Rapping to a Bicultural Beat : Dancing Trio From Irvine--the L.A. Boyz--Scores a Hit in Taiwan
Consider the lyrics to this chart-topping rap song:
Super good looks, super like a man Bobby Brown’s latest? Super cool, super fit, super fast, super slick Naughty by Nature? Super in tennis ball, super in basketball Hmmm, the Fresh Prince is a hoops fan . . . Super in management, super intelligent. . . . Super in management?
“We’re working on the writing,” said Jeffrey Huang of the L.A. Boyz. “Luckily, we’re good dancers.”
The rap, never heard on American airwaves, is one of the huge hits in Taiwan from L.A. Boyz, two brothers and a cousin from Orange County who are the hottest new export to the Far East.
Clad in baggy pants, Cross Colors jackets and backward baseball caps, the Boyz have become one of the most popular bands in Taiwan. They chose the name L.A. Boyz figuring that no one in Taiwan knows where Irvine is.
“In their minds, L.A. is America,” said 16-year-old band member Steven Lin.
The Boyz have become the Asian equivalent of Michael Jackson, Hammer or New Kids on the Block by marketing themselves as equal parts streetwise L.A. and traditional Chinese.
The trio have managed their surprising success in part by excising rap’s angry and rebellious language, largely unintelligible to Far Eastern teen-agers anyway, and replacing it with a kind of bouncy jabber that gives the hungry youth of Taiwan a taste of the bold new world.
What they have kept is the beat and image of L.A. rap, adding a touch of Chinese flavor to the mix.
Jerry’s gonna make his rap funky in Chinese First you gotta start off with the ABCs Then you gotta learn it like the Taiwanese Bo po mo fo sure sounds easy to me But then ya gotta spell it L . A . Boyz. “We’re like role models,” said 20-year-old Jeffrey Huang. “We go to school, we’re good kids that know how to dance and rap, and we speak Taiwanese.”
So far, a single off their second album, “Tiao,” or “Jump,” rose to No. 2 on the Taiwan charts and they have been voted top group of 1992 in several polls. Record sales are booming, concerts are sold out and now talks have begun about the real big time--kung fu movies.
“Cool!” said band member Stan Huang, Jeffrey’s 18-year-old brother.
Not bad for three kids from the master-planned streets of Irvine.
Jeffrey and Stan Huang were born in Taiwan but came to the United States with their parents 17 years ago. Jeffrey, a student at the Art Center in Pasadena, and Stan, a life sciences major at UC Irvine, are both graduates of Irvine’s University High School. Steve Lin, their cousin, was born here and is still going to University High.
The Boyz got their start dancing at high school events. They performed the latest steps gleaned from the nightclubs of Los Angeles and Orange counties.
Their big break came with the demise of the Little Tigers, a cutesy group that ruled the Taiwan pop scene for years until one of their members was drafted. The breakup of the Tigers set off a frenzied search for the next teen-idol boy group.
After seeing one of the Boyz’s videos, a family friend in Taiwan hooked them up with an agent.
The trio could dance, they were young and handsome and could sing a passable song. But most important, they had a hip, bicultural flavor that appealed to a younger generation who had grown up during Taiwan’s rise on the international scene.
Admittedly they were from a place distant from the cultural heart of rap--the urban cores of America. But they were close enough.
Armed with hip dance steps and fashion accouterments from Compton and South-Central, the Boyz were an immediate hit with young fans who saw them as children of Taipei and of Los Angeles--a place that exuded both danger and excitement, success and hardship, sophistication and wretched excess.
“They see us as modern America,” Stan Huang said.
What has helped their success is that they were all raised speaking Taiwanese, a Chinese dialect that was largely supplanted by Mandarin when the Nationalists fled to Taiwan after the Communist revolution in 1949.
Their songs are sprinkled with Taiwanese-isms, such as shiam, which is about as close as the language gets to “shake it,” or ga bei kee hsiao, the Taiwanese version of “get funky.”
Luckily, the understanding of their rap lyrics in English is somewhat sketchy.
When the Boyz went to Taiwan to record their first album they hadn’t written any rap because they saw themselves mainly as dancers. But after cringing at the collection of songs drafted by their Taiwanese producers, they agreed to throw together some raps themselves. It took a few hours.
By their second album, things were improving, but the lyrics are still a bit goofy by U.S. standards:
Just get down to it to the hibbidy hop style Now ' s the time to do it with the groove so smooth And straight out of L.A. Pump to the beat ‘cause it’s time for us to play. “They don’t understand what we’re saying,” Jeffrey Huang said. Besides, “when it comes to Asians, there’s really not that much to rap about.”
The Boyz’s first album, “Shiam,” sold more than 130,000 copies. Their second album, “Tiao,” cracked the 200,000 mark.
The three say their part-time music careers, which they can only pursue during school breaks, have brought in close to $100,000 each.
With a third album due this summer, their careers are still rising.
They figure that they might be able to survive the cut-throat Taiwan music market for perhaps three to five years before the next teen-idol group comes along.
They are realistic about their slim chances of ever making it in the United States, saying that while they consider themselves great dancers, their rap is nothing special.
“We don’t compare,” Jeffrey Huang said. “We don’t rap to rebel, we just want you to dance.”
But they say there is always the possibility that their popularity could spread and boost them to the stratospheric level. They are planning a concert tour in Korea. Hong Kong is always a possibility and, with a little luck, they might hit it big in China with its 1 billion-plus population--all even hungrier than the Taiwanese for something new from the outside world.
“I mean, if just a tiny percentage buys our records . . .” Jeffrey Huang said. “Wow.”