How a North Korean Shopkeeper in Compton Helped Bring Gangster Rap to Japan
Kirk Kim, a Korean American business owner in the heart of Compton, California is frequently asked by journalists to make some societal-defining comment on race relations between Korean shop owners and African-American consumers. The infamous 1992 LA riots are undoubtedly responsible. For Kirk, the reality is less violent and more poetic. His father, Wan Joon, who passed away last month at age 79, was known as the unofficial Godfather of Gangster Rap. After immigrating from North Korea with his wife Boo Ja in the early 80s, he opened a 100-square-foot stall named Cycadelic Records in the Compton Fashion Center swap meet. Cycadelic became an institution for burgeoning and legendary gangster rappers— giving them a chance for their music to be heard when other distributors and shops wouldn’t.
“We have so many regulars that have been coming in over the years,” says Kirk. “My father knew these guys and looked out for them. After the riots, there was a lot of bashing we’d read about, but my parents never felt that. I don’t know if my parents were blessed, but there are a lot of good people in the neighborhood and so many great stories of people coming back to say hi to my Dad and thank him for giving them a chance.”
“He and my mom always talked about Eazy E and Snoop Dogg who came in back in the day, but he didn’t really like rap, he loved the [rappers],” says Kirk. “There were certain songs he kind of ended up liking, because he’d play music really loud. Cypress Hill’s Dr. Greenthumb a lot and Club Nouveau’s Rumors.”
Although Wan Joon’s English wasn’t so hot, his Japanese (due to Japan’s occupation of Korea) was fluent. This proved advantageous for the Kims. Gangster rap was growing in popularity in Japan by an Americana obsessed-Japanese youth.
“Japanese people are obsessed with gangster rap,” says Kirk. “They would hear about my Dad and they liked that familiarity for them so they would come out to Compton to the swap meet to buy as much music as they could. They’d take it back to Japan where they were able to mark it up 1000 percent!”
One Japanese visitor posted an ad in Japan’s Lowrider Magazine simply stating that if anyone had plans to come to Compton, that they absolutely had to go to the swap meet and check out Cycadelic.
“We get Japanese visitors four to five times a day now,” says Kirk who’s watched the neighborhood’s demographic and repertoire of music change from mostly African-American to largely Hispanic. “I had to hire a Japanese worker because I don’t speak Japanese.”
The stall still sees many of the customers who bought their local music and new releases from Kirk’s parents. He estimates a steady flow of 50 to 100 people come in a day with roughly 70 percent buying and selling CDs and used DVDs. (Many neighborhood residents don’t have cable and there are no video stores nearby, says Kirk.) These days, European tourists and fans come as well. Still, business overall has slowed. To generate more revenue, Kirk runs online stores with eBay and Amazon in the US and has online auctions and an Amazon Japan online store. Cycadelic wholesales to other swap meets in LA and in New Mexico. Kirk also handles the marketing, promoting heavily through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and at car shows.
As the Japanese market for gangster rap grew, Kirk saw an additional opportunity with the loyal fan base and started the record label World Famous Cycadelic Records.
“I produce the music of local artists that were big in the heyday of gangster rap,” says Kirk. “Some were huge back in the day and went to prison and now they’re struggling to get back and do it again. I’m working with them to bring them back. Japanese fans have been a big part of their success.”
Kirk and his artists have been touring Japan doing shows over the last few years. Under the Cycadelic label Kirk represents the once legendary BG Knocc Out and King Lil G, a Chicano rapper whose song “Letter to Dr. Dre” got two million hits on YouTube. There’s also: OG Rome, Mr. Tan, Lil Yogi, Mayor (Mud Dollaz), Mr. Capone-e, Mr. Criminal and DPG.
“We’re booking shows across Japan,” says Kirk. “They love Chicano rap and lowriders. They’re obsessed with the culture. They come to car shows and ship lowriders to Japan. It’s amazing! I’ve seen them bring Chicano tattoo artists and car airbrushers out for a few months to teach people how to design with Chicano style. They’re just soaking up our urban culture, speaking slang perfectly to the T, and then don’t actually speak English.”
Next up for Kirk is a Cypress Hill show in September that he’s coordinated and promoting. Looking forward, his long-term plan is to bridge West Coast independent artists and mainstream artists for show tours in Japan and eventually start producing crossover shows with Japanese gangster rappers and related talent.
“My Dad and Mom really loved those guys and getting to know them and supporting them,” says Kirk. “It means a lot when people come in and ask for him and share stories of what he did for them. I know he would have had fun doing this with me as it gets bigger and bigger.”
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Image of Wan Joon and Boo Ja with DJ Quik courtesy of Kirk Kim