Left To Right: DJ Virman, J-Spliff, Kev Nish, Prohgress
Far East Movement? The name might not ring a bell, but you've probably heard their songs before. The California rap trio's impressive resume includes spins on premier radio stations (L.A.'s Power 106), and music being featured on prominent television shows (CSI: Miami, Entourage ) and Hollywood blockbusters ("Round Round" in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift and "Girls On The Dance Floor" in Get Him to the Greek). Originally formed by Kev Nish, Prohgress, and J-Spliff (DJ Virman joined later on) in Koreatown, Los Angeles, the three high school friends started out performing shows to raise money for a local drug rehab center. As time went on, the clique pushed their careers with an impressive DIY approach that earned them two world tours, a string of music videos, and two full-length albums.
As they became regulars on L.A.'s airwaves, reps at Interscope Records took notice, which led to an introduction to Martin Kierszenbaum, president of Cherrytree Records (Lady Gaga, LMFAO) and a co-sign from Interscope Chairman Jimmy Iovine. Within a year, the three friends from K-Town were officially signed to the same record label they had interned at nearly a decade before. Although busy finishing up their Cherrytree/Interscope debut, which features Snoop Dogg, Bruno Mars, and Lil Jon, and promoting their new single, "Like A G6," Kev Nish, and Prohgress got on the phone with Complex to talk about watching movies with Jimmy Iovine, how the Beastie Boys influenced them, and what it felt like to have their songs played on the big screen.
Interview by Jaeki Cho
Complex: Where's J-Spliff?
Prohgress: He's working on a lot of our merchandise and product development right now.
Complex: Still doing things DIY, huh?
Kev Nish: Definitely. Everything from t-shirts to stickers, we do it ourselves. It's like a sweatshop. [Laughs.]
Complex: Tell us how you guys first started.
Kev Nish: We were all friends in high school who used to freestyle in parking lots. It wasn't until '03 that we actually bought a microphone and hooked it up to one of those big computers and recorded a few songs and started doing shows. We put together the first multicultural hip-hop event in Koreatown. We just printed out 5,000 flyers and went to every single event and passed them out. The show actually sold out and we were like, "Yo, this is kind of serious."
Complex: I heard you guys first started doing shows to raise money for a drug rehab center.
Prohgress: Yeah, we had a close relationship with them because they helped a lot of our friends.
Kev Nish: Back then we didn't really know how to officially do things, so we just gave them a bag of cash. No official checks. It was funny.
Prohgress: They didn't get any tax write-offs.
Complex: [Laughs.] I first heard you guys on "Food Fight," which featured Jin. He referred to you guys as "The Far Easty Boys."
Kev Nish: That was a huge, huge, huge honor. We grew up on the Beastie Boys. I don't want to say that's the reason why we have three members and a DJ, but it's definitely a huge inspiration to our music as far as the way they flow, [their] party lifestyle, and free spirit in [their] lyrics. I can never imagine that we would be close to anything that they are because in my eyes, they're one of the greatest.
Prohgress: They really didn't think inside the box at all. They were just doing whatever they felt like doing, which is really dope. We're trying to emulate...helping non-profits, or doing whatever we can. If you look at some of the steps they took, they went on tour with Madonna and that was one of the first tours they did. I remember reading in Russell Simmons' book that they got booed during the tour, but kept going. I mean, we didn't get booed when we went out with Lady Gaga, but we went out with her. And she's like the Madonna of our time. Seeing those types of things, we feel like we're going in the right direction.
Complex: Speaking of Lady Gaga, how did you guys go on tour with her?
Kev Nish: That was actually our label, Cherrytree Records. They went to check out a couple of our live shows and they set us up with Gaga's management. They specifically told us that they don't usually let too many openers go on, but they checked out our stuff and gave us a shot. The first show was kind of like a test run, and it garnered some good reaction, so they kept us on. Meeting her and seeing her show was a huge inspiration for us. I've never seen anything in such high scale like that.
Prohgress: She's such a perfectionist. Four shows in a row, we didn't see one mistake from her. To see where she's at, and to see what she can do, it was a very inspirational for us.
Complex: Who helped you guys with the deal with Interscope?
Kev Nish: It was our current manager, Ted Chung, and the Stereotypes production crew. I think Interscope started getting wind of us through "Girls on the Dance Floor" since it was doing pretty well out here in L.A. The radio promoters for Interscope, Nino Cuccinello and Brian Gray, brought us to the office for the first meeting, and told us, "We need to hear more music." So we went in with the Stereotypes, who produced pretty much the whole album, brought it back, and they loved it. They took us to Jimmy Iovine's house and we were there watching a movie with Jimmy Iovine, Quincy Jones, and will.i.am. We were flipping out! And afterward, they were like, "Yo, let's do this." From then on they were really interested because we surrounded ourselves with the right producers, and they thought it was cohesive. It also happened to be a sound that we were trying to cultivate.
Complex: Did either Quincy or will.i.am say anything about the music?
Prohgress: It was just movie night. Inglorious Bastards will forever be remembered as the turning point of our careers.
Kev Nish: Yeah, I need to buy a copy.
Complex: That's funny, since you guys interned at the label at one point.
Kev Nish: Yeah, I used to intern at Arista, and then I transferred to Interscope. We actually interned for our publicist now, Greg Miller. [Laughs.] I remember 50 Cent would come in when he was first doing "Wanksta," and we would get lunch for G-Unit. The thing is, I lied and said that I had a high school diploma and I was going to college, but I wasn't. I just wanted to be there and learn whatever we could. When we finally realized we wanted to work on music, everyone was supportive and we always stayed in touch.
Complex: Proh, I know you went to law school. Was it a difficult decision for you to do music as a full-time career?
Prohgress: At first, I told my parents I was going to be anything but a musician because they're both musicians. That's why I went into law. But music was what made me happy. The first time my parents heard it, like any other Asian parents they were hesitant and called it a hobby, and we fought about it. I dropped out of law school at one point, but we eventually found a point of understanding and I finished my schooling. Now they're like our best supporters. To be honest with you, it was hell going through it, but I'm happy that I did now since we can apply what I learned at school on a daily basis.
Complex: "Round Round," "Lowridin," and "You've Got A Friend" did well on local radio, but never went past that. Did you guys ever think, "Maybe it's just not going to work out"?
Kev Nish: Oh, man, totally. When spins stop at a certain market you start to think, "What am I doing wrong?" But what always kept us moving was the fact that just like a doctor, if it's slow, he's still a doctor. We had to re-innovate our own music, so we were like, "Let's just put ourselves on tour." We started learning by meeting different DJs; they're our biggest inspiration. We think about how people react to the music, and that's how we construct a lot of our songs. We try to make it very crowd-friendly. That's when we came back with "Girls on the Dance Floor."
Prohgress: If there's no plan B, there's no plan C. I mean, there's no way that things can't work. We found other creative ways to get ourselves out there. We got our first publishing deal, which got us a bunch of spots on Entourage, MTV, and that kept us going. As long as there's a will, there's a way. Sounds cliché and all, but that's kind of the way we feel about it.
Complex: Since Kev mentioned "Girls On The Dance Floor," tell us how that got placed in Get Him to the Greek?
Prohgress: That was another thing set up through our people. [Boutique Publishing] just threw it to anybody they could. We found out a week before the movie premiered. The day the movie came out, I don't think I'd ever gotten more text messages in my life.
Complex: You guys are working with Snoop Dogg, and other well-known artists for your major label debut. What's the status on that?
Kev Nish: We're practically done. We have about two songs left. Working with some of these people who I was a huge fan of... the song with Snoop called "If I Was You (OMG)" is completed. Bruno Mars wrote few songs with us, and he's a good friend. Sean Kingston makes an appearance. The Stereotypes, they're producing a majority of our album. A lot of it is them coming to our live shows and really knowing what we're about. Our first single is most likely going to be a slow mid-tempo joint called "Rocketeer." It's about a girl you love, you want to take her away, and letting her know you love her and want to show her the world. We usually do club songs, but we just wanted to reach in and give 'em some emotions. We're big fans of simplifying things lyrically now, but it's definitely more heartfelt for us to expand things. Luckily, Interscope and Jimmy Iovine are behind that song, which really shocked us. The whole building is buzzing about it.
Complex: What's the relationship between you guys and Bruno Mars?
Kev Nish: We first saw him on MySpace, and he happened to know our producers. So I messaged him, but he didn't message me back. [Laughs.] This was a long time ago. It wasn't until later he started hearing our songs on the radio and he hit up Stereotypes. He actually co-wrote "Girls on the Dance Floor." That was our first breakout song. And from then we just always hung out in the studio together. He did a song for our Internet album, Animal, and he's written like four songs on the new album we're working on. He's the most creative, yet humble, dude we know in the game.
Prohgress: That guy is the real deal. Whatever you put in front him, whether it's an instrument, a computer, a video camera, he can make up a dope piece of music no matter what.
Complex: Is there a possible date for the album?
Kev Nish: Not sure yet. We're working on our first single, and that'll probably set up the timeline for the rest of the year.
Complex: Since you mentioned doing club songs, I recall the group initially took on a more traditional hip-hop sound. What changed the music?
Kev Nish: A lot of it has to do with dealing with DJs. We're proud of the stuff we made before, but when we were making those songs we always felt like we were trying to mimic who we were the biggest fans of. We wanted to take it to a new place. I know it might sound easier, but it was way more of a challenge than just going on a whim and trying different beats with simpler rhymes. It took us some time before we figured out something that fit.
Prohgress: Like Kev said, we got to travel. The one thing that's consistent throughout the world is that they love good-natured music. And it's also the type of music we like to make right now. If we're feeling good about something, than why not write a song about it?
Complex: Do you guys ever suspect that people don't respect your lyricism because your music is more geared towards having fun?
Kev Nish: As much as we're fans of lyricism, that's not the angle we're trying to approach. When people come to see our shows, hopefully they'll understand where we're coming from. Some of the biggest music we were fans of back in the days, it wasn't necessarily about technicality, but it was more about style and vibe. I don't want to say we don't care because that's being snooty. We just do us, and we're proud to geek out.
Prohgress: No doubt. We have so much respect for all these lyricists. I mean, Eminem's new comeback is great. People that do that kind of stuff are amazing. To compare us to those types of people is crazy. How can you?
Kev Nish: The biggest trip was when we went to a club in New York, and one of the top ten lyricists in my opinion, Talib Kweli, was spinning at a club, and played "Girls on the Dance Floor" without knowing we were there. I was like, "Wow, wow, wow... " So we ran up to the DJ booth, and we were like, "Oh, my gosh, we're like your biggest fans, and that's our song." He was like, "I didn't know you guys were here, but I know the song." That kind of stuff just shows that people in the music industry are changing, too. For Talib to be like, "Yo, this is my jam." I geeked out right there, and got his autograph.
Complex: Your live performance features concepts inspired by electronic music and outer space elements. Where did you guys get the inspiration for that?
Prohgress: We pride ourselves with performances. Before we recorded three songs, we'd already done about 50 live performances. That's the way to connect with people, and we try to invest as much as we can to our live shows. We know these people are taking their time out to come. We remember back in the days when no one would come to our shows so our friends would come to five or six shows in a row. But after three or four, they'll get tired of the same set over and over again. [Laughs.] You got to innovate that stuff. They're sweating, standing up, and their knees are hurting. You have to respect the crowd as much as they respect you.
Kev Nish: The huge part of it was when we were doing shows with LMFAO. Seeing the way they decorate their stage, the way their sets are elaborate, we were like, "We really need to up our game." We didn't really have that much money, so we just took ourselves to a costume store and thought, "Since they can't define the music, let's take it to outer space." So we got the space soundtrack, bought $59.99 outfits, $9.99 helmets, and got through the rest. Luckily, I think the crowd was feeling it, and they vibed out with it.
Complex: Were there any accusations about you guys hopping on a popular trend given that you were doing shows with LMFAO?
Kev Nish: I haven't heard it. I don't know about it elsewhere, but out here we get compared to LMFAO. They took us on tour, and wanted to let their fans know that we're all doing this together. I haven't really heard too much about it. I feel like the music is changing as a whole.
Prohgress: We're making music we have fun making. It's not like hopping on a bandwagon. If that's what you're hearing, if that's what you think is dope, than yo, let's give it a shot. And it's working great.
Complex: There were other Asian American artists that came and went before you guys.
Kev Nish: Oh, man. Yo, Mountain Brothers...
Prohgress: Chan, Jin, Blue Scholars, Visionaries, and Lyrics Born...
Kev Nish: There are so many. Even our manager Ted used to battle at Project Blowed.
Prohgress: He was nice with it.
Kev Nish: Q-Bert, and all the Beat Junkies.
Complex: Some artists like Jin moved to their parents' native countries in Asia and are currently pursuing careers there. What are your thoughts on that?
Kev Nish: I think it was clearly timing. Their skills are undeniable. I think it was where America was at the time, and how people view Asian-Americans. Even now, we haven't done anything in our eyes. We have to see if we do make an impact in the mainstream. I'm so proud to see them doing what they do internationally, and we are fans of all of them. Anyone we named, we know one way or another.
Prohgress: And I think their timing isn't done yet. A lot of these people, we always say, "They're one record away."
Complex: I heard the latest single ,"Like a G6." On the hook it says, "Sipping sizzurp like Three Six." Are y'all advocates of that?
Kev Nish: Oh, nah. We advocate partying, but we don't advocate that for the kids at all. We ain't going to shy away from that, though. We like to have fun. That's all I have to say. In my verse when I say sizz, I'm actually saying pouring champagne making it sizzle. We know we're role models, but at the same time, when we're in the studio we don't hold back.