Tribeca Film Festival Review: BAD RAP Gets The Crowd Hype

An entertaining exploration of Asian-American Hip-Hop

Cultural appropriation has become a sore topic in recent years, where certain people are sensitive to the perceived erasure of cultural identity, while others feel that the assimilation of culture is a natural and necessary element in the evolution of civilization. Hip-Hop is perhaps one of the most singular and iconic art forms born of African-American culture, and rappers who are other-than-black are heavily scrutinized for encroaching on this territory. That's not to say, however, that Rap music cannot develop organically in other cultures as well. The documentary Bad Rap is an exploration of this phenomenon, a moving and revelatory journey into the world of Asian-American Hip-Hop.

Bad Rap gives us a glimpse into the lives of four Asian-American rappers. They each have very distinct styles, circumstances, artistic goals, and personal obstacles. At the same time, we see problems arise which are common to many Asian-Americans trying to make it in the Rap game. Of the four artists, we spend the most time with Dumbfoundead, who serves as the narrative and real life social link between the other rappers. Dumbfoundead made his name in the Los Angeles battle rap scene, eventually gaining international notoriety and accolades in the community for his charismatic yet razor sharp execution of his opponents.

Dumfoundead's primary conflict in the film is his failure to break through into the mainstream, despite years of grinding and his status as a respected figure in Hip-Hop. Although the transition from battle rap to lyrical recording artist is a hurdle common to many rappers, Dumbfoundead's inability to break through is exponentially more devastating because he is seen by many as the one Asian rapper with the greatest likelihood of achieving mainstream success; his defeat is a symbolic defeat for all Asian rappers. His put-upon status as the premiere figurehead/representative of his subculture is a tremendous weight, and the film explores the effects of that pressure.

The next rapper the film covers is Rekstizzy from Queens, NY. Rekstizzy has a very esoteric approach to his art, and while his fans and peers appreciate the brilliance of his high-minded/low-brow hi-jinks, his music could be seen as off-putting compared to other artists popular with the mainstream Hip-Hop audience. Kanye West might be the most obvious comparison, though he also exists on the same wavelength as artists like Lupe Fiasco, Danny Brown or Wale, those who eschew Hip-Hop convention in the hopes of establishing a more distinctive voice amongst the crowd.

Like those other artists, Rekstizzy's seemingly random and unhinged style belies the deep thought and consideration put into the approach of his art. This process is exemplified by a fascinating scene involving the filming of his music video. Stizzy and his manager get into a very serious discussion/argument about cultural appropriation, audience accessibility, and the line between being provocative and being offensive; all of this is brought to the surface as they consider the ramifications of squirting ketchup and mustard on the gyrating booty of a black video girl dancer.

The next rapper we meet is Lyricks, hailing from Virginia. Lyricks is considered by most of his peers to be the best pure emcee on a technical level amongst them all, and after hearing snippets of his music in the film and online after the film, I'm inclined to agree. Lyricks's style is steeped in the late '80s/early '90s Boom bap sound, and his flow is reminiscent of Rakim and the earlier works of Nas and Jay-Z. Lyricks's segment becomes the most intimate, as we see his prowess on stage compared to his humble day job and family life helping out his mother and father in their dry cleaning shop.

Lyricks's mother laments at how heartbroken she was about her son's chosen profession, forgoing the path of his siblings as doctors, businessmen, and other more tenable careers. This tension between family and personal pursuits is no doubt a universal issue experienced by countless Asian-Americans from conservative households. Like any loving mother, she eventually finds peace with his decision and supports his choice to do what makes him happy, yet the expectation that he will one day move on from his hobby remains. Surprisingly, Lyricks's internal conflict isn't just between his devotion to his art and his family, but also his faith. Lyricks does not shy away from his identity as a practicing Christian, and his spirituality is indeed part of what makes his music unique. Of note, we see footage of a younger Lyricks during his mission to Ghana to help underprivileged villagers, where he puts on a rap show in front of his church congregation. He reveals that from these humble beginnings, the inspiration to spit rhymes on stage in service of the lord was born.

The final rapper we are introduced to is Awkwafina from NY, who has probably gained the greatest level of multimedia stardom among the four. Bad Rap delves into her status as the premier Asian-American Female rapper, discussing her uniquely marketable niche as a “hipster” icon and the tension between marketing her identity as a serious artist versus the marketability of the quirky/cute Asian girl stereotype that white audiences fetishize, an issue which has long plagued Asian-American women in the media. And while all of that is very revealing and important information to sort through, the movie leaves no doubt that she is a legitimately skilled musician. Awkwafina has a very nonchalant, almost stream of consciousness type of flow filled with fun wordplay. It reminded me very much of the out-there rap stylings of the art-rap duo Das Racist, though like them, her lyrical content is undeniably her own.

Interestingly, despite her singular identity among not just Asian-American rappers but rap artists in general, Awkwafina openly expresses her fear and anxiety about her future as an artist. Unlike her male counterparts who have built up their careers and established themselves as seminal artists in their fields, Awkwafina recognizes the frightening possibility that her work will be the most readily dismissed as flash in the pan/flavor of the week art, compared to the longevity that her male counterparts have accrued.

What makes Bad Rap work so well is its ability to be different types of documentaries at once. While the focus of the film is on the four stars, there is also a bit of formal talking-head information dump that efficiently and entertainingly explains the the timeline of Asian-American Hip-Hop from its earliest beginnings in the west coast Filipino underground to its proliferation online. There is plenty of sociological discussion throughout the film about Asian representation in American media, including the distinct issue of the emasculation of Asian men and how that collides with the inherent overblown machismo of Hip-Hop. There is also a bit of "how to break into the music biz" documentary work in which each of the four artist's music videos are shown to record executives, A&R personnel, music journalists, and a famous Hip-Hop radio DJ. There's even a “where are they now” segment at the end which shows how things have developed for the rappers over the two years the majority of the movie took to put together.

That said, though there is a wealth of knowledge presented to the audience, the film also has very palpable dramatic stakes for each of the personalities, keeping you engaged in a story stranger than fiction. If there is a "climax" in Bad Rap, it is undoubtedly the rap battle between Dumbfoundead and the champion rap battler Conceited. After a string of disappointments, Dumbfoundead gets a break when he is invited back to an international rap battle contest being promoted by the famous platinum selling recording artist Drake. Dumbfounded is nervous about shaking the rust off after being away from the battle rap circuit for so long, especially since his opponent has been steady grinding for years and has garnered a substantial level of fame in his own right thanks to a recurring spot on the MTV2 program Wild N' Out. Conceited opens up on Dumb with both barrels and you feel your stomach sinking, fearing that the former grand master is now in over his head. However, when Dumb claps back at him with bar after bar of eviscerating lyrical manslaughter, you want to stand up and cheer (and the audience at the screening very much let their elation be heard); it's as thrilling as any battle in 8 Mile and cathartic as the finale of any inspirational sports movie.

While Hip-Hop has a very specific and unique cultural origin, the music has proven so powerful that it has transcended all ethnic and geographical boundaries. Despite its ubiquity, it's very likely that most Americans are completely unaware of the thriving Hip-Hop scenes abroad and even in their own back yard. Bad Rap is a timely presentation of a true piece of Americana and a celebration of Asian-American Hip-Hop that's been a long time coming. The majority of the audience at my screening was Asian and the crowd was hyped at seeing a unique part of their culture explored on screen. I have no doubt that audiences all over the country - regardless of their backgrounds - will share their enthusiasm for this beautiful film.