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Randall Park on Asian Americans in hip-hop — and punching Keanu Reeves

Star of Netflix’s ‘Always Be My Maybe’ shouts-out the Bay Area rap scene

You might recognize Randall Park’s face trending on your Netflix homepage. Alongside comedian Ali Wong, Park is the star, co-writer and co-producer of the new rom-com Always Be My Maybe. Best known from ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, Park plays a wannabe rapper, a natural fit since that was him in college. Park spoke with The Undefeated about Asians in hip-hop, rapping about punching Keanu Reeves, and his top five MCs of all time.

The interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

“What an excellent adventure. I wouldn’t be surprised if Keanu’s wearing dentures. I’ve got a high-five that can make a man die. I should be with the Justice League and the Avengers.” — “I Punched Keanu Reeves” by Hello Peril

I want to make the argument “I Punched Keanu Reeves” is the jam of the summer. What was the process to come up with those bars with hip-hop producer Dan the Automator?

The idea for the song actually came on after the movie already had a test. We had a full cut of the movie, and a Netflix executive came up with the idea to record the song. We scrambled to get it done. We reached out to Dan and he put together that beat. It was such a banger, and while he put together that beat, I was writing the lyrics. Then we had to reach out to Keanu for his permission, and he was totally down.

So Keanu knew the lyrics beforehand?

It was before we had the beat. I wanted to send him the lyrics, but I thought it might be better if he heard it as opposed to just read it. So I found an old Jurassic 5 instrumental, recorded myself doing the lyrics, wrote an email to Keanu and attached the file so he could hear it, let him know I wasn’t terrible and the song would at least be pretty good. He got it right away and was like, ‘Let’s do it.’ Then he had some suggestions and we incorporated them.

How much did hip-hop influence you growing up?

I was always a massive fan. All the music I bought was hip-hop.

“I think anyone who’s a fan has at one point written a rap. I love the craft of it and really respect rappers. It’s like poetry but to a beat, which is even harder. To do it in a way that flows takes real talent and a level of intelligence that’s hard to find.”

Was there a rapper or song in particular that had a significant impact on you?

A Tribe Called Quest was my group. I loved them. Anything they did, I was the first to rush to the store and get it. Low End Theory, Midnight Marauders, those two albums I’ve played more than any other album I own.

When did you realize you could spit? Do people still say “spit”? I’m just trying to sound cool.

I tend to stay away from any of the lingo because I’m a 45-year-old father and I’m probably not up to date on the right words to say. But I’m such a huge fan that I’d write stuff down. I think anyone who’s a fan has at one point written a rap. I love the craft of it and really respect rappers. It’s like poetry but to a beat, which is even harder. To do it in a way that flows takes real talent and a level of intelligence that’s hard to find.

You were in a ’90s hip-hop group, Ill Again. I believe your name was Randruff? Tell us about it.

Out of college, a bunch of friends and I started a band. We grew up listening and were influenced by The Roots, another one of my favorite bands of all time. We started a six-piece hip-hop band. We weren’t very ambitious, just having fun with it — kind of like the band in the movie. Over time we started to gain a following, but really it was a hobby.

Are there shoutouts to the Bay Area rap scene in Always Be My Maybe?

When we were writing, I thought wouldn’t it be cool if Lyrics Born was in the band? When we got to the casting process, the producers reached out to his manager. He auditioned, turned out to be superfunny and a really great comedic actor, so we gave him the part. I felt it was such a great nod to the Bay Area. There’s also a DJ Qbert cameo, and Dan the Automator is doing background in one of the scenes.

Have you ever thought about how playing a rapper debunks Asian stereotypes?

Well, I don’t consider myself a rapper, I’ll tell you that much. [Rap] definitely resonates with Asian Americans, but it resonates with everyone, it’s global. It’s the biggest form of music and has been for a very long time, and for a good reason. I don’t know why Asian Americans in particular [love hip-hop], but I think it speaks to asserting ourselves in this world. There’s an innate rebelliousness to it that speaks to us as a community. There’s an anger but also love for community and culture.

There are many big rappers in the Asian American scene — MC Jin, Dumbfoundead, Awkwafina — but few have had mainstream commercial success in the U.S. Why is that?

I don’t know. That’s a very complex question, and there’s probably a lot of reasons why. I don’t think it has to do with ability. You take someone like Dumbfoundead and he’s incredible and prolific. He’s paid his dues in the battle scenes. He’s a guy that deserves all the recognition, but it’s complicated. So much of rap music, and hip-hop culture in general, is about authenticity and being embraced with the culture itself. Once someone outside of the culture is embraced by the culture, it almost signifies this person is legit. I think Eminem got that. He proved himself. It’s important that people from within the culture decide who gets a pass.

“ I don’t know why Asian Americans in particular [love hip-hop], but I think it speaks to asserting ourselves in this world. There’s an innate rebelliousness to it that speaks to us as a community. There’s an anger but also love for community and culture.”

This brings up the issue of appreciation versus appropriation. In Always Be My Maybe, it was talked about in terms of food. Where do you think the line is between appreciation and appropriation in rap?

I’m not the one to decide that. That’s decided from within the culture. If people from within the culture say that something’s appropriation, it probably is. If they say it’s not, it’s probably not. [Appropriation] is something I was definitely thinking about when I was making the music for the movie. I certainly didn’t want to come off as disrespectful or condescending. I wanted it to come off as organic and from a place of love. Hopefully that came through.

I love the name of the rap band in the movie, Hello Peril. How did you come up with it?

The name was floating in my head for a long time, at least a decade. I thought that would be a cool band name, but I forgot about it, and once we started writing the script it came back to me. The band was based on my band in college. There were political undertones to it, but ultimately it was this ragtag group of musicians having fun and being dumb.

Please explain what “yellow peril” means.

It’s a historical term that would stoke fear in the West of the Far East coming and taking over. It’s come up time and again in history. Certain leaders or prominent figures would want to spread fear. It’s essentially what’s happening today in a different way with certain groups. But it’s always been a political tool of keeping people in fear, and in this case it’s the Far East.

Final question: Who are your top five MCs of all time?

I don’t want to give the obvious ones, which is Jay-Z, Biggie, Nas, 2Pac and maybe Eminem. Those are the ones everyone gives. My top five outside of that: Black Thought from The Roots, MF Doom, Lil Wayne, Big L and Lauryn Hill. That’s in no particular order, but I might put Big L at the top of that list. He’s superwitty, and that’s important to me when talking about a top five. But Wayne is definitely top-five all time. I can’t forget Wayne. He’s one of my all-time favorites. So skilled and so witty.

Cary Chow is a freelancer for The Undefeated. He has an unrivaled talent for breaking video equipment, still thinks Omar was wronged in "The Wire," and roots for both the Clippers and Lakers and doesn't care about your fandom rules.