The Asian hiphop scene has been creeping up on us, with artists like Higher Brothers making waves with their banger “Made in China”, VAVA’s “My New Swag” featuring in Crazy Rich Asians, and not to mention other names like Jay Park, GRAY, G2, Ramengvrl and Suboi.
On 15 April, the Asian edition of YO! MTV Raps made its debut, hosted by Singaporean rapper Yung Raja and LA-native DJ Kim Lee. The original YO! MTV Raps ran from 1988 to 1995, and this reboot aims to celebrate the diversity of rappers in the booming Asian hiphop community. In the episodes, the hosts sit down and chat with the artists about their experiences, work and process, giving us greater insight into their art.
We were privileged to speak to Kim Lee, who is as talented as she is absolutely stunning. Born and raised in LA, Kim always knew she wanted to go into the entertainment industry, and after a colourful career in photography and modelling, realised that music was her passion. Mentored by Apl De Ap of the iconic Black Eyed Peas, she has built a name for herself and gone on to achieve an impressive repertoire of DJ gigs, from Ultra Korea and China and the Mad Decent Boat Party, even opening for Steve Aoki.
Professional, friendly and down-to-earth, she is a joy to work with. The interview is light-hearted and genuine, peppered frequently with her laughter.
ON HER MANY MANTLES
Kim wears many hats. She is a pianist, a model, a host, a DJ. When asked how she would describe herselt, she says “Oh, I’ll keep it simple. I’m a DJ.” Needless to say, she is proud— and rightfully so— of what she is doing, and believes she has found her passion.
ON HOW SHE BEGAN HER DJ CAREER
“I’ve always known I wanted to do something in entertainment, but I didn’t know what. To me, photography is art, you get to create memories. So I did that for a while, I did many covers for magazines like Maxim, for FHM, all over Asia, and after that I was like, wait! I realised that my true passion was music.
Long story short, I was hanging out with my really good friends the Black Eyed Peas before they parted ways, and they were in the middle of wanting to manage different artists, different DJs. So they hit me up, said they wanted to manage me as a DJ, and the timing was perfect because I was wondering, ‘What am I going to do after this?’ They encouraged me, I went to Scratch Academy in LA to learn how to use the turntables and stuff and you know, I believe everything happens for a reason.”
ON DEVELOPING HER DJ CAREER
“Right after that in Vietnam there was big press about me being the biggest DJ in the states, and I didn’t even have a show over there! (laughs) But that did help me. So I went over, did a show for over 30 000 people, and this was when electronic music was so new to Asia but I thought this is a great opportunity, and then my DJ career took off from there.
This is before I started Instagramming, but I’ve always been very good with content, on Facebook, so a lot of people got really curious like “Who is she?” I was very good at posting videos, so I caught a lot of agents and promoters’ attention. From there I opened up for Steve Aoki, and here I am.”
That’s amazing, and you’re part Vietnamese, right? So it must’ve been so nice to go back to your hometown and have people rooting for you.
“Oh yes— it was very heartwarming! There were so many people at the airport waiting for me, I was like, “Why are they waiting for me here?”(laughs) It was a very beautiful and great experience.”
ON A MEMORABLE DJ GIG
“I mean I have so many it’s hard to say… One of the ones I really like in Asia is The Ship— which is here out in Singapore too— I love boat parties, and it was a very interesting, cool experience because it feels like you’re on the Titanic. (Is that good?) Yeah, and the food is amazing; the buffet! It was really nice— but then I get seasick, so after the third day I was like, get me back! (There’s something very nice about being out at sea, like a getaway) Yeah, there you go! But it’s really not a getaway because you’re surrounded by party people. (laughs)”
ON BEING CALLED “ASIAN KIM KARDASHIAN”
“You know, Kim is a beautiful woman, and on top of that, she’s an entrepreneur now, you know what I mean? And it is funny, I went from being called Asian Kim Kardashian to— all of a sudden, I’m looking like Kylie now. (You’ve been doing it much longer though!) (laughs) Yeah, that’s true! So there are people that know I’ve been looking like this for a while. Kylie just started looking like Kylie not too long ago— no offence! She’s beautiful too. I take it as a compliment. They’re both beautiful women.”
ON HOSTING YO! MTV RAPS AND HER RELATIONSHIP WITH HIPHOP
“Oh, yeah. I’m an LA girl, born and raised, so you know, hiphop has been around since I was born. It’s all over the radio, TV, and so I grew into hiphop and I have many friends who are Asian rappers, including Jay Park. (Referring to episode one of YO! MTV Raps) I knew Gray and Woo already, so being the host of YO! MTV Raps was nice because it was like a reunion. Like Suboi, I haven’t seen her in years, so when we taped Yo MTV Raps it was a reunion where we’re so happy to see each other and we finally get to work together. ‘Cos me and her talked about working together for so long, or even a collaboration, so I felt—this is just so perfect. I reconnected with a lot of friends, and I made a lot of new friends on Yo! Now I’m friends with Joe Flizzow, he’s like “Kim! Where you at? Come drink with me!” and I’m like “No!” (laughs) It’s been really fun.
ON THE BEST PART OF HOSTING YO! MTV RAPS
“Getting to know the artists and where they’re from, and interviewing them. One of my favourite segments is Keeping It 100, because yeah, I see [the artists] perform, but sitting down with them and getting to talk to them is deeper. And it’s really interesting to sit with them and get to know their point of view.”
ON THE MOST CHALLENGING PART OF HOSTING YO! MTV RAPS
“Just being on set for a long time, especially for me, because of the time difference. But thank god there’s coffee and red bull and all that stuff, so I managed to pull through.”
ON HER FAVOURITE G-DRAGON TRACK
In her YO! MTV Raps introductory video, Kim expresses her admiration for G-Dragon. Her favourite track is his lively “CRAYON”!
ON ASIAN HIPHOP
“I’ve been a fan of Asian hiphop way before it got popular, and a lot of my friends are Asian rappers. I feel like it is underrated and they’ve been the underdogs for way too long. So I’m really excited to be the host of this show because then we can really show the world what Asian hiphop’s about. It’s really refreshing and exciting.”
ON HER DREAM COLLABORATION WITH AN ASIAN HIPHOP ARTIST
“With Keith Ape. But he wouldn’t collaborate with me (laughs). I’m just joking! He’s gonna ask for money (laughs). Jay Park, VAVA— VAVA’s on the show— um, who else… G-Dragon, who wouldn’t want to collab with him?”
ON ADVICE SHE WISHES SHE HAD STARTING HER DJ CAREER
“I wish I would’ve started sooner! But then again in life, you sometimes find your passion later on.”
PHOTOGRAPHed BY Adele Chan, USING the LEICA M10-P with the SUMMILUX-M 35MM f/1.4 ASPH lens.
MAKEUP BY SUHAINI PUTERA, LAURA MERCIER makeup artist USING LAURA MERCIER COSMETICS.
HAIR BY DEON LIOW, senior stylist FROM SHUNJI MATSUO hv.
The upcoming episode of YO! MTV Raps premieres on Tuesday 30 April, 8pm, at mtvasia.com.