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DUMBFOUNDEAD: And I'm Dumbfoundead.
ALI SHAHEED MUHAMMAD: What up?
FRANNIE KELLEY: Thanks for coming in. We've been trying to make this happen for a while.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: Thanks for having me. I remember getting hit up by you guys and, like, just couldn't schedule it, and finally we made it happen. I'm stoked.
FRANNIE: No worries.
ALI: Has it been a couple years?
FRANNIE: No, it's been like six months or something like that.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: In the past year. Yeah.
FRANNIE: But, you know, as an L.A.-based podcast, we would be remiss if we didn't have you on.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: Thank you so much. Appreciate that.
FRANNIE: And also you – when he first moved here, he lived in K-town. You guys talk about that?
DUMBFOUNDEAD: Yeah. Cause I'm good friend with Roy, Roy Choi, and I know you were doing events at The Line.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: And I would see that. I've definitely seen you around too there. We probably met once or twice –
FRANNIE: Oh, I'm sure.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: – but it was always busy and little events going on, so yeah.
ALI: Yeah, I miss it over there.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: Yeah. It's lit.
ALI: It was a cool way to be introduced to calling L.A. your home, living in K-town.
FRANNIE: I'm mostly interested in sort of what's going on with you right now. I think that you have a lot to say about kind of what's happening in hip-hop right now, as a 40-year-old – not you a 40-year-old, but hip-hop as a 40-year-old, 40-something.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: Oh, OK. Cause I'm not far from that either.
FRANNIE: OK. But yeah, just as somebody who's been in the game in a bunch of different sort of iterations and how you feel about those changes and what's happening right now. But could you start just sort of with how you came to hip-hop, who your heroes were, what it was like for you when you were a kid?
DUMBFOUNDEAD: Yeah, I mean, I grew up – just, I guess, being from Los Angeles and growing up, I was introduced to hip-hop through just hearing it, going to my dad's business every day as a kid cause just the immigrant father who couldn't afford a babysitter, so he'd take me along to work with him in downtown Los Angeles. He worked at this little store, and we would just be there, just hanging around, and right next to his store was an electronics store that had boomboxes playing hip-hop all day. So since I was like 5, 6 years old, I would just hear it, and you grow up on pretty much West Coast gangster rap.
FRANNIE: So like late '80s, early '90s?
DUMBFOUNDEAD: Yeah, yeah. Early '90s. Whether it's like Ice Cube, Dre, all that. But not really being a hip-hop head, just growing up around it. That was my main – I think at the time, when we were kids in L.A., it was either like the rock kids or the hip-hop kids. Now it's everything. You go to a festival; everyone listens to everything. But to me when I was growing up, you were either the rocker or a hip-hop head.
FRANNIE: Totally. I lived in the Bay at that time, and it was the exact same thing.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: Oh, was it? OK.
FRANNIE: It wasn't a weird thing like you had to be like, "I like hip-hop," cause it was everywhere. But you did have to be like, "I'm less into Nirvana."
DUMBFOUNDEAD: Yeah, yeah. And then later on, when I got into high school, I became a rock head too. I was more into rock music and alternative stuff, and it all kind of fused together. But that was my introduction. And then, when I was freshman year in high school, I started rapping. Cause I was a class clown my whole life, and I think it easily transitioned into me freestyling and battle rapping, just cause I was a class clown, so I mixed in a lot of comedy with hip-hop, two of my favorite things.
And I was one of the best rappers in my high school, and then my friend took me to an open mic called Project Blowed in Leimert Park, which is really prominent open mic. And I didn't know what it was. I just went. I was ready to rap, cause I was all cocky and arrogant little rapper, and then stuck my head inside a cypher and they were, like, so good. And I was like, "OK. Back the drawing board." That first week I didn't even step in the cypher I was so nervous. And I was cocky, like, ready to rap.
I go in there, and it was amazing. I got introduced to a whole 'nother world of hip-hop that I wasn't familiar with. I was just used to listening to the radio and all that. And at the time too, I was into underground hip-hop and conscious rap from the East Coast too, to the West Coast, but Project Blowed was even deeper, deeper underground. Getting introduced to Freestyle Fellowship. This was –
FRANNIE: Cause it's hard to put that on record and have it be really what it is.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: Yeah, it was –
FRANNIE: That's not the only reason, but.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: It was just, hearing a scene of local rappers that I had access to that were amazing was crazy, because everything else to me were – these rappers that I listened to were out of reach. That was my first introduction to a community where we have a place you could rap at every week, and there's hierarchies of OGs to the new cats, all that.
So I was addicted the first week I went, and I went every week after that for years and years. It started at ten p.m. on a Thursday night, and that's a school night. I'm going from a kid in Koreatown all the way to South Central every Thursday night, and I was only able to do that cause my parents were so busy with work and stuff. I just got away with a lot of stuff. So I would say that was where I really really fell in love with the craft. Yeah.
FRANNIE: Do you remember the first time that you scored some points or emerged victorious, in a cypher, in a battle? Do you remember the first time you were, like – landed something.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: Oh yeah. Definitely.
FRANNIE: What happened?
DUMBFOUNDEAD: It was just in high school. It just happened naturally. We're all just freestyling, and then another person jumps in, and next thing you know – and I wasn't done yet, so we're both rapping at the same time, and that turns into a battle. That's pretty much how most battles happen. Most of us weren't really just trying to pick on somebody. It just happens where both of us are rapping at the same time, and one person's just not backing up. So we're like – and then it just – the words start changing from just freestyling in a cypher to words against each other, you know? And then I say something, it just landed.
I don't think I've ever attacked anybody in a battle until they've said something to me first. And early on it was always like some Jackie Chan thing. It was always – the Jackie Chan – that's the funny thing about growing up battle rapping as an Asian dude. You only get hit with a few things. It was Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, or Jet Li, which just tells you about how much representation there was at the time, but yeah, I mean, it was fun. I always had fun with it. I never thought it was – I never saw being an Asian dude coming up in that game as a disadvantage or a crutch. I always thought it was kind of cool being one of the only Asian dudes in my circle rapping.
ALI: Do you remember the first time that you actually jumped in the cypher at Project Blowed?
DUMBFOUNDEAD: Yeah, it was about the second or third week I went. The first week I was nervous. I went, and I just heard the level people were freestyling and rapping at that it really kind of put things into perspective to me about what being a good rapper was. You can be the best in your high school or at a house party, but when you actually go to an open mic where people really do this, hundreds of rappers, the best in the city, from all parts of town, and you hear that, and it really made me kind of go back to the drawing board. So I don't think I stepped in until probably the third week.
ALI: So when you stepped in, do you remember what you were thinking about and what the end was afterwards?
DUMBFOUNDEAD: I just remember being really nervous. I remember the cypher was huge. It was literally probably – it was a circle that was like 40 people. It was pretty big.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: It's a really big cypher, cause that whole block on the corner used to be just filled with rappers. And there was only one other Asian rapper. And he's a good friend of mine, and he was already, like, in there. He was freestyling. He was confident. I remember just trying to get the nerve to step in. I finally did, got one off, came out, and I was like, "OK. Cool." And it just got a little bit more comfortable, but it was – I was definitely nervous.
And I never had that feeling, cause I was never nervous in my school or at the house party. And I was like, "Damn. This is a new feeling." But it really did kind of help me realize I gotta – to grow I just had to keep stepping out of the comfort zone more and more as I reached different levels. And if I didn't have a place like that, I don't think I would really have kept doing that. I would've been stuck in different comfort zones every part of my life. But that was probably an extreme of stepping out of a comfort zone.
I'm talking you sign up to perform for a song, and they boo you off stage if they don't feel you. And it just reminded me of Apollo or something, you know what I mean? And it just really taught me life lesson all throughout my life, as far as entertainment, just knowing that tough love and being able to take harsh criticism. And hip-hop is like – that's a world where we do that. It's a competitive spirit, and yeah, I learned that way after – and still have that attitude now.
FRANNIE: And also the criticism can be, "That sucked," not like, "You suck."
DUMBFOUNDEAD: I take it as tough love. And it's not mean. It depends on how you take it as an artist. It's about if you take that and you let that fuel you to come back and prove yourself again the week after. And that's how I took it, and I think that's how everybody at that open mic was taking it. You can be mad and be like, "F this place. I'm never coming back." Or you can actually come back and be like, "I'm going to prove to you," and that's how you get better I feel like.
FRANNIE: Where do you find that kind of spirit, or that sense, in contemporary in hip-hop?
DUMBFOUNDEAD: Which sense? Like, the –
FRANNIE: That specific kind of competition and tough love, not allowing things to be mediocre or just some C+-type shit.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: Well, I mean –
FRANNIE: I feel like it's a little bit absent. Am I wrong?
DUMBFOUNDEAD: It is absent, because I think all around art has gone to this place where people automatically consider it hating if you have a criticism about a song or music or whatever. Now it's just like, "Let him do his thing. We're all making art." But it's like, why can't you like something or why can't you hate something? You know what I mean?
FRANNIE: I do.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: I don't think there's anything wrong with that, but it's really hard to be critical nowadays, cause everyone's like, "Ah, you're just hating. Let the young cat do his thing."
FRANNIE: Let him live. Yeah.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: But I don't like that. I like having an opinion about something. You like something; you don't. And it's OK. It doesn't mean you're going to not like it forever. I'd rather have people tell me – come up to me and be like, "Yo, I like this. I'm not really into your music, but I like this thing," or whatever. I like hearing honest feedback about stuff. It is hard to be really critical in this day and age, without being painted as, like, this hater, which kind of sucks. I don't know.
FRANNIE: There is something about – am I wrong? That that spirit of moving out of your comfort zone, being scared, and then competing with other people, that that is integral.
ALI: It's integral I think in being better and growing and developing, but I guess it depends on what it is actually that you're into. If you're in school and you're around other people who are excelling based off, for an example, if there's a lecture and a professor is asking a question and someone's giving an answer that make you go, "Oh, wow. I didn't think of it that way," it makes you want to go back more and maybe study or do more reading or something more in depth. I'm sure that there's a lot of that that still exists.
But in terms of art, I had a friend, an artist friend, who goes by the name of Soulbone – he's a singer – and I feel like maybe eight years ago he said, "We are at a place where we celebrate failure." And failure – what he was considering failure in the context of the conversation as it pertains to art is what other people see as getting on and success and making it. But when you're making it, and the subject matter of your lyrics or your songs are not something to be celebratory about in the big picture of life, but then it's – again, going back to just being labelled a hater, it's like, "Why are you so extra critical of where I'm coming from and what I'm speaking for, and the level of life as I've experienced to this point? I might not be where you are."
So we haven't gotten over, and things are being revealed right now. Everything is acceptable right now. And at some point – I mean, that's cool, but I just think at some point, you have to call question and go, "OK. There's an aspect of life that's actually ludicrous. It's ridiculous. It's crazy." And we haven't been calling it that, but I guess we have to really hit self-destruct almost.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: I've been seeing that a part of what you said when somebody is critical about somebody and then say they're hating, right? And then the other person's like, "Why you stopping the dude from getting his money?" But it's like, that's not what I'm even saying. I'm not trying to stop – the fact that that's what they're thinking about already –
FRANNIE: That's the priority.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: – I feel like is already – that's pretty wack. And that's a problem right there, where everyone – that's the first thing they're thinking about, like, I'm trying to stop a dude from getting his money. That has – that's the furthest thing away, you know?
I also think we're just more anti-social with each other, because of social media. Young kids, they don't really – it's hard for them to interact in person with each other. Everyone's just talking to each other DM on social media, but if you meet some of these kids in person who have huge personalities online, they're really awkward in person. They just don't know how to have an interaction in person, and when we're back in the cyphers, all that stuff, it is a very interactive thing, right in front of your face. So I think that plays a big part in it actually. Yeah, I think they even did a study where a lot of these kids are not even going out with – girls and guys are not interacting that much.
FRANNIE: Are you talking about that Atlantic article, that they're not having as much sex cause they don't leave the house?
DUMBFOUNDEAD: I think they said something about that, right? And I think that does play into it too. Just, interactions is different.
ALI: It is different.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: We're living in a different time with that.
FRANNIE: I feel like that energy that happens in a battle where you just cannot get away with certain things is important. So what I'm thinking about is – and I'm going to get all the names wrong, so I need you to help me. But so when Drake was like, "I need Dumbfoundead to come back and be in this competition." What was the name of the competition?
DUMBFOUNDEAD: It was – the league is called King Of The Dot, which is a battle league that happens out of Toronto. So it was like, "Oh, Drake, that's his hometown, so I guess they partnered up on something like that." And he pretty much funded the event.
Cause there's not a lot of money in battle rapping really, to make it back. So what happens I feel like, in the battle rap world, is you have these really big rappers with a lot of money like Drake or Diddy or whoever, and they just kind of throw the money into these events not expecting really money back, which is cool, cause they support it and they want to see it happen. But I don't see it as they're making anything back really. It's really hard. Cause people want to watch battles for free on YouTube or whatever.
FRANNIE: Yeah. OK, so then you – I'm sorry. I don't remember if it was the semi-final, final, or whatever, if there are even rounds like that, but you are going up against that dude who became a meme?
DUMBFOUNDEAD: Oh, Conceited, yeah.
FRANNIE: Yes, Conceited. OK. And he came at you with some Asian shit, and the way that you went back on him – the way that you can address those things in person is such an argument against them. It's such a better argument than beefing on Twitter to do it, to have the weakness of his argument revealed like that.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: Well, to me, it's not – I never get mad about Asian disses towards me. Like, if I was battling an Asian dude, I would use Asian shit. That's just – it's obvious. When you're in a battle, nothing is off limits, and I don't think anything should be off limits.
There was that interview with Drake on LeBron's show; I think he brought up – LeBron brought up something about Pusha T. Pusha T talked about 40 and his disease. Yeah, that's fucked up, but is it off limits? I don't know. I don't think so, because Drake said a bunch of personal stuff too, and Pusha did too. I think it hit – it affected him. Drake got affected by it, but I wouldn't say it's off limits. I just feel like it's not, just cause it's a battle. You say mean-ass shit.
FRANNIE: I guess what I'm trying to say is that it doesn't – it appears to me that very little is off limits. It is my opinion that that's fair game. Almost everything is fair game. But there is this way that because it's happening in person, because you have to actually do it face-to-face, that when you come back on it, that you can demolish these things, just because it's so direct.
DUMFOUNDEAD: Yeah, and that's one thing I like about battle rap. It is the front line of MCing I feel like, still. Because there isn't a lot of things where you put a lot of things on the line in the rap game no more, and MCing is one of those things. You can get destroyed, and it's going to be there forever. And a form of battle rap is obviously diss tracks, with the whole Meek and Drake. That was a big blow to Meek's career when Drake put that out, "Back To Back." And the same way that happened and battle rap in general, it is really really – you are putting yourself out there and you're kind of really on the front line. So whether I battle rap anymore or not, I still respect a lot of battle rappers. It's a lot on the line.
FRANNIE: The stakes are really high.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: The stakes are high. You can be really really embarrassed for a long time online, and it's not going anywhere. No one's going to forget it. It's a weird thing. I was just talking about this on another – with a friend of mine, and for instance, a stand-up comedy set, you have a special that you work on for – you work on the material for like ten years for that one special, which is kind of common in the comedy world. You work it out, and you get that one special, one-hour special.
With battle raps, each thing is a special, and people do it every other month almost. And you can't do that special over and over again.
FRANNIE: You have to write a new one every time.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: It's one special, and you can never repeat it ever again, which is kind of crazy if you judge the two. It's almost like the same thing, but it's totally taken differently, which is so crazy. It's one special. You can deliver it one time, and that's it. Yeah.
ALI: Why is that some battle rappers make poor songwriters?
DUMBFOUNDEAD: I think –
ALI: On the flip side, some battle rappers make the best songwriters ever.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: Yeah. Like, an Eminem or something, right? He's gone on to – but yeah, I agree. And people say something like – battle rappers argue like, "Oh, that's a stigma." No, but it's true. But the truth is it is true. I feel, as far as in history-wise, there hasn't been much success for battle rappers transitioning into being great songwriters.
FRANNIE: It seems like a discrete field.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: Yeah. And it is. Some battle rappers have no interest in making music, and that's fine. But I think the reason that it's hard to transition is because the way you approach writing battle raps, it's not really like a broad, universal – you're not touching on topics that's going to touch the masses. You're just roasting one dude. It's about one guy. It's not about everybody else. I think it's hard to transition into – and that's why when battle rappers try to make music, it sounds like a battle rap. It's like a three-minute battle rap against every weak MC that exists on the planet, and I think that's what it is.
I know when I was transitioning, I had a lot of songs where everything was just like, "Cause rappers are just – you're a weak MC cause of this!" It just sounded like a battle rap over a beat. But then when I started making songs about girls or life experiences, people started getting drawn to it. And that's when I knew like, "OK. That's the difference." There's times for those raps too, just flexing, braggadocio rap, but I think being a good songwriter is all that other stuff, having melodies too on top of that.
But yeah, that's been a thing. That's been a thing for a long time, people saying battle rappers can't make music.
ALI: When did you know that you were making that transition?
DUMBFOUNDEAD: And me too! I was late on making that transition, and I still feel like I'm – it still – every time it's a learning process in trying to do it. I didn't make my first song until probably three, four years into rapping. I was freestyling and battle rapping, and I didn't even think about making my first song. That had a lot to do – I just loved freestyling. It was fun.
It was a whole 'nother thing to me, and also doing battles, I just was like, "OK. Where's this going to?" I kind of got bored just as a creative outlet just doing that, and I was like, "I need to do more." And I – there was a whole – when I made my first song, there was a different feeling of it, just knowing that a battle can entertain you for a year or two, whatever, people could watch it once in awhile. But a song, it could go on forever. People could listen to a song for years and years ahead. And I started thinking about that.
And also I wanted to express myself visually, music video-wise too. So I think that was a big thing that made me want to make songs. I was very interested in directing and this was an opportunity to make a three-minute short film, a music video, so that was a reason that made me kind of want to make songs too.
FRANNIE: And you would never sort of transition back.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: I still kind of want to actually. I still – once in a while I wouldn't mind taking on a battle, because now I do different things. I do stand-up comedy. I do acting and all this – and battle rapping –
FRANNIE: You play a battle rapper on TV or in a movie.
DUMBFOUNDED: I do. In a movie. But battle rap is – where battle rap is now is a mixture of spoken word, theater, comedy, and rap all in one. That's how I look at it, cause you don't have a beat. It's all acapella. You're like – it's like a one man show for year round, and I really do think it's like comedy, spoken word, theater, and rap all in one. And to me, I feel like I can always do it, you know?
I've had an offer recently to do a battle in London, and I was kind of interested just to – I've never battled an English dude. I feel like I was already – as soon as I got the offer, I was thinking of mad English jokes, and rhyme schemes just popped into my head. And it was kind of writing the way a stand-up comedian works, writing jokes, but in rhyme form. Which, I can rhyme, so rhyming is easy, and then applying the comedic element and all that, I was really tempted.
It's just that, it does take some time to prepare. People think just cause you prepare rhymes for weeks, it's easier than going into a freestyle, and that's not true. That's the furthest thing, especially when you have two people coming in prepared. It is not easy. It's like two boxers, training for two months cause they know the fight's coming. And it's harder. It's way harder than a freestyle thing.
I used to think the freestyle battles were so cool, and I remember killing some dude freestyle. And then I just remember rewatching it, thinking it was going to be really tight nad I was like, "Wait a minute. This was kind of wack." I was like, "I talked about this guy's shoes for three minutes." It's not – freestyling – dope freestyles and freestyle moments in battle aren't meant to be rewatched, I think. It's like you have that adrenaline and that amazing feeling at the moment. I don't think they were meant to be archived and rewatched, cause it just doesn't have that impact anymore.
ALI: I guess it depends on the level of – your skill level, and the moment just being so spontaneous with it.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: That's true. Right, right, right. Cause there's still some classic freestyles. You're right.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: And it was just the theatrics. Supernatural ripping up posters on stage and – there is that. But I know at least for me, some of mines was just like, "No, I'm not – this does not need to be online right now." But –
ALI: Do you freestyle when you're in writer mode, sometimes to get you started on a song?
DUMBFOUNDEAD: Oh, yeah. I think writing is an element of freestyle, right? As songwriting and your freestyle – I know now – for the last couple years, when I write songs, a big thing has been just going up to the mic and recording two bars and then punching the next two bars and so on. And that's writing and freestyle. You're writing in your head.
I found – cause before I would write a whole 16, and I'd go on the mic and spit the 16, but what I realized is that when you do that, you can spend a whole day writing two verseS or 16s, right? And you go on the mic, it might not sound as tight actually. And what I realized about doing the two bar each thing, you go by the feeling at the same time. So it just sounds better. It just sounds better. I've spent a whole couple days writing two 16s and then recording, and I was like, "I don't like this." So I just wasted two days, when I could've just kind of gone two bar at a time, and it just sounds and feels better.
So I've gone through all different techniques of it, and I would say the two bar punching thing was not necessarily common for me. A lot of dudes in the South, they do that a lot, and it was hard for me to do that. And when I did that, I was like, "Oh, now I'm used to it." So I've been doing that a lot more now. I think there's pros and cons. For some reason, when I do that, my bars aren't as tight, cause when I write the 16s, my bars are more intricate. But when I do the two bar at a time, it just sounds way smoother and more swagged out. So there's pros and cons with both things to me.
FRANNIE: So the last project that you put out, Café Bleu, in the fall, you sound a little bit like –
FRANNIE: I mean, you have a song called "Washed." Is that a reflection of how you feel about hip-hop, about your career, not depressed so much as –
DUMBFOUNDEAD: I think it's a very fun self-realization thing when you're able to kind of be honest and poke fun at yourself. I think it's one of the best places you can be as you get older. I don't want to be an older rapper trying to adjust to what's going on or try to sound like something else. To me, it's not saying – no, I still feel young. I still got mad years of making art and all that. But I've always been pretty honest and self-deprecating, because I'm also coming from the comedy world, and comedy is very that. It's very honest.
But I think it's funny. And it's also a commentary, just funny, feeling like, I'm 32, but the fact that I'm calling myself washed at 32, right. And it's kind of commentary on hip-hop too, where you have kids that are 15, 16, and I think it's funny to call yourself washed at 32. But that's just hip-hop. People are obsessed with youth. People are obsessed with youth not just in hip-hop but in pop culture and in American culture, and I think there's something kind of wrong with that in a sense too, that we don't embrace or celebrate wisdom or people getting older.
And I think it's just more kind of a dark humor thing for me. It's not really just being super depressed and all that, but – cause I'm working on a TV show that I'm writing right now. It's about a rapper who's about to stop rapping at, like, my age. It's loosely based off me. I'm not going to quit rapping or anything, but it's about that. It's about this rapper who's 32 and now quitting, and he hasn't learned how to be an adult.
And it's funny. A couple years back there was this really independent documentary called Adult Rapper, and it was just about these underground rappers who are now full-on adults and there still doing it indie. And I just thought the title was kind of funny, Adult Rapper. We don't think about that in general, the working-class rapper. Because for a long time the idea of rapper was this grand – you're on a yacht, popping champagne. We never thought about this kind of job as a – you're touring. You have a system. You're selling some t-shirts online.
And I think that documentary kind of really think about it. Cause I was seeing some of my OGs and stuff that I grew up with, and they've set up business, and now they have kids, and they're still – they're going into the office, and the van and touring. So the idea of that was really interesting. And it's really relatable, not even in just hip-hop, in this generation, we have very unconventional jobs. And we have all these jobs that's part-this, part-that. We're living that slash generation.
That's what's Café Bleu was really about. I never felt really old or anything until – nobody really does. When we're doing this, we have fun. It's a youthful industry until people come up to you and make you feel old.
FRANNIE: Like how?
DUMBFOUNDEAD: Like a kid coming up to you and being like, "I used to listen to you in middle school." Saying something like, "I used to." As an OG, you've had generations of people who grow up on you, but it's a great feeling. It's a great feeling and weird too. It's a weird thing. But there's a lot of humor in that, and it's an opportunity to kind of talk about that too.
FRANNIE: And then when you represent that visually, there's a lot of room, right?
DUMBFOUNDEAD: Yeah, I'm working on a music video for that song "Washed" where I found this actor, this Asian actor dude, who looks like a 20 year older version of me. So it's going to be pretty cool. And he's just going to – there's going to be mad scenes where he's at a bar, and there's going to be two kids like, "Yo, this isn't that blah blah blah." It's going to be all types of stuff. And then he's looking in the mirror, and the reflection's going to be me rapping in it. It's going to be pretty cool.
FRANNIE: So I guess I was taking that as a little bit of commentary on the industry, that you had felt like some of the energy had seeped out of it or was dispersed somehow. But you don't feel like that.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: The energy of – what kind of energy do you mean?
FRANNIE: Like the urgency of the music. It must exist. It must be made. It must be heard.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: Yeah, well that also is a very – I would say the word liberating. It's very liberating to be at a place creatively where you don't feel like that. I will say, at least for me just being in this industry as an independent artist, making a living off of it, I did feel the pressure for the last – I've been doing this probably for 12 years, actually haven't had a job and doing this, and for a long time, I was feeling like that. Like, put out a project, tour. I gotta do this. It's a cycle.
And I do feel the most free right now, where I don't feel like I need to fit a mold or anything. And I never necessarily did, but I had a hint of that. I would keep up with a lot of things going on around me and stuff. But now it's crazy free and liberating when I just feel like I can just completely kind of go on my own schedule and just do whatever really, creatively. It's liberating. For sure that's the word.
FRANNIE: I don't know if you mentor people, but you both do a fair amount of talking to the next generation and figuring out how that might work, what that might be like for people. So you're a consultant for 88rising, right? How would you describe your role with them?
DUMBFOUNDEAD: Yeah. I work with them, not even just consulting. I just kind of help out. Cause the CEO is a good friend of mine. I was there early on to help with early artists they've had, whether it was Rich Brian or Keith Ape. I'm still involved. They still help me out. They put out stuff for me. But they've really kind of taken on the role of the Asian representation in hip-hop right now.
There's a bunch of Asian rappers, but they definitely killing as far as numbers and stuff, and it's interesting. They've got artists from all over the world far as they have an artist group from China called the Higher Brothers. They have Korea, Keith Ape. Rich Brian is a kid from Indonesia. They have a girl named Niki who is an R&B singer from the Philippines. So they're really trying to get Asia but make it global.
It's very interesting, cause that's something – when I was starting up there was only a handful of Asian artists who was really kind of doing it, whether it was – I would say it was Lyrics Born. Far East Movement, they had hits. Mountain Brothers. Jin. And then that was pretty much it. And then Bambu in L.A. Those were my OGs. So it's crazy now. There's tons, and then not even tons, there happens to be a label that does that, which is wild.
FRANNIE: And Rich Brian got started so young.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: Yeah, he was – I spoke to him while he was in Indonesia when we were just interested in what he – he put out a viral song, and we were like, "Who is this kid? He's funny too, and he's really savvy with the Internet and stuff." We hit him up. We wanted to fly him out to South By Southwest. And he's like, "Yo, I'm down, but I just gotta ask my mom." And I'm like, "How old are you?" He was like 16 years old, and I was like – I didn't even know. It was crazy. And we couldn't even get him out, that first year. So we went to South By Southwest, and we made a video where a bunch of rappers just reacted to his music video, and that video blew up, and it was almost like he was there, cause – and got, like, ten cosigns at once, cause all the rappers were like, "Oh, I like this shit. I fuck with this."
But it's crazy. It's grown into a thing, and they had a music festival this past summer in L.A. Historical Park. Man, probably like 20, 30 thousand. And it was the first time I saw a music festival where it was predominantly Asian-Americans in the crowd. And it was thousands of them. I was like, "Whoa. This is pretty wild." I would've never imagined that when I was starting up, so.
FRANNIE: What's your level of interest between building a predominantly Asian-American audience for either one act or a group of acts versus getting exposure for these particular acts to a majority white audience, or college audience, or something else?
DUMBFOUNDEAD: I think the goal is to just – it's to have everybody, everybody as a fanbase. But what I've noticed is that, with Asian-American audiences, there's a lot of kids that are still very – I've noticed in the crowd there's a lot of these shy kind of kids that – some of them, it was the first festival or whatever. It kind of gave them a comfort level I think of going to check something out, seeing these faces on stage too, that kind of represent them.
If you look at the roster they have, there's these – these are Asian kids that aren't – they don't look like – they look like Outkast kind of. Some of them are nerdy. Some of them – I think that kind of gave them a thing, just seeing that was kind of cool. They kind of feel like an underdog kind of thing. And I think that kind of opened up a door for these kids to check out.
FRANNIE: That's really cool.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: It was a very introductory kind of thing, to it. But it's interesting. I don't know where it's going to go, far as what it's leading up to, but there's a market there. Yeah, it's wild. I didn't even have that. When I was coming up, it wasn't like I had all the Asian kids on lock. If I did, it would've been a far bigger career. But I didn't. And these kids, they do. They almost got – every Asian kid in America knows about them now.
ALI: I think that that's pretty incredible, considering not having any outlets to it being almost explosive. I'm wondering how much of a priority is it for someone like you, through your journey, is it to make sure that there's more of a communal connection to the hip-hop, kind of the foundation of it, so that people, as it grows off into its own – you're saying you don't know what that will be, and it's still unfolding as to how large it will be and how it will influence other younger up-and-coming Asian-American artists – but just to make sure that there's a tie back to the origin. How important is it for you as you're mentoring?
DUMBFOUNDEAD: I'll tell you for me it's extremely important, cause I feel I come from the last generation where I'm very familiar and in tune with the classic stuff. Cause I was just – my generation was – when I started doing shows and everything was just entering the Internet wave of everything. With promoting, I remember going from passing out flyers to shows to putting out MySpace bulletins. That was the transition where paper flyers just disappeared –
ALI: Didn't matter.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: – and everything was just online promoting. I still remember the OG grind to the Internet transition. That's why I think my generation has a big appreciation for that, cause I was coming from open mics, battles, cyphers, all that. And it's tough. It's important to me, but it is hard to get a newer generation really into it, or appreciative of the origins. I mean, we all know that. We're watching blogs and radio shows and young rappers going on like damn near disrespecting classics or not even –
DUMBFOUNDEAD: Maybe not intentionally –
DUMBFOUNDEAD: – but not even knowing about certain things.
ALI: Just not being aware. Yeah, yeah.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: And I was talking to this – and it's funny, cause the online community is torn between this argument. One side is like, "Man, how are they supposed to know? They're born in '90-something or whatever." And then the other side is like, "Yo, you should study up on your shit."
FRANNIE: It's free.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: I mean, I don't – it's like anything. If you're a new painter, new artist, you know Basquiat. You know classics. Basquiat is the same era hip-hop was popping. And every young kid who's even 18 to 21 knows about Basquiat, which is kind of weird, right?
DUMBFOUNDEAD: I just feel like it's weird that we don't do that in hip-hop. So I don't necessarily believe in that argument of like, "Just cause you're young." I don't believe in that. The tools are out there. Maybe one argument could be that there's too much music coming out every day to kind of –
FRANNIE: I feel like I'm sensitive to that. It's overwhelming. Because I also feel like the generation that you're talking about, when they do hear the music, they love it. They're like, "Holy shit. I didn't know about this." There's that kid on YouTube who listens to things for the first time. You know, when he listened to Electric Relaxation for the first time –
DUMBFOUNDEAD: I mean, there's old groups that didn't age well, and there's old groups that are timeless.
FRANNIE: Well, that's true.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: I love a bunch of new stuff, so I'm not shut down to stuff.
FRANNIE: Stuck in the past
DUMBFOUNDEAD: I listen to old stuff that I grew up on. I'm like, "This didn't age well." But like Tribe, you listen to Tribe right now, it's one of the best aged groups, music-wise.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: But there's a lot of even West Coast dudes that I grew up on that to me sounds old, and I'll admit that. I'll admit that. There's West Coast gangster rap stuff that sounds really old, and I get shit for that sometimes. There's old stuff, whether it's Pac or Cube, and I love Cube, and it's one of my favorite rappers, but it sounds kind of more older to the groups that just – I don't know – something about the production and everything, it just still sounds kind of fresh a little bit. So there's both. It just – it doesn't make sense. It's hard to kind of –
FRANNIE: It's just not a good enough argument.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: I don't think so. I mean, what we were talking about before, in different fields, different art forms, they keep up.
FRANNIE: I think it's fair criticism to say to somebody, "You don't know your shit."
ALI: It's true.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: Yeah. Exactly. Going back to you should be able to critical about – but also I can't go into the mind states of these kids too. I don't know what's going through their head or whatnot.
ALI: Yeah, I don't advocate condemnation and making people feel badly for things you don't know. You don't know it, and it's left up to someone to expose you to it I would think to a degree.
FRANNIE: Yeah, I agree with that.
ALI: So I think that the responsibility can kind of be shared, but at the same time, I think once you definitely cross the line of really trying to be an artist into while you're finding your voice and discovering who you are, cause you don't know. It takes two or three albums sometimes to really go, "Oh, I thought this was my purpose and now I realize what my purpose is." In that timeframe, that you do study up and have an appreciation for those who laid the groundwork for you. There's some people that are into that conversation and some people are not. They just want to get their money, and that's OK. Go get your money, like you were saying before, but at the same time, you're killing the culture and get out of here. Just go somewhere with your money now.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: Yeah, I mean, it's a tough, tough thing to kind of figure out. And I'm kind of learning too as I'm getting older in this game. There's moments I flex as an older rapper. I'm like, "Yo, how you not know about" – no. But yeah, I mean, it's all part of it.
FRANNIE: Did you think this was what you were going to be doing when you were 32? Did you think this is how you would support yourself, how you would enter the world?
DUMBFOUNDEAD: Nah. Definitely not. But I'm – to be honest, I didn't think I was going to work, go into an office and – I just didn't ever see that really. To be honest, I don't think anybody really sees that. I think it just kind of happens. Life just happens. No one should ever see – people should dream and have goals of doing what makes you happy.
Originally I always wanted to be an actor or be – I wanted to be in movies and TV and direct, either behind the camera or be in front of it. And at one point I was actually – when I was 10, I was a child actor. I was in a – but I only did small stuff, commercials. I was in PlayStation 1 commercial.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: A lot of people don't know that.
FRANNIE: You just dated yourself beyond anything else you said today.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: Yeah, I was in a PlayStation 1 commercial. I was a child actor for like two years, was in three or four commercials, nothing crazy. And then when I got into high school, I just started smoking weed and being a stoner, and I obviously got more into music like every teenager. And that's why I got into hip-hop. And all of sudden, I was like, "Oh damn, I'm kind of good at this," and it naturally happened, which I'm really grateful and appreciative of in my life, that it kind of just naturally happened. I didn't force it. It was just something that –
And I tell a lot of kids who always ask me about advice – it's weird, cause nowadays you'll have 15-, 16-year-old kids asking you about managers. That's bizarre to me. I'm like, "Bro, go have fun. Have fun with the music. Have fun in this craft." I'm like, "Damn. That's the first thing they're thinking about now." I mean, I guess that's pretty business savvy of you, but talking about managers already, I'm like, "Yo, chill."
FRANNIE: Yeah, don't give away your money yet.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: Don't give away – yeah, exactly.
But yeah, I didn't think about it. It just gradually happened, and I'm – I think that's the biggest blessing that a lot of us has, knowing what we wanted to do early on and kept at it and somehow kept us afloat. But now I want to do what I do and also fuse in things I wanted to do in the past, which is acting and TV and directing, but still work in all the stories and experiences that I've gathered from this journey, which has been very interesting journey. Hip-hop is a very interesting journey. It's fun, a lot of stories.
FRANNIE: So in Bodied and in your show that you're going to write, you're depicting I guess specifically sort of battle rap in Bodied, and in your show, sort of the larger world of hip-hop, do you have to sacrifice or overemphasize anything when you depict hip-hop in that media?
DUMBFOUNDEAD: I try to go more specifically into my experience, personal experience, because I don't like to – especially with something like hip-hop, it's tough because people still don't – it's not necessarily believable for a lot of people to think that an Asian dude has had a hip-hop career for that long. To this day. I mean, I've had a career for over ten years, but no one – it's not believable to the mainstream audience that I did, so I try to be very specific with the types of shows and the niche that I come from.
And I think that's important, to see that. I've done a lot of culture shows and stuff that's – I've done Asian student organizations in colleges, things like that, and I incorporate a lot of my neighborhood too, them seeing me as a hometown hero and the ups and downs of being at your peak and your lowest points and all that. But I think it's important to tie it into your personal experience.
Bodied is just – I was just really an actor who was just the vision of the director, Joseph Kahn. I just happened to be one of the characters in it. But that depicts more of the modern battle rap scene, which is cool. And I got to write my own battle raps in it, which was cool.
FRANNIE: You can kind of tell.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: Yeah, yeah. It was my style in it. But it was cool. It was fun. And I'd like to do more acting and TV projects that's not – beyond my personal show or whatever, everything else is not going to be really hip-hop-related, unless there's a cool angle or story.
FRANNIE: Sure. Makes sense. So there was some sort of conversation around when Rich Brian's name, his original name – and people were like, "That's racist. You can't do that." Did you have an argument, a dog in that fight? How did you approach it?
DUMBFOUNDEAD: We all talked about that. That was – that name had to change. That name had to change. He knew it too. He's a smart kid, and he did. People criticize that kid a lot because the way he came in was a viral song that was very parody-ish, gimmicky. But he knows that, and he doesn't even like that song that much. But then if you look at all the stuff past that, he has transitioned into a real artist that makes real music and stuff. I think it's – yeah, I mean, you can definitely judge him on that, the original, but as far as where he's come now, it's a whole 'nother thing.
FRANNIE: I mean, that's going to be an ongoing – it's sort of a conversation that's picked up steam a little bit more recently, is about a cultural appropriation and people – we were just talking about recognizing the roots of things, and the way that a lot of things seem to be divorced the communities that they came from.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: That conversation's been going on for a long time, I mean, not long time, but it's not really recent. I've been approached by that stuff probably five, six years ago, and it's funny because when I first got asked about it, I never thought about it, ever. To be honest. I was just – I was participating in the culture, never thought I was stealing from the black community or nothing. And I'm glad I was approached by it, because it did make me think about it. But that first college show that I did, and I was at a panel, and some college kid asked that, I was not ready for that. I was not ready to – I didn't even know what it –
FRANNIE: College kids are going to get you.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: I don't even think I knew what the hell it meant. I was, like, pretending like I kind of knew what appropriation meant, but I had no idea. But it did made me think, and then obviously all these things were brought up, I started seeing in the mainstream media about it. Yeah. And then I was starting to tell the difference between what is appropriation and what is you understanding and paying homage and participating in a culture that's not yours.
But it's tough, because I feel like kids nowadays – there aren't a lot of youth that think about it or care about it. I'm not saying it's not important, but if you look at the youth with young black kids to young white kids and young Asian kids, either side gives a shit about it. And it's more an argument that we have as older folks who have more of an awareness of it, but within young black kids, young white kids, Asian kids all hanging out, nobody gives a shit about it. And maybe you can call that a sign of progress in a way, but it's like half and half. That's why it's a tough balance.
FRANNIE: Totally. We've interviewed people on this show where like, "It's over. We're post-racial. We don't have to whatever whatever," which I don't agree with, but it is interesting to sort of have that conversation, I think, that we're in a place – I don't know. I just think – I agree with you, that it's another example of generational divide, of people in their 30s are really on this cusp of seeing things kind of from both sides.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: It is. It is a generational divide, and that is a weird place to be because it's two different worlds. It's two different dimensions almost.
FRANNIE: Cause you look at the same thing, and you see something totally different.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: And I'm caught up in this middle area, where I see kind of both sides. So I'm like, "God damn." It's confusing. It is confusing to navigate the youth and – that's why hip-hop is – it is a frustrating genre to age in. You get older in this genre, and you – we're still in it, but majority of what's going on in the culture is young.
ALI: Mhmm. Always.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: And you're there. You're a person who's seasoned in it, and you – it's not like you can't not see it. You see it. You're going to see more of that than your side of stuff. So it's very interesting place. I love it, but sometimes I just want to feel free from it too. I want to take a vacation from it a little bit.
FRANNIE: I get that.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: It's a tough thing to be in it. Yo, it's the lifestyle we chose though.
FRANNIE: Yeah, I relate to that a little bit too hard.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: I can only imagine – I think about this with hip-hip journalists, you know? I'm like, "That job must be so tough sometimes." Because you're covering sometimes some complete bullshit that you don't want to as maybe as a 30-something-year-old. I'm just saying. It's a – not even just hip-hop, but a pop culture journalist, right? It's a tough job, covering some bullshit you don't want to cover.
ALI: Well, I'll just say for me being candid here for Microphone Check that there are times where I feel challenged, because I know that there are people that we should speak to because it's part of the genre, maybe not necessarily in my opinion wholly part of the culture, but it's part of the genre, which is part of the culture. And I know there's absolutely no connection to this person's art that speaks to the culture that I helped to establish, but taking my own personal artist side out of it, well as a journalist, you want to, in a non-biased way, speak and have a conversation, so it's a challenge.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: It's a challenge, but yeah, you're right. It is important. It's not bullshit, cause it is kind of interesting to hear what people have to say, right, and different perspectives.
ALI: Definitely. Cause there are people who I'm uncertain as to like, "Is that someone I really" – I don't connect with their art. Why do I want to have a conversation with them on Microphone Check? But then you walk out with learning something about someone that's human, which really even though for us in the hip-hop culture, it's everything to us, but then what's really everything is just us being human beings, which precedes the hip-hop aspect of our cultural lifestyle.
And I think that's the importance of what we do here with Microphone Check and why I have to check my old school, my OG perspectives and just be like, "Yo, allow for that humanness to unfold and speak louder than one person's artistic representation, which they themselves might not even know what the hell they're doing." They're just going with the flow of life.
FRANNIE: And then also sometimes what is currently on the radio is the expression of this person two years ago or even before. So they come in here and you're like, "Oh, you are light years ahead of what I thought was going on." We all make this mistake of assuming that hip-hop is autobiographical and contemporaneous and whatever, and you really really, when you're talking to somebody, have to separate that out, and also recognize the business aspect.
ALI: The other thing that I've learned in speaking with some of the younger artists now is that it really is a uniform that they put on like they going in to work. And it's just a uniform that they put on just for that moment and then when they done working for the day, they take that uniform off and they are that person. And for me, that wasn't my – my relationship with hip-hop, it wasn't a uniform for the moment. It's 24/7. And that's an interesting perspective. And to accept that that's just their relationship with the culture, it's like, "Oh, you think this is my life. Ha ha. Silly you."
DUMBFOUNDEAD: It's gotten – I would say there's some form and aspect that's like that that's been around for a while, but it probably is even worse now, on some CB4-type shit. I think it's just the pressure. You see mad stuff – when you hear the music, it's aggressive. But I see young rapper kids that – they're gamers and into anime and stuff, but when they rap, they talking about shooting fools and shit, which is – that's a perfect example of that, right? But it's because it's more cool to talk about that. It just is. It's hard. I don't know. I just feel like it's become – you have to – rap-wise you have to kind of add more aggressiveness to it. I guess that's kind of just been going on forever though.
FRANNIE: Yeah, there's also always been the connection – kind of like your story, you're into comedy. You're into entertainment, into acting. There's been a lot of crossover between people who have those skills, and so people aren't always shy about saying, "Oh, this is a movie." Or, "I think about my work visually." That's like – people aren't always going to stay, "I only do this one thing."
DUMBFOUNDEAD: I've always felt like it's way more stress-free just to be super transparent about you as an artist. I just feel comfortable at any given time. I never worry about somebody just rolling up on me snatching my chain or anything like that.
But when I was coming up too, I was the skateboarder rapper kid, and during that time there was a bunch of Asian rappers coming up that were more hardcore and gangster rappers. And there were Asian gangsters during that time, but a lot of people didn't believe the Asian gangsters. They weren't familiar with that world of Asian gangsters, so I feel like that was kind of unfair for them too, some of the Asian gangsters, cause they didn't believe that. The mainstream didn't think that was real. But some of those Asian gangster rappers that I knew, they were really about that life.
So I think it was a little bit easier for me to kind of transition and people kind of got drawn to me, cause they were like, "OK, this is just a kid, and he's just doing his thing." I think that made it a little bit easier for me. People were just like, "Oh, damn." It just felt more authentic in a way. And that's not to discredit those rappers, cause that was authentic too. It's just, people weren't used to that world yet.
FRANNIE: Yeah, that's such an interesting wrinkle to the whole authenticity debate. It's like, what do people believe you are? These things have to be viable in some way, but then is it authenticity? Who's to say?
DUMBFOUNDEAD: And nobody kind of cares anymore too. They know some of these rappers aren't about that life, but they're just like, "I rock with it."
FRANNIE: Don't get us started.
FRANNIE: Well, this has been an emotional rollercoaster of an interview.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: Yeah, you've got me reevaluating my whole career.
ALI: Well, if there is a battle that one can say one might want to see you in, that one being me, is you and Childish Gambino.
ALI: And the only reason I say that is, well, because I think from – I don't know if he's ever been in a battle, battle rapping, but just in terms of acting, television, writer's perspective, and I think there's something that – there's something in my mind. I'm like, "That could be cool."
DUMBFOUNDEAD: Well, he is somebody I do look up to, and I want to follow a career path in just being able to kind of dominate in everything.
FRANNIE: Quintuple threat-type shit.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: Yeah. Writer, stand-up comedian, actor, and then musician at the highest caliber, I gotta commend the dude. Headlining Coachella as a musician, that's pretty wild. He's had a wild journey. And people always mention his name towards me too, cause that's exactly what I want to do too. He's been a type of cat who's been able to – with Atlanta, for instance, the TV show, he's been able to kind of tell the story of his community from an outside perspective while being part of it.
And that's how I kind of consider myself too, this Asian dude who's in a town that's heavily Asian, Koreatown, but I'm kind of an outsider too, so I'm able to look at my own community, laugh at it a little bit, and also know some the realness of it. So that's what I kind of want to do with my future storytelling too.
ALI: I see similarities between the two of you, so it could be. It's just, I've never seen him in a battle rap position, but.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: I think we'd probably have a very similar kind of witty style.
FRANNIE: I could see that. I could see that.
ALI: Yeah, that's what I'm thinking. I'm like, "It could fun, entertaining, for the masses." Just something.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: That'd be tight.
FRANNIE: It would be a pretty special episode of Atlanta.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: Let's make it happen, Childish.
ALI: But thank you so much.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: No, thank you.
FRANNIE: Yeah, thank you.
DUMBFOUNDEAD: No, that was some good conversations right there. I was like, "Damn." We were going into it about some real real elements of grown rap shit.
FRANNIE: That's Microphone Check.