Asian-American hip hop crew FAR EAST MOVEMENT talk to KAVITA DASWANI about the work ethic, staying real and using social media to build a cult fan base
IT’S 4PM ON A MIDWEEK afternoon at a downtown Los Angeles photography studio, and the quartet that make up Far East Movement are still smiling gamely for the cameras. They’ve been here for several hours, undergone multiple changes of clothing, sat patiently through hair and makeup, and now are happy to oblige as the photographer suggests poses with plastic pink flamingos and summer beach toys. They seem happily at home – and not just because they grew up around here.
Also, by now, these young rising stars of the hip-hop world are used to all the attention. Their YouTube videos rack up tens of millions of views. The day after our chat, they were flying off to play a gig in Sweden, jetting back to the US to do a show in Milwaukee, returning to Europe to play in Nice and Finland, then touring Australia and New Zealand for the rest of July. Theirs is the sort of cult fan base aspired to by modern-day performers, fans drawn in as much through their infectious, catchy, of-the-moment music as through their constant social media presence.
Far East Movement – known as FM for short – started out in 2001 as Emcees Anonymous, with three original band members who were friends in their local Koreatown high school, where they bonded over freestyling – improvising rap lyrics to recorded music.
Kevin Nishimura, who goes by Kev Nish, has a dry sense of humour and an almost philosophical outlook on music. He easily steps into the role of band leader, if FM could be said to have one. Prohgress – James Roh – is a trained lawyer, whip-smart, practical, the guy who looks over all the contracts, and, in Kev Nish’s estimation, “makes sure we don’t ever sign a (bad) deal”. Jae Choung, whose alter ego is J-Splif, is more taciturn (at least on this afternoon), wears his hair long and sports the sort of shiny grills on his teeth that are synonymous with rap/hip hop stars. And DJ Virman is Virman Coquia, a dextrous spinner with a vast repository of contemporary musical knowledge, someone his bandmates jokingly describe as the poster boy for illegal downloads. He joined the group in 2006.
Whether their personas are artfully cultivated or organically shaped, the foursome clearly share an interesting dynamic and a warm friendship. There’s plenty of good-natured ribbing and a proclivity to finish off one another’s sentences. They’re evidently four young men who not only share a love of a certain type of music, but are also enjoying the ride together, wherever it takes them.
Their first album, Folk Music, came out in 2006 and the song “Round Round” was featured in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, granting them instant exposure and credibility, and galvanising their commitment to their music. Good thing they stuck with it, too: their 2010 song “Like a G6” catapulted them to the top of the dance charts; it was the defining club song of the summer, with an addictive beat and peppy lyrics along the lines of “Gimme that Mo-Moet, gimme that Cry-Cristal, ladies love my style, at my table gettin’ wild, get them bottles popping, we get that drip and that drop, now give me two more bottles cause you know it don’t stop.”
The song hooked into themes of celebrity, instant gratification, and non-stop partying, and hit double-platinum status by the autumn. DJ Virman spins tracks in all the videos, while the other three sing the vocals, words they’ve written tapping into the lives they know – youthful, vibrant, glitzy, sexy.
Their authentic, exuberant stylistics have lured in A-list collaborators; they’ve toured internationally with Lady Gaga and Rihanna, have shared massive stages with Jay-Z and Flo Rida, and the likes of Justin Beiber, Lil Jon and Snoop Dogg have appeared on their albums.
In the meantime, they say, their musical style continues to evolve: songs steeped in hip-hop culture with lyrics that are message-driven and thoughtful, reflecting a maturing outlook.
Except for DJ Virman, the rest of you were all friends in high school. How did you start playing music together?
Kev: When we were in high school, it was all about freestyling – turning on the radio and freestyling to whatever song would come on. One day, instead of that, we said, “Why don’t we record songs into our computer?” We looked at online tutorials, downloaded instrumentals, found whatever hip-hop tunes we could use for free and then rapped over the songs. We started posting them online and getting immediate feedback. It became almost an obsession. I compare it to the rush of crack cocaine – not that we’ve ever done that. We started doing community shows, raising money for different charities, and got ourselves out there that way.
When and how did DJ Virman enter the mix?
Kev: We heard him on (hip-hop station) Power 106, where he was a very credible DJ. We liked his mixing. We showed up at one of his gigs one day, mixed tapes at the ready. At the time, we were going everywhere – hip-hop clothing stores, malls, movie theatres, giving out cards with our email addresses, really hustling, using up all the money we had to make CDs. We asked Virman to check us out and finally one day he did. We always like to say we kidnapped him at gunpoint.
What would you say each of you bring to the group dynamic?
Prohgress: J brings the hair. And Virman the workout ethic. He works out like crazy. Actually, his knowledge of hip hop and rap is vast.
Kev: We run the group like a business. We learnt from artists who take control of their creative process. It’s always been that way. We’ve been doing it ourselves from the beginning, from booking shows, collecting the money. We’re all like a division of FM. Proh is very much on the business side, always on the phone, making business calls, connecting the dots, making sure everything is moving. I’m more of the web nerd.
How important is social media to you?
Kev: We tweet every six-and-a-half minutes. We actually get more unfollowers than followers. People tell us we tweet too much. But seriously, it’s hugely important for the people following us, and our fans, to feel like we’re paying attention. I think the big difference between bands that make it and those that don’t is how much they’re out there. We have friends who are really successful on YouTube. They’re not signed to a major deal, but they have work ethic and business savvy about their brand or merchandise or how their videos are positioned. Every artist these days has to be like that. You can’t rely on the record labels to do anything except collect money from you.
We used to think it was all about getting people in seats or selling merchandise and albums and going platinum. But the number of YouTube hits you get gives you a whole new meta level of credibility.
When did you feel things really started happening for you?
Kev: When our song “Girls on the Dance Floor” got onto the radio. That song really gave us hope that we could do something different, that we could be ourselves – random or crazy or nerdy, however we wanted to be – and that that sound could be on a record and would catch people’s attention. That song got us the attention of Martin Kierszenbaum, head of Cherrytree Records, and that gave us hope that there was a future in this.
Did you ever doubt that you would make it, and have a plan B, just in case?
Prohgress: I went to law school anyway. The day I graduated school, I had to be the first one to collect my diploma as we had a show in Cannes the next day. So I grabbed my diploma and ran to the airport. It was one of those moments.
Kev: Even when we thought there wasn’t anyone interested in what we were doing, we still worked on it every day. We didn’t know anything else to do with our lives. This was all we wanted to do.
Were your parents concerned about your career choices?
J: I never told them what I was doing, because I was worried about them freaking out. But now they know and they’re very supportive.
Prohgress: I grew up around music; my dad was a conductor and opera producer, and my mother a piano teacher. But they didn’t want me to be a part of that world. It wasn’t until they started seeing how much we worked on the whole thing, and once we started breaking in, that they were supportive.
Kev: The real reason they weren’t supportive is because Pro is out of tune. They were, like, “Shame on you!”
So you’re all pretty much self-taught?
Kev: I learned everything on the computer. These days, you can record something at home, teach yourself any instrument online, you don’t have to worry about studio costs or where you’re going to get the equipment.
So if everyone and anyone can do it, does it make it harder for existing bands to survive?
Kev: We often talk about this – that if years ago we had the amount of hit songs we’ve had now, we’d be out of control, buying houses, having a real G6 [Gulfstream], the works. Back then, an artist can have two hits and retire because of the number of people who went to a store and bought tapes and CDs. Artists had to be way more committed. You couldn’t be a part-time major-label artist. You had to be in the studio, put out an album for a million-dollar budget. There were fewer artists, and fewer avenues of getting in touch and experiencing them – just the radio and MTV, and there might be some word of mouth if there was a show. Now, it’s easier for more people to get a small following, and harder to be a megastar.
Is it a question of continuing to shape your musical style?
Kev: We’re still searching. We’re finding that every album, every song, every photo shoot, is a reinvention. As long as it really represents you and it’s real, you can experiment with every single. Sonically, an album has to feel like one body of work, and we’ve really learned to do that, instead of putting out one song after another. It needs to be a cohesive thing. We want to push people to experience different emotions through our music, and these were things we didn’t really give a damn about before. Now, instead of treating music as something we’re doing for our friends in LA, we want to understand the language of the music, the emotion of the chords we’re putting together. It’s a much more international and inclusive approach.
You’ve worked with some incredible talents. Are there any experiences that really stand out for you?
Kev: Snoop Dogg. He’s such an iconic figure. He’s so welcoming to new people. It’s important as an artist to remember to be encouraging and cool to people coming in. We had the chance to perform with him at the Billboard Music Awards in Las Vegas. He was so calm and composed. He had such charisma. There were a hundred people around him, all stressed out and running around, and he can say two things to make everyone laugh and calm them down. It’s really symbolic of how to be gracious. We also had a chance to tour with Robyn, and we could see how she structures her musical life to bring emotion out of people. We take a piece out of everybody we have toured or worked with. There are so many new artists out there to work with so the possibilities are endless, and it’s easy to work together, it just happens. We had three collaborations just off Twitter, local musicians who are building their buzzes and we can just write to them and say, “Hey, do you want to work together?” and they say, “Sure, let’s do it.” It’s like a blind date.
Do you four hang out together outside music?
Prohgress: For us, there’s no “outside music”. It’s literally 365 days of the year for us. We work together, go home, work out a bit, maybe sleep a little and then come back to it, and we’re always, always talking about it.
Your last album, Dirty Bass, came out last year. What’s up next?
Kev: We’re working on a new album, but it’s going to be a while before it’s done. We’re finding songs and working on the direction. That’s the hardest part when you’re making an album, figuring out what the sound will be. There are some really promising songs on there. We’re about 40 percent through. And we will write everything on it.
When you’re touring in Asia, do you think you connect with audiences more because you’re all Asian?
Kev: Fans are crazy there, in an amazing way, but they’re just as crazy in Russia or Sweden.
You guys are very involved in the community as well. What’s valuable to you about that?
Kev: Through performing, we met a superintendent of school districts in Sacramento, California. Her district had low graduation rates and scores. So we thought we’d use music to help kids get more involved in the arts, to see that there’s not just English and math, but also music, film, dance. We do workshops with kids. We’re also involved with ISA – International Secret Agents – an events company geared towards the new generation of online kids, where we can showcase really talented rising artists to a global audience. And we do a festival, now five years running, that’s sold out every year, bringing together huge international acts and putting them on one stage, bringing them closer to young people.
What would you say to other high-schoolers or young people starting out in music now, as you yourselves did as teenagers?
Kev: The most important thing, definitely, is to be yourself on records and in your brand. And secondly, to know that there are lots of ups and downs – great weeks and slow months. As long as you have good people around you, and are not afraid to work hard and keep your world positive, you’re good. Your parents might try to stop you, the haters online might try to stop you. But whatever it is, keep your world positive and that will get you to where you need to be. Positivity is the key to changing the outcome of everything.
PHOTOGRAPHY / ANDREW MCLEOD AT AARDVARK AARTISTS
CREATIVE DIRECTION AND STYLING / AVO YERMAGYAN
HAIR / TRAVISEAN HAYNES FOR KEVIN MURRAY/AIM ARTISTS
MAKE-UP / MELISSA WALSH AT ONE REPRESENTS USING TALIKA
PROP STYLIST / NANCI BENNETT