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Breaking Ground

"They say we all look alike, cook alike/But they ain't know that we all crooks alike/I changed the game when I took the mic."

-- "Here Now," from The Rest Is History

There is a history of figures in sports, entertainment, or politics who have broken racial and ethnic boundaries on their way to fame and fortune. All -- in their own way -- overcame stereotypes and in the process transformed their respective fields.

To that proud history, you can now add one of South Florida's own: Jin. While it remains to be seen whether he'll have as deep an impact as, say, Jackie Robinson or Sidney Poitier, the 22-year-old holds the distinction of being the first Asian-American rapper signed to a major label. As the newest superstar coming from NYC's Ruff Ryders crew, he shares the label with DMX and Eve. And though he just released his debut album, The Rest Is History, he's already been dissected in the New York Times, described in numerous essays by pop cult crits Oliver Wang and Jeff Chang, and championed in the Asian community as a transformative figure.

But all of the accolades and talk obscure the one thing that should matter: Jin's got skills. "Media, journalist, everybody is caught up in the whole race thing," Jin says in a recent phone interview. "I understand that it's a very unique position, but I will never let it overshadow who I am. I have a lot more to offer than just being Asian."

The son of Hong Kong immigrants, Jin (born Jin Au-Yeung) grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in North Miami. His parents owned a Chinese takeout restaurant, where Jin worked throughout his childhood and teen years -- a background he chronicles on The Rest Is History's "A Little Hungry." And while Jin's talent and ascension to the top echelon of the hip-hop game is extraordinary, he got his start like so many other MCs: making homemade tapes of himself rapping over hip-hop instrumentals.

Jin got his first break when a friend played one of his freestyles over his junior high's intercom system. "I took one of my tapes to school and told my friend [who was in charge of announcements] to play it after the morning announcements, as everyone was heading to class," Jin says. "And I had to give him $5, but he did it. Next thing you know, everybody in the hall went crazy. That was my first taste of stardom and led me to further pursuing my career."

Throughout his years at North Miami Beach Senior High School, Jin continued to refine his skills -- despite what he describes as an "almost nonexistent" hip-hop scene in South Florida. When he moved to New York shortly after 9/11, his career began to take off.

In early 2002, Jin auditioned for a freestyle battle tournament on the popular BET hip-hop show 106 & Park. It was fiercely competitive, with the participants trading jabs and the audience deciding the best insults. And as the only Asian in a group of 250 hopefuls, Jin was quickly reminded of his Chinese heritage. In the tournament's second round, an MC named Sterling rapped, "I'm the star, he's just the rookie/Leave rap alone, keep making fortune cookies."

Jin anticipated this line of attack -- after all, he had been hearing it all his life -- and deftly replied: "You wanna say I'm Chinese, well here's a reminder/Check your Timbs and they'll probably say 'Made in China. '"

"Stereotypes and racial slurs exist in all of society, so it wasn't a complete shock," Jin recalls. "In a battle, it's just a little more blatant. And [the racial slurs] just showed me that they couldn't think of any other angles, so they had to go there. There's no beating around the bush about [my ethnicity], and it still gets brought up today. But I'm not ashamed of it. I embrace it. It's who I am."

Impressed by both his skills and his moxie, the executives at Ruff Ryder signed Jin in April 2002. But it would take more than two years to put out his debut album. "I tried to develop as an artist, figure out what I stood for and what I had to say on the mic," Jin says. "And once I figured that out, everything was smooth."

From The Rest Is History, it's clear that Jin's patience and reflection paid off. On the album, he sounds confident. Armed with the sharp, punch line-laced flow of legendary West Coast MC Ras Kas, his lyrics convey the sort of tongue-in-cheek satirical bite of Eminem. On the Just Blaze-produced track "Club Song," Jin mocks the requisite inclusion of the club banger, while the album's opening skit pokes fun at his place among his label's tawdry gangsta reputation.

While Jin's lyrics don't needlessly loiter around gangsta rap tropes, "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" does add a unique and distinctly Eastern twist to the sub-genre. Over a bare-bones beat, Jin constructs an intricate narrative set in NYC's Chinatown. The song -- part Jon Woo and part Big L -- finds the nexus between modern Chinese-American culture and the project purgatory of his rugged Ruff Ryders label mates: greed, betrayal, and violence.

Cultural critique has already overshadowed much of Jin's music, but throughout The Rest Is History, Jin's roots are grounded, and nowhere as effectively as on "Same Cry." As the track's producer, Mr. Devine, lays down a sweetly sublime guitar signature, Jin rhapsodizes about Tiananmen Square, infanticide, SARS, and other ills that have affected China and Japan. In the song's final verse, he seems willing to accept the hefty weight that has been thrust upon his shoulders: "I got some big shoes to fill/But if I don't lead a movement, who will?"

In our interview, Jin is a bit more ambiguous about his role in the movement. "I feel that if I do good, I can open doors," he says. "But it's not something that I can determine. It's not in my control. What's in my control is my career and that I work hard and put all my effort into it. My Asian fans understand that and just want me to be myself."

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