Feb 14, 2012

[INTERVIEW] Jin Tha Emcee

Jin Au-Yeung, better known as Jin tha Emcee or 100 Grand Jin, has had a pretty accomplished career over the last ten years.  Since hitting the ground running on BET's Freestyle Friday segments on 106th and Park back in 2002, Jin has been busy ever since. 

In the 10 years since he was on BET, he's been on the top of the battle rap scene, got a deal with Ruff Ryders records alongside hip hop heavyweights DMX, The Lox and Eve, had a minor role in the sequel to The Fast and The Furious, had some losses in the Battling arena, mutually parted ways with his label, and continued putting out music independently on his own mixtapes.   

Then came the move to China where he's released the well received Cantonese album "ABC (American Born Chinese), and gotten roles on various TV series including a top TVB Drama "Lives of Omission".

Oh and he's married and has tightened up his life both musically, acting-wise, and his relationship with God.

It's been an eventful ten years for Jin, and he was kind enough to talk about it with me for this interview.  

SFCB: You first came to national attention with your appearances on BET’s 106th and Park “Freestyle Fridays” where you would battle other aspiring rappers.  How did you get involved with that, and what was the process like?   Did you just basically audition in front of a producer or something, or did you have to go up against other potential contestants in a process of elimination to get on the show?

JIN: I went up to Harlem on 106th street and Park Avenue where the BET studios used to be for an open audition, like the nearly 300 rappers that showed up that day. They gathered us into groups and two at a time, we would battle for a panel of judges which were comprised of the shows producers, etc. However, it wasn't a win or lose situation. After we'd each do our 30 second bit, it was pretty much, "Thank you gentleman, we'll keep in touch." Then we were sent on our way. About 2-3 weeks later, I got a call and they said, "You're the challenger this coming week." The rest is history. 


SFCB: As you came up, you were, as obvious as it may be to point out, a Chinese rapper in an African American dominated art form.  And a byproduct of that is that in a medium where the rules seem to be “anything goes”, there would often be personal attacks thrown your way with strong racial components.   And this is a situation where clearly there is not an even playing field in that regard, as just about any rapper you go up against could throw out the Asian stereotypes and racial slurs against you, while if you were to have gone that route against an African American opponent, there might have been a bit of controversy there.

And the reason I bring up a touchy subject like that, is that many of your supporters over the years have pointed out that while those types of attacks have been used throughout, particularly in the Freestyle Friday battles, there was one battle in particular (against Serius Jones) where it felt like, as you watch it, that the racial stuff was flowing heavily and Jones was racking up points based on those racial stereotypes and slurs.  And the common complaint that I’ve seen made from your supporters is that it wasn’t a fair playing field, because you would never have been able to respond in kind, even if you were someone that would have wanted to.

What are your thoughts on that aspect of it, and did knowing that you would be facing that type of thing encourage you to try to become even better to perhaps make up for that perceived uneven playing field, or was that something that you never really worried or put any stock in?

JIN: Dang, you wrote like a near essay just to get to the question at the end. Props to your for your incisiveness! When it comes to my battling experience and my race, it's almost been the most talked about topic ever since I stepped onto this platform. For me, it was never something I put too much emphasis on. I did in the sense of, strategically, when I did realize that my ethnicity seemed to be the main focal point for my opponents, I would utilize that to my advantage. As G.I. Joe always taught us as kids, "Now you know, and knowing is half the battle".

Since I was aware that my ethnicity would be targeted, I was always able to mentally prepare myself for it. From day one, I've never ever taken any of the race related insults to heart. In fact, as the years went by, I would always find myself reacting in different ways.. such as.. "Great, not the fried rice and egg roll stuff again".. or.. "Man, that was pretty creative!".

Pertaining to the Serius Jones battle, what he did was nothing new in the sense of content. "I ate DMX's dog. A billion people in China and I can't sell a record there." His efficiency was in two things: One, his demeanor was incredible when he delivered all that stuff. Two, I let it get to me in a certain way. Whereas all the previous times I would be able to brush it off when facing these tactics, this time it hit me. It happens. So when it was my turn to rebuttal, I was just ranting aimlessly into thin air without effectiveness. Think of a boxer who's throwing multiple punches and none of it is landing.

SFCB: So once you won the seventh week and was inducted into the Freestyle Friday Hall of Fame, how soon after that were you approached to sign with Ruff Ryders, and what was that like dealing with the potential of a major record contract? 

JIN: I officially signed with Ruff Ryders around the 4th week of my Freestyle Friday run. All the way up to that point of my dream of pursuing a career as a rapper, it was the single most exciting moment. The feeling was like climbing Mount Everest and reaching the top. 

SFCB: Once you signed with Ruff Ryders, you became the first Asian-American rapper to sign a major record deal.  How did that feel at the time, knowing that you had accomplished something that had never been done before?

JIN: Initially, I think the media and the masses in general put more emphasis on it than I did myself, to the point where that became the main focus. It was like, "Yeah he won on BET, but he's Chinese! That's crazy!" In essence, I naturally fed into it like, "Yeah, I am Chinese". Of course, although my initial goal was never to overtly emphasize my race, it is not something I felt the need to shy away from either. I always say this: The fact that I was Chinese helped propel me into the spotlight as much as it held me back. If that makes any sense

SFCB: Your debut album “The Rest Is History” was not the commercial success that many had perhaps imagined it would be.   I’ve always kind of felt that you were a strange fit for that label.  When I thought of “Ruff Ryders” I just always imagined these really hard edged street cats, and while you clearly have your talent and your skills and whatnot, I just never thought you were a good fit with that label.

And I felt that if you had been with another label that would perhaps have given you time to develop and work with you, that things may have gone a bit better.  I’m sure it didn’t help when Roc-a-fella basically kneecapped you by not letting you release as a second single the track with Kanye West, when West was just becoming a major star due to them not wanting to “over-expose” Kanye at the time.

Looking back on your time with Ruff Ryders, what are your thoughts on that time?  Do you think that you were given the best of chances there, or are there things you wished had gone differently?

JIN: By the standards of 2004 it certainly was considered a flop. In 2012, to sell 250,000 records (actual physical CDs) would be considered a cause for celebration by any label. Even for me, as bummed as I was when things unfolded and I didn't catapult into superstardom as many predicted I would, upon releasing my album, I look back now and it's like, "Wow, 250,000 people bought my album, that's great!". 

Considering once upon a time, I was standing on corners selling battle mix CDs for 5 dollars a pop. As far as the Ruff Ryders factor, this will always be my stance: I will forever be grateful for the label for giving me a chance and allowing me to learn what I did in the years that I was with them. Things just don't work out sometimes. Everyone had the best intentions I believe. Even the Roc-A-Fella/Kanye/single scenario. Back then I didn't think too much of it. Now, I'm even more beyond dwelling on the what ifs.

SFCB: After your time at Ruff Ryders you went the independent route and dropped some well received mix-tapes including The Emcee’s Properganda which featured what is probably one of your most well known and most popular songs, “Top 5 Dead or Alive” which was filmed inside Fat Beats with DJ Kool Herc.  The video, I think for many, completely solidified your credentials as a true lover of hip hop and your utmost respect for those who came before you as you paid homage to the greats.

Talk about the making of that video and working with DJ Kool Herc.

JIN: Bottomline, Emcee's Properganda is straight up backpack rap. Which I think I've always been a fan of and had it in me to want to do. Top 5 Dead Or Alive specifically is a track that was without a doubt inspired by my love for the culture. To shoot the video in Fat Beats and have the legendary Kool Herc on the ones and twos is just mind-blowing to me. 

SFCB: Speaking of Fat Beats, as I’m sure you know, Fat Beats NYC closed down a few years ago, and at the time I wrote that I was frustrated that there weren’t more hip hop heavyweights such as Russell Simmons and Jay Z and whatnot willing to step in and keep that place alive.  I pointed to how Quentin Tarantino had stepped in and saved the classic movie theater The New Beverly which was going to have to shut down due to costs and bills and whatnot, and wondered why no one bothered to do that for Fat Beats or The Hit Factory which are two iconic aspects of hip hop’s history.

What are your memories of Fat Beats during your time in New York.

JIN: Fat Beats will always hold a special spot in my heart. Not so much for what took place in the store but downstairs. I can remember vividly standing by the entrance hours upon hours just trying to push some mix CDs to not only the people who were coming in and out of the store, but even just pedestrians who were passing by on 6th Ave. 

Ever so often, the staff would come downstairs and scurry myself and other entrepreneurs away. I think that even though they may not have been keen to the idea of people selling CDs downstairs of their store, they realized that what we were doing downstairs was just essential to the essence and nature of Hip-Hop as what they were doing upstairs. 

SFCB: Over the last several years your supporters have noticed a marked shift in not only your image but also your content as well.  And you have spoken on your Christian faith and how it directs your life, and when people hear that you’re a Christian, they try to pinpoint the exact moment when the switch was flipped and you were suddenly “Jin the Christian Rapper” or whatever.
And I think that mentality kind of stems from the necessity that many of us have to explain things.  To put something in a box and say "oh, so THAT's the reason", rather than being able to accept that things often happen after an accumulation of events in our lives, and that not everything has to be the result of a singular event in time.

How do you explain to those who desperately seem to want to latch on to that idea of "well there HAD to be something that pushed you to this"?

JIN: I think the most efficient way for me to describe it would be to say this. I've always believed in God. However, believing in God and having a relationship with Him is two different things. More so, to live a life that is reflective of love for God is also something that hinders many from really getting to know Him intimately. What may seem like a sudden switch to many in terms of direction and image is actually years and years of being lost. I am just thankful that He never gave up on me.

SFCB: So after you had released several mix-tapes independently, you decided to do something that was kind of bold and daring: you released an album entirely in Chinese called “ABC” (American Born Chinese) that was produced by the Far*East Movement.   What made you decide to do that?  Was it something that was on your list of things you’d always wanted to do?

JIN: Not at all. The only reason ABC came to be is because I had nothing else to do. Things weren't particularly popping in general.. I was totally moving on an independent level at the time. Which is the only way we were able to freely do a Cantonese project. Which if I were with a label, they probably would have thought, "Who's gonna buy it?"

SFCB: After your Cantonese album was released to success, you ended up moving from the United States to Hong Kong, China.  What was that move like and what was the impetus for such a big move.

JIN:  Initially, I was only planning on the Hong Kong run to be a three or four months at max. Not because I didn't have faith or was opposed to staying, but mainly because I wasn't sure of how I would be received as an artist. Three months turned into six months, which turned into a year and then another year. Now 2012 marks my fourth year here. 

SFCB: Now a lot of your supporters may know that you’ve done Freestyle Friday, and you’ve been in the movie 2 Fast 2 Furious, and done your mix-tapes and Cantonese album, but what many may not know is that you have even tried standup comedy and motivational speaking.
If you would, talk about the decision to go into something like Standup, that really wasn't something that most people on the outside looking in would expect from you.

JIN: Ha! Standup comedy. That was just a one time thing. I put together a routine and rented a venue. Invited some guests. The show was called "I'm Not A Comedian". I really admire and appreciate the art of making people laugh and bringing them joy. As for the motivational speaking.. I don't know if I'm a motivational speaker by any means. I often get invited to share my testimony and experiences at various events. It is an enlightening experience for both me and the audience. 

SFCB: You have pretty much hit on so many areas of entertainment, from rapping to acting in films and television to the comedy and motivational speaking, to commercials as well.  You've done albums in English and Chinese.  Is there anything out there that stands out as being something you've always wanted to do yet haven't really been blessed with the opportunity?

JIN: I've already exceeded my own expectation in this aspect.. At this point, just letting nature take it's course and trusting God's plans. 

SFCB: When you moved to China and you got more involved in your faith, do you think that played any part in your desire to move away from the battle rap arena due to perhaps the necessity, in battling, to rely on tearing down your opponent, or saying and doing things that do not exactly mesh with the spiritual, or was it for other reasons?

JIN: It's a combination of the faith factor and just evolving out of that world. Once upon a time, battling was all that mattered to me. It defined me. Which is why, when I did endure those brutal losses, it was like a major, major reality check. You go from being top dog to bottom of the barrel in an instant. It's kind of refreshing and relieving to be able to break free from that stigma.

SFCB: Last year I was late to the party and just finally saw the video for “Angels” and was just blown away by not only the lyrical content, as this was the first time I had heard you in awhile so I was unaware of your faith, but also the visuals were just stunning.  

Who directed that video, and where was it filmed?  The environments were pretty amazing as well.

JIN: The video was directed by Hosanna Wong and we shot it in the city of Hong Kong. No rhyme intended. Angels, as a song and video, is a milestone for me. I say that not only because it's my one video to pass the one million mark view on Youtube but because it's my first track to really proclaim my faith boldly and what I want to say with my music in terms of how God is influencing my life.

SFCB: You recently were featured on the TV drama “Lives of Omission” which is a very popular show in China.   You also were awarded the “Most Improved Actor” award from the TVB Anniversary Awards 2011, while also being nominated for “Favorite Male Character” as well.

What has it been like being on the TV series.

JIN: Another chapter in the book of "Things I Never Imagined I'd Get a Chance To Do But Am Enjoying Every Single Moment Of It". 

SFCB: You are very involved on Twitter and often will spend a lot of time responding to just about every one who tweets you.  And also on Youtube as well in the comments to your videos. Many artists who are on Twitter don't really interact with fans that much.  They either have someone manage their account for them (while perhaps not always letting the fans know that it's not really them) or they will only seemingly respond to other artist friends and only occasionally respond to an actual fan of theirs.

You, on the other hand have sort of embraced  your entire community of Twitter followers and have enacted what you have referred to as a "No Fan Zone".  Explain what that is and what it means to you, if you would.

JIN: Real simple. The internet and real world are almost synonymous in this day and age. Especially as a performer/artist, one has to maintain internet presence. Any regular Joe can tell you that. For me, it's gotten to a point though where I feel like it's not even about maintaining a presence anymore or necessarily peddling whatever new project I have lined up. I just enjoy interacting and connecting with people in a real organic manner.

SFCB: Finally, it’s been just over 10 years since you burst onto the scene with your appearances  on 106th and Park, and you've achieved so much whether it's music, TV, film, etc.  Looking back and seeing what you've done in the past 10 years, and then looking forward, what do you hope to be able to accomplish over the next ten years that you have not already done?

JIN: As an artist/performer/entertainer, making the use of this talent and platform that God has given me to shine for His glory. 

As a man, just to make a difference and contributing to the betterment of society in a very practical way. 

SFCB: So I want to thank you for taking the time to do this interview, and in closing is there anything you’d like to say for your supporters out there who may be reading this right now?

JIN: I love you all. God bless you.

SFCB: Thank you very much, Jin, and I wish you the best of luck in whatever you do.

JIN: Likewise, brother.

Follow Jin on Twitter at @IAMMCJIN
Check out Jin's website at www.MCJIN.com
Check out Jin's Youtube Channel HERE

Below are a few videos of his from the past ten years.  Enjoy!

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