Jason Chu is bringing the party to the ‘living.room’
Rapper Jason Chu released a 10-track album perfect for at-home listening called living.room on June 2020. Four years since releasing his last solo album, Arrivals, and since joining trap-rap group, NITEMRKT, he returns to his roots of laying down terse bars over well-crafted hooks. Chu has been working on this album since early last year, 2019, but when things drastically changed with the pandemic, it finally provided the impetus to finish and release it.
We took the time to ask him how he has been doing under lockdown and what he hopes people will take away from living.room.
What activities do you miss doing, now that we’re all under quarantine?
For me, I love doing music live. Usually any given year I’m touring a lot on the road a couple of times a month. So, [laughs], the number one thing I miss is definitely performing music live in front of an audience because that’s just something super special. I love making music, I love putting it online, I love connecting with my audience online, but there’s nothing like taking this stuff that my friends and I worked on in the studio together and giving it to people and seeing the music hit them live. So I think I’m definitely missing live performance and touring and getting to meet new fans, new friends, and being on the road. I also, just like everyone else, [am] really just missing my friends, you know? We got a super-active Asian-American artist community in LA and I really miss going around. There are a lot of people that you see at parties, movie premieres, and concerts, and it’s been a long time since I’ve seen my friends all in one place. So I really miss all the little things… just going to dinner after a show and all that.
For a rap album, living.room is kind of an odd name! What decisions went behind going with that title?
So the title actually works on at least two or three levels. For one thing, we actually made this album to perform at house concerts. The idea was to take music and instead of mainly interacting with people online, digitally, virtually, I wanted to do this music live in peoples’ houses, in peoples’ backyards, and in cafes and basements. And you know its definitely got that “at-home” vibe. It’s supposed to be very cozy, it’s supposed to be very chill, it’s supposed to be very warm. Another meaning of it is that I think a lot about justice. I identify as an activist, an educator, and someone who really cares about society. And I think definitely in the last four years of Trump’s America, it’s been a big question. How can we live alongside each other? How can Asian Americans, Black folks, White folks, Latinx, Native… you know, how can men and women, non-binary people… how can we all find space to just live our lives next to each other? And so [it’s] the idea of living room, breathing room, or room for us all to coexist in. So, for me living.room kind of represents these vibes of home. These vibes of finding space to live and to exist. When we dropped the album during the first couple of months of the quarantine, at least in LA, we’ve been locked down since mid-March. So for me, the album also represents this idea of just being stuck at home and trying to find a way to get some space to breathe, some space to rest, and reflect at home.
On “Mood,” you rap, “Nowadays we rather live a meme, than die a legend.” Can you elaborate on this quote?
This quote from “Mood” to me represents a lot of how people, my peers, especially as artists, like we almost… we’d rather go viral than build up a community, you know what I’m saying? We’d rather get more eyes on us, more ears on us, more numbers… than to really put in the work, the harder work I think of doing what it requires to live well, you know? Like you look at activism nowadays… I think a lot of people are doing some really cool stuff online because we have to be all online right now. But to me, I’d rather live well and die well than to just try to chase the numbers. The content that goes viral online doesn’t always really reflect real life and I’d rather that my real life had character, had integrity, had value than just something that’s easily packaged and goes viral but doesn’t have substance. And I know that’s a false dichotomy because you can really have both. But to me that statement reflected the values of our society and was me questioning that and saying, you know, do we want to go viral, do we want to be easily consumed, or do we want to have an actual lifestyle that is grounded and rooted and has a foundation?
What is your take on your lyrics on “Westworld?” (“Photographers come for your head / This music it go to the chest / You tired? / I sleep when I’m dead / This music it covers the rest”)
To me, this quote is kind of about the same thing. Everybody wants to have cool photos; everybody wants to have the photo that gets a lot of likes on Instagram. People love taking cool photos dripped out. But for me, the thing that I love about music is that it touches you. My old bassist, Andrew, he would say, the dope thing about music, people are feeling it. Physically feeling the bass notes coming out of the subs and hitting their body. And so for me, music… it’s not just something that you hear in your head. It’s something that’s tangible and physical and for me, when I pass away, this music is something that’s going to live on. It’s gonna be online decades after my time on Earth is done. And the hope for me is that this music is going to keep speaking and keep covering and keep talking to people forever, hopefully.
You have formal education from Yale, great job by the way on that! Looking back, how do you feel about the course of your life so far in terms of your rap career?
Ok, yeah so I went to Yale, thank you, thank you [laughs]. I got my degree in Philosophy there and I also studied abroad in Beijing. I spent two summers in Beijing learning Mandarin and I’m honestly super-duper happy with how life panned out. I think that honestly, sometimes I say that my music is like an applied philosophy. You know, this music is something that to me is one of the best ways of getting ideas out there, making music and giving people something they can enjoy and listen to [that’s] the soundtrack of their lives… while at the same time really trying to express these philosophies from really high-level thinkers in a way that we can all listen and just incorporate it into our daily lives. I feel like I really had an opportunity and I will have more opportunities to connect with people that might not go to an Ivy League education, but through my music and through my work I feel like I’m really impacting society.
And it’s sometimes on a bigger level, sometimes on a smaller level, but the joy of being able to speak to people and to help people… when I get messages about, oh, you know, your music really spoke to me or your music really helped me here. There was this one woman in New York City who messaged me on Instagram and was like, “your music was actually when I really first started exploring my Asian-American identity.” That made me super happy, and I feel like I’ve been using the gifts and the privilege and the opportunities I’ve had really well–or to the best of my ability.
On “Dumplings:” “I will need to speak / In a language I haven’t yet mastered, but need to / We speak two love languages fluently: food and sacrifice.
So this quote from “Dumplings” is two love languages, food and sacrifice, that’s from this professor, a friend of mine, Russell Jeung up in the Bay Area. He teaches Asian-American studies at SFSU and he was talking about how this idea of love languages is actually very Western, because the love languages that are given, [such as] acts of service or quality time, are very culturally-based. But for me, I wrote that poem about my grandma and it just sort of honors the way that she showed me love… which isn’t always in the ways that everyone in our culture or everyone in our country would show love, but to recognize and honor and love our Asian-American ancestors and generations of people who don’t necessarily fit into an American standard mold. But their contributions to my life and to our society, our country, and our culture are so valuable.
I noticed that “Dumplings” went with a more mellow tone than the other hip-hop influenced tracks. What went behind the musical choice and does it have anything to do with say, “honor culture?”
Yeah man, I mean we just make the music that feels right, you know? When I was sitting down with my producers, it was just yo, let’s cook up some things, let’s cook up some ideas, let’s try to speak to and take whatever felt like supported the idea. So to me, I think the whole album hangs together pretty well, but to me, it’s also about on the individual song level. If I’m talking about Asian-American culture and honor, what does that culture make me feel like? How do I love it, how do I enjoy it, and how am I proud of it? And then on something like “Dumplings” you know, where it’s this very reflective, spoken word piece about family, about grandmother, about love and sacrifice. What are the musical choices that will support that and fit the different moods, the different environments, and the different mind spaces that they might be in when they’re trying to listen to this music.
“Honor.” (ft. Uzuhan) includes a sample of the aptly spoken words by Sandra Oh, “It’s an honor just to be Asian,” during the 2019 Emmys. We would love for you to share a favorite verse in this song that holds weight in your eyes.
Honestly, I love how I start that, right, because to me, honor was about the pride I have in being a part of this Asian-American culture: which is so marginalized, which is so invisible, which is so broad, and so diverse. I start, “from gold skin to cinnamon, green cards, and citizens,” and what a lot of people don’t know is that at least 40-45 percent of Asian America is brown. If you look at South Asians, if you look at Filipinos, and you know and often we talk about oh yellow and gold, those are like the colors of Asian America. But I wanted to start out, you know, kind of flipping, people talk about us having yellow skin, but I like seeing our color as being gold, to something that’s valuable, something that’s precious. But at the same time, you know, cinnamon, a lot of our brothers and sisters a lot of our Asian-American family don’t identify with like yellow as a skin tone as an aesthetic choice. So I’m very proud in how that first verse in honor–I wrote it in a way that really captures the breadth of sort of Asian-American identity and honestly I think that it’s the sort of poetic language that I’ve been able to put on a record, so I was really really happy with that.
This interview is part of the series: What’s Next? Life Under Quarantine, a unique look at how Asian American artists are navigating the changes in their careers caused by unprecedented times.
This interview was conducted by Jonathan Liu via an audio message in August 2020.