NJin is a rapper.
He is also an Asian American. His parents emigrated from Hong Kong and settled in Miami, where he was born and raised.
Music buyers would be hard-pressed to find Asian American rappers in the hip-hop bins, and therefore Jin is both a novelty and a trailblazer. Not surprisingly, he's getting lots of media attention.
From his perspective, all that interest is a good thing -- sort of. "It's a double-edged sword, honestly," says Jin, 22. "I would be lying if I said I didn't want all the press coverage, but at the same time it does get frustrating 'cause I haven't done one interview in the last three years where my race wasn't brought up. It kinda makes me wonder -- are you really interested in the fact that I rhyme and I'm talented, or are you interested just because I'm Asian?"
But Jin, whose full name is Jin Au-Yueng, isn't playing down his heritage. He once squashed an opponent in a freestyle competition with the rhyme "I'm Chinese, now you understand it / I'm the reason that his little sister's eyes are slanted / If you make one joke about race or karate / NYPD be in Chinatown searchin' for your body."
His biggest hit to date, "Learn Chinese," attempts to skewer Asian stereotypes with lyrics such as "This ain't Bruce Lee. / Y'all watch too much TV." The song's video opens with Jin delivering Chinese food as he announces: "The days of the pork fried rice and the chicken wings comin' to your house by me is over." The video also depicts karate chops, hands-clasped greeting bows and Chinatown gangsters.
Most of us have gotten used to the idea of gifted white rappers -- there's Eminem, of course, and the Beastie Boys, among others -- and several Latinos have established themselves as hip-hop stars. Three decades after its inception, hip-hop is huge enough to accommodate artists of all ethnic backgrounds, and they can maintain credibility as long as they remain true to the music and to themselves. For Jin, this means honing his talent -- he's an accomplished freestyler who excels at battle rapping -- and establishing himself as both a rapper and an Asian rapper.
"Learn Chinese" is just one of the tracks on Jin's long-delayed debut album, "The Rest Is History," that refer to his heritage. In "Here Now," he raps: "Five-six but I stand tall, / Built for war, sort of like the Great Wall of China / Hear my footsteps like Yao Ming's behind ya."
The autobiographical "Love Story" describes parental disapproval of an interracial teen romance. And "Same Cry," maybe his most ambitious track, touches on Tiananmen Square, SARS and China's one-child policy.
"Throughout the album, there's a lot of influence to me being Asian and, you know, that's just because I am Asian," says Jin. "I think that's what hip-hop is all about -- all of the most successful artists have been real adamant about who they are. And that's who I am."
He pauses. "Not to say that's all I am. But it is who I am, so I'll certainly embrace it."
On a sunny fall day, Jin saunters into Elegance Barbershop in Harlem for a haircut. Half a dozen guys are huddled around a chess game; the Fun Gum machine a few feet away plays 14 seconds of synthesized new jack swing every time it dispenses a gumball. He is the only Asian in the shop -- everyone else is African American -- but they greet him like one of their own.
Jin got famous in hip-hop two years ago, when he appeared on the weekly "Freestyle Friday" rhyming battles on BET's hip-hop program "106 & Park." He won seven weeks straight before being retired to the show's Hall of Fame. On Jin's final week, he vanquished his challenger, and then reached into his jacket to pull out a sparkling Ruff Ryders medallion -- a dramatic announcement that he had been signed to Ruff Ryders, the hip-hop label that launched DMX, Jadakiss and Eve.
This was a dream come true for a guy who used to battle-rap other kids in his junior high school bathroom. Jin, who was raised in an ethnically and economically mixed section of North Miami Beach, got into hip-hop the way millions of other kids do: listening to the radio. "I heard LL Cool J, Naughty by Nature, even Kris Kross," he says. "Then I started going to the record store and demanding, like, 'Yo, what's the newest artist out?' . . . and just stockpiling all these different artists. Eventually that made the transition from listening to starting to write my own rhymes . . . and then the hobby just turned into my life."
Jin's parents, who owned a series of moderately successful Chinese restaurants, expected him to go to college. But by 17, Jin had other plans. "Everybody was like, Oh, what college am I gonna go to, getting ready for the SATs. But that wasn't really part of my focus, whereas the music was."
Like Eminem, who honed his battle rhyming while fending off white-boy barbs, Jin developed his freestyle skills by defending his background. Possessing an inner wisenheimer helped. "I would like to say I lean toward the witty side," he says. "But sometimes not everybody sees you as witty. They just see you as obnoxious Jin." A family tradition also shaped Jin's technique. "There's always a lot of wisecracks, joking in the family, so I picked it up from them."
And it was family that got him to New York: The Au-Yueng clan was deeply shaken by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Within a few weeks, Jin's parents relocated to New York to be closer to Jin's grandparents, who live in Chinatown. The move brought Jin to the capital of hip-hop.
He worked the city's rhyming circuits, battle rapping against the street-corner crews that compete in Times Square and also going against the more socially conscious underground performers known as "backpack" rappers. The following year, he landed his spot on BET. "That was a life-altering experience," he says. "It was the catalyst for everything."
As soon as Ruff Ryders co-CEO Joaquin "Waah" Dean checked out Jin on "106 & Park," he knew he wanted to sign him. "When Jin is under pressure, he performs very well," says Dean. "What makes him really good is that he can use your environment against you. He can use the guys you come with, the people in the crowd, name brands, the stars in the audience -- he'll use what you say against you. That's the key. Whatever you say, he can take it, reverse it back to you, and deliver it. And make you feel like 'Oh, man, why'd I say that?' " Of course, there was something else Dean noticed. "We have never seen an Asian rapper lay it down the way he does," he says. "If you never seen Jin, you'd think he black, a regular rap artist. You wouldn't even think he Asian. He sounds like he belongs in the game."
Several weeks ago, Jin won the "Fight Klub" lyrical sparring competition at the annual Mixshow Power Summit, a hip-hop industry event held in San Juan, Puerto Rico. According to summit attendees, folks got so wound up during Jin's freestyle that they overturned tables and threw money on the stage.
Says Dean: "I'd put him in the ring with anybody right now after what I seen in Puerto Rico."
With all the hype surrounding Jin, there has been much speculation about why his debut album was delayed repeatedly -- enough times that fans put together an online petition in the hopes of advancing its release. (It was finally released Oct. 19, and debuted at number 54 on Billboard's album chart.) Asked about this, Jin blames "politics" between Ruff Ryders and Virgin Records, which closed a joint-venture agreement last year. His publicist at Virgin says it's because Jin kept recording new tracks as he attracted better and better producers, among them Kanye West and Wyclef Jean.
Last November, Jin was with friends at Yello, a Chinatown nightclub, when an argument broke out. One of Jin's close friends, rapper Christopher "L.S." Louie, was shot in the back. Police have named a suspect in the shooting -- reportedly an aspiring rapper himself -- but no arrests have been made.
While Jin was lucky to escape without injury, he says the headlines were "frustrating."
"Asian rap war leads to shoot- ing in Chinatown," he intones. "Sounds like a good story, right? And that's exactly why they called it that. . . . But the only accurate thing about all of that is probably Asian, that's it. Gang wars? No. Rap wars? No. It had nothing to do with any of that. . . . The magazines, newspaper . . . they were exploiting it."
He adds: "These guys that were there that were involved in the shooting, I didn't know them . . . All their motive was, like, 'Yo, that's Jin and I don't like him, so I'm gonna try to threaten him, I'm gonna pull a gun at him, I'm gonna try to rob him.' "
"But of course if [the media] just wrote it like that, it wouldn't be exciting," he says. For rappers, those kinds of headlines can boost album sales. Several of Jin's fellow Ruff Ryders have enjoyed the notoriety that accompanies repeated run-ins with the law, but he insists thugging isn't really his style. "That's not the type of mystique I want," he says. (Indeed, Jin, who made his big-screen debut as an auto mechanic in the street-racing movie "2 Fast 2 Furious," hopes to emulate a different kind of hip-hop icon. "I wanna be like Will Smith," he says. "Just an overall, well-respected entrepreneur. He's a family man, you know what I'm sayin'?")
Being the first Asian rapper to get this far invites other kinds of negative press. Earlier this year, Entertainment Weekly ran a story headlined "Jin's Bad Rap." The piece, which used terms such as "gimmicky" and "culturally insensitive" to describe him, also criticized the "Learn Chinese" video. "The video doesn't just confront race and racial stereotypes; it verges on exploiting and perpetuating them," scolded the writer.
But Jin has his defenders: In a recent Village Voice review, Janet Tzou praised Jin's use of pejorative terms for Asians, writing: "Jin's visceral rage and proud swagger reclaim these slurs the way black rappers use 'nigga': he makes them his own."
Jin figures he had a specific message in mind. "Nothing against these guys, but let's say you're watching a Jay-Z video and you see once again in the beginning, they're ordering Chinese food and you see a Chinese guy coming up to deliver. That's kind of like, yo, was that even necessary? What was the point of that?" he says. "Me doing it is from a different light. You see Jin, I'm in the video and I'm delivering Chinese food . . . I'm making fun of it, and saying, 'Okay, we know this is how you view us, but this is not all we do.' "
It's inevitable that different people will interpret Jin in different ways.
"It's all upon the person that's watching it. They decide if I'm embracing it or exploiting it. On one hand, people might be like, 'Yo, this guy doesn't even know his own heritage. He doesn't even know who he is. He thinks he's black.' . . . Then on the flip side, you have those that be like, 'Uh, he's always mentioning that he's Chinese, always talking about being Asian. Nah, this guy is just a gimmick,' " he says.
"There's just a certain energy I have to carry, and I'm doing my best to carry it," he says. "At the end of the day, if I can look myself in the mirror, and not be like, 'What the hell is wrong with you?' that's really all I can do."