Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Hip hoppy summer reads: Chinese Boyz In The (Alberta) Hood or A buck 65?

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Chinkstar by Jon Chan Simpson

By Dalton Higgins

When you help generate a theory, commit it to print and then let the book sales and distribution networks do their thing, it really takes on a life of its own. Case in point. While I’ve been preaching that it’s a hip hop world, and you are all just living in it, since 2009 when my second best seller Hip Hop World came out, I’ve seen and read all kinds of interesting and annoying things that relate to the appropriation of the culture, its style, delivery, execution and language. Some, including myself, have argued that the flyest frontiers for hip hop culture may not be the USA anymore, and that rather than looking to NYC and LA for inspiration, culture types may want to start looking to the east, Africa, or The North (as in We the North). Recently, Grammy winning rapper Drake got skewered for making this point, but as is the case with many success stories, the haters are gonna hate.

For this summer’s reading lists, I went back to my hip hop roots, and stumbled into a few books that speak to this globalization of hip hop culture theme that I projected. For some consumers who are not-so versed on the culture, hip hop still remains something that black and Latino youth consume themselves with 24-7, whereas the facts are that non-black kids are arguably doing a lot more of the consuming, and we are seeing some of the results of this in book form.
For example, while some of you may know of CBC Radio host Rich Terfry as, well, a broadcaster, my starting point is knowing him as an underground rapper dating back to the early 90s releasing music under the alias Stinkin’ Rich. I’m not sure if the salary range of these CBC hosting jobs have left him feeling like his old nom de plume, but the forthcoming release of his memoirs Wicked and Weird: The Amazing Tales of Buck 65 might be something worth checking out because he represents that side of hip hop’s cultural output that some find intriguing because he is a white guy who’s not from the urban ‘hood – he’s from Mount Uniacke, Nova Scotia. When his publicists begin to retrieve emails again, I will have more to say about the actual quality of the book.

Now first time author Jon Chan Simpson has publicists who return emails, so that’s a very good thing, though his fiction debut Chinksta, has left me feeling all kinds of weird things inside. While the title might horrify some, in a similar way to how one should feel horrified over reading a book titled let’s say the N word, I’ll have the PC set know that Chinksta is loosely defined as “a Chinese who acts black” and is “derived by combining the derogatory slang for Chinese (chink) with the last part of gangsta” according to the hip hop slanguage Bible Urban Dictionary. So maybe it’s like saying nigga – the one of the so-called “term of endearment” persuasion – but just from the east.

Anyways, this book does a great job of fuelling some of my theories around hip hop retention amongst some Asian youth. I’m that dude that brought US-bred Chinese rap superstar Jin down to Toronto in 2007 for a concert, and after seeing upwards of 500 Asian youth singing along word for word to the songs of this former BET 106 and Park freestyle champ, I was like whoa. Likewise, I wrote a whole chapter on how the Battle of the Year, the world’s biggest hip hop dance competition has been near dominated by crews from Asia. The more cultures that engage hip hop – the black community’s gift to the world – the better, there’s no question. That being said, reading this book left me with that same feeling of awkwardness I get when I hear Iggy Azalea rap and speak (she speaks with an African-American southern twang despite being a white female rapper from Australia).

Simpson, who appears to be a bi-racial Asian Canadian writes much of this fiction with a similar blaccent (black accent) and it reads awkward, kind of like something you would hear if someone was performing a hip hop parody or caricature act. As a black person and devoted book consumer, I found all of the “whassups” and “shit, son” and the oodles of hip hop slang to sound like something out of a Vanilla Ice single and video, perhaps a few moral notches above Word To Your Mutha.

While Red Deer Alberta, the authors hometown is where this story takes place, I shudder to think that there might even be the remote possibility that there are burgeoning Chinese hip hoppers like the protagonist King Kwong, the don of this “Chinksta” rap environment who would actually communicate lyrics like this: “whack spittas dipped in soy sauce is what I like to snack on”. Or how about this nugget: “I’m the muthafuckin’ chink / I’m the muthafuckin’…/ I’m the muthafuckin’ chink in your armour, bad bitch charmer”.

There seems to be a really fine line between comedic and corny, and I found myself veering towards the latter. King Kwong’s younger brother, the lead character Run, who is bi-racial (Chinese-Scottish) and one might presume represents the author Simpson’s most sincere voice, seems to interpret this Rice Rap scene as a hot, disorderly mess. And perhaps Simpson’s own POV on the curious nature of Chinese-Canadian kids behaving like extreme hip hop and black culture-fuelled caricatures is the whole point of the book. I love a good parody as much as the next guy, but when his mother gets shot in the book and replies “I think I’ve been capped” I couldn’t help but wonder – what mother reacts to being shot with such awkward hippy wordplay? When you get capped up, you get capped up. So there’s just something about cultural insiders communicating in hip hop speak, and incorporating all of the nuances contained within that, that sounds and reads a lot different, and maybe a bit more authentic – whatever that means.

I get it. Much like I get some of food personality Eddie Huang’s lyrical swagger on the Fresh off the Boat sitcom based on the memoir – starring the first Asian-American family as protagonists on an American television sitcom. Some of Simpson’s voice, much like Huang’s, is supposed to be an articulation of the voice of a first or second generation Asian male who happens to be heavily influenced by black and hip hop culture, and that is supposed to come through in their characters speech patterns and thought process. And somebody may get it right in Canada. This fact that hip hop is spreading its tentacles far and wide and touching Asian, South Asian, Indigenous, European youth and so on and so on. I was wanting to like this book a little more, but the bushels of distorted hip hop slang, faux black accents and overall flurry of misplaced F words just read like some of those terribly mediocre American urban fiction books dubbed “street literature” that I have in my collection. And their mediocre qualities have less to do with colour or culture than they do with being read as genuine articulations of street culture. Notorious B.I.G’s gritty tales felt real (and that skit with Little Kim happened in the studio). As for Ja Rule and Vanilla Ice? Maybe not so much.

Dalton Higgins is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist and radio and TV broadcaster who blogs and therefore is. His book Far From Over: The Music and Life of Drake (ECW Press, Oct. 2012) sheds light on the cultural conditions in Toronto that helped create the Drake phenomenon. His five other books (Fatherhood 4.0, Hip Hop World, Hip Hop, Much Master T, Rap N' Roll: Pop Culture, Darkly Stated) examine the place where the worlds of technology, diversity, hip hop and hipster culture intersect. His daily Daltoganda, musings, rants, jabs, pontifications and fire-and-brimstone blather can be accessed from his digital pulpit on twitter: @daltonhiggins5

Click here to read Dalton's archived articles on Open Book: Toronto.

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