Meet Year of the OX, the Korean-American Rappers Who Want You to Stop Gentrifying Kimchi
In their new song "A-Zn Foods," the rap duo takes on the appropriation of the foods that they grew up with.
Photo via Facebook
When Korean-American rappers Year of the OX sat in the studio working on their latest track, they knew they already had one big problem: there’s no Z in the Korean language. “How the fuck are we going to end this song?” Lyricks asked, knowing that it’s hard to write a proper A to Z without that crucial 26th letter.
But Lyricks and JL figured it out, and the result is the excellent “A-Zn Foods,” which serves as a primer for Asian foods from abalone and rice to… nah, we don’t want to give that last verse away. But tucked between references to fugu and wagyu is some pointed lyrical criticism of cultural appropriation (“I'm tryna be friendly but then it offends me/Added sauce to my culture to make it more trendy”) to culinary gentrification (“Why they selling kimchi for 30 bucks at the gastropub?”)
Lyricks—born Rick Lee—took a break from editing an upcoming Year of the OX video to talk to MUNCHIES about “A-Zn Foods,” Asian foods, and the ingredient that most well-meaning gentrifiers tend to overlook.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Lyricks! Your last release was “ Thoughts & Prayers ,” which touched on gun violence, racism, and the Trump administration’s controversial priorities. How did you decide to pivot from that to a song about Asian foods?
Lyricks (Rick Lee): We’re creating our identity with the music that we’re dropping, and now that we’ve got people’s attention, we want them to know that it’s deeper than just putting words together and trying to be clever. We wanted to show them the reach [we have]. Being Asian-American and coming up in hip-hop, we always had to prove ourselves and beat the bias, so with “Seven Rings,” we showed our skills, with “Thoughts & Prayers” we wanted people to know that we were socially conscious, and now we want to let people know about our identity. We wanted to be bold with it, and I think it worked out.
You were featured in the documentary Bad Rap and spoke about the unique pressures of being an Asian-American rapper. What responsibilities do you feel in your position?
When JL and I got together and started rapping, we never thought about being representatives for Asian-Americans, but as our following gets bigger and our microphone gets bigger, we feel like that’s part of our responsibility—to represent [Asian-Americans] correctly. We’re trying to find the balance; we’re not trying to neglect our family or our traditions, but we’re not trying to turn it into a gimmick. With the new song, we wanted to go deep. We could’ve done “Level 2” Korean foods like bulgogi that people knew about, but we wanted to go into the stinky stuff that Asians would be shy or hesitant to share. We felt the boldness of saying “Yeah, fermented shit looks weird, but that’s who we are.”
How long did “A-Zn Foods” take to write, and how did the process compare to that of “Thoughts & Prayers” or “Seven Rings”?
The writing process for those songs was very different. For “Thoughts & Prayers,” I wrote a verse during one of my quiet times and put it on Instagram. People commented and said “You’ve got to record this,” JL agreed, and we found the beat. I enjoy writing when JL and I are together in the studio, when it feels like we’re playing catch, just going back and forth.
The hardest part [for “A-Zn Foods”] was deciding what the narrative would be. We didn’t want it to be an encyclopedia of Asian food, because, like, the southeast Asians would get mad because I don’t know any southeast Asian food! We wanted to represent everyone, but at the same time we had to be honest and talk about the things that we knew. Picking the foods was the most difficult thing, but writing it—well, that’s what we do. When I say a word, JL already has seven rhymes in his head. We wrote it in a day, but the hard part was memorizing it and owning the verse, so when we recorded it it didn’t sound scripted.
And, in the video, it looks like you just got one take to rhyme and eat a lot of food.
Yeah, it was terrible for the crew that was with us, because every time we messed up or flubbed and had to start over, that was another 30 minutes that they couldn’t eat anything. They were getting pissed. It was fun though. We knew the verses well, we were super hungry, and we really love the food.
Did you know going in that you’d go full mukbang for the video?
To be honest, when I first found out what mukbang was, I didn’t know if it was a fetish thing or an ASMR thing, with the slurps and the girls gorging themselves. But then after some deeper investigation, it seems to be for people who are lonely or don’t want to eat alone, so they can have that kind of intimate moment while they eat. If you watch mukbang in Korea, it’s a webcam in a living room, with a fold-out desk and a butane gas grill, so we wanted to be gritty, too. It’s actually cell phone footage, shot selfie-style to make it more believable. I think it was a good idea.
Do you have a lot of specific memories tied to food?
Yeah, 100 percent. You could ask my mother, but my first bath was in a bin they made kimchi in. My first word was a Korean cabbage; before even ‘Mom’ or ‘Dad,’ it was a kind of kimchi. When your parents are immigrants, they’re usually out of the house, so it’s the non-English-speaking grandmother that usually takes care of the kids. It was very black and white: At home, we would speak nothing but Korean and eat the craziest shit, then I would go to school and be this American. I use to think it was a disadvantage, but now, I think that duality gives me an intelligence and a reach that not many people have. It was a blessing in disguise.
In a piece for the Washington Post , Ruth Tam wrote about how her classmates shamed her for taking her dad’s Cantonese food to school. Did you have to endure any experiences like that?
Oh man. When I was in elementary school, my grandmother thought that giving me squid and grilled anchovies, rice and salmon roe in Tupperware was hooking me up. That shit ruined me. I’d open that package and nobody wanted to sit with me. There were times when I’d get mad because my mom wanted to save money by not putting me on the school lunch program. She wanted to give me rice and fish but I would fight with her, like “Mom, I need the Lunchables! I need the Capri Suns! What are you doing?!” I specifically remember loving this smelly shit, but having to act like I didn’t because I was embarrassed. Not just Asians, but anybody who is different or had a different upbringing has that moment where they have to betray something that they love because of how it might be perceived. In a way, “A-Zn Foods” was my way of redeeming myself for faking it, and letting people know that I’m super proud of up upbringing.
How does it feel to see these foods that you were ridiculed for becoming trendy, or like you said in the song, showing up for $30 in hipster neighborhoods?
Korean food itself is poor farmers’ food. We didn’t have enough ingredients, so we used time as an ingredient: Fermentation is huge for us. Kimchi is a staple, and when we couldn’t have other things, we took the sourest kimchi, put a little sesame in it, sugared it up to make it thicker and that was a soup you’d eat. Then you’d take those remnants, mix in the remaining rice and fry that you could eat that for another day. But over here in Manhattan, that dish is $23.99!
Is misunderstanding the context or the origin of these foods part of what non-Asians get wrong?
Our mission wasn’t like “I hate fusion food!” but we do get tired of it. I saw this post online with some dude telling us how to eat pho and it was completely wrong. He was like “First of all, the lime doesn’t…” and I was like “The lime ALWAYS goes in.” It’s one of those things that isn’t harming us, but if we don’t call it out and we let that slide, by the time we say it, people will say “No, that’s shit’s authentic, what are you talking about?” If that happens, we have no one to blame but ourselves.
It’s like when the locals in San Diego called out that wellness blogger for trying to open a modern fruteria in their neighborhood. Do you think that’s the line between appreciation and appropriation?
Yo, exactly. Look, if you talk to Korean-Americans who are my age, their parents usually came [to the US] to [open] a dry cleaner business, a liquor store, or a deli. That’s the trifecta. It’s all blue-collar, long hours, and they never see the kids. When they come home, they’re so tired and there’s a language barrier, so food is the way they show love. I have vivid memories of my dad feeding me fish, but because we couldn’t have a deep conversation, his way of showing love was deboning it or taking chunks of it and putting it on my rice. Little things like that. When I go to restaurants and see them emulate that, it’s just empty aesthetics. It’s not coming from the right place, and that’s why I take offense to it: because there’s no love. I don’t want to be like “Guys, the restaurant has to be suffering for it to be real,” but I do want them to know that it’s wrong to fucking sell kimchi for $30, especially when it doesn’t even smell like kimchi anymore. It smells like sriracha and coleslaw and, yo, you can’t give that to a Korean person, charge $30 and say it’s “authentic.” I don't want to be the dream killer but, come on, there's levels to this shit.
As Asian-American rappers, have you had to face any of your own accusations of cultural appropriation?
We’re always going to be told that, but we feel like we’re paying homage. We did our history. I made sure that before I cooked in the studio, I read the recipe books of the people who came before me. We called ourselves Year of the OX out of honor and respect. I’ve gotten booed offstage and have gotten kicked out of the studio, and there are people who wouldn’t go back or wouldn’t play in that city, but we do. We go back and we win their respect, and I feel like that’s the authentic way to do it.
Thanks for speaking with us.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.