Awkwafina’s My Vag, which pulled me in deeper from there.

If you haven’t watched the video Safe, do yourself a favor. The song was initially written about #OscarsSoWhite and has quickly become more and more relevant as white-washing has become a new normal in Hollywood.

The beauty of Asian American hip-hop is that you don’t need to be Asian American to love it. And the same sentiment goes for Bad Rap. Bad Rap focuses on four Asian American rappers: Dumbfoundead, Awkwafina, Rekstizzy, and Lyricks. All Asian American, all musicians, and all struggling to make it in the rap game.

Dumbfoundead is probably the most well-known. A well-respected battle rapper, he’s a pioneer as an Asian-American hip hop artist and rapper. Awkwafina had just dropped My Vag at the time of filming (now she’s cast in Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians). And Rekstizzy and Lyricks were trying to make a name for themselves in their own unique ways. The documentary also features artists like Jay Park, Far East Movement, and MC Jin. The film even gives a history of other Asian-Americans and their relationships with hip hop. 

But most importantly, Bad Rap focuses on the human struggles of trying to achieve your dream when the odds are stacked against you. There’s a fine balance between artistry, creativity, and music industry marketing. Bad Rap is a deftly made first feature that finds that balance.

The film will be released on iTunes on May 23, 2017 – just in time for Asian Pacific Heritage Month. We caught up with the director of the film, Salima Koroma, and the producer, Jaeki Cho, before it’s release.

What is the timeline of the filming?

Jaeki Cho: 2013. But Salima and I first linked back the winter of 2012.  And we started talking about this idea around then. I kind of brought up the concept of doing something about Asian American artists. She was the one who took the helm of it and ran with it. She directed it and I came on as producer a little later on down the line.

Nerdophiles: I really love the moment in the documentary when you’re talking to Rekstizzy about his music video and you say some really smart things about representation and the way you guys are utilizing black female bodies. I don’t know if you remember that moment, but it was really good to hear.

JC: Of course I remember it! I said it!

N: I don’t remember stuff that I said four years ago.

JC: Yeah, but I mean now it’s documented and it’s going to live on iTunes for a very long time.  It will be a constant reminder.

Well, good! You should be glad it’s out there. I’m glad those conversations were happening. Are you still Rekstizzy’s manager?

JC: No, I don’t work with Rek anymore. I kinda stopped working with him I would say around 2014-ish. But yeah, we’re still good friends, you know we still talk on a regular basis.

JC: I’ve been friends with Dumbfoundead since like 2009. So I’ve known him for a long time. I’ve known other characters in the film for like a similar amount of time.  The characters, like Dumb, Rick and Rek, they’ve known each other prior to Bad Rap. Awkwafina really got introduced to everybody during the process of filming and creating Bad Rap. But the four of them are really good friends now.  

What tour were they doing? Because there’s all these shots of them on tour.

JC: That was a tour that Dumb kinda had, I believe, in the beginning 2015. He had a tour called the Dead End tour, and he just had a few dates on the East Coast.  And all those guys they kinda hopped on some of his sets during his shows in New York City.

I was also wondering, how did you guys chose which rappers to feature? Because you had a bunch of different rappers who spoke, but they weren’t being followed around.

Salima Koroma: So basically we have four main rappers in the movie. The idea was just to follow these four characters, but to find them, we had to talk to a lot of different people. So it was like talking to Traphik, spending time with Decipher. It was a lot of months of following a lot of people around, and seeing what was working and what wasn’t.

SK: And so at the end of the day, [it was] Dumbfoundead, Awkwafina, Lyricks, and Rekstizzy. One, they were all friends or they were becoming friends. And two, they were in different places in their careers. So each of them was going through obstacles, whether it was parents, whether it’s not having that one hit, being a woman, being limited in your creativity. Each of them was going through a different thing.

SK: So the idea was we’re going to use the main cast to be our narrative, to be our story, and then everybody else who’s was kinda beyond the scope of what we wanted the film to be about, those were the ones who spoke on the broader topics. Those people sort of brought the flavor to the narrative. That’s really how it happened. It wasn’t like, ok now we’re going to do this person and this person. It was really organic.

That makes sense because there was a certain point when I felt like suddenly it was Dumbfoundead’s movie. Suddenly the narrative really honed in on him.

SK: Exactly. I mean, he is the thread that sort of carries everybody. He’s the thread that sort of connects everybody. Actually when we first started the movie Dumbfoundead was clearly going to be one of the main characters because he, at the time for me, was really big, doing it.

SK: So his story is just perfect to weave in through. Because he already went through what everybody else went through and he’s going through what everybody else is going through. And people really look up to him. So like, he was that perfect person.

Nerdophiles: Oh for sure. He was my entry point, which Jae and I already talked about, so I’ll start talking about it…

SK: What song was this?

JC: Safe.

SK: Yeah, that was dope. Was that the first time you’ve heard Dumbfoundead?

N: That was. I do a lot of music theatre. I’m gross, I listen to a lot music theatre. But because of that, I started listening to a lot of Asian American hip-hop. When I got the, when my editor asked me, are you interested in this, a film about this topic, I was like, “Is it going to be about Awkwafina and Dumbfoundead?” I was so happy when I found out that it was.

SK: That’s dope. Thank you, Melissa. Appreciate it.

You’re welcome. And congratulations on premiering at Tribeca. That’s huge.

SK: That was cool. That feels so long ago. That was a year ago. That was fun, Jaeki.

JC: Yeah, it was like pulling teeth, but that was fun.

What about it was like pulling teeth?

SK: On the way there, it was like pulling teeth.

JC: Yeah, it was pretty much… Salima has worked on films before. This is her first feature film. And I’ve worked on content for a long time, but this is like my first film project. And Tribeca was our first film festival, for both of us. So just the process leading up to that, you know, we didn’t have a distribution company, so that entire process was an experience. But we had a lot of turbulence. A lot of fire drills.

SK: When Jaeki says it was an experience, it was hell. It was utter hell. There’s always an emergency. Always trying to figure out what you needed for the festival. They’re always asking you for a bunch of different things. When it’s your first time doing it, you don’t expect it. It’s a learning curve.

JC: I mean, we’re kinda going through that phase now with our delivery to media platforms ie. iTunes. Bad Rap will be available May 23rd, just to put that out there. Even this process that we’re going through right now is a huge learning curve for us. And you know we recommend, all filmmakers out there: don’t make films. Nah, just kidding.

Are you going to be shopping Bad Rap around to a lot of film festivals?

JC: I don’t think we’re going any film festivals at this point, right, Salima?

SK: No, it’s not that we don’t think we are. We’re not. This movie, we’ve been doing it for a long time. It already did the circuit for a year. We did NY many times. We did LA a few times. We’ve done a lot of places so right now, you know, it was really cool showing the film to different places. We went to Korea, we showed it in Scotland, I think.  

JC: Yeah, we’ve been to Scotland, Canada.

SK: We showed it a lot of places. And that was really cool because we got some feedback from the audience. We got to have some discussions with the cast and the audience. Unfortunately, if you missed it, that period is over. Now we’re going to the next exciting thing. Getting it to a larger audience. So in terms of shopping it around, we never really had to shop Bad Rap around. People want it.

What was the reaction internationally? What was the response you’ve been getting from people?

JC: It’s hard for us to say internationally as a whole, but in markets like Scotland for instance… it’s a very American film, it’s about an Asian-American experience. So I think the audience members didn’t quite understand all the nuances. But they did understand, as Salima likes to put it often, trying to be a part of something that they’re not always embraced by. So that part I felt like the audience members were very receptive to.

JC: In terms of the audience in South Korea, some of the characters in the film, especially Dumbfoundead kinda has a following already in South Korea through his collaborations with other artists. So people do know him. There was a level of connection with that, and also that these… a lot of them are Asian artists with Korean heritage. So there were definitely levels of connection with that audience.

JC: But you know, Korean culture being a very respectful culture. Whenever you’re in a public setting. So some of the loud laughter and especially being a rap documentary that has a lot of slangs and inside jokes, word play.  I think some of that was lost but for the most part, we’ve heard nothing but great things from the audience members that attended the screenings. Especially some of the really big name K-Pop celebrities that had tremendously good things to say about the films after the screenings.

That’s fantastic. I have a weird overall question. One of the reasons I really got into Dumbfoundead, Awkwafina, and now through you guys I’ve been listening to a lot of Year of the Ox, Lyricks new duo.

SK: They’re good. They’re amazing. You should see them live.

Part of what I really liked about this was obviously more representation, and putting us out there in a mediums that we’re not commonly associated with, and putting Asian Americans as a community out there as something separated from immigrant background, or the homeland background. Just as our own group. What kind of impact do you think this documentary can have and should have, to the community as a whole, as well as to the identification of what is Asian American?

SK: First things first, we’re not trying to change anything. This is not going to be a film where it’s like “K, Bad Rap is out and now all Asians in rap are great.” Not everything is better, that’s not what we’re trying to do really.

SK: Jaeki and I are sort of, I don’t want to say motives, but our goals for this are different. For me, I love the idea of telling a story. A story that you think you know, but you don’t really know that story. And like, just the humanness in that.

SK: And watching it thinking, “Oh I thought that person was really different from me, but that person’s not.” Or like, they’re going through some shit that I don’t even know that they were going through. Or they had a perspective that I didn’t even know they had. And that can be for anybody.

SK: I think it’s dope to just even put out the fact that nobody has even talked about that, about Asian Americans in hip hop. Let’s just have that discussion. And when we’re sitting down interviewing, people were just so excited to talk, they were giving so much information that they hadn’t had a chance to give.

SK: For example, Jay Park (Korean pop/hip hop artist) that we interviewed. In the middle of us interviewing him he said, “Wow, I never thought about a lot of these questions that you guys are asking me. Because no one ever asks me this stuff. Nobody’s ever asked me about being an Asian American artist.” And you know that was sort of sentiment that we got from a lot of people.

SK: So within this, not only did we get that they were almost figuring things out as they were talking because they never even had the space to discuss this kind of thing. That for me was a big goal. It’s getting it out there so people can know and be aware that these conversations are happening. For me, my goal wasn’t to be like, “Okay, here are Asian rappers and like everybody should love them.” When people come to our Q&A’s and are crying, and saying, “Yo, I’ve never seen this story told before.” That was great. That was dope. So I don’t know about you, Jaeki.

JC: I feel like Salima definitely, I agree with Salima’s points. For me, personally, being an Asian American kid who grew up on hip hop and has been working in the hip hop industry,  I definitely have a stronger personal sentiment to this film. Because it’s essentially that I wish existed when I was growing up.

JC: I don’t like to put too much meaning into stuff like this, but it was kinda like a mission in a way that if I’m not involved in a project like this, I don’t think it would exist. Because this project exists, now I feel like there’s another generation of kids that could watch it and have a different perspective on what it means to be Asian American, or what it means to an Asian American creative. So in that sense, I felt like it’s an accomplishment.

JC: Is it going to have this quantum leap or seismic shift in how Hollywood or mainstream media perceives Asian Americans? Probably not. But it’s definitely a conversation starter. And in this climate where these conversations are happening, not only in the Asian American community, but in communities of color.

JC: For the first time you see a whole proliferation of content on major platforms that have leads that are people of color. So I feel like it’s the right time for a film like this to exist, and kind of add on to the bigger conversations that are happening.

Is there anything else you want to add?

JC: We just basically want all of our supporters, or all those interested in the film to follow Bad Rap Film. We are on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. We have merchandise available.

Yeah, that hat is sweet. I want that hat.

JC: Some of the biggest K-pop celebrities in the world have donned a hat including Sandra Park formerly of 2N1. Some of these people with a huge following have shown their support from the very beginning. Last but not least May 23rd is the date when bad rap is available on iTunes. So any preorder link is up now!

From left to right: Dumbfoundead, Awkwafina, Lyricks, Salima Koroma, Jaeki Cho, Rekstizzy [2016 Tribeca Film Festival]

Bad Rap is on iTunes starting May 23rd.