There’s a popular clip on YouTube from Korea’s rap reality show, “Show Me The Money”, showcasing the Team Battle Mission segment in which contestants duke it out in a scripted rap battle on stage. The two contestants are Donutman, a more-or-less obscure Korean rapper who has received some controversy for his pro-marijuana stances, and a rapper named Flowsik from Queens, New York.
Flowsik sets the battle off by spitting rapid flows over the instrumental to Desiigner’s “Panda,” one of the year’s top tracks. He’s composed and malevolent; he throws Korean won on the stage and sizes up Donutman’s team members, telling him he’ll “chop him up like Lee Yeon-bok” in his signature gruff, husky vocal tone. Donutman fails to impress with a shorter, messier team-oriented rap over The Throne’s “Otis,” in which he takes shots at Flowsik’s age. At the end of the video, contestants and judges agree that “Flowsik did better.” Their assessment was rather measured.
The clip is more or less representative of Flowsik’s successful stay on the show. He’s a bit older than the other contestants; he’s been around the block and seen a few things. He’s meaner, calmer, and more skilled than his competition. More than anything, he really knows what he’s doing; this isn’t just a game to him.
“When I was on ‘Show Me The Money’, I felt like I was surrounded by a bunch of Korean rappers who don’t know much about the culture,” he tells me in a Queens diner. He rocks a red Champion sweater, through which his shoulders give their trademark hunch. “They just look at what they see on YouTube and they copy it. They dress like it, they try to sound like it, but they don’t know nothing about it. I felt like for me as a hip hop artist, I’m the only one who can show them.”
Flowsik orders nothing but a black coffee, as he’d already had breakfast with his family: korean rice, kimchi, and fish. He’s staying with them for the first time in a while; he’s in New York City for the week to film the music video for his latest single “Kari.” A native son of Astoria, Flowsik moved to Glen Cove later in childhood, wherein hip hop (and music in general) was of the utmost importance.
“I don’t know what people think of when they think of Long Island, but where I was at, it was straight hood,” he says. “If it wasn’t for Glen Cove, I wouldn’t have absorbed the hip hop culture.”
Indeed, Flowsik’s two original homes — New York City and Long Island — are both Meccas for The Culture. He grew up listening to what hip hop heads refer to as “east coast hip hop,” meaning music from artists, labels and collectives on the east coast of the United States; mainly from New York. “Notorious B.I.G. is considered the best rapper of all time and he’s from here. I think all the greatest rappers are from here. Big L, Big Pun.”
But Flowsik’s career seems to have no singular home. He’s made his bones wherever he’s needed to thanks to his versatility. He attended a top music school in Glen Cove and learned the baritone sax and trumpet. He also learned to sing, a skill he’s rarely had a chance to show throughout his career, but recently displayed in a well-received cover of “Eastside” by Benny Blanco, Halsey and Khalid.
“Being versatile was my main goal ever since I first started, because I felt like the more different colors I could show, the more music I could show,” says Flowsik. “Because of that, I was able to transition into Korea, and I was able to do an R&B group with Aziatix. I was able to gain a lot of different sensibilities of music through the past 10-15 years.”
The K-Pop connection began when Flowsik took a trip to Korea which was meant to last up to a month; it ended up lasting eight years. After finding successful gigs, including writing raps for JYJ, he became a member of the trio Aziatix with Nicky Lee and Eddie Shin. The group saw Flowsik as the rapping contrast to the two R&B vocalists and found some success, charting in Taiwan and Korea with records like “Nocturnal” and “Awakening” as well as winning Best New Asian Artist at the 2011 Mnet Asian Music Awards.
Things dissipated; an ill-fated Cash Money deal “didn’t work out” as Flowsik tells me, but that was far from the end of the road for the tactile emcee. He embarked on a solo career in 2015 and gained new fans through his strong run in “Show Me the Money” in 2016. Now, through his Official Flowsik page, he’s putting out content at a rapid pace. His latest track, “Kari,” features the Queens emcee aggressively flowing over a trap beat. The video features recognizable New York scenery and even features an appearance from Harlem battle rap legend Head Ice. These are not mere aesthetic choices or fun coincidences in the context of hip hop.
“Being from New York, I think, especially is very important,” he says. “If I’m coming from New York and I don’t know anything about hip hop and I’m trying to go around and show this and that, this is game over already.”
It may still surprise many to watch the “Kari” video and see an Asian man rapping so well; to see several Asian compatriots in fly cars and bandanas still breaks the reserved “model minority” stereotype; to see people of different ethnic backgrounds surrounding an Asian rapper somehow still sticks out in 2018. But the reality is, Asians have been battling stereotypes through hip hop for generations; one can look at rappers like Jin and Dumbfoundead as examples.
The Asian community has had a torrid, inconsistent relationship with hip hop. The genre/culture is often shunned and shamed by traditionalist (and often bigoted) parts of our communities, and often, when members of our community delve into the culture, it’s through a superficial and often exploitative lens, taking its stylizations to reflect a “coolness” without paying proper respect to the black and brown communities that forged it through oppression. This makes it more difficult for the Asian artists who truly want to contribute to the culture to shed preconceived notions created by less helpful appropriators.
Flowsik has a better understanding of this because he’s from that soil, much like an artist like Jay Park. Where many Korean artists watch hip hop with other Koreans on the Internet and innocently toy with it, Flowsik was born into it; one of the only Asian kids amongst a sea of black and brown kids who saw hip hop as a way of life. He understands its importance and its roots, and he takes it seriously as a result.
“It’s my lifestyle,” he says. “And if it’s my lifestyle, I have to know pretty much everything about it.” In this sense, Flowsik is a modern day jazz man; a 2018 Korean Dave Brubeck. He’s not interested in the reductio ad absurdum of young, mainstream hip hop; he cares for the skill, the form, the roots.
“I think the culture for me is very important because as a minority in this country, I have to have a voice,” says Flowsik. In being treated with racism from other people of color, Flowsik participated in hip hop as an artform that he saw could unify them all. “All my life, I was just trying to figure out my identity. But I think that urge is what helped me to create such potent music. I think the reason I was rapping was to show people there’s no difference between me and you. We’re only different in color. I’m just trying to prove to you guys I’m not an alien, I’m just like y’all.”
This is the core tenet of Flowsik, one which separates him from droves of younger, less informed Korean artists. The culture that many take as an aesthetic is a crucial part of his life; in a sense, it is his life. It is how he helped form his identity. It brought him closer to others; it defended him from aggression; it assimilated him as an outsider and brought him a successful career.
“This is the problem with artists these days: they think it’s all good,” he tells me, his tone gradually growing with enthusiasm. “‘I do this, I rap like this, great.’ I don’t think that’s it. To be quite honest, there’s a lot of rappers that just copy. They simply change a few things and make it theirs. I think that’s what it has become lately; it’s just copy and pasting. And that is not hip hop to me. It’s actually you being yourself and not being ashamed of it.”
It’s theoretically easy to joke about someone like Flowsik who can take himself so seriously; who’s clearly a bit older and wiser than contemporaries in the K-Pop market; who stands out as an Asian guy in a sea of Black and brown people. But in reality, Flowsik has not only found success through his serious dedication, but he’s also earned the respect of his peers, both older and younger. He’s earned the approval of figureheads like Timbaland and Head Ice; he also earned respect for himself amidst a sea of young heads on “Show Me the Money”. And it can all be attributed to his genuine, spirited dedication to the art.
“You don’t see many gimmicks in me. I keep it funky; I keep it real. And my fans see it all. Fans aren’t stupid; they see the gimmicks too. It’s all about being genuine about it and approaching it in a real way. I think that’ll help you in the long run.”