LA’s Hidden Gem: Dumbfoundead Speaks on Battle Rap and Finding His Place as an Asian Rapper in America
We premiered a new video from the Koreatown local, and spoke to him about his work with Keith Ape and what it’s like to be a well-known Asian rapper in America.
Photos courtesy of Christina Paik
At 29 years old, Jonathan Park—most commonly known by his stage name Dumbfoundead—has done a lot since breaking out on the internet in 2007. For a long time, he was known as one of the West Coast's most prolific battle rappers, and more recently, he's been regarded as somebody on the forefront of the underground hip-hop scene.
Dumb, who got his name while coming up at a hip-hop collective called Project Blowed in South Central Los Angeles, is arguably most well-known due to his ability to hold it down in America as an Asian-American rapper—a feat which is generally unheard of in an industry which is largely dominated by western narratives, outside of outliers like JIN.
Growing up in the Koreatown district of Los Angeles, Dumb attributes much of his influences to the eclectic and turbulent nature of growing up as an immigrant in 90s LA. Drawing from everything from Latino culture to his time hitching rides across the city to go and battle local rap legends, Dumb has a style that is a fusion of technical skill, conscious lyricism and, more recently, straight up club bangers. He was featured on Keith Ape's remix of "It G Ma" along with A$AP Ferg, Father, and Waka Flocka Flame, and made a resurgence in the battle scene this summer at the KOTD battle in Toronto, Ontario.
With a new, unannounced project on the horizon and a rebranding of image that has seen him work some of the hottest upcoming talent in the industry, we spoke with over the phone to figure out what he's got cooking and what it's been like coming up as an Asian rapper in America.
Noisey: I don't know if you saw in the email I sent to your manager but, do you remember me? I was at your Toronto concert back in 2013 and you signed my arm, which I got tattooed.
Dumbfounded: Yeah, you're the one who wrote the tattoo article, right?
No way, you read that?
Yeah dude, I got linked to it on my personal page and I was like, "Oh shit, that's crazy!" I read the article, it was pretty funny.
I want to start at the beginning because you have a pretty vibrant come up story. Tell me a little about growing up.
My parents are both Korean and they had me in Argentina. My mom was raised there in her teenage years, and my dad moved there in his early 20s. They met each other, got married, and had me and my sister. When I was about three, my sister was only one, we immigrated to Los Angeles. My dad went ahead first, but [me, my sister and my mom] had to cross into Mexico and through the coyotes, sneak us through the border and all that. My mom was carrying two babies all that way.
After that, it was moving to Los Angeles, our whole lives went down in Koreatown specifically. That's where all my influences came from—freestyle and rap, punk rock kids, Latinos and the cholo culture. One group specifically, Project Blowed, had a huge impact on me and taught me so much about freestyling and rapping. A lot of OGs came out of there, living legends, a lot of LA rap staples.
There's so much to dig into here. Let's start with Mexico, because that's wild. Do you remember much of that experience?
Not much, I was only three years old, y'know, but I hear all the stories from my mom. She tells me that she had [me and my sister], and there was other families also with her, but she was pretty much leading the whole pack through. They were kind of suspicious, too. She said it was very scary, going through that, because even if there were other families there with her, she was the only Asian chick.
Were you in Mexico for a bit, or did you guys head straight to the US?
It was a really short trip, just in and out. My mom speaks fluent Spanish, so it's not like she was completely foreign to it. When we came to the States, we had no green card. I didn't become a citizen until I became 19. I had to apply for it, take the test, and get sworn in and all that shit.
So now you're in LA and you're living in Koreatown. You talk about it a lot in your songs, about how central it is. What kind of influence did it have on you?
You know, growing up in Koreatown was interesting, because when I was going to school and stuff, Koreatown has a lot of Koreans, obviously, but about 50 percent of it is Latino, so I grew up with a lot of Mexican kids in my hood. That's why a lot of my influences are from Latino culture, that's why I love the cholo culture and all that stuff. When I was growing up here—the [LA] riots and stuff happened when I was seven years old, I remember all that shit. The riots and the looting, the people protecting their shops. My dad was a part of that, protecting the businesses, but I didn't understand, at least at that age, about the racial tensions at the time.
It's weird, because I always felt like I was the outcast weirdo Asian kid in my community, but I started earning my stripes among other Asians when I started going into it as a rapper. It was kind of like I was representing them. It was like, "Keep holding it down, homie." They just didn't have many cats they could feel proud of, as far as Asian rappers go. It's when I started battling and started getting notoriety that people started fucking with me. Before that, I was just kind of this nerdy Asian kid rapping because, at that time, the only Asian guys rapping were the gangster types. They didn't really see a lot of Asian rappers that were being themselves while still being able to hold themselves down in an aggressive rap battle.
I imagine getting bigger might have exposed you to this more, but, being an Asian rapper, have you faced any racism or stereotyping while coming up as an artist?
Well, I've definitely got Asian jokes and racist remarks, but I take that all with a grain of salt. I think that everybody experiences racism in their own way. I never looked at it like, "Oh shit, Asians have it the hardest." Everybody has their own struggles, that's what battling as actually taught me the most, when you see everybody, different ethnic backgrounds, different physical appearances battling each other, you realize that everybody has something they're going to get attacked with.
There's fat kid who grew up with fat jokes their whole life, the black kid who grew up being made fun of for the color his skin, that's why I don't get offended when people hit me with things like that. If I'm battling an Asian guy, I'm gonna hit him with all the Asian shit I can think of. I actually have battled an Asian guy and hit him with all the Asian shit I could think of. [Laughs] I think more importantly, the more you know about the other person's culture or background, the more learned you actually become. You'll probably have Asian motherfuckers taking your side as well.
You've talked about how you don't see being Asian as a disadvantage, and considering you do music, movies, TV, you're a very multi-talented person. How do you feel like being Asian has affected you in those industries?
It's interesting. It does make you stand out, I see that as a strength in a lot of ways. More recently, I've started to notice how it can put you in a box, though. I've been going out for acting auditions for film and TV and there is an issue of being typecasted as an Asian stereotype in these roles. You know, the Asian gangster, or the typical Triad-type role. I see that. I see that in Hollywood, but things are changing. I don't think it's all negative. 2015 was a huge year for Asians in media. It was really a milestone.
As far as rap goes, I did look at it as an advantage by being different. I think that's the attitude that a lot of Asian-Americans like to have when coming into the entertainment industry now. You know, right now, it's like a gold rush. They want diversity, they want to break up white-washed [projects], they want ethnic faces in there. To me, I look at is an advantage. I definitely wish there was more of a blueprint we could follow—more Asian-Americans to look up to for a career path—but we don't have that. That's the only thing I'd say kind of sucks, we don't have any of those role models that we can look up to. Our role models are still trying to make it. Our role models are still on that grind.
What about when you go to Korea? Do you feel like you have trouble standing out?
Korea has its own stuff going on. It's very particular out of all the Asian countries. They have an impact on the international music market, it's not just a very small scene. Korea is killing it. They have K-Pop, they have Korean hip-hop. They've got fans out here in the States, to Europe, all over. It's a really weird trend, but non-Korean speakers are really fucking with our music, which is really amazing. It's cool to see that. Obviously a really rare situation of a Korean artist who is only doing his stuff in the States, not based in Korea, is Keith Ape. He's doing his shit out here and that's really dope. His songs like "It G Ma" have made an impact out here culturally.
And you've been doing joints with him recently, which I want to touch on in a bit. Let's go back to Project Blowed though—it was your first foray into hip-hop, yeah?
Yeah, you know, Project Blowed, my friend took me there when I was a freshman in high school, and I was already rapping at the time. I was probably better than a lot of the cats around me at the time, but when my friend took me to Project Blowed that first night, I shit my pants. These motherfuckers were way tighter than anything I was used to. That was a big eye-opener for me. It really made me say, "Wow, I need to go back to the drawing board and just get my bars up."
It was dope, though. First night I went, I saw cats like Nocando, who's an amazing freestyler who's a friend of mine now, and a lot of OGs like Michael Nhat who was just killing it. It was pretty much a life-changing experience for me. Seeing these guys using their mind and turning freestyles into an instrument. It wasn't just about thinking about cool words to say, they were so jazzy with it. They were almost melodic with their freestyle. It's very different from the New York style of freestyle which is very focused on lyrics.
From then on, I went out literally every Thursday night, on a school night, to go from Koreatown to South Central. At the time, I would never think about going to South Central. All I knew about South Central was shit like Boyz N The Hood, y'know? I was going 40 blocks at night. It was a crazy journey at times. Every week I thought, "Damn, am I really about to do this?" I wasn't scared about the journey there as much—it was more about the journey back. That shit would end at 1 or 2 AM and I just kept thinking, "Fuck, how am I gonna get home?" I always made it back, though. Hitching a ride with a homie or, one time, I came back on a razor scooter. That shit was mad sketch.
That's pretty funny, man. You know, I found you through Grind Time back when you were just blowing up online. What was your initial entry into that scene like?
I've was battling in Los Angeles at typical battles where you put yourself on a sign-up list and just rap over a beat, typical a capella stuff. I was one of the top battlers with people like Nocando and several others, and we'd always end up against each other in the final rounds, and different people would take it. During that time, Scribble Jam was going on, that was the big national battle which was held in Cincinnati, and a lot of legends came out of there. Like, Eminem won the '97 Scribble Jam and Nocando, who's the pride of LA as far as battling goes at the time, he won in 2004, 2005, I can't remember which year.
I took on the first Grind Time battle in 2007, and then people kept saying how good I was, so I decided to a one-on-one and my first one was against Tantrum, which is another Asian guy. It was the first time the world kind of recognized or saw an Asian guy battle another Asian guy. In most cases, if at all, it was always just one Asian guy battling. That battle was big for a lot of people, and after I won that battle, that's what really took off for me because of how viral the battle went.
Let's talk about the KOTD battle that happened earlier this summer, because that made a ton of noise. What made you go back to battling?
Y'know, I thought about going back to battling for a number of years, but there was anything interesting enough to pull me back in. That Conceited battle turned my head though. First off, they said this battle was being backed by Drake, and you know I'm a fan of Drake as an established name, which is something I wanted. I knew that this was a legit event and I wanted to be apart of something big. Like, there's hasn't been a multi-platinum artist backing a battle scene, you know? This was unheard of. I wanted to be a part of this. Battling Conceited was a huge piece, too. I'm a pretty big name in battle rap, but I've also done stuff outside of it, and there hasn't been many other battle rappers like that, except Conceited. Conceited has been wilding out, he's on TV. I knew this is something that worked for me because he's doing other shit besides battling. In the end, it turned out great. The battle is a classic, and in terms of views, it's heading toward one of the most viewed battles ever.
There was also this period where you did some songs under the name PARKER, and you've recently been going through this kind of metamorphosis as an artist where you've been playing with new styles and imagery. What was up with that?
I actually was thinking of changing my name for a bit, for real, but that's just because I'm getting older and I got my name when I was fourteen and from then to now, that's a huge period of time. You grow as a person, you grow out of a name. I eventually decided and realized that my original name is a big part of who I am, and a lot of people identify me by that.
Let's talk about your new stuff that you've been doing with Keith Ape and Underwater Squad. You recently were featured on the "It G Ma" Remix with Wacka Flocka, A$ap Ferg, and Father. How'd that even come about?
Funny enough, I was talking to my manager and he asked me what I was watching at the time when we're in LA, and I played him the "It G Ma" joint when it was at, like, 30,000 views, and we were like, "This dude is mad dope." I introduced Keith Ape to my manager and we flew him to out America, put him through runs of SXSW, put him through all the shows, and then my manager signed him.
That's dope. What about your new direction, though? Where are you going in the future?
I have a full project with a lot of stuff coming with some brand new joints and stuff that is really going to be hot. The single joints and stuff I've been dropping on my Soundcloud is just small shit, but my project will definitely be a solid piece of work.
I know you've done stuff with Epik High in the past, is there anybody from Korea you want to work with more?
Epik High is kind of one of the older groups and they're really dope, but I'm trying to work with some of the younger artists out here to shine a light on them because they're doing amazing stuff. There's also AOGM—I definitely want to do a lot more work with Jay Park and all those cats. My boy Anderson Pa.ak will also be doing some stuff with me.
Anything you got coming out soon?
Yeah, I'll be dropping a lot of new stuff soon, but I'm in no rush to get this done because I want to do it right. A lot of people are always asking, "Where you been Dumb? Where you at?" Like, when I come out, I'm gonna come out thrashing, believe me.
Jake Kivanc is a writer living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.