By Oliver Saria
Photographs by Social Trust/DPD
Far East Movement (FM, for short) has been having a lot of surreal Entourage-like moments as of late. This past September at the MTV Video Music Awards after-party, where FM performed, Pharrell made a beeline towards them and uttered what amounts to music industry currency: “We should do a track together.” One night they were partying at a club; suddenly, it dawned on them that they were kicking it with will.i.am and apl.de.ap—like just kicking it, like regler! A week prior to that, Nick Cannon (host of America’s Got Talent, but really of Mariah-Carey-baby-daddy-fame) specifically drove out to Cerritos—a suburb southeast of Los Angeles whose biggest claim to fame is a sprawling auto mall—to introduce FM to a crowd of mostly pubescent Asian girls at the annual International Super Agents concert (a talent showcase produced by FM and Wong Fu Productions).
Earlier, this past spring, members of the hip-hop crew found themselves hanging out with Lady Gaga in her dressing room after opening for her on the Japanese leg of her “Monster Ball World Tour.” She suggested they drive a knife through the costume head of their de facto mascot, DJ Brass Monkey. Fashion advice from Lady Gaga…it doesn’t get much more ballin’ than that.
Far East Movement might have to get used to more scenes like this.
This month, the band’s highly anticipated major-label debut album, Free Wired, hits the stores. In February, the group—comprised of twentysomethings Jae Choung (J-Splif), James Roh (Prohgress), Kevin Nishimura (Kev Nish) and DJ Virman (Coquia)—signed with Cherrytree Records, a subsidiary of Interscope whose roster includes Lady Gaga, Sting and Feist. FM wasted no time delivering an album jam-packed with potential hits.
Free Wired showcases FM’s mix of electronic, pop, dance and hip-hop (think Daft Punk meets the Black Eyed Peas meets the Beastie Boys). It boasts an impressive array of guest artists including Snoop Dogg (who actually sings—albeit Auto-Tuned—on the track), Pitbull, OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder, Lil Jon and Keri Hilson. It also includes the hypnotic club jam, “Like a G6” featuring The Cataracs and Dev, which Entertainment Weekly pegged in its “Next Big Hits” section as a single that “could go all the way.” At the time of this writing, the single reached the No. 6 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart and the No. 1 spot on the iTunes song chart. The follow-up single, “Rocketeer,” could be an even bigger hit with Tedder crooning the melodic falsetto hook on this slower, more broadly commercial rap ballad co-written with Bruno Mars. The single “Go Ape,” featuring Lil Jon, offers an irresistibly dance-able jungle break-beat that will positively make you go ape-sh-t.
If a rising tide does indeed lift all boats, then FM should benefit from the apparent influx of Asians in American pop culture. From Poketo designing a collection for Target, to Asians dominating America’s Best Dance Crew, to K-pop sensation Rain winning “Biggest Badass Star” at this year’s MTV Movie Awards, Asians have been stepping into the mainstream. Inroads have also been made in music, where Asians have typically been the “Derek Fishers” of the industry—key role players, but never the main attraction. But recently, some notable exceptions have emerged. Pinay diva Charice Pempengco, one of the newer set of pipes on Fox’s Glee, became the first solo artist from Asia to land in the Top 10 of the Billboard 200. And the half-Puerto Rican, half-Filipino Bruno Mars is a No. 1 hit-making machine.
Though Asian Americans have a long way to go to reach parity, now more than ever, the barriers to success in mainstream culture seem to be eroding. This has less to do with Obama-era, post-racial politics and everything to do with the internet age and how the millennial generation connects with one another. As Prohgress explains, “We always talk about the fact that it’s a ‘free wired’ world. People know each other by their screen names, by their Facebook, by their Twitter handles before they even meet them in person. I don’t know if it’s cool to be Asian so much as it’s just cool not to care.”
FM’s shows are a potent mix of theatricality, style, showmanship, solid emcee skills and virtuosic dj’ing. At the start of the show, DJ Virman floods the speakers with an electronic din. The three emcees enter the stage sporting white space helmets illuminated from the inside by rows of LEDs. They are decked out in fashionable, futuristic, geek-chic streetwear: Bathing Ape skinny ties, skinny jeans, crisp button-downs from Orisue, shiny Joy Rich track jackets, slick athletic vests, bright Shutter Shades sunglasses, and distinctive Meister watches. The music crescendos and the beat kicks in with bone-shuddering explosions of bass. From then on it’s non-stop energy. Kev Nish’s lanky frame bounces from one end of the stage to the other, limbs flailing. Prohgress is equally as hyped, frequently venturing beyond the monitors to touch the crowd. J-Splif pumps his fist and hops to the rhythm, exuding a cool, smooth vibe as his long black ponytail whips behind him. Their sets are such a workout J-Splif will sometimes sweat right through his white button-down. Kev Nish attests, “It looks like a wet T-shirt contest.”
The emcees trade off rapping into an Auto-Tuned mic instead of triggering pre-recorded samples, staying true to the unique live experience. At any given moment, someone might come out dressed in a monkey suit; or celebrity jeweler Ben Baller and his diamond-encrusted self might bling up the stage and toss out a few T-shirts; a dance crew or two might freestyle around them; or a guest singer like their label mate, Colette Carr, might pop up and do her best Gwen Stefani impersonation. The music literally does not stop as DJ Virman masterfully mixes one song into the next, changing up beats without ever losing the rhythm. As Virman puts it, “We want to keep the party rockin’. We really don’t want to slow anything down.” So a steady techno beat might shift into a tribute to West Coast gangsta rap then brighten into dub reggae and morph into rock-inspired pop. The transitions are seamless and the showmanship relentless so the performance feels more like a crackin’ nightclub instead of a concert. Rarely will they perform the same set twice, keeping DJ Virman on his toes with constant genre-bending experimentation. “We’re playing your iPod back to you, but in a party way,” he explains.
Wherever they perform, they’ve been winning over converts. A headlining tour is in the works for next spring, but in the meantime, the group will be opening for Mike Posner’s “Up in the Air Tour,” which kicked off last month. According to Kev Nish, “We go to cities where people are shocked [to discover we’re Asian]. We change their perspective though. We go in there and we give it our all. Next thing you know, these are our biggest supporters.”
A few days before a recent show at Hollywood’s House of Blues, FM closed the Sept. 5 International Secret Agents showcase at the Cerritos Performing Arts Center. The preponderance of squealing girls suggested that many had come to see Jay Park (formerly of boy-band 2PM fame). But after the crew killed it with a dizzying set while alternately flanked by ABDC champs Poreotix and Quest Crew, it was clear that Park may have caused the girls’ hearts to flutter, but FM got everybody’s booties to shake.
Their live act can also be credited with winning over some particularly important fans: their parents.
DJ Virman and Kev Nish had the atypical Asian American artist experience: their parents actually encouraged their creative endeavors. Virman’s Filipino parents, in fact, bought him his first pair of turntables so that he could spin during their weekend dance parties. (Virman, by the way, is his real name, a mash-up if you will of his mother’s name, Virginia, and his father’s name, Manuel.) Meanwhile, Kev Nish’s mom and dad (third-generation Chinese and Japanese, respectively) met while attending UCLA and urged their son to pursue his passion.
At the other end of the spectrum, Prohgress and J-Splif’s Korean parents weren’t so supportive. Prohgress’ parents pressed him to find a stable profession after experiencing firsthand how difficult a musician’s life can be having performed and produced classical operas for their company in Los Angeles. His father has since been singing a different tune after finally watching FM perform at the 2009 ISA show in front of a rabid, packed audience. “He looked at me that day,” Prohgress recounts, “and he said, ‘I get it.’ Now he comes up to me with business propositions.” (Incidentally, Prohgress holds a law degree from Loyola Law School, and to this day his grandmother laments that he isn’t holed up in some firm).
In J-Splif’s case, he decided not to tell his parents about his career choice. The less they knew the better, he thought. They had no idea he was a rapper until they were sitting at home in Los Angeles one night and saw their son performing live on Korean television during one of their Asian concert tours. As it would turn out, a modicum of international fame was the perfect antidote for overbearing Korean parents—they have encouraged Jae ever since.
It’s fitting that the performance aspect is such a significant part of Far East Movement’s group identity, since it all started with a live show.
Original members Kev Nish, Prohgress and J-Splif made their stage debut in 2003 at a charity show that they produced themselves in Los Angeles Koreatown. The show was called “Movementality,” and it benefited a local drug rehabilitation center that Prohgress’ father volunteered for and where some of their friends had sought treatment. The manager of the venue where “Movementality” was held wasn’t entirely sure these upstart 19-year-olds could pull it off. (J-Splif, in fact, had to sell his television set in order to come up with the security deposit.) But the manager was quickly proven wrong when the line began to snake around the block. Before the night was through, the manager had to run to the nearby Ralph’s Supermarket to restock the bar.
FM closed the show with an energetic performance that kept the three members amped until morning. None of them could sleep. The adrenaline refused to subside. But the rush did eventually wane, and shades of doubts about where exactly their lives were headed still lingered.
That all changed several months later when they went to the House of Blues to watch Kanye West perform. The atmosphere was electric. Kanye’s smash debut album, The College Dropout, was burning up the charts. Most of the people in the audience had only recently heard of him (he had yet to embarrass himself on national television). The hip-hop aficionados in attendance, however, already knew him as the mad-scientist producer behind Jay-Z’s acclaimed album, The Blueprint, and they came to see if Kanye could work the same magic he displayed in the studio on stage.
Kanye hit the stage…and hit it hard. He tore through his set, waving his towel above his head as if whipping a tornado from the nightclub’s thick, humid, super-charged air. The sweaty, bobbing masses knew they were witnessing a man on the cusp of greatness. Toward the end of his set, he threw his towel into the crowd, an act he’d do countless times in subsequent shows, completely oblivious to that fact that on that particular night, he wasn’t just tossing out a souvenir. He was passing the torch.
J-Splif leapt into the air and caught the towel. “I jumped like 13 feet in the air,” J-Splif recalls, laughing. It was the show that sealed the deal. They knew that whatever spell Kanye had cast on the audience, they wanted to be able to conjure that same kind of mojo. J-Splif rhapsodizes, “It changed our lives, man. He had a thousand-plus people in there, all going nuts. We wanted to be onstage making the crowd do that. That show solidified what we wanted to do for the rest of our lives.”
FM realized early on, though, that a concert is only as good as the songs that drive it. As a result, they have been diligent students of music, both in its creation and production, but also in its marketing.
The group caught its first big break with Folk Music, its first self-released album from 2006. It contained the song “Round, Round,” which was featured in the soundtrack of Justin Lin’s The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. The film afforded the group an opportunity to connect with TV publishing companies that resulted in the song being placed on shows like CSI. International distribution deals for the album soon followed, along with a world tour, which broadened the group’s perspective.
Gradually, the music began to evolve beyond a West Coast party hip-hop sound to incorporate more electronic and pop sensibilities. FM began experimenting with different genres. Kev Nish sums up their progression: “Everybody in the world loves to dance. And that really helped us bring our L.A. sound to a dance sound, a byproduct of which was ‘Girls on the Dance Floor.’”
The single became a radio hit in 2008, reaching the Top 5 in major markets across the country and turning up on several network television shows like CSI: Miami and So You Think You Can Dance and on the film Get Him to the Greek. The success of the song would eventually lead to a meeting with Martin Kierszenbaum, head of Cherrytree Records. Not too shabby for a song that was recorded in a bedroom with home-recording equipment.
Their distinctive look happened to evolve along with their sound. They traded in their baggie Dickies, oversized tees and tilted baseball caps for jackets, shirts and ties, gravitating toward the streetwear that their friends were designing. Trendsetting brands like Orisue and The Hundreds started fitting them with gear. Their style wasn’t entirely a deliberate choice, but a happy accident; a fortuitous confluence of creative, enterprising young people helping each other out as their careers simultaneously blossomed.
DJ Virman eventually joined the group in 2007 during FM’s transformation, and he proved to be a perfect fit, both sonically and sartorially. He was already a renowned “Power Mixer” on Power 106, L.A.’s premiere hip-hop radio station when FM asked him to come onboard. Virman’s lack of musical boundaries was exactly what they were looking for. His impeccable fashion sense didn’t hurt either. They affirm that his “fashion and shoe game are on point” as Virman reportedly owns over 200 pairs of shoes.
The FM look manages to be cool without being gawdy, appropriate for almost any setting, but just loud enough to draw attention. They look like they just stepped off the set of a futuristic/retro/Godzilla/b-boy/spy/dance/sci-fi movie. Yet, somehow it totally works both in form and function. “You can party at three different clubs all night,” Kev Nish boasts, “but in the morning wake up and go to a business meeting, rocking the exact same stuff and be taken seriously. We like to be taken seriously. We’ve practically been managing ourselves from the beginning. So, this fashion became a functionality thing if anything.”
Prohgress interjects, “I might still smell like alcohol when I come into the meeting.”
“Or Korean barbeque,” J-Splif cracks.
It was early in their careers—during internships at Interscope—when Kev Nish and Progress learned the importance of building one’s own fan base.
“You have to build your own buzz,” says Kev Nish. “Build your own culture, build everything. The label’s not gonna do any of that for you.”
This is where the whole “free wired” movement comes into play. At the end of the day, FM makes club-thumping party anthems. No agendas, no politics; they just want people to have a good time, to “live free and stay wired.” If you’re looking for more depth beyond that, you’re barking up the wrong cherry tree. Kev Nish proselytizes, “‘Free wired’ is how we live. It’s the eclectic mix we have in our iPods, the staying up at 5 a.m. after we hit three different clubs, playing three different types of music, going into the Cherrytree chat room, and partying with the kids until 6…. It’s taking the technology and making it a part of your life.”
And making their lives accessible for their fans. Every Saturday night at 9 p.m. (Pacific Time) the group hosts an online radio program on cherrytreerecords.com. They frequently post behind-the-scenes videos via their “FMonyourdial” YouTube channel, and personally answer fan-tweets as much as possible. As they see it, their cyber activity isn’t just some online marketing ploy, nor it is simply a requisite job duty for the modern-day musician. It’s an integral part of their lives.
FM unabashedly embraces its generation’s zeitgeist and implores people to follow them. In the mid-1960s, the cultural revolution took root on college campuses, anti-war protests and music festivals. For the millennial generation, it’s happening on Facebook, YouTube and MySpace. The counterculture movement compelled baby-boomers to “turn on, tune in, drop out.” Nowadays, youth culture is inspired to “log on and geek out.”
There is certainly no shortage of club music enthusiasts already completely immersed in online culture. Whether or not they adopt the “free wired” label remains to be seen. But in an age where the record album seems like a thing of the past, it makes sense to project a larger-than-life persona. As FM’s managers Ted Chung and Russell Redeaux of Stampede Management note,“If you feel like you identify with an artist or a group on a few different levels, then it’s more than just about the song. And that’s what’s happening with Far East Movement.”
The guys share their management’s optimism, but they don’t let themselves get too caught up in their own hype. J-Splif puts it in perspective: “We just gotta stay true to why we started doing this. We started doing this because we’re such fans of music that we wanted to recreate it.”
Kev Nish echoes the sentiment: “You just gotta keep on making music, that’s it. Don’t think about money. Just think about staying close, staying connected to our community.”
If turns out that Free Wired does blow up as big as people think it might and FM attain all the trappings of success—the money, the fame, the private G6 jetliner—they at least seem intent on bringing others along with them. At the ISA show Kev Nish told the crowd, “Hopefully one day one of ya’ll are gonna be up here with us.” After the show, he expounded further on the importance of inspiring a new generation of artists: “That’s all you can wish. You can’t wish to be rich, you can’t wish to win a Grammy, you don’t know if that’s gonna happen. But you could inspire somebody.”
Life for Far East Movement might feel like an episode of Entourage, and in the very near future it could get even more surreal for the biggest Asian American music group in the game today. But it also sounds like no matter what happens, they’ll never lose sight of what is real.