In this episode, Chinese-American rapper Bohan Phoenix takes us on a field trip to one of his favorite restaurants in New York’s East Village, The Tang, to chow down on some jala beef, sip on some Hennessy and Martinelli’s apple juice, and discuss everything from hip hop in China to Lindsay Lohan.
When someone you don’t know very well calls you “baby,” you most likely throw up a little bit in your mouth.
When Bohan Phoenix calls you “baby”—trust me, it won’t take long—it’s curiously endearing.
I could never pull it off. Charisma comes in different shades, and Bohan’s is the equivalent of Italian 1500 thread count sheets.
It’s the same hue that allows the hip-hop artist to label himself “Mr. Overseas” on Twitter without sounding even marginally lame. However, it’s more than some eccentric tag designed to net more retweets. Bohan, 25, was born in China (in Hubei, but his family now lives in Chengdu), moved to the United States in 2003 (first Boston, then New York City), and just moved back to China indefinitely this summer (“I’ll be back when Trump’s done!”).
“I really see my future as being back-and-forth,” Bohan explains. “I really don’t see myself staying in one place. I got too much love for both sides, too many people on both sides.”
Determined to represent and raise up both cultures through his raps, releases like his Jala EP and most recent single “Product” incorporate lyrics in both English and Chinese, along with instrumentals cooked up on either ends of the world. But Bohan understands that becoming “Mr. Overseas” comes with its duties beyond the music.
“I’ve spent most of my adulthood in America. For me to really comment on that I have to go spend my life as an adult in China, too. More than just a month at a time, so I can talk my shit. I’ve gotta know my shit to talk my shit.”
Asian hip hop is on the move, and it won’t be long until it hits the mainstream on a global scale, but, for now, Bohan and his peers will have to endure the irritations that currently accompany Western blog coverage.
“When The Fader premieres something, you don’t see, ‘white rapper puts out a new song blah blah blah’ or ‘black rapper puts out a new song blah blah blah,’ but when it’s an Asian rapper it’s still ‘Asian rapper puts out a new song blah blah blah,'” Bohan says. “I guess the goal is to get rid of that, but that’s only going to come with time. No rapper is popular enough to go up to these publications and say, ‘Y’all not allowed to write about us like this no more, otherwise we’re not fucking with you.’ Until we can get to that point, every artist has a responsibility to choose whether to engage with taking the conversation worldwide or make it an exclusivity thing. Time will tell which one is better.”
Yet, none of this is nearly enough to kill Bohan’s vibe. “At the end of the day, music still has the power to bring people together,” he concludes with a dogged grin.
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Pregame with Bohan in the videos above, and check out an assortment of his best words of wisdom—and words of drink—from the full shoot below.
“I got into Hennessy because Tupac drank Hennesy. Also, [it’s] why I smoke blunts.”
“My homie opened the joint. He’s from Beijing and I’m from Chengdu. He’s from the north and I’m from the middle region where it’s hot. So he said, ‘Yo, you gotta come check out my noodle shop.’ I was skeptical, like this shit’s probably not going to be spicy. I came through, the shit was bangin’, delicious.”
“I wish I cam up with that reference, but that’s what people in China call it. Chengdu is almost like the northeastern tip of Texas. It’s in the middle of the country, it’s surrounded by mountains, and so it creates a huge, hot bowl. Sichuan, the huge province that includes Chengdu, is just known for its spices. Like, Sichuan girls are supposed to be mad pretty because they’ve got good skin from the peppers. It’s part of the people, it’s part of the culture, part of the attitude, everything. Everything is jala down there.”
“Before [meeting producer Howie Lee], I was using beats that I really liked, but they had no Asian vibe to it. My identity wasn’t part of it. My rhymes were trying to make up for it by putting in Chinese, but it wasn’t resonating on the music side. So, when I first heard Howie’s shit, I was like, ‘Damn, this is the exact shit that I need,’ and I didn’t even know that it was out there. Well, I didn’t know that it could be made like that. We called [the EP] Foreign, more so because of how the sound is than where we are.
“We kept in touch after that, but I really wanted to… I’ve always been about inclusivity, like, this whole exclusive shit doesn’t work, especially when it’s ‘Asian’s only” or ‘blah blah blah only.’ It’s always better to include everyone in the conversation, than to be like, ‘I’m an Asian rapper, I only fuck with Asian homies.’
“Crossing the culture, that’s inevitable, whether I was going to do it or someone else. The [conversation] already started before hip hop in many other forms: martial arts movies, food. Now, it’s time for music to come around. So, that was the whole goal: mixing Chinese producers with American producers I met out here and introduce people to something they’ve never heard before.”
“For Jala, the whole pepper logo, making it look like the Nike [swoosh], you know, Nike’s are made in China, brought to the [United] States, packaged, sold back to China, and in a fucked up way, that’s kind of how I am. Grew up in China, exported out to America, got my education in hip hop and academics, and now I’m going back to China to try and get something popping over there.
“Jiala is really spelled ‘J-I-A-L-A.’ I intentionally dropped the ‘I’ to create a little conversation, which it did, and also if you ever go to China you’ll see Chinese people wearing shirts that have English on them, but it makes no sense. It’s like if you were walking around with a shirt that says water in Chinese, you know what I mean? I wanted to play on that whole bootleg idea. They’ve got ‘Abibas’ out there instead of Adidas.”
“We just stupid.”
“Lindsay definitely was a crush. I still think she is a crush, I haven’t checked her Instagram in a minute… Maybe it’s the Bohan-Lohan thing, too.”
“Higher Brothers really are a fan of [hip-hop/trap music], they really are a fan of the lifestyle, and they’re just the Chinese version of it. And the Chinese people love it. They’re like, ‘Oh, this is something Western-influenced that we like, but it’s ours now.’ It’s great.”
“Right now, we’re in a time when people don’t want to talk about love because it’s corny, so it’s funny to throw it in people’s faces. Honestly, a mother’s unconditional love, friendships, these are the reasons we get to be where we are. People can choose not to help us throughout our lives. You have to love, love, otherwise it’s a burden.”
“I was at this music festival last summer. It was a three-day campout on a beach. At one point when we were all a bit fucked up, my girl threw this leopard jacket on me and then one of our friends had a leopard-print bandana, and she was like, ‘Yo, you should wear this.’ I put it on and that was it. I’m kind of getting over it, but there are days where I’m like, ‘Yeahhh, I’m busting out the bandana.'”