Notorious MSG: Intensifying Musical Flavours
Donning black haired wigs, black jeans and leather vests, Hong Kong Fever (The Ringleader), Down-Lo Mein (The Yello Gigolo) and The Hunan Bomb (Killing Machine) sing in unison: "My face is going to get real red tonight, don't have the enzyme to make it right! My face is going to get real red tonight!" Hong Kong Fever runs almost tip-toe across the stage and slightly juts his hips forward as Down-Lo Mein and The Hunan Bomb dance side-to-side, with arms swaying: "Na! Na! Na! Na! Na! Na! Na! Na! Na! Na! Na!"
This trio is known as Notorious MSG, the Original Chinatown Bad Boys. They are an Asian-born, New York-based band that delivers musical fusions of rock and hip hop in songs that comedically capture the Asian experience, while retaining gritty, bop-your-head sound.
Track in point: Lonely G; a play on the Asian Pop genre of music in tune and lyrics. "You know that I, love-a-you-so, love so long, so long ago. Ask-a-me why, I just don't know. You broke-a-my egg roll when you go. See you here, in your gong. Your love was the meat in my wonton. Sad inside, act a-real strong, when I just wanna cry in my Egg Foo Yong....."
And a previously released track, Straight Out of Canton, is about three frustrated Asian immigrants whom desire to break out of their roles as (Far East Side) New York restaurant workers. "Nye is my name and I come from Taiwan, put the cap in your ass for fun.....I like the ladies with a big wonton. Just look at the muscle man that I am, only 5-foot-7, but I got a big band!"
These boys are just as funny on-stage, inducing laughter with jokes that take a jab at Asian culture. After Down Lo Mein sings Dim Sum Girl to a randomly selected, shy woman in the audience and hands her a Notorious MSG tank top, Hong Kong Fever says, "You can send us a cheque after." And prior to performing Red Tonight: "Every time we a-drink beer our face goes red." Even their dance moves are choreographed with Asian humour and flavour. Every now and then, The Hunan Bomb throws in karate kicks and punches that remind me of my Tae-Bo exercise days.
Singing and even talking to the audience in character and accent, Notorious MSG plays on stereotypes attached to Asians. But more than just funny, the group is very serious about re-examining and turning those stereotypes upside down, in the hopes of empowering others. "[We] are taking the stereotypes and infusing [them] with emotions. Maybe [they] talk with accents. It doesn't mean they don't have skills or dreams," says Hong Kong Fever. And later: "A lot of Asian Americans play it safe, do not face risk and expose themselves. Why be embarrassed? Canada and America are lands of immigration. Why assimilate?"
Their social views on the Asian-American immigration experience are very much embedded in their own band start-up story. In Notorious MSG: Rise of the Hustler, the group explains how the trio went from overworked and frustrated restaurant workers to band with kick-ass attitude. Whether true or not, or just part and parcel of their characters, the story of the band's formation explores real situations that Asian immigrants experience. As Hong Kong Fever says: "We saw the limitations of Asian Americans, the ceilings. [We] don't want ethnicity to be seen as a limitation.....a lot of Asian brothers and sisters don't have a shot at who they are. [We] want to show that someone that sounds like them is making an impact."
Listening to tracks Chinese Jeans and Schoolhousin' for lyrical content and the message - in traditional and non-traditional Asian accents - seems to hit high notes, loud and clear. Asians can - and should - embrace and not hide behind what they are known for by others.
With their blending of musical genres and expressions, I found it difficult to identify the band's style. So, I asked the boys how they would define it. Hong Kong Fever: "[It's] Chinatown Hardcore. [A] Very firm, unapologetic stance." More than a unique musical expression, Chinatown Hardcore represents the group's departure from conventional, Asian pop music. "There's a lack of progress in Asian American music. Copying Pop doesn't resonate with us," explains Hong Kong Fever.
Post-interview with Notorious MSG, I can't help but feel the boys may have encountered the same ceilings or ethnic limitations they shatter with their musical expression. Down-Lo Mein explains that the group "started very loose" and evolved to what it is now, with members having experimented in different musical genres. And in response to what they hope listeners take away from their music, Hong Kong Fever responds: "[If] you look beyond the stereotypes, we try to empower people. [You] don't have to speak perfect English or look like Justin Bieber."
And good thing they don't. There needs to be more Notorious MSG injected in music, which these three boys from New York deliver with wit, honesty and gumption. Notorious MSG embraces who they are and what they have to offer, delivering talent that is not fortune cookie wrapped with conventional messages or made for quick, sushi roll order.
Notorious MSG performed Saturday August 27 and Sunday August 28 as part of TELUS TAIWANfest: Taiwan Rising 2011 at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre.