Despite being a part of the Brooklyn mom set, I like to believe that I still have some of my pre-maternal-stage coolness about me. Although I have to admit, my tolerance for vulgar lyrics in hip hop has gone the way of the flip phone. Done. Gone. Nonexistent. So when I first listened to the talented Queens born, Korean American rapper Rekstizzy (aka Rek and born David Lee), I had to set aside my inability to withstand hearing language that I normally consider to be an assault on my ears. The young man is vulgar and he’d be the first to tell you so. Beyond the vulgarity though, is a smart, thoughtful, open-minded and genuine dude who, I believe, should represent the new “model minority.”
Rek is a true-to-form Gemini. Born on June 12, 1986, he is the younger of two sons. His parents arrived in the States in the early 80s and his older brother was born in 1983. His earliest memories are in Jackson Heights, Queens “playing around with broken glass and opening up fire hydrants in the summer.” Like many immigrant families in search of better schools, Rek’s family moved around Queens for a bit until they ended up in Little Neck. “I grew up in the suburbs just being a knuckle head with my friends.” As a kid, Rek recalls that, “I was always the one that was …trying to put people onto stuff. I was always around a lot of Asians, so, you know, you could rep that Asian pride thing. I definitely encountered a lot of ching chong or slanty eyes stuff but we would always fight back.”
Rek continued on to attend the specialized Bronx High School of Science but says, “I did really bad in high school. I kind of just got by. I was always bored in every class, except during history and English, so I was always causing trouble.” Yet, things changed when Rek got to SUNY Binghamton for college. “Finally, when I got to college I saw all of these professors who were actually really into what they were teaching and very passionate about their subject. Plus, I had this whole gap of time in the mornings in my schedule, so I thought, I might as well study. So that’s how I got good grades in college. I realized that (the process of) learning is for me and not to please the establishment.” Initially, Rek wanted to pursue studying film but decided on English after reading that it “wasn’t worth going into film for undergrad.” However, Rek’s interest in film remains and he is also working on a novel “off and on.” “I’m kind of scatterbrained, always brainstorming, always trying to do everything, so that’s why I decided to pick one or two things and focus on that.” In addition to focusing on his rap career, Rek runs an Asian lifestyle website for men called Gumship. Founded in 2012, Gumship is the “definitive guide for men interested in Asian lifestyle, entertainment and culture.”
Rek’s love for music has been with him since his youngin’ days and he has always been drawn to many different genres. He loved 90s Kpop and was into learning the choreography. (As a new fan of Kpop, I appreciated the lesson in Kpop history that Rek and his manager, Jaeki Cho, bestowed upon me.) Rek also had an “Eric Clapton phase” where he made many attempts at playing Clapton on the guitar. Then in junior high school Rek “…found hip hop and… was …hypnotized by how raw it was.” Thus began Rek’s journey into the world of hip hop. “I was always attracted to the more ignorant stuff, the more vulgar and crazy stuff. In everything I do, I like getting a reaction out of people. You can learn a lot about people based on their reactions and I love observing people. If you go to my live show…when I get on stage, first thing I do is I start looking in people’s eyes and try to establish a connection and then I’ll say the most crude line and say it to the person who looks the most harmless,” Rek chuckled and continued, “I get a kick out of that.”
When asked to describe himself, Rek commented that he is very contradictory. “I’m like a classic case of a Gemini. I value my freedom more than anything. Even when I argue, I like when people argue back and convince me. If I stick to one argument, I don’t want that to be the end all be all. I’ll even go back to being contradictory and I’ll contradict myself just to be free.” Translating this way of being to his music, Rek said, “So every album of mine is gonna be different from the last ‘cuz I’m not trying to do the same shit.”
I asked Jaeki, Rek’s manager, how he would describe Rek. “He’s very honest, he doesn’t really hold back. When I first met him it was a little difficult for me to get adjusted initially because he was a bit too blunt. I’m very blunt in my opinions, as well… but his bluntness is exposed in settings where it shouldn’t be – industry functions, at parties with girls – he’s been called the Korean ODB.” (For non hip hop heads, Google Ol’ Dirty Bastard.) Jaeki went on, “A lot of people have only seen Rek when he’s out and under the influence but when you see him outside of that setting, I was genuinely surprised the first few times we were talking because we had a lot of the same points of view. There is another side of Rek that is very poignant, he is very well read and knowledgeable on films and other topics, he has a lot of informed and varying opinions. Like he said, he is very contradictory.”
Rek’s experience as a Korean American in the hip hop world has been “interesting.”
Reviewers, i.e. writers have been open and accepting of his talent because there are many Asian rappers in the underground scene. The average person on the street, though, will usually say something along the lines of, “Yo, I heard your music and I thought you were Black. You don’t even sound Asian.” Asked whether he takes that as a compliment, Rek said, “Yeah, it’s a weird thing to hear sometimes because I know they mean it in a good way. But then, if they mean it in a good way, then what are they trying to say about what it means to sound like an Asian? At the end of the day, I don’t really take it personally. I try to look at people’s intentions.”
Rek includes Kanye West as a major inspiration. He admires the way Kanye has changed the rap game in many different ways, “Most rappers would be lucky to change the game once. Kanye reinvents himself every album. You never know what direction he’s going in for the next album. Like this latest Kanye album – what the fuck was that? That shit was crazy and I respect that.”
Mom and Dad Lee knew that Rek wanted to be a rapper for a while. However, it was just recently that Rek shared with his parents how serious he was about pursuing his music career. His parents know his stage name and are not particularly thrilled with his decision to pursue music. Like most parents, they want their son to be financially stable.
Rek dreams of gracing the cover of the biggest rap magazine yet maintaining his underground appeal. He said, “I’m the type of artist that doesn’t think my audience is stupid. I think if they don’t like my music then maybe I’m doing something wrong. I don’t make music for me. I mean I enjoy it and I’m my own biggest fan but at the end of the day if nobody else likes it, then fuck it.” Asked when he is happiest, Rek thought for a minute then replied, “That’s a crazy question to ask… When I come up with something that I think is gonna be really dope, that’s when I’m happiest. When I’m in the studio and I hear a new beat that I know I can write something crazy to, I’m like YEAHHHH. When I’m doing some stupid website idea (for Gumship) and I’m like Yo! Son! That’s when I’m happiest…that’s what I live for. ”
Rek’s last album, “Whatever You Say” was an “American” album. He wanted “…whoever listened to the album to accept that an Asian face is an American face. I started off every interview with ‘Aw man, God Bless America’ you know really pushing that. I’m definitely not ashamed of being Korean. I embrace it. It sucks that some people have self-hate or whatever, or it’s not even self-hate, they just don’t know.” Jaeki interjected here and added, “A lot of the kids we know are not anything like the “model minority,” some are in low income brackets, some are in jail.” Rek continued, “A lot of Asians who do cross over into mainstream (pop culture), they do deal with self-esteem issues but I want to represent a voice of an Asian who never felt any type of way about that. You know, we exist too. I think that’s missing. A lot of times the Asian Americans who come into the spotlight have a chip on their shoulder. You know I don’t have a chip on my shoulder, I’m not coming like that – I just want to see all the voices represented.”
Personally, I would be happy if the term “model minority” went the way of the walkman. What does it mean, really? Is it a tool used by white people to further divide Asian Americans from our brothers and sisters of color? Is it a standard of comparison to white people? The stereotype “model minority” usually refers to a high achieving, doesn’t-cause-any-problems-to-the-status-quo Asian person. I propose that (Asians and other) Americans who are proud to be (Asian, Black, Latino, Native) American, those who are honest, creative, genuine, complex and not to be taken at face value – this; this should be the new model minority. Under this definition, Korean American rapper, Rekstizzy represents the new “model minority.”
Shout out to dell ‘anima restaurant for holding our table when I was running mad late for the interview. Learn more about Rek at www.Rekstizzy.com and check out the definitive guide for men interested in Asian lifestyle, entertainment, and culture at www.gumship.com.
Also check out www.Noonchi.us, the multimedia website that puts Korean culture in context for English speakers, with breaking news, original features, and video on topics ranging from K-pop and dramas to Korean food, style, and customs.