Bohan Phoenix arrived with the force of a brick thrown through the windshield of pop culture. On any given day, your social media feeds are clogged with news of the next big move by industry ‘disruptors’ shaking things up. But what the China-born, America-based rapper brings to the table can’t be quantified by the scope of cheap clickbait tactics. Your work can’t be merely trending if its significance is revolutionary – and that is just what Bohan is about. In the now wide-open playing field of (t)rap, Bohan is a consummate innovator, an alchemist distilling Asian and Western elements into a raw, adrenalised and sublimely progressive multi-cultural payload that is more than the sum of its parts. Recently, he signed off on two transmissions that elevated him even further to the forefront of the cutting-edge: the Jala EP and the serpentine banger “PRODUCT”. Like his earlier work, they affirm one central truth: Bohan is the future, and the future, as you know, is unstoppable. In Internet time, the future is now. And as we said, his presence isn’t part of a wave, it’s a revolution. Heed his words below.
Hey Bohan, we’re extremely psyched about your first ever show in Singapore. What are you looking forward to the most about playing here?
I’m super excited, too! My cousin lives in Singapore and I haven’t seen her in five years, so I’m going to pay her a visit. I’ve never been a fan of sightseeing but now that I’m older, I kind of am. It’ll be good to soak it all in.
I hear that Singapore has a high Chinese population but the main language is English. That describes me perfectly – I’m Chinese but I speak mostly English nowadays, just because of the environment I’m in. Singapore is an interesting, almost futuristic vision of what the world is going to be like.
It’s known that you moved from Hubei to Massachusetts when you were 11. What was the most striking cultural difference between the two countries you noticed at the time?
Growing up in rural Hubei, one of the first things that struck me was how nice and open Westerners were. As a kid, I thought they were just mean people. But when I got to America, I realised how welcoming the people were and how much diversity there was in the culture.
It didn’t take me long to pick up on the fact Americans were more forward-thinking compared with the people I knew in my early years. The openness of my environment really helped me integrate not just into the culture but helped me grow into the person I wanted to become. Rather than be a sheltered, Asian boy, I could experiment with different things; I joined a gospel choir, for example. Individuality was encouraged a lot more. But right now, China’s more open than it ever was.
“To everybody that’s doing this, know that being an artist is a lifelong thing. You have to find your self and your sound and not be afraid to experiment and let time do its thing. Commit yourself to the craft and you’ll be surprised to see what you come up with.”
And as much as you’re influenced by Eminem and Tupac, you’ve mentioned that Jay Chou was your “most listened-to guy”.
Music didn’t have a good look in my family because my dad was musician and he left my mom, so I never really cared too deeply about it. But the year before I left for America, my grandfather bought me a cassette-tape player so I could learn English and one day, at the mall, I picked up a cassette of Jay Chou’s The Eight Dimensions album. When I played it, it didn’t sound like anything I’d heard before. I looked up words to it since the way he was slurring his lyrics was just so cool and fresh. That was my first interest in music and that was because I didn’t understand what I listening to. That’s how it all started.
How did you find your voice and the style of ‘Oriental trap’? When did it occur to you that you could mix Asian influences with American elements to create your own kind of hip-hop?
There are two things I want to clarify. When I was in New York University, I released a mixtape and I thought I was going to blow up after that. But I realised, after much struggling, that I was competing with everybody. It took me a while to accept that I didn’t need to do that; I didn’t need to come with bars and crazy syllables that sound like J. Cole’s. I needed to distinguish myself so people would listen to me for me. Once I added a couple of Chinese lines after a catchy hook, I found that people liked those more. Spanish and black folks would come up to me and ask me more about the those non-English lines. Just how I felt about Jay Chou, the foreignness about my music was what attracted them to it. When I met Jachary and Howie Lee, I thought it was a perfect harmony.
The second point to touch on is that while I love the term ‘Oriental trap’, I didn’t coin it. Someone else did. I stay away from the word ‘Oriental’.
Congrats on Jala. What does that “extra spicy” philosophy mean to you?
It really didn’t hit me until I brought my four homies from Brooklyn to China for the Vice Motherland tour last year. I thought they wouldn’t be able to eat intestines and spicy food but they blew my mind. Once we got back to New York, we’d go look for extra spicy food and toss the term jala around. One day, the beat came on and it became a song and a flavour that I made into an attitude. Whatever you do in life, don’t be afraid to add a little flavour to it so it’s not so bland. “Jala” could’ve easily been just another trap song but it isn’t because of that reason.
Your partnership with Howie Lee is widely regarded as the defining moment of the Asian invasion of rap. How do you feel about that?
I’m glad people feel that way. It’s just humbling to have someone so ahead of his time work with me and share ideas with me on music and life. It’s one of the best things to happen to me in my life and career. The conversations that we’re having right now are about taking it to a whole other place, further than I’m ready to go, even. He’s just so in the future. I’m just excited to work with the dude and contribute to the architecture of this musical landscape.
From your vantage point, do you think Asian hip-hop exists alongside contemporary hip-hop or entirely outside of it?
Asian music has always existed – it’s been a minute now. But in a weird way, unless the West pays attention to what the Asian side is doing, Asian people don’t really accept it. There’s been hip-hop in China for the last 10 or 20 years but until the West started talking about it, people thought that those Chinese artists were just imitators. Thankfully, that mindset has changed and Chinese hip-hop is now a global voice. It’s contributing to the current conversation of music, identity and culture in a big way.
At the same time, are you ever concerned about being seen as the guy who raps about being Asian all the time?
No, just because I don’t think I do it that much. I talk about being Asian in an ‘I’m not Asian enough way’.
“PRODUCT”, which is produced by Singapore’s own, Yllis, is an absolute banger. How did he help you flesh out your vision for the song?
Man, I first met Yllis in Taipei. I had a tour stop there and I was setting up my vocal box when I noticed that he had one that was five times bigger than mine. He’s such a chill dude but when he started playing and singing, I was like, ‘Yo! This is crazy!’ When he moved to Brooklyn, we hung out and got to talking about music. One day, he sent me a trap beat and it was hard. I didn’t touch it for two months because I didn’t want to write garbage to it. After the first line came to me, the rest of the song fell into place.
Lastly, what advice do you have for young Asian artists who want make hip-hop music but who’re worried about not being ‘street’ enough?
To everybody that’s doing this, know that being an artist is a lifelong thing. You can’t put it a timer on it. You have to find your self and your sound and not be afraid to experiment and let time do its thing. The people that don’t make it are the ones who stopped doing it. Commit yourself to the craft and you’ll be surprised to see what you come up with.
Catch Bohan Phoenix live at Cherry Discotheque this Saturday.