Escaping L.A. with DANakaDAN
A couple weeks ago Giant Robot Media and The Wheelhouse hosted DANakaDAN's album release party in the Arts District of Los Angeles. In anticipation for his upcoming album, GRM sat down with DAN and asked him a few questions about the new release. DAN is also well known for his documentary on his personal story as an adoptee. On a path to learn about his story and how he ended up in the U.S. from South Korea, DAN documented his journey to meet his biological family.
By George Ko
Photos by Kevin Vu Kim. Video edited by Sharon Choi.
Giant Robot: For this project, you released a Youtube video talking about how you were inspired by “Master of None” to release multiple albums at a time.
DANakaDAN: Yeah. The whole project is called “All I Ever Wanted was Everything,” with the goal being to release four albums in the upcoming year. I was inspired by “Master of None” because it was full of ideas about being a second-generation immigrant, and being alive in a highly multicultural world.
So the first album, “Escape from L.A.,” focuses on identity: figuring out what you want to be and how you want to leave a legacy within your community. This means it confronts family, love and anxiety.
GR: One of the singles you released was “Runners,” which had lyrics about making mistakes and losing your way. Did this song reflect any specific moment in your life?
D: The song “Runners” encompasses the entire album, which is why it's the first single. At the beginning the song is about me being at a place in my life where you don't want to confront the things you know are issues, but by the end of the song you finally understand you can't be in control of those things. You accept that life comes at you, and it's up to you whether or not you escape or face those problems.
Honestly, the song fits every single part of my life; it wasn't necessarily inspired by one specific moment, but by the entire journey.
GR: Is there a specific theme for each mini-album?
D: People write music to relate or to escape, and they also listen to music to relate or escape. What I want to do is provide songs people can relate to – not necessarily just Asian American people, although a lot of my songs are about being Asian American – because I don't think there are many songs that address those themes in a way that's relatable to our generation. There are songs that address feelings of anxiety and hurt, but it's done for escapism.
The next album is called “Yellow Face,” and will be addressing race head-on. Every album after this will be a mini EP with three songs. I haven't decided what the next two are going to be about; I'm going to see what I'm inspired by at that moment of my life.
GR: An interesting thing about your music is the way you encourage live recording and interacting with musicians, rather than just rapping along to a pre-recorded track. What is that kind of music creation like?
D: When I create music, it’s important that it's authentic to who I am, and my eclectic alternative background. I always try to use live instrumentation in my songs. The last album was heavily electronic and mostly samples, so I'm excited about doing more live music, because that's what has been driving me lately. The new album has different sounds from hip-hop to electronica to rock, and that's the way I ultimately want my albums to sound.
GR: Are there any artists that influenced this new sound?
D: I should have that at the top of my mind, but I can't think of any specific influence. Some of the tracks are dark, trappy pop though, which is just the sound of the times.
GR: Do you think this sound is drastically different from your past work?
D: It's an extension of the previous work. It's definitely in line with my brand and the music people would expect from me, but it's a progression because I'm now a better writer, performer and storyteller. Though there's less rock influence because I've started to listen to more electronic music.
GR: Does your music start with lyrics and rhymes that dictate the song, or do you have an idea of the sound first?
D: Sometimes I'll have something in my brain and start writing lyrics that I can give to a producer with a general direction. But sometimes I'll hear a beat first and start writing from that. The song “Can’t Hold Me” is one of my favorite tracks, and an example of where I wrote to the beat really easily.
There are other tracks that are the result of writer's block and forcing out a song, but it won't be the best thing I've written.
GR: How did you design the logo for your album?
D: I had this idea of flipping the L.A. symbol on its head. It’s not super original; there’s no way I invented this idea. Then I added an arrow to symbolize movement and escape towards a brighter future, so it goes along with the album title. A shout-out to Haley Matsumoto who designed the logo! I do want to build on it by making some merchandise too, so hopefully it turns into a bigger brand.
GR: You’re also a director and producer for International Secret Agents (ISA), a platform that celebrates Asian culture. How do you balance that life with being a musician?
D: ISA is the brainchild of Wong Fu Productions and Far East Movement, and I've been so lucky to work with them. Over the last few years, we've been able to produce concerts, documentaries and music videos, while working with incredible up-and-coming talent within our community.
As a creator, I owe a lot to ISA; they allowed me to elevate my game and improve my process. With regards to balancing both worlds, what I learned is that everything I do with ISA connects to my own work. It’s great to see it continue to grow, and hopefully impact people positively.
GR: One of the things you're most well-known for is being an adoptee, and giving a microphone to that issue. You even made a documentary about meeting your biological family and your identical twin brother.
D: It's been great being involved in the Korean adoptee community because of my connection to the Asian American entertainment community. I've made it a goal of mine to elevate those stories, since adoptees are just a sliver of the conversation about Asian Americans.
There are two documentary series: the personal one on Youtube where I met my biological family for the first time. Even non-adoptees were interested in this idea of coming from a different background and feeling lost in another country because your family is different.
Then I also got to work on a sequel where I followed five other adoptees and documented their stories. I’m just thankful these people wanted to share their stories, and hopefully I did it in a respectful way.
Most importantly, I think it's allowed people around the world who are adopted to see this content. It's not their story, but just the fact that some accessible content exists means the world to adoptees. So that's been heartwarming and important to me.
GR: Growing up, did you have any experiences facing Asian stereotypes?
D: There were experiences of feeling marginalized, but I think that's just being a minority in America. It's not a blessing that we have to go through that, but it definitely builds character. I think great art comes from struggle. Not that I wish difficult times on anybody, but those who get through everything in a positive manner are able to create amazing things. So sure, others made fun of me, but so be it.
My advice for any kid going through tough times is to just know that you're going to be an interesting person when you get older. It doesn’t reflect on you, but on the other person poorly as an individual.
GR: Was there an Asian community you were a part of as a kid?
D: There weren’t many Asian kids, but I still lived in Southern California, so it was more than people in other states. But when I needed them, they were there. I still felt very different from those Asian kids in high school – more left out than when I hung out with the non-Asian kids I was brought up with.
But I got involved in community service organizations where there happened to be a lot of Asian kids. Through that I was able to meet good friends and explore that side of me. From there I only got more involved; it drove me towards what I'm doing now in Asian American media.
GR: How did you first get into music?
D: I was into alternative punk rock and I wanted to start a band. But I couldn't sing or play guitar, so I needed an outlet to express myself. I started writing and rapping even though I wasn't good. Linkin Park was a huge inspiration because it incorporated both my love of rap and alternative music. As an angsty teen that was my groove; plus Mike Shinoda was a figure I could look up to. When I got to college I kept pursuing music and it got better.
After college I kept on doing it. Thank goodness I've been able to make this a career. Who can say they're a rapper for a living? That's stupid; nobody should be able to say that. But I can. I'm thankful for that.
GR: Even though you have an established career, you're still spearheading every part of the production of your concerts. Do you have a certain set of principles for your work?
D: I do think I'm well disciplined. I’m constantly doing stuff. The bad part is I wake up in the middle of the night with ideas and I can't get back to sleep. The good part is that part of me is aggressive about trying to do things and get projects. I was able to develop that at a young age thanks to my parents and the people I was surrounded with.
GR: What’s next for you? Is there anything you dream of doing?
D: I’ve got three more music videos that I want to film, and I'm already working on the next album, which should be out by February of next year. That's my goal.
After all the albums I won't be putting out music every few months, so I'm excited about the opportunities from a global standpoint. Recently, I had a chance to go out to Singapore and perform. I want to perform in more locations around the world, so hopefully in five years I've been able to continue making music and pushing it out. I'd love to work on more adoptee content as well.
GR: Any dream collaborators?
D: Yuna, who is an amazing singer-songwriter from Malaysia. Her or Mike Shinoda, obviously. Those are high up there; I don't know how those collabs are ever going to happen. But the thought of it inspires me.
DANakaDAN's latest album, "Escape from L.A.," can be found on Spotify.
You can also check out his Youtube channel here.