Far East Movement: Asian-American hip-hop group on stereotypes and playing Hong Kong again
Trio from Koreatown, Los Angeles, have worked with everyone from Snoop Dogg to Pitbull, Justin Bieber and K-pop’s finest, toured with Lady Gaga and were the first Asian American group to have a Billboard Number 1
The members of Far East Movement might all be of Asian extraction, but their name is quite a misnomer.
All three members hail from just about as far west as you can get: Los Angeles, specifically its Koreatown district, where they are local legends. The first Asian-American group to score a No 1 on the Billboard charts, with 2010’s Like a G6, Far East Movement’s music is ground in hip-hop, with lyrics heavy on bottle-popping party antics, spliced with EDM production touches featuring heavy doses of post-dubstep and trap, alongside big, uplifting pop choruses.
They play at Central Harbourfront on January 19, as part of the Billboard Radio Live in Hong Kong series of concerts that also include the likes of Rita Ora, and local stars Khalil Fong and Supper Moment. They’ve performed in Hong Kong numerous times before, playing in the city for the first time very early in their career, back in 2005.
“We’d never been to Asia before,” says band member Kevin Nishimura, aka Kev Nish. “It was a culture shock; we just knew the stuff we’d seen on TV. We were surprised how many people spoke English.
And we were like, ‘Wow, everyone here has black hair’ – we were used to a lot more diversity in Los Angeles. Also, a lot of what we do is just like a bunch of dudes jumping around and yelling, and we found that didn’t always work there, so we learned a lot about how to put on a show.”
“We also found that Asian people really love to party,” adds fellow rapper. James Roh, aka Prohgress, who’s also the band’s unofficial in-house manager. “They’re the only ones who are still partying at 8am.”
And despite the culture shock, they appear to fit in well with the local culture; Kev Nish says their activities in Hong Kong are “built around shopping. It’s really ahead in terms of fashion and technology.”
A range of Asian ethnicities are represented in the band. Kev Nish is half Chinese-American, half Japanese-American; Prohgress and former band member J-Splif are Korean-American; and the band’s DJ, Virman Coquia, who was already an established radio DJ when he joined in 2007, is Filipino-American.
Far East Movement got their first break not long after that first Hong Kong trip when their track Round Round, from their 2006 debut album Folk Music, was used on the soundtrack of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, the third instalment of the hit film series.
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But they didn’t really hit the big time until their third album, 2010’s Free Wired, featuring breakthrough single Girls on the Dance Floor, followed by the mega-selling Like a G6 (the name is a reference to a Gulfstream private jet) and their second-biggest hit Rocketeer. The key to their success, says Kev Nish, was a change in their composition process.
“When we started we were a typical hip-hop group with three MCs and one DJ, and it was individualistic: everyone goes into a corner for a few hours and writes their verse, and it’s disjointed – it didn’t feel like we were making music together. We switched so we were writing as a group – so we’re more like a family.”
As is pretty much standard these days, they have worked with a ridiculous range of big-name collaborators, including Snoop Dogg, Pitbull, Tyga, Wiz Khalifa, Justin Bieber, Roger Sanchez, Flo Rida, Lil Jon, Redfoo and Iggy Azalea. They say they’ve learned a lot from various artists: about tour production and staging from Lady Gaga, who they supported for four nights in Japan on her 2009 to 2011 Monster Ball Tour; about performance from singer-songwriter Robyn, with whom they’ve also toured; about music production from regular collaborators The Stereotypes; and about lyrics from Bruno Mars, who supplied vocals on one of the two versions of Rocketeer. “To him it’s just poetry,” says Prohgress. “You can tell he was born to do it. He was just coming up with lines behind the mic like Jay Z does. That was really inspirational.”
Another change propelling the band to success around the time of Free Wired was a move to Interscope Records, where the rappers had both got their start in the music industry as interns. But after the 2012 album Dirty Bass, they started to feel a lack of backing from the label, who kept asking them to produce another Like a G6. The label, moreover, struggled with their ethnicity, dismally informing them that they were too Asian to be marketable – effectively making the lack of Asian-American faces in music a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“It was weird,” says Kev Nish. “We’ve been told that ever since we started, and we expected nothing less, but we are a bunch of positive people, and we like to feel that our destiny’s in our own hands.”
The result was 2016 album Identity, on their own label Transparent Agency, for which the band travelled to Asia to work with local musicians, particularly in South Korea, including Chanyeol, Hyolyn, Yoon Mi-rae, Loco and Urban Zakapa, as well as Western artists such as Marshmello, Soulja Boy and Macy Gray.
As well as frustration with stereotyping, the album also resulted from frustration with the superficiality of a lot of musical collaborations, which are often done by email, with zero human contact between the people making music together.
“We really had to get away from that email collaboration vibe,” says Kev Nish. “The biggest complaint when working with Western artists is it can be so impersonal; it feels detached. We thought: if we’re going to make a record that represents both cultures, let’s make the investment in a plane ticket.”
Kev Nish says they found the music industry in South Korea to be very different from the US. “They’ve scientifically figured out the A&R process, and how to get hits to artists. And it was cool, because the labels were very supportive of them working with us.”
There is also another, rather more surprising, reason they like working in Korea: the cakes. “In Asia, baking skills are extremely amazing, especially Korea,” says Kev Nish. “We get given really detailed cakes, featuring all of us, everything we’re wearing, even the DJ booth. What’s sad is that you can’t really keep them.”
Far East Movement, Billboard Radio Live in Hong Kong, Jan 19, 8pm, Central Harbourfront Event Space, HK$750, HK$850, HK Ticketing