The New York Times

August 12, 2003

Slim Shady, Watch It: Asian Rapper's Got It


That Chinese rapper guy wants to make something clear. He's Jin, not "that Chinese rapper guy." His name has dropped all over the place, well before his album will.

It's the route of the National Basketball Association's top draft pick, 18-year-old LeBron James, of the R&B singer Ashanti and of the movie Better Luck Tomorrow: the path in which the athlete, the singer or the film generates a fan base well before he plays in the N.B.A., she releases an album or the movie has its premiere. For Jin it has meant a buzz among Asian-American and underground hip-hop fans that has extended to publications like Rolling Stone, which singled him out this year as one of 10 artists to look for in "the next wave."

The attention so far has revolved around Jin's being a Chinese-American rapper, but the excitement has grown as he has won fans for his inventive lyrics, a style resembling a less angry Eminem. Jin has appeared alongside the rap star Ludacris in this summer's film 2 Fast 2 Furious. And he has already spent part of his summer on MTV's "You Hear It First" tour in New York, Washington, Philadelphia and Boston. He holds a place in Black Entertainment Television's "Freestyle Friday" Hall of Fame for going undefeated seven straight weeks in the network's "106 & Park: Top 10 Live" rap battles, in which the best barbs and rudest rhymes often win in spontaneous, head-to-head duels. All this and Jin's debut album — "The Rest Is History" — on Ruff Ryders Records/Virgin Records does not even drop into stores until Oct. 28.

Jin, 21, is not a 50 Cent. He does not rap about getting shot, going to jail or doing drugs. Jin does rhyme about interracial dating, about being compared to Eminem, about Chinatown and about being Chinese-American.

"I am proudly Chinese," said this rapper from Elmhurst, Queens, born Jin Au-yeung. "I'll embrace it but never exploit it. During a show, I might say, `So where my Asians at?' But I'll never go out there with a sword, you know what I'm saying?"

Along with a shadow of a mustache, a buzz cut and the requisite baggy pants of hip-hop, Jin wears a diamond-studded, platinum chain with the letter R around his neck. It stands for Ruff Ryders, the label Jin signed with during his 7-0 run on BET. The label has gained recognition for turning out hip-hop stars DMX, Eve and Jadakiss. Jin still seems bewildered by some celebrity trappings — custom-made racing outfits and cooing models at photo shoots — but has no problem playing up his boyish flirtatiousness or occasionally referring to himself in the third person. He savors the attention but says he does not crave it.

In his lyrics Jin talks unabashedly about his Asian ethnicity, sometimes in self-defense but more often because he wants to bolster the idea of an Asian-American rapper. In last year's battles on BET's "106 & Park," rival rappers most frequently hurled ethnic insults at Jin: "I'm a star/He just a rookie/Leave rap alone and keep making fortune cookies."

But Jin turned those taunts into his own disses: "You wanna say I'm Chinese/Sonny here's a reminder/Check your Timbs/They probably say made in China," he raps, referring to Timberland shoes. And: "Yeah, I'm Chinese/Now you understand it/I'm the reason that his little sister's eyes are slanted/If you make one joke about rice or karate/N.Y.P.D. be in Chinatown searching for your body."

But as one of the most visible Asian-American rappers, is he concerned about how graphic his lyrics can come across? Not really. "I'm a pervert," he said. "I'm a jerk. You can put that in print. There's many sides to Jin. I'm also intelligent. I'm also well spoken. And that's beyond hip-hop. That's me, as a person."

Sometimes Jin weaves Chinese-American history into his lyrics to emphasize ethnic pride. At a recent performance at B. B. King Blues Club and Grill in Times Square, he evoked whoops from a multiethnic crowd with "Learn Chinese," a song on his forthcoming album. Over strains of Cantonese, which he speaks fluently, Jin rapped: "Every time they harass me, I wanna explode/We should ride the train for free/We built the railroads."

To entice "2 Fast 2 Furious" fans and the Asian-American youth market, Ruff Ryders has latched onto aspects of pop culture that emphasize Jin's ethnicity, including import show cars and custom-made baggy clothes that incorporate scenes from Chinese paintings.

Joaquin Dean, one of three siblings who run Ruff Ryders, said that import-car culture incorporated all walks of life even though Jin's manager, Kamel Pratt, acknowledged that the cars, among them retooled Hondas and Mitsubishis, appealed to Asian-American youth. Asked about the custom-made clothing, Mr. Dean replied that Jin has got to represent his culture. Pausing, Mr. Dean added: "He's rare. He's not just a gimmick rapper. He has true talent."

The question is whether integrating Jin's ethnicity into the promotion of his music will help sell albums. "It makes me happy that he's not ashamed to talk about being Asian-American," said Ben Chan, a hip-hop fan from Brooklyn at a recent "You Hear It First" concert. "But it will be interesting to see what happens after the novelty wears off."

It seems that Jin, who has often insisted that he does not want to overuse his race, is just as eager to find out. After growing up in Miami and graduating from North Miami Beach Senior High School, he decided to pursue a record deal instead of a college degree. Two years ago he moved to New York with his parents, so they could be closer to his grandparents in Chinatown after Sept. 11. He started out hawking self-recorded CD's outside Fat Beats, a music store in Greenwich Village.

One day, while freestyle rapping in front of the shop, Jin met Mr. Pratt, who became Jin's manager and promptly organized his own career around Jin's. Mr. Pratt founded Crafty Plugz, a management company, with Jin as its sole client. With Mr. Pratt's assistance, Jin auditioned for "106 & Park," during which Ruff Ryders brought him into its group of nine artists.

At a recent photo session for his album, Jin's energy radiated, even after 14 hours of work. He smiled, revealing teeth as white and straight as those on a Colgate commercial while he bounded from a wardrobe of clothes to a table of snacks to a book of Polaroid pictures from the shoot.

He held up an especially sexy shot of himself in front of a drop-top gold Honda. Amused, he said, "This kid looks like a real star."