By Paris Spence-Lang
VANCOUVER — A lot of rappers talk about the streets they grew up in, but for Dumbfoundead that would take half an album. Born in Buenos Aires, Dumb—né Jonathan Park—was smuggled into Mexico by his parents, and eventually ended up in Los Angeles where he’s been repping Koreatown ever since. He’s been on the open mic circuit since the age of 15 at the same venues folks like The Pharcyde and Freestyle Fellowship cut their teeth at, but it wasn’t until he started battle rapping that he really started to blow up.
Despite being one of the most popular rap battlers of all time—and the funniest by far—with the release of his fourth album, We Might Die, Park says his last battle is likely behind him. “There’s obsession that comes with sports… it’s just like any boxing match… you’re thinking about that person 24 hours a day.”
By cutting the clutter that comes with obsession, Park is experiencing a new musical headspace and is finding a different side of himself. “[When] I’m writing a rap battle I’m sitting down and kind of writing almost as if I’m writing a script, but I think with songs like “Harambe” it was more the energy I was trying to paint. My writing process as of late… it’s less cerebral and more [about] the vibe of feeling as opposed to getting into my head and thinking of words… it’s more about the vibe of the music.”
Park has walked this line between battler and entertainer for a long time, but ironically, it’s in his battling where he tries most to clown around and in his music where he chooses to fight his internal battles. “I think I definitely have far more serious moments in my music than rap battling. I show a lot more of my comedic side in my rap battles which is something that I’m really into… I don’t know why I haven’t done much of that in my music.”
As if to accompany this period of musical self-reflection, Park is returning to his roots for his latest project, a collaboration with his Korean counterparts in the motherland. Likely the most popular Korean-American rapper at the moment, he’s been working hard to put his home country on his back—at least in North America. With the current hysteria around Korean culture—something that’s surprising even to him—he’s not afraid to tap into the energy of rappers like recent collaborators Keith Ape and Microdot for his new project. “Korean music is not just Korean music anymore—it has such an international audience. I feel very proud to represent the Korean-American experience.” Still, this can be a battle in itself: “It’s like the Asian-American experience is very different. We’re not just Asian, we also have this American side that we battle with.”
Sticking to your roots is a hip-hop tradition, but it’s more important than ever to connect with your fans in new ways. “I think the only way you’re gonna stand out nowadays is really about what you stand for and who you are. Anybody can fucking rap, but that doesn’t mean people will connect to them.” While it seems like a Korean-American rapper coming up from Argentina and Mexico wouldn’t have to work hard to stand out, it’s clear that Dumb puts a piece of himself into everything he does through his honesty and self-deprecation—the former rare and the latter even rarer in rap.
These are tidings of vulnerability working its way into the cream of the hip-hop crop. While it’s cool to brag about cars and cash, rapping about feelings and fathers (what’s up, Isaiah Rashid) is the new thing. But Park sees that some of these new rappers have a chip on their shoulder—and that even he can be hypocritically hyperbolic. “It’s not just about dishonesty with money. There are conscious rappers that are very dishonest too. I’ve had moments in my raps in the past where I’ve been dishonest. Sometimes you fool yourself into thinking you care about a cause more than you do.”
That, in a sense, sums up Park’s philosophy on music, battling, and his life: too often we fool ourselves into caring about some shit we shouldn’t, and into battling everyone and everything when the battle is inside of us—when all we want to do is just eat some bibimbap and make some fucking music.
Dumbfoundead performs at Alexander Gastown January 26th.Alexander Gastown, BC, British Columbia, Dumbfoundead, We Might Die