Eugene Ahn is a bad Asian–but we mean that in the most complimentary way possible. What else would you call someone who worked his way through law school, the bar exam and a job at a firm–only to realize that his career path didn’t make him as happy as making music did and then actually did something about it? Also known as Adam WarRock, Eugene is now a full time hip-hop emcee and has made waves as one of the Internet’s foremost nerdcore rapper. We sat alongside Eugene at Racebending’s Geek Slant panel for San Francisco’s WonderCon and of course, had to feature him on 8Asians. Music, nerds and Asians? Talk about the perfect combination of everything we enjoy.
You used to be a lawyer and now you’re a comic book nerdcore rapper. What led you to this career change and how would you inspire others to pursue their dreams and creativity?
Music and creativity have always been a pretty big part of my life. I grew up in a musical family; I was always into creating and writing, making music. I started making indie hip hop when I was in college, and continued to make it for years afterward. And then, when college ended, I moved on to the next thing in life, which was grad school. I just never assumed that I could actually make a career out of music, so I said, “What’s the next thing I should do?” Law school seemed like a logical choice. Shortly into my career of being a lawyer, I looked around at my life and realized how incredibly empty and unfulfilled I felt. There was a hole somewhere in my day-to-day existence, and it took a good friend to pull me out of the mire and say, “You need to make music again. Even if it’s just as a hobby.” I did, and started just posting up songs on a site. A few of them caught on, and I started getting all these opportunities to do more, but I couldn’t with the full-time day job. And I loved doing music, and I hated the day job. So one day, I just…quit.
The only thing I could ever say to someone to “inspire” them is to stress that there really are two types of people in the world. There are people who have hobbies, and there are people who have passions. There are people for whom their job will be enough, and everything else is just “extra” or “bonus,” and then there are people that, without doing the things that move them, will always be miserable and feel less than complete. If you’re one of the latter, you owe it to yourself to honor that side of yourself, whether it’s through doing something on the side, or shifting your career into something more attuned with that part of yourself. You owe it to yourself, because life’s way too short to be mildly miserable all the time. It’s cheesy, but true.
Okay, wait. What is comic book nerdcore rap? (Because obviously, we here at 8Asians are too cool for things like comic books and nerds.) (That was a lie.)
Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what “comic book nerdcore rap” means exactly. Nerdcore was a term used to describe what a lot of indie emcees started doing at the beginning of the 2000s, maybe even further back, but colloquially it’s used to describe guys like MC Frontalot, MC Lars, MC Chris, those kinds of guys who started making music online and rapping about stuff that was more relevant to themselves, whether it was D&D, hacker culture, video games, whatever. There’s a second wave of guys who make music that a lot of people deem “nerdcore,” but I think it’s a flexible term that is used by others to describe any music that’s at all about anything sort of geeky. But I know that acts like Beefy, Dual Core, Kirby Krackle, groups and artists who are friends of mine, just try to make music that sounds like music we’d love to listen to. We incorporate the things we know, and the things we know happen to be incredibly geeky and nerdy, but we always try to honor those things by making them stand for more than just “Hey, remember the Snorks?” kinds of references. You want to elicit an emotional or thoughtful response by playing to that familiarity or nostalgia, using the references as jumping off points to something bigger. My thing happened to be about comic books.
Who are your musical influences? And your geek influences?
I grew up as a skinny skaterish punk, just torn up baggy jeans and big tshirts, stupid bracelets, bushy hair. I played guitar for most of my adolescent life and used to dream about being in a pop-punk band and yelling loudly, like NOFX. If you come to a live show, you can definitely see the punk influence in me. That’s my barometer for how to do a live show, and I always looked up to acts like NOFX, Pennywise, Bad Religion, Rancid. Hip hop came out of that same mold for me when I hit college, just looking up to indie acts like Black Star, Atmosphere, Def Jux guys. But above all else, probably Public Enemy was the biggest influence on me as a hip hop fan, and probably always will be.
My geek influences probably stemmed from my love of movies, and being intensely snobby and selective about movies from a very young age. My mother came from South Korea to go to college in the States, and she fell in love with movies. Most notably, she loved mafia movies, which I only realized later was because mafia movies observed a similar structure in ethics and code to a lot of Asian movies. She let me watch Goodfellas, The Godfather, and The Untouchables from WAY too young an age, which led me to see what other people were watching at my age, and asking, “Why does this stuff suck?” I only realized later it was because I was watching Godfather while others were watching total crap. It probably made me an insufferable snob for a period of my life, but I’ll always be thankful that my mother gave me exposure to that kind of art from so early an age.
Other than movies, I am a geek in the same way anyone else is: I read way too many comics, I play way too many video games, and I am obsessed with TV shows, movies, and music to an unhealthy degree. Influences? I have no idea. I really love Jonathan Coulton’s music, he’s probably someone that I look up to more than any other musician in the geeky/cultural field.
Every year brings more comic book adaptations, from big budget movies like Iron Man 2 to indie favorites like Scott Pilgrim. Throw in all the tech, social media and viral videos making headlines. Geeks are literally taking over the world. What do you think about nerd culture’s rise in popularity?
I know it’s cool to hate things that are popular, but I think it’s awesome. For so long, nerd and geek culture were all about, “Leave us alone, this is our thing,” probably stemming from the memory of being ostracized in high school, or feeling dorky and loserish at one point in our lives. Out of necessity, art was built out of a place of pain, and with that came a certain amount of stand-off-ness.
But as time goes on, and culture slowly moves towards a more accepting, technology-driven, inherently dorky culture, it phased to a “Hey, come over here and have fun with us” sort of positivity. There are subgenres in subgenres, and niches within niches. No one can ever say that one is inherently better than something else, and if you find someone who has a similar sensibility to you, it should be a happy occasion, not a competition. So when nerdy culture breaks into mainstream culture, I think it’s great. We’ll always know who the real geeks are, but if it means that people who never would’ve given those books, games, movies a chance before can enjoy the art, and make the creators viable and successful, I think it’s a great thing. If you like comics and nerd stuff, awesome, but if not, I still want you to like my music. There’s no passwords to get in. It’s a party, just wave your hands around and have a good time.
You were on the Geek Slant panel at WonderCon and do a lot of appearances at conventions around the country. Do you see a strong Asian American appearance at these cons? Any horror or favorite stories (Besides that crazy lady from WonderCon)?
If Moye is writing this article, I want everyone to know that she totally failed to save me from a crazy lady ranting to me about insane things when I totally gave her the “please save me” look as she said bye to me. I blame her for the trauma I am still experiencing.
I see a pretty strong Asian American contingent at cons, and I think that mostly comes from the fact that there’s a strong Asian American community in most of the major cities that the cons take place in. Most of the time, there isn’t anything memorable to talk about interacting with fans and con-goers, and honestly that lady at WonderCon was the first “racist” experience I’ve had, even though she tried to categorize her statements as pro-Asian. You’ll still meet crazies, but mostly they just want to complain about why Johnny Quest went CGI, or why Captain America’s helmet is different in this comic versus another. I mostly just smile and say, “Y’know, that’s interesting. But I don’t MAKE comics,” and hope they leave soon.
A lot of nerds are heavily influenced by Asian culture, whether its classic video games or manga. How do you feel about this cultural appropriation into mainstream America?
It’s funny, because I see a lot of similar parallels in the way that pop culture appropriated a lot of hip hop culture into mainstream white (or I guess, non-black) America during the 90s. It’s a conflicting emotion. On the one hand, there is something encouraging about seeing people exposed to a different culture, expanding their scope and letting them experience this artform they never would’ve seen before. On the other hand, there is something weirdly sinister and discouraging about seeing the way that a culture’s pure and true art form can actually become a joke, or a punchline, to a mainstream cultural perversion of it. It’s like watching Barney Rubble rap about Fruity Pebbles on Saturday morning commercials. On the one hand, he’s wearing gazelle goggles and scratching on a turntable, which is culturally accurate and sort of cool, but on the other hand it’s incredibly belittling and insulting to see it co-opted to sell cereal. Or, if you want to see a terrible co-option of hip hop culture, search on Youtube for any car dealership commercial in a heavily black community. Odds are, you will find an old, rich white guy rapping in a TERRIBLE low budget commercial to sell bad loans for cars to his audience.
But on the other hand, I think the co-option and regrettable instances of appropriation are the necessary growing pains to get past the segregation of cultures, and seeing wonderful examples of art that incorporate all influences and origins to make something new and exciting. While you want to stay true to the original styles of any genre or art, saying that “you can’t use or make this kind of art because you aren’t Asian!” is just as inherently hateful as watching something get appropriated for profit because something is “cool” or “hot.” We just have to hope that for every instance of a horrible co-option or appropriation, we can point to Avatar: The Last Airbender (the TV show, not the movie), or Magnificent Seven, and hope that there’s more coming. The original anime and manga will always be there, but to move any art form forward, you have to be willing to take some chances with some sacred properties and hope that things turn out for the best.
Okay, that last question was kind of deep. I don’t even know what it means. Let’s talk about Star Wars. What do you think about Episodes 1 through 3? Be honest.
I hate Episodes 1 through 3 with all my heart and soul. I’ve only ever seen them in the theater, and the only reason I saw Episode 3 was because I am a completionist and a masochist, and I’m pretty sure I heckled it the whole way through. I know it’s old hat to be angry at George Lucas for ruining my childhood, but George Lucas, I hate you for ruining my childhood. Not even General Grievous was cool enough to make me say something nice about anything from the new trilogy.
This is an all-time favorite question of 8Asians. What’s your Asian comfort food?
EASY. Cha Jung Myun, or Jja Jung Myun, or however the hell you want to spell it. I will destroy a bowl, and probably ruin my shirt in the process.
If you’re in Southern California, join Adam WarRock as he performs for Nerdist Industries at Meltdown Comics in Los Angeles on Monday, April 11th. Buy tickets here!
For the record, I did not fail to save Eugene from a crazy lady at WonderCon. From all appearances, it looked like they were having an enjoyable conversation about the state of Asian Americans in the entertainment industry.