Sat, Feb 14, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Hanging tough?

Gangsta rap has come to Taiwan, but fear not-- they're firing blanks

By Max Woodworth  /  STAFF REPORTER

PHOTO: TAIPEI TIMES

We've been here before. Some shifty looking young males loitering on a street corner in East LA amid all the tried-and-true symbols of the ghetto -- the stray 50-gallon drum, the freeway overpasses, the graffiti, the cracked sidewalks and even a bucket of a ghetto ride that lurches to the curb with a boarded-up building in the background. It's a scene that's been played out a zillion times since N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton.

And that's the whole point. We're supposed to immediately recognize the symbolism in the opening shots of Iron Bamboo's (鐵竹堂) video and draw the conclusion that this rap group is only one hair's width away from spraying the entire city. That's how gangsta these guys are. They're just like Tupac or 50 Cent.

But come on; Taiwanese gangsta rappers playing it tough on the mean streets of LA? The credibility meter registers in the negative zone on that one.

Intrigued though, I tracked the band down through their label Alfa Music to arrange an interview and like rock stars, they stalled and delayed several times before a meeting could finally be arranged. Some apprehension set in that the interview might take place in a sketchy crack den or gangster lair, until their manager called to inform me to meet them at a downtown Rose English Tea House -- the type with the frilly curtains and genteel clientele. That didn't sound very gangster at all.

So on the appointed day last month Michael, Vince, Scottie and Jason piled out of a converted van and strutted through the incongruous setting of the Victorian-themed tea house and immediately began apologizing effusively for their late arrival. These guys were so unimposing and polite that, despite their extra-baggy clothes and Scottie's full head of dreadlocks, even the geriatric clientele barely took notice of them.

They introduced themselves with sincere smiles and handshakes and seemed at first to nervously take cues from their manager Jia Jia (嘉嘉), who listened in on the entire interview.

Once the tea and crumpets arrived at the table, Michael, who is definitely the spokesman -- if not the leader of the band -- launched into an eager campaign to convince me that Iron Bamboo were not actually gangsters, although by that time I needed little convincing on this point. "We're just singers, artists trying to make a living," he said.

But if Iron Bamboo are as wholesome as they claim, then why the video filled with guns, girls, drugs and money that got banned from MTV? Why the hard-ass lyrics in For My Brothers (為了我的兄弟) like: "When it comes to my thugz & I, u kno we're da most hardcore/So if you wanna snitch on us, we'll come and settle da score/I know u bitches been itchin to go str8 talk 2 the copz/My boyz n I found out; we gonna roll up on ur blok pop shotz until ur stopped"?

The answer came from Michael, who's been a producer at Alfa for three years and assembled the group through various acquaintances, after Vince knocked on the studio door rhyme-book in hand asking for an audition. "The way we approach our music is like a movie. There are 10 movies in this album. It's entertainment. If you can do it for the movies, you can do it for music."

Sure enough, if Iron Bamboo are actors then they've boldly tackled almost every theme that's worked for the African-American forebears of the music they're assimilating.

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