By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
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By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Photo by James BunoanDavid Nguyen's little corner of the world holds its share of dreams and secrets, most of which he'd like to keep from his mother—a formidable task given that his corner is located next to the family couch. From that corner comes AznRaps.com, the Internet's foremost Asian hip-hop website—yes, there are Asian hip-hoppers—which David has devoted most of his free time to creating and nurturing, encouraged by the likes of Asian freestyling star Jin as well as rap diva Eve, who e-mailed that she thought the site was dope. David's mom, Lieu, would probably use similar words to describe David if she found out what he's doing.
"She wouldn't like it," he says. "She wouldn't understand."
Maybe other people wouldn't, either. But hip-hop is big in the Asian-American community, David says. He has been listening to it his whole life, and he says there are plenty like him, some of them talented artists who need a showcase. The site he has built for that is as much salon as soundstage. AznRaps not only discusses the latest from Asian rappers but also contains chat sites devoted to lifestyle concerns (a recent list of entries included: "What do you know about getting hurt at work?" "Any beatboxers on this site?" as well as "The most stupid chick ever caught on tape"). There's a text center to publish and critique poetry and lyrics. Not only can you download music, but AznRaps also offers tutorials on how to record your music and how to get it on AznRaps.
It's all the more impressive given that Nguyen is 19 and was just 16 when he constructed the site with no knowledge of the programming language required to build a website. "I didn't know HTML or anything." He has put this all together pretty much on his own and in between getting his niece, Betsy Do, off to elementary school every morning, then taking a full load at Orange Coast College—he's studying business—while making sure Moms doesn't get wise.
When it comes to his website, his mother's reaction is the only thing about which David seems sure. Why did he start AznRaps? Hmmmm. Not sure. Always listened to hip-hop. Wanted to get the word out about Asian rappers. Where's it going? Hmmmm. Dunno. Maybe a magazine. A label. What drives him? The portrayal of Asians in the media. His family's bad luck. Hmmmm.
The questions hit the unfailingly polite 19-year-old hard, and he desperately considers each response as if afraid he'll give the wrong answer.
David's father, Thu, a dentist, died several years ago. "I'm not too sure what happened," he says, but the results are clear enough: his mother went to work for the first time, and the family moved from a comfortable three-bedroom Garden Grove home to this one-bedroom Stanton apartment in a complex where ordered flower beds and tidy borders communicate anything but hip-hop. He lives here with his mom and niece; two older sisters are away at college. The family brought everything from its former life, so the apartment is Manhattan crowded: David's computer and recording equipment are wedged in a corner—the corner—next to the front door. The inventory of AznRaps' first two compilation CDs—No Looking Back and Holdin' It Down—are stored on the shelves of the small hall closet beneath David's T-shirts and underwear.
Many of the tracks were recorded by local artists right there in the corner, "the only space I had." There, he places the rapper with a microphone and turns them to face the corner, taking advantage of whatever acoustics are available. The artist and David each wear headphones, and David wraps towels around his computer to muffle the hum. He sold about 7,000 copies of No Looking Back at $10 a shot, though, the truth is David, if he happens on you in a club, coffeehouse or parking lot, will sell it to you for whatever you've got. "Someone will say, 'I only got eight bucks,' and I'll say fine. The main thing is not making the money, but getting the music out there."
That music addresses no specific theme nor holds to any particular style—it can be the hard edge of Jin (recently caught in the crossfire of a New York gang shooting) or the pop tinge of South Star. The single salient feature is that it's put out by Asians, and Asians, David notes, are not always embraced when it comes to art. "I don't blame the music industry," he says. "It's the entertainment industry in general. You don't see Asians on TV or in movies, and when you do, they're either, like, some wise man or kung fu-ing some guy. Even if there is an Asian, they try and ignore that. I was watching Charlie's Angels II: Full Throttle, and in one scene, the three women are fighting, and Bernie Mac says something like, 'Three white women fighting!' even though Lucy Liu is clearly Asian. It's like they just want her to be white."
If David had his choice, he'd like to be Dr. Dre, a person who not only produces, but also scouts talent, writes songs and markets the product—a man in total control. That may come, but for now, he still has to graduate from OCC and grow the site, which he does many times sitting in a Starbucks until midnight, whenever he thinks Mom is getting wise. Of course, if AznRaps works out, David would get what he—and Lieu—ultimately wants.
"I would really love to get out of this place," he says. "I would really love to do that for my mom."