Thu, Jul 03, 2003 - Page 16 News List

A Houston homeboy returns to Taiwan

Witness is the stage name of Jeremy Huang, a hip-hop artist with a musical quest

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , HOUSTON, TEXAS

Apple pie and oolong tea.

In the Houston home where rapper Jeremy Huang grew up, this is what his mother graciously offers a guest -- an East-meets-West treat that mirrors Huang's international urban music experiment.

After years of struggling in a US hip-hop scene with few other Asian-American artists, Huang, aka Witness, has taken his turntable beats and rhymes to his parents' homeland of Taiwan.

For more than three years, Huang commuted 17 hours by plane between Los Angeles, to record music, and Taipei, to get it heard. He finally moved to Taiwan's capital about two years ago to pursue a record deal.

Escaping rejection in the US and bidding to become the Eminem of Taiwan is a novel musical quest with its own barriers. In Taiwan, Huang will be a test case for Western hip-hop -- with the advantage of physically resembling his audience. If it doesn't work, he reasons he'll be no worse off than he was in the US.

"The first time I went to Taiwan and told record companies I wanted to do hip-hop, every one of them thought I was crazy," says Huang, 27, who is known only by his stage name overseas.

"No one had ever done a full hip-hop album there before. No one thought it would work."

That didn't stop Huang from finding a deal with Swed Records, a hip-hop subsidiary of the major Asian label Rock Records. His debut, tentatively titled WitnessThis, is scheduled to be in stores in Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore by October. The first single, Don't Cry, has already been released. There are currently no plans for a US release.

"Right now there aren't as many problems as before with getting a rap album released in Taiwan," says Witness' manager Roger Lee. "But most of the so-called hip-hop in Taiwan is based on dancing and party music.

"To a talented artist like Jeremy and to [Swed], the challenge lies in not going with the flow."

As he waits for the album to hit the streets, Witness is becoming known in Taipei music circles. Stories about him and Taiwan-born peers Dog G and MC Hot Dog ("The names sound better in Chinese," Huang says, laughing) have appeared on MTV Asia and a local Chinese-language daily.

Still, the blunt perspectives and aggressive approach of American rap can induce culture shock in Taipei, a city more influenced by China than by affluent Hong Kong or Singapore.

Long before Huang knew hip-hop would take him to Taiwan, his interest in the lifestyle was taking hold.

He was born in Houston and grew up in the early 1980s just outside the 610 West Loop, where he saw older kids breakdancing on cardboard to a blaring boombox. He watched them from his sister's bedroom window, fascinated more by the grooves than the moves.

As a student at T.H. Rogers School, Huang got his start as a disc jockey, spinning records for a school dance. He continued scratching and mixing while attending Stratford and Bellaire high schools in the early 1990s.

While at the University of Texas as a speech communications major, he made pocket money keeping beats alive at hotel parties and clubs in Austin and Houston.

"All my friends were really into math and science. [But] English was my forte. I liked writing essays and poems," Huang says. "In college I had no idea what I wanted to do. I just knew I loved to write and loved to perform."

His mother, Susan, a software engineer and his father, Floyd, a marketing and sales manager for a small Taiwanese security systems company, hoped their son would use his education in a literary or teaching profession.

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