Asian-American rappers have it rough from the very beginning. Hip-hop culture is one of hyper-masculine machismo and aggressive sexuality. How are Asian men supposed to be taken seriously when they have been so perpetually desexualized and neutered in mainstream American media? How are Asian women supposed to be received when they don’t fit the bastardized porn star beauty standards expected of them? This struggle is at the heart of Salima Koroma’s “Bad Rap,” a new documentary charting the nascence of Asian-American rappers and the careers of four of their most prominent representatives: renowned battle rapper MC Dumbfoundead, Christian hip-hopper Lyricks, the confrontational and gleefully-bizarre Rekstizzy, and hipster-hop icon Awkwafina.
“Bad Rap” sees a subculture not in search of an identity but of recognition, exposure, and validation. One of the best sequences in the film sees the director showing music videos of all four MCs to various music executives. Their responses range from middling—Rekstizzy’s infamous music video God Bless America where he squirts ketchup and mustard onto the asses of twerking black women gets a curt “next one please” from one executive only a few seconds in—to outright awe. So why aren’t they blowing up? Even after getting invited to a battle rap championship by none other than Drake, MC Dumbfoundead remains virtually unknown to people outside the circuit. Despite a number of viral music videos and appearances on TV, many still regard Awkwafina as being too nichey to go anywhere. The frustration is suffocating and palpable.
My problem with “Bad Rap” is its unevenness. It spends far too little time focusing on the actual history of Asian American rappers—early pioneers Jin the MC and Galaxies get little screen-time and the eighties West Coast Filipinos who helped birth the movement are barely mentioned, and poorly divides time between the four main rappers. Both Dumbfoundead and Lyricks get lengthy segments about their careers and backstories while Awkwafina gets maybe a grand total of ten or fifteen minutes, with Rekstizzy getting even less. I usually caution against documentaries going too long, but in this case I wouldn’t have minded “Bad Rap” being an extra 20-30 minutes if it meant more time for the history, Awkwafina, and Rekstizzy.
Score: 6 out of 10
Nate Hood is Screen Comment’s main film critic in New York. Follow him here @NateHood257