Growing up, I had two life goals. The first was to own a half-dog, half-monkey that I would call a “donkey” (pronounced “dunky”). The second was to become a Grammy-winning, multiplatinum rap star. Needless to say, I have failed on both accounts, rendering my life, so far, an abject failure. But while my dream of owning a donkey may be a biological impossibility, my rap dream lives on. So for all you record execs out there, reach for a tissue box — This is my story.
I. LI’L GANGSTA
In 1997, I bought the cassette tape of the album No Way Out by Puff Daddy and the Family. It was the first piece of music that I had ever owned, which made it all the more special. Despite its explicit content, the album spoke exclusively to the sensibilities of Asians with money-grubbing tunes (“It’s All About the Benjamins”), internationalist flavor (“Been Around the World”), and slow, lispy talkers (Mase, who became my personal favorite member of the Family). It was also an added bonus that when Mase rapped about “living in tenements”, “tenements” sounded an awful lot like “Tiananmen,” which I used when arguing with my Chinese parents over the artistic merits of what they believed was devil music.
Despite my parents’ objections, I started secretly collecting tapes (and later CDs) of rappers like Mase, B.I.G., Tupac, Jay-Z, and yes, even Ja Rule. I printed out lyrics and kept them in a 101 Dalmations folder, trying to cover my rap obsession as innocuously as I could. I began going to Barnes and Noble just to read The Source magazine. For my eighth-grade art project, I did a pencil drawing of Tupac. In music class, I played a censored version of Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up” as my contribution to the list of the “best songs of all-time” (the other nominees included a crapload of Beatles/Stones/Elvis nonsense).
I spent most of my time, however, just huddling with my Walkman (and later, Sony Discman). I practiced rapping, channeling my no-good, big-tyme, gangsta self (rap name, Li’L T, with capital letters exactly like tHaT). Sure, I was a twelve-year old Asian girl from the suburbs who had never been shot at, but I had faithful dreams of rap stardom. I wasn’t trying to be nobody’s hero — I just wanted to be heard.1
II. THE DISILLUSIONING REALITY
On December 11, 1997, I wrote a letter to the editors of NBA Inside Stuff in which I asked them to put me in touch with Penny Hardaway, Stephon Marbury, and Grant Hill. I thought that once I developed a correspondence with my favorite basketball players 2, I could ask them to join my new rap venture, tentatively called The Chop Suey Bunch. My solo act as Li’L T was going nowhere: I’d already penned a handful of songs, but I was getting very little traction outside of middle school. Thankfully, I’d become socially aware enough to understand that awkward-Asian-girl-rapping was never going to become a phenomenon, so I had to find a worthy performer to “spit my rhymes” (if I couldn’t rap, I had to make up for it with ghetto-talk).
Thus, I turned my attention towards recruiting performers to lend me their street cred. They would be the ones to perform my songs, go on tour, and wear balloon pants in a strobe-light-filled music video. And honestly, who wouldn’t want to rap to these lyrics?
(The following are verses from actual raps I wrote. Keep in mind I was 12 or 13, and obviously really weird. Special thanks to my dad for keeping these embarrassing computer files in a folder labeled “Teresa Raps”.)
I look in my fridge / It’s really kind of gross
Mold is growing on the bread / Like the kind on my toes
Oh there is a squeak / I know it’s a mouse
They’re always in the fridge / And all around my house
I hear a huge snort / Sounds like a person I know
But it’s really my dog / His name is Joe Shmoe
I was born in Indiana / On May 26th I came out screaming
Everyone was happy / Everyone was beaming
‘Cause I came into the world
‘Cause I came into the world
Everyone was happy
‘Cause I came into the world
As you can see, I had immense talent (and ego, as evidenced by “This World”). But after months of waiting, I never heard back from NBA Inside Stuff, or any of the other would-be performers (Chris Rock, Shaq, and the editors of The Source) I reached out to. Their implicit rejection was disheartening. It was also a wake-up call.
III. NO WAY OUT
By the summer of 1999, my rap dreams were pretty much over. I’d just started high school, Mase had gone into retirement, and a cutie-white-boy band called N’Sync had become my new obsession. My experiment with rap looked merely like a passing phase, allowing my parents to finally exhale.
They should have known, though, that weird teenage phases never die. And that’s what’s great about phases–much like rap in the 90s, they embody the naivete of youth, encouraging our older, wiser selves to reconnect with our silly young dalliances. So even though I failed to achieve commercial success as a hip-hop star, now, more than ten years later, I still have an eerie recall of late-90s rap lyrics. And at times, I’ve even been able to use this talent for good. One night at a bar in Boston, after perfectly reciting the lyrics to Jay-Z’s “Can I Get A”, I finally got the words I had longed to hear: “Hey girl, you are STREET!” 3
You best believe it, son.
For those who may still be doubting my rap abilitiez, I just want to leave you with this final song, dated January 8, 1997. As of today, I’m still unsigned by the major record labels, but I know it won’t be long.
I have a cat named Carrot-Top / Also a fish named Fanny
My lizard’s name is Lizard / And also a rabbit named Granny
My parrot is named Bubba / My snake’s name is Spence
My pig’s name is Hamburger Bun / I got a frog for eighty cents
And just a note: I didn’t have any pets growing up. See, now that shows the breadth of my creativity.
Li’L T out.
1. This is a quote from Puff Daddy’s “It’s All About the Benjamins”, which includes one of my favorite lines of all-time: “Tryin’ to get my hands on some Grants like Horace.” Classic.
2. Don’t judge me for liking Stephon Marbury. He was good once.
3. Fine, this was said by a white guy, but it still counts, right?