Asian hip-hop first appeared in the 1980s, and even a decade, nay, two decades later, compiling a list of the best Asian rappers would've been challenging.
Back then, the Asian community was underrepresented in hip-hop. But now, thanks to the internet age and the rise of passionate Asian rap fans, we face a different challenge…
Only ten places and a plethora of impeccable Asian rappers in the hip-hop game. So, without further ado, meet our top picks.
In the early 1980s, hip-hop music was fast gaining traction in the US – and from the close Philippine-American cultural connection sprung the first form of Asian hip-hop music, Pinoy rap.
Although he's arguably better known for his stand-up comedy, Filipino artiste Dyords Javier was a trailblazer in this underground music scene.
Javier's most notable track (and one of the first examples of Pinoy hip-hop, and therefore Asian rap) was "Na Onseng Delight" (1980).
He was one of the first Pinoy rap artistes in history and sowed the seeds for popularising the Asian rap we know today.
His music career took on new heights after his 1980 parody of "Rapper's Delight" (the 1979 hip-hop song by The Sugarhill Gang) "Na Onseng Delight" gained a cult following.
Javier is still active in the comedy and music world. Aside from his solo music, he's also part of the four-piece group ANG4.
Filipino-Canadian rapper Killy made his start working the Toronto nightlife scene in 2015 – after which his notoriety "kind of avalanched".
According to Killy, he went from "being at parties, me around other creatives" and creating grassroots interest, to being in the same room with his favourite musicians.
The year 2017's "Killamonjaro" was not only Killy's debut single but is still one of his most successful tracks.
Killy's breakout track "Killamonjaro" went viral upon release and was certified Platinum by Music Canada. At the time of writing, it has nearly 70 million Spotify plays.
He is still an active Asian rapper, with his latest single "CEO", released in August 2022.
Awich. Credit: Dick Thomas Johnson/Wikimedia Commons
Hailing from Okinawa, Japan, Awich represents a new breed of fearless female Asian rap artistes.
The fire-spitting rapper has been releasing music independently since 2006 and, a decade later, began gaining mainstream attention as the only female member of Yentown.
The hard-hitting "Gila Gila" was released in the summer of 2021 and was a precursor of her major label debut album, Queendom (2022). The track has over 14 million plays on Spotify.
After nearly 15 years of releasing Asian rap independently, Awich signed her first major label deal in 2020. Upon joining Universal Music Japan, she released "Gila Gila", which became her first song to chart on Billboard Japan's Hot 100.
With the release of Queendom, Awich planted a seed of intention "to be the queen of Japan" and prove she deserves "to be at the very top" of Japanese hip-hop.
You can even say that Awich is fast approaching becoming the best female Asian rapper of all time.
APL.DE.AP (OF THE BLACK EYED PEAS)
apl.de.ap. Credit: Moses/Wikimedia Commons
Filipino-American rapper Apl.de.ap rose to prominence as a founding member of The Black Eyed Peas.
Active since 1988, he has been a staple of Asian-American hip-hop for over three decades, releasing numerous chart toppers and serving as the fourth coach for The Voice Of The Philippines.
"Bebot" from The Black Eyed Pea's 2005 studio album Monkey Business celebrates Apl.de.ap's Filipino heritage. Not only does it show off his rapping prowess, but he raps in Tagalog, popularising the language in a high-profile hip-hop song.
As part of The Black Eyed Peas, he has experienced many successes, including earning three number-one singles from one album (2009's The E.N.D.) and selling around 80 million records.
After over 30 years in the business, Apl.de.ap is still bringing an Asian rap presence to mainstream music with Black Eyed Pea's latest album, Elevation (2022).
Mountain Brothers. Credit: Mountain Brothers
Mountain Brothers was a three-piece hip-hop ensemble comprising Chinese-American rappers Chops, Peril-L and Styles Infinite. Although deemed somewhat underground, they’re considered pioneers among Asian rap and hip-hop connoisseurs.
For an introduction to quintessential Mountain Brothers (with a conscious hip-hop flavour), look no further than "Paperchase" (1999). The track comes from one of their seminal albums, Self Vol 1, and currently has over 85 thousand Spotify plays.
In 1996, Mountain Brothers became the first Chinese-American rap group to sign with a major label (Ruffhouse Records). Aside from that cultural landmark, the trio blazed another trail by creating their own music rather than relying heavily on samples.
The group disbanded in 2013, and Chops is the only one still active in the hip-hop industry. He's produced notable acts like Lil Wayne and Chamillionaire. Meanwhile, Peril-L is a medical researcher, and Styles Infinite is a physician.
MC Jin. Credit: photoren flickr/Wikimedia Commons
Love him or hate him, as one of the best-selling, most famous and talked about Asian-American rappers, MC Jin has to make our list. Active on the rap battle scene since 2001, he rose through the ranks to become arguably the most successful Asian rapper of all time.
He's never shied away from representing his Chinese heritage, even recording multiple albums in Cantonese.
For a hip-hop homage-cum-history lesson and love note to legendary emcees, check out MC Jin's 2005 track "Top 5 Dead or Alive".
For a more mainstream offering, try "HK Superstar". The 2013 song was used in the Fast & Furious 6 soundtrack and has over 2 million plays on Spotify.
After signing with Ruff Ryders Entertainment in 2002, MC Jin became the first solo rapper of Asian-American heritage to gain a deal from a major label in the US.
His debut album with the label sold around 200,000 copies.
MC Jin is still active as an indie artist on the hip-hop scene in both the US and mainland China. Most recently, in 2021, he starred in the Chinese singing reality television show, Call Me By Fire.
CL. Credit: YG Entertainment/Wikimedia Commons
CL is a South Korean rapper and singer who got her start as a formidable member of 2NE1 in 2009. The South Korean girl group has sold a gargantuan 66 million records worldwide.
CL released her first solo track, "Hello Bitches", in November 2015 and has become known for her unique live performances and fearless cross-pollination of multiple music styles.
The "K-pop Queen" released her second solo single, "Lifted", in 2016, and it currently has over 22 million plays on Spotify.
Upon the successful release of "Lifted", CL became the first female Korean solo artiste to chart on the Billboard Hot 100. And "Hello Bitches” is a fierce representation of CL's Korean culture, with nearly 100 million plays on Spotify.
CL is still a bold force in the music industry, with her most recent studio album, Alpha, released in 2021. She's also a fashion tour-de-force, becoming the first K-pop female musician (alongside Blackpink star Rose) to attend the Met Gala.
One of the youngest entries on the list, Chinese-Indonesian native Rich Brian (formerly Rich Chigga) has achieved more by age 23 than most musicians accomplish in a lifetime.
Rich Brian's been rapping on the internet since he was 11 years old, and by age 16, his 2016 debut single, "Dat $tick", became a viral hit.
"Dat $tick" catapulted Rich Brian into the mainstream. Upon its release, the track went viral. Then a promotional video showcasing American rappers like Ghostface Killah and 21 Savage reacting to the song further aided his success.
Suddenly the whole world was talking about the Indonesian prodigy.
In 2016 Rich Brian signed to 88rising (formerly CXSHXNLY) and released a "Dat $tick" remix featuring Ghostface Killah and Pouya. His most notable track is now en route to 180 million plays on Spotify.
He achieved more success in 2018 with his debut album Amen, reaching the top 20 on the US Billboard 200 chart.
Rich Brian is still active on the Asian rap scene with his most recent offering, four-track EP Brightside, released in 2022.
KOHH. Credit: 株式会社スペシャネット/Wikimedia Commons
Tokyo-born rapper-singer Kohh recorded his first mixtapes at age 18. Rap was a vehicle to cope in an environment filled with drugs and violence.
Over two decades later, he is often cited as a prominent figure in the Japanese hip-hop renaissance.
The year 2019's "I Think I'm Falling" from Kohh's 2020 album Worst is one of his most popular tracks. It currently sits at over 3 million Spotify plays.
In 2016 and 2017, Kohh won “Best Hip-Hop Artist” at the Space Shower Music Video Awards. He was also featured on the Japanese iTunes release of Caution by Mariah Carey.
Kohh is still active in the Japanese hip-hop scene, with his latest album Untitled released in 2019.
Hailing from Seoul, South Korea, Keith Ape made waves in the Asian rap scene with "잊지마" ("It G Ma") in 2015. Later that year, The New York Times listed Ape's 2015 concert at SOB's in their top 40 picks due to its "unrestrained mayhem".
To this day, Keith Ape's most notable release is his remix of "It G Ma".
One of Keith Ape's biggest successes was collaborating with Rich Brain and XXXTentacion on the 2017 single "Gospel". The track has nearly 190 million plays on Spotify.
Keith Ape is still representing Korean rap with his hard-hitting style. His most recent studio album A.A.T (Aquatic Ape Theory) The Lost Tapes, was released in October 2022.
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Cover: Killy. Credit: David Tim
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Writer | Rachael Hope
Rachael Hope is a writer and visual artist. She loves to explore the connections between creativity in all its forms and broader culture. When not being creative herself, you’ll find her practising yoga or exploring nature.