Interview by: Martin Bauman
When you think of Asian-American rappers, who comes to mind? Jin. Mike Shinoda. Dumbfoundead. In any case, you’d probably be hard-pressed to think of anyone else. This lack of Asian-American representation in popular culture is exactly what Dumbfoundead (born Jonathan Park) is seeking to change. The 27-year-old was born in Argentina to South Korean refugees and was smuggled into Mexico as a young child, before settling in Los Angeles’ Koreatown. After discovering hip-hop, he honed his skills at Project Blowed open mics as a teenager and went on to make a name for himself in the battle circuit as one of Grind Time’s most popular battlers, eventually leaving it behind to focus on his music. In the past several years, he’s begun to see that work pay off, with increasing acclaim following 2011’s DFD, 2012’s Take the Stares, and 2013’s Old Boy Jon. Now, he says he’s adopting a new moniker, PARKER, in recognition of his music’s maturation. We caught up with Dumbfoundead to talk about his latest album, the reason behind the name change, and representing for Asian-Americans in pop culture. Read the full interview below.
TCUS: How was your time in Brooklyn?
Dumbfoundead: It was good, man. [I] spent the month out there, mainly just to get out of LA – you know, get some new inspiration. It was awesome.
TCUS: Before we get into what you’ve been up to lately, I thought we’d start by digging a little into your past. What can you tell me about Jeet Kune Flow?
Dumbfoundead: Yeah man! That’s an open mic that I started in my neighbourhood in Koreatown, LA. [I started it] when I was probably around 16 or 17, just because I felt like there [weren’t] many open mics or outlets for musicians and artists within the Koreatown community. So [a friend and I] started that, and it was in a small room somewhere in Ktown where we played beats out of an iPod and gathered a lot of local emcees and just freestyled. It lasted about five years. It was cool; we kept it going for a while and we met every Sunday.
TCUS: What significance does Luna Del Sol have to you?
Dumbfoundead: That was actually [where I had] my first ever show – like, ever. That was in the MacArthur Park area; it was a vegetarian cafe and they would have a lot of spoken word artists, hip-hop acts, and a lot of politically-related acts. I did that show when I was like 14. I’m surprised you know about that, that’s crazy [laughs].
TCUS: Tell me about this address: 4343 Liemert Blvd.
Dumbfoundead: That’s where Project Blowed was at. Project Blowed was probably the most influential open mic or rap establishment that I’ve ever been a part of. I started going there when I was about like 15, 16 years old. That was actually a big influence in starting Jeet Kune Flow, as well. I went there and I saw this open mic that had been going on way before even I started there, and it was really eye-opening as far as the level of skill that some of these [emcees] were at, as far as battling, freestyling, and even just performing. It taught me all-around how to be a good emcee.
TCUS: What was the strategy like when you’d sign up for the open mic list at Project Blowed? Did you want to perform first? Last? Somewhere in between?
Dumbfoundead: People were psyched just to get on the list, because the list would get really full. Everybody would come to sign up, and it was first come, first serve, so when you [got to the list], it could already be super full. They might not get through everyone on the list that night, so you wanted to get there and sign up as early as possible. It’s a gamble if you don’t want to go first and sign [yourself up] a little bit later, because they might not even get to you. Not just that, but the hosts played favourites a lot of the times [laughs]. If you were a regular there, they’d just call their names up first and not even go by the list order, so even being called up was tough, for sure.
TCUS: What’s your best story from Project Blowed?
Dumbfoundead: There’s a lot of crazy stories. A lot of crazy s—t has happened. It’s an interesting place, because you’re in this area in South Central where it’s really dangerous, but it also has this eclectic side of jazz musicians and people from all over Los Angeles coming in: a kid like me from Koreatown, some white kid from the Valley, some Mexican kid from East LA… It was everybody from LA coming into this area in South Central and mingling, and these crazy styles of abstract rappers mixed in with gangsta rappers.
It kinda created this cool mixture and melting pot for rappers in Los Angeles. You could be weird; you could be gangster; they just put us all together. I have some interesting stories where I literally battled some straight-up gangbanger type dudes. It was an interesting clash, but I earned respect from them at the end of the day. There were a lot of crazy moments that I’ve experienced from watching some legends completely serve other dudes.
TCUS: What kind of legends did you see come through the doors at Project Blowed?
Dumbfoundead: Obviously Freestyle Fellowship: Aceyalone, Myka 9. Nocando – he’s like a peer of mine, but I consider him a legend just because of the freestyles I’ve witnessed him [spit] coming up in the game – there was a cat named Otherwise, Flawless, a lot of names that people may not even know, but they were definitely legends in my opinion. It was a crazy place. I’d see Chali 2na there every once in awhile, Rakaa from Dilated Peoples, Living Legends cats, stuff like that.
TCUS: Of course, when the name Dumbfoundead comes up, there’s a lot of history with the battle rap circuit. This is something I’ve spoken to Soul Khan and Iron Solomon about, too. How have you broken the stigma of being a battle rapper?
Dumbfoundead: I think my main thing was that I started creating my own content. A lot of battle rappers – even Soul Khan and Iron Solomon – we’ve had tons of videos online for years, hundreds of videos where we’re freestyling and battling, but none of these battles were from our own [YouTube] channel. I think [most of us] decided to go off and create music videos and create our own content. With me, I’d say I definitely grew a huge YouTube following on my own channel. I mean, I have more subscribers than Grind Time – and that took a long time.
It’s interesting, I’ll tell you right now that I still get asked about battles every single day, but I also have a huge fan base that doesn’t even know that I have a battle history. That’s kinda been the thing that’s kept me going in my career and not wanting to battle. I mean, I respect battling all day, but I [feel] that if I do a battle again, it’s kinda taking steps backwards. I’m not saying battling is a lower form of what I’m doing now, but what I mean by backwards is that it took me a long time for people to appreciate me for my music as opposed to battles, so as soon as I do one more battle, I’m bringing all that back onto me.
TCUS: What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned from battling that has carried over into making music?
Dumbfoundead: I definitely think the confidence, and also, battling has also helped me understand what my character is. I feel like I’m still learning to make music in my truest form of who I am. When I battled, I felt like that was really me. I’m the guy who likes to joke around and not take things too seriously, and I looked at that and said, “whoa, this is really me, and this is what I want to portray in what I do – in music or anything else I pursue.” So [battling] really helped me figure out who I am as an artist.
TCUS: Let’s talk about Old Boy Jon, which came out earlier this year. What was the concept behind this record?
Dumbfoundead: I worked on the whole record with my boy Duke Westlake – he did all the beats – and I wanted to have a lot of playfulness, but in a more mature way. I’ve always done playful s—t, but I think this time around, I executed a playful flow but with more mature concepts and lyrics. It was more mature humour, more mature production and everything. My favourite movie is Oldboy, but also, [the title] has an interesting clash of being an old boy – not quite a man. I’m definitely older, but I [still] feel young, because of the lifestyle that I’ve been living for the past ten years. That was kind of the whole concept.
TCUS: You mentioned working with Duke Westlake, who produced all of the tracks. What makes the two of you work so well together?
Dumbfoundead: Well, he’s actually from Project Blowed as well, so he’s been around for a long time. Also, he’s the type of dude where I feel like every time I hear a sample or something I want him to flip, he just does it so well. Like, I’ll find s—t and give it to him, and he executes it exactly how I would’ve expected, or else into something completely amazing. He knows how to flip samples extremely well and create a sound where I feel like it [resonates with] me. That’s why he does well with a lot of indie rock samples and s—t like that, because that’s the kind of s—t I’m into. I love listening to indie rock and alternative-type [music]. He’s the one who really flips that kind of s—t really well.
TCUS: So then what’s the creative process between you two? Are you working together in the studio, or does he make a beat and then send it to you?
Dumbfoundead: For that project in particular, we were working on it everyday together. The majority of the time, he’d make the beat on the spot while I was there. I mean, he would pump out three or four beats a day when we were working on that project – I still have a s—tload of beats I’m sitting on from him that I never used on the project that I always write to. But yeah, Duke’s always been one of my regular dudes.
TCUS: One of the songs off the album is “24KTWN”. In the song, you rap, “yeah I feel the pressure/ when I’m the one who speaks with the voice of my ancestors.” Tell me about this pressure.
Dumbfoundead: To me, I feel like there aren’t many Asian rappers really doing it. I know tons of Asian rappers around the world, but there’s only a handful that are really making a living off of it – in the States, especially, and that’s kinda where it counts. If you make it in the U.S., you make it everywhere. So, me being one of those key voices, I do feel the pressure sometimes, like, man, I really need to step my s—t up. Or I need to blow, because I’m the closest dude to doing it. I want to really take advantage of the fact that I’m up there: I have a fan base; I have momentum. I don’t want to fail my people and represent wrong, you know?
TCUS: In that vein, you tweeted: “Asians are the last ones to have a voice in mainstream media, so cats think it’s cool to poke fun without any consequences. This motivates me.” Can you talk about this?
asians are the last ones to have a voice in mainstream media, so cats think its cool to poke fun without any consequences. this motivates me
— PARKER (@dumbfoundead) October 8, 2013
Dumbfoundead: Yeah, man. I don’t know if you saw that new viral video that just came out, “I Like Chinese Food”.
Dumbfoundead: When I first saw that song, I wasn’t even offended; I just thought it was ridiculous and stupid. I don’t get offended easily. But after awhile, I started seeing a lot of s—t like that and I’ve realized that people take that kind of s—t lightly. If that girl was singing about how she loved soul food, you know how much motherf—kers would be furious about that? That s—t would be super racist. What’s the difference between that and Chinese food? With every little Asian parody that comes out, people take it more lightly, and that’s because there have been less voices from people speaking out on s—t like that.
With the Black community, at this point there’s mad ambassadors and people who are very vocal in every aspect, as far as sports, entertainment, everything. As far as Asians, we don’t have barely anybody in the States who really holds it down and is on some “I don’t give a f—k” s—t when it comes to interviews or whatever. I think that’s the kind of voice that we need, because since we don’t have that, you’ve got these people who feel like there are consequences [to poke fun]. They don’t feel like anyone’s going to challenge them after that s—t goes down.
TCUS: What about someone like Psy? Do you see that as a step forward or a step backwards?
Dumbfoundead: I think he’s a step forward, mainly because I knew about Psy in Korea before he blew up. That dude is a real musician; he makes his own beats. He was already huge in Korea before he came out here. I don’t think he’s doing anything to shame us. You know, people look at the dance and s—t like that, but that dude is actually very political, and he’s always been political, even in Korea. And, you know, he’s got the f—kin’ most-viewed video in YouTube history. I don’t think that can hurt us at all; I think that’s a great thing.
I think there’s a lot more steps to take after him. I mean, he blew up on this silly dance thing. Unless he does something else that really makes an impact, besides on pop culture, we’re not gonna make more progress. We need something more vocal and something a little bit cooler, I would say. I think getting into the cool circles also makes an impact into moulding pop culture. With Asians, we’ve never been taken seriously as a cool-factor, whether in hip-hop or whatever. Hip-hop is very powerful; I feel like it impacts a lot of pop culture, so I think a rapper is only natural to come along and change that.
Photo credit: Mike Dempsey
TCUS: One thing you’ve also been involved in for the past year or two is standup comedy. What made you want to get into that?
Dumbfoundead: I’ve always been a huge fan of standup. I think that’s one of the truest forms of expression, as far as being an orator and being able to speak out on issues. That’s something I’ve been wanting to do, because I feel like there’s so many things I want to say. It’s hard to say whatever the f—k you want and express yourself with whatever you’re thinking, but when you do it behind a comedian persona, I feel like it comes off the right way. It’s handled right. It makes people comfortable, as opposed to uncomfortable about the things you’re taking about, because you do it in a way where you get them on your side and relate it to everyday struggles, as opposed to just [your own personal] struggles.
TCUS: How did RUN DMZ come together?
Dumbfoundead: RUN DMZ was something I wrote. A YouTube network called LOUD offered to fund any comedy project that I came up with and put production money into it. I came up with the script with one of my friends, where I was just sitting down and brainstorming all the things I was thinking about. It was the easiest to write about what I’m most familiar with, and that was incorporating Koreatown into it, and also making a political statement by incorporating the whole North Korea and South Korea thing and going into that within my community. I just wanted to make a stoner comedy, like Good Burger meets Barbershop meets Korea [laughs].
TCUS: Speaking of comedy, and bringing it back to the album, in “Born For This”, you rap about your parents, saying, “when they got back from work, you see their backs would hurt/ So I provided laughter, my earliest acting work.” Tell me about that situation.
Dumbfoundead: Me being a little kid and just being a complete attention whore, I would fool around the house, and they were my first audience as far as acting up, singing, dancing, and acting goofy. I would dress in my dad’s clothes, all baggy and s—t, and perform in front of them. I always felt like I had an entertainer side in me, and that was one of the things. They were very entertained by me just goofing around in front of them, and it was somewhat encouraged. You know, Asian parents are usually [portrayed as] strict, and my dad was very traditional, but my mom was open-minded and she pushed me forward in that world, for sure.
TCUS: This has been on the minds of a lot of Dumbfoundead fans recently. What is PARKER?
Dumbfoundead: Yeah, man. I’m transitioning my name into PARKER. I’m not abandoning Dumbfoundead completely; I don’t think at this point that I could completely get rid of it. I’m treating Dumbfoundead more like an overall production company, like “Dumbfoundead presents….” But PARKER is probably the name I’m gonna go with as far as an emcee and personality. I’m getting a little older, and it’s been tough to push the Dumbfoundead name into different fields that I’m trying to do. I just wanted something more like a real name to go by, and Dumbfoundead is really long, too. With a name like that, if I were to do s—t in Korea, fools couldn’t even pronounce that s—t.
TCUS: [Laughs] Now, in the future, what’s coming up for you?
Dumbfoundead: In the near future, I’m actually working on Cut + Paste 2, which is a followup to a project that I did with DJ Zo about two years ago. It’s getting songs from [all different genres], whether it’s EDM or dance, and just chopping it up and me rapping over it. So it’s not beats that are just made, but my boy Zo rearranging parts from already-existing songs and me rapping over and creating our own songs and remixes to them. That’ll probably be out before December. Other than that, I’m working on another EP. As far as my next official album, that won’t be out until next summer. I’m really trying to spend a lot of time on it and make it my biggest and best project yet.
TCUS: In the theme of albums, you just celebrated the one-year anniversary of Take the Stares. What about that album makes it special to you and still resonates with you?
Dumbfoundead: [For that album], we literally just rented out a cabin in Big Bear for like two or three weeks, and we actually finished that in three weeks. I went there with my boy Breezy Lovejoy, DJ Zo, and a few other producers, and we just worked on it and knocked it out, and whatever came out of there was the album. I remember us just really working on it, and I got a lot of advice from different people while working on that album. I’m proud of it for sure, but it’s definitely a little bit different from a lot of my other s—t – which is cool. I think that was the transitional album for me to go into a lot deeper and more mature-sounding stuff. That was the middle transition period. That’s why everything wasn’t quite focused there, but there’s definitely joints that show a lot more maturity going into my next stuff.
TCUS: In the vein of giving and receiving advice, what advice could you give to somebody coming up in hip-hop right now?
Dumbfoundead: I just hope that anybody who raps or is involved in hip-hop really gets their skills straight and sharpens their sword. I feel like this Internet age doesn’t allow you to get your skills right and sharpen up your skills. In my era, we had open mics and battles, and tons of things that can make you a better emcee, but nowadays, people feel themselves a lot easier because they start getting a following. They throw an .mp3 online and everybody’s telling them that they’re dope, and then they go see them at a show and they f—king suck. It’s really easy to assure yourself that you’re dope, but you’d had to earn that kind of respect back then, and I hope these kids realize that too as they progress.
TCUS: I thought you were going to say “get your bars up.”
Dumbfoundead: [Laughs] I mean, yeah, that was pretty much the long version of that.
TCUS: Any last words for you?
Dumbfoundead: [Since this is The Come Up Show], as far as coming up, it takes mad years. It’s taken me literally ten years to barely reach the level that I’m at, and I feel like I’ve got a long journey ahead of me. When I was younger, I felt like it was gonna happen so fast; I was gonna be on a f—kin’ yacht by now, pouring champagne on titties and s—t. But it takes a long time, bro. Now, I’m able to live off of this and pay my rent and feed myself, but that’s not what I was thinking back then. I wasn’t like, man, I can’t wait until I can grow up and be financially stable, you know what I’m saying? I had bigger dreams. It takes a long time, and you have to be patient and persistent in everything you do.
TCUS: Speaking of dreams, and this will be my last question, what would you still like to accomplish in the future?
Dumbfoundead: I would definitely like to be a household name as far as an Asian-American who broke into the music industry, as well as even the film industry. Those are two things I’d definitely like to accomplish. [I also] want to open doors for a lot of young Asian kids trying to come up.