"The only way we are going to get there is to focus on the quality of the music": An interview with Bohan Phoenix

"The only way we are going to get there is to focus on the quality of the music": An interview with Bohan Phoenix

Bohan Phoenix has no interest in treading water.

On the Yaode EP, his latest release, the Brooklyn-via-Hubei rapper invokes the legacy of soul music and enriches kinetic, club-ready music with a spiritual veneer that doesn’t exist in the landscape of viral-hungry, numbers-driven rap. In his most chest-thumping flexes or moments of bare-boned vulnerability, there is nothing about him that is inauthentic. He skews left of neat musical metaphors and although being bilingual is his most common marker, he continues to dashingly defy binary categorisation.

Now, with his debut full-length album on the horizon, Bohan swears that he’s approaching a new peak of his artistry. Recorded with a full band and without conventional hip-hop tools such as 808s, it is consciously trend-averse. This is crucial: Always at the forefront of his niche, Bohan is now in a new universe, one that promises to be big, intricate and powerfully composed.

Before he took the stage at Phuture for his show via Collective Minds, last Saturday, he sat down with us for an involved conversation about his music and the cultural climate it – and we – exist in. Read the interview below.

How's 2019 treating you, so far?

Pretty good! We started off with a tour in China, we did nine cities in 15 days – it was very tiring. I also put out some new music, which is always good because I'm tired of performing the same music all the time. I'm working on my first album, and, yeah, it's been good.

It just feels good to be playing in Singapore again. I like playing here because people understand both English and Mandarin. They get the full range of my expression. So, yeah, it feels good!

Can you take us through the album?

Everything else that I've put out so far has been EPs, which are easier to get done and build a theme around. But for an album that's more than 10 songs, every time I think I'm done, I’m like, "Oh wait, we should do something else!” And because it's my first album, I'm just treating it really carefully, sometimes a little too careful, I think. It's a work in progress. 

There's definitely more band – all band actually. We recorded live instruments but we're arranging it digitally. We're not doing like 808s and shit like that. 

What made you want to get the band in for the album? 

My first EP from back in 2015, lovelove, that was all band. Live music is something that I've always loved. But at the time, I felt like my rapping ability and what was going to give me the initial fanbase wasn't going to be some live shit. I could've been wrong. But I had also just met Howie [Lee] at the time and the music he was making was so interesting, I just jumped on it. That kind of took me into the direction of rapping in more Chinese. So, it's been a journey of finding my way back to live music. My favourite artists are D’Angelo and Erykah Badu – what they do just has more feeling to it. 

In the current singles-dominated climate, what made you want to make a full-length album?

I'm a student of music and I look at everything; it's always been so cyclical, everything always comes back around. Even with people who like listening to singles, at the end of the day, if they like the artist and the artist made a good album, they will listen to the album, too. 

Also, I'm just doing it in the spirit of something that I like doing. Yes, it's a single market but I'm not going to change how I do literally the only thing that I enjoy doing in my life. I enjoy listening to albums from the top to bottom – I'm going to make my album, too. I mean, I have singles, but I'm not going to not make my album. 

Congratulations on the Yaode EP! According to Google translate, it's Mandarin for "can get”. Is that right?

It's literal translation is "can get", but it's like a slang in Chinese which means "fosho" – you can get it, you know, fosho! It's a very confident and cool way of saying "fosho". 

That's why from 'Angels' to 'Yaode' to 'Back in the Days' to 'Iunno', everything on the EP is super confessional. Even the turn-up tracks are that way. Everything on it is very honest and my point is: To be fosho, to be yaode, you kind of have to confront all those things. For example, in 'Angles', I confronted the passing of my father and a lot of other personal stuff as well. 

It's a short project. Mainly, I dropped it because I was doing the China tour and I just wanted some new music to perform. 

Why is it important for you to put the turn-up vibe on hold? 

I’m just tired of it, man. I'm tired of jumping around, I'm tired of the whole EDM-esque rap where it's like "1, 2, 3, turn up!", because it's too easy. When I go to festivals in China, literally, if you close your eyes, you can’t tell the difference from the first rapper to the last rapper. And that’s just in China – it’s almost everywhere in the world now. It's the same shit. I appreciate that, but I just realised that it was kind of what was swaying me to make those types of music. It's still the aspect of feeling insecure on stage; if the crowd isn't jumping around on stage, I'd think, "Am I having a bad show?"

But when I went to Badu's show at Clockenflap, last year, I didn't leave the ground one time but I enjoyed it thoroughly. Right now, we're programmed to react to the music instead of being in the moment and taking it in. And I want to go back that. I want to be able to give listeners a chance to experience that. I had a chance to experience that growing up, but now, a lot of people don't get to experience that. They're programmed to know and to react to the turn up stuff, which is cool, but I just don't feel like everybody's got to be doing that. 

As an artist, how do you make something consciously different, knowing that the public likes the complete opposite of that? 

I guess if you have it, you can tap back into it. When I started making music in 2007-2008, before 88rising, before Rap of China, before the idea that I was going to tour and do shows anywhere outside of my bedroom, I made music for me. I made music that was powered by narrative because the music that I listen to and that made me cry and relate to the people around me, that had different coloured skins and different background, are stories that were so important. 

And now I have people DM me or come up to me after shows and tell me, "Yo, '3 Days in Chengdu' got me through dark times”, or "I'm like a Russian kid born in Johannesburg but now I live in the UK and with 'Overseas', I feel you.” Seeing that my music is affecting other people the way that music affected me is so much more rewarding than someone being like "Yo, that was so lit, bro!"

In the short term, sure, I might make a little less money and my fans might come slower. But for me, it's always been a marathon. I think in the last couple of years in-between making ‘JALA’-s and Yaode-s, I forgot about that, and I'm trying to find my way back to it. 

Credit: Collective Minds

The United States have changed vastly since we first spoke in 2017. What’s your relationship with it like at this moment in time?

I think, since 2017, I found the motherland, China, way more interesting and way more unknown than I thought it was, so I haven't really thought so much about the States other than the fact that I want to have more of an impact with my music there. I would love to win a Grammy, you know? 

In China, I'm finding myself having this really conflicted relationship as to whether I should stay in and keep exploring it or go back to the States where I'm comfortable but also where I want to do more of my more impactful work. In China, the idol culture is so strong, that, for me to keep trying to carve this lane for myself, might be a little futile, at the moment. I think I don't need to be physically present in China to make an impact there. 

And where do you stand on the issue of Asian representation in the current hip-hop climate? 

That's a common question people ask. For me, it started off being like "Okay, I'm getting more blog write-ups now, because they can call me like the 'bilingual rapper' or the 'Asian-American rapper', this is cool!"

But then I realised it was just exoticising yourself, and it's like, "Man, are we really lacking in representation?" Is there somebody that can compete at the levels of Drake, Kendrick and Kanye that's being shadowed over? So, until the quality is there, you can have all the big machines behind it but it's just still going to feel very surface-level. 

Besides that, it just takes time. I mean, look at how long it took for black people to get that fucking Grammy. I was having a very interesting conversation with my friend about this: There are so many Asian kids now who want to be rappers and singers, which is dope. But until the same amount of kids, if not more, want to be music video directors, scriptwriters, music executives and key-holders, until we have kids that aspire to be gatekeepers, it's kind of hard to just be like "Yo, let us in", without it being in a fetishising way. 

Until we have the structure in place, until we have people in positions of power who are of the Oriental, Latino or Indian nature, it's going to be really hard. And the only way we are going to get there is to focus on the quality of the music. Otherwise, you're going to have just decent music or imitations and copies; you can scream you're Asian all you want, you're only going to get your Asian people to support you. The white people and the black people are going to click on your videos because it's fascinating or funny, but they're not going to pay actual money to see you. 

It's really interesting – I think the Internet is creating a lot of false hope for a lot of artists. It's almost really simple in a way: You have to make good music. 

Credit: Collective Minds

Like a lot of countries, hip-hop in Singapore is the most visibly growing subculture. What advice do you have for Asian kids who are in this game? 

I think I'm in no position to give advice. But if I were to say anything, it's just to be true to the ethos, to people out there, whoever wants to listen. I think it's tough enough to get out of bed in today's world, so give yourself a good reason to get out of bed. And the only way you're going to keep getting out of bed for the next 10, 20, 30 years is if you do something you really, really like. You can't be lying to yourself about it, either. 

Whether it's trap, whether it's boom-bap, whatever it is, who gives a fuck what anyone else says because they're not paying you. They're not brushing your teeth. They're not buying you dinner. If you like it, truly like it, you stick with it and you're going to carve a big enough piece of the pie for you to live happily. 

As for the parents and all that, they're never going to understand what you choose to do. And when it comes to your parents, know that they're not going to understand your influences or the type of stress you're under. When they don't understand, instead of fighting them, just explain the best you can and love them. Be there for your parents, let them talk and give their opinions. I showed my mother and I did it for so long that she's like, "Well, if I keep resisting, it's just going to lead to more fights. He's convinced me that this is what he wants to do."

At the end of the day, you just got to convince the world, yourself and the people around you that this is what you want to do. So, yeah, the advice is: Make sure you're doing what you want to do. 

Special thanks to Collective Minds for the interview.