Chow Mane is here to put on for the Bay Area, along with his Asian roots. Being a first generation Asian American, real name Charles Yan is a rapper and producer hailing from San Jose, California, who received his undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley Class of 2016.
With his breakout single “Chinatown” in 2017, he makes it a point to mix satire and comedy with hip-hop, poking fun at himself but also declaring his worth.
His bold lyrics exude confidence and steez, mixing in his own Chinese language as adlibs as he sees fit. Starting out producing, it was in high school when he began rapping and experimenting with various sounds. He states, “I’m Chinese/Viet. I try to incorporate that culture into my music, to get that across to both people within the community and people who aren’t familiar.”
Now, he returns with his most lit song to date: “ICEJJFISH” featuring fellow Bay Area native Guapdad 4000. The two MCs trade verses offering their take on the internet sensation IceJJFish, best known for his eccentric falsetto vocals as seen on his 2014 viral single “On The Floor.”
AllHipHop caught up with Chow Mane to discuss his roots coming up in the Bay, pursuing music in an Asian family, the influence of meme artist IceJJFish, his love for cooking, and his forthcoming album South Bay Summer.
AllHipHop: Being from the Bay, what was the household like growing up? You probably have Asian parents like I do.
Chow Mane: We all lived in one house with my grandma, my grandpa, my dad, my mom. I had 2 aunts and an uncle, my uncle’s family lived in there too. 8 to 10 of us in that one house, pretty cozy. At that time, everybody worked in the same restaurant too. My grandpa had this Japanese restaurant called Little Tokyo out in Marina. All of us worked in that restaurant. As a little kid, I’d serve tea and clean tables. I was 5 years old when my parents divorced, which was untraditional. There’s a lot of drama within my family, especially as immigrants.
AllHipHop: Was it a traditional household?
Chow Mane: It was fairly traditional. Everything’s about the family, to have togetherness. Our culture was pretty strong. Every year, all those Chinese superstitions were followed. At New Year, we did the thing where you get some noodles, everybody gets their own topping. Put it in together, you whip it all up.
Since my parents were divorced when I lived with my mom, she was on her own. That experience was a lot more normal American. She’s working 2 or 3 jobs at a time, trying to keep us afloat. Her journey to America: she met my dad in a newspaper ad they used to do back in the day. She came over, my grandparents on my dad’s side thought she might’ve been a golddigger. Had a bunch of drama, they got divorced. She had to work a bunch to keep us living and eating. During that time, I started finding my own music. Even though she worked all the time, she still had that Chinese mentality pushing me to do all these different things. I was playing piano when I was a kid.
AllHipHop: I played piano too, for sure.
Chow Mane: I started out at the YMCA, doing piano lessons there. Making my own songs and performing them at the school talent shows. They’re all pretty garbage, but it was a form of expression since I was a little alone all the time.
AllHipHop: Which artists did you first fall in love with?
Chow Mane: First artist in hip-hop I was exposed to was through my uncle. My dad’s family came here during the 80’s when they’re in high school, so they grew up in the culture. My uncle used to pick me up from school, my parents were both working. He listened to a lot of G-Funk, a lot of Too Short in particular. He put me on as a kid. I was still more into the radio stuff at that time. By the time I got into middle or high school, Datpiff was popping off in that era. Lil Wayne was doing his mixtape run. A lot of dudes bubbling in 2010 were coming up: Big Sean and Wale. I started digging deeper into the West Coast music and appreciated that more. Eventually, that bounce influenced the production. I started producing myself.
AllHipHop: When did you pick up the name Chow Mane?
Chow Mane: Ever since I was a kid, my grandma called me Chow. That’s how she said Charles, my real name with her accent. That stuck. When I started rapping in high school, people would call me Mr. Chow. The Hangover movie just came out, they thought it’s funny that an Asian kid’s rapping. I started going by that name 4 years ago, when I put out my first project. People were calling me Chow my whole life. At the same time that original project, I was trying to talk about my perspective as a Chinese American. Chow Mane is not only a pun, but the dish itself is a Chinese American dish. There’s layers to this s##t. I didn’t want it to be too novelty, but it became that. [laughs] Ride the wave, whatever.
AllHipHop: Talk about just the 88Rising competition and being a finalist there.
Chow Mane: That was out of the blue. When I started making music, I was trying to get whoever I could to hear it. I ended up meeting this dude from 88 through email, he said “I don’t think we can work right now, but I see you got potential.” They started this Tiger Beer showcase competition, this dude reached back out to me. “Hey, I remember you sent me some music a little while ago. I see you’ve been doing your thing, you should participate in this.” They had a bunch of artists, a few from the East Coast flew in. Everybody did a little set. This Vietnamese American dude TIN won, super talented. He had the theatrics to go along with the set that completed it. Definitely a cool opportunity. I got to meet a lot of cool, talented artists. Nice to see I was on that 88 radar at that time.
AllHipHop: So at what point did you realize that you could do music for a living?
Chow Mane: Not until this year. March is when I started doing it full-time, I quit all my other stuff. The pandemic hit right after, so it’s been tougher. Once I released that last project SIMMERING last year, I worked on building my buzz a lot locally. A lot more people in my area in the South Bay started knowing who I was, buying merch and wanting to support. When I’d drop a new single and run ad campaigns, people would hit me up to do features. I could make a decent amount off that, especially during Heritage month. A lot of people hit me up during May to hop on songs. I guess that’s the month they’re like “oh, who’s an Asian rapper?” All that came together like okay, it’s starting to be feasible where I can live off of this. Dedicating more time to working and perfecting my craft.
AllHipHop: How’d you link with Guapdad4000? That’s my dawg.
Chow Mane: My homie Jordan put me on to Guapdad 3 years ago when he dropped the Scamboy Color tape. He’s telling me about some drama with him and YG, so I knew his name in my head. Last year after my project dropped, I’m thinking “I don’t really have a hit hit on this song. I want to make something catchy and will stick.” I came up with that Ice JJ Fish topline. I talked to my manager, “you think we should get a feature out of this?” He said “bro Guapdad would be perfect, link up with him.” I slid in the DM like “what’s up, you want to work on this song?” He’s like “normally I wouldn’t f##k with it, but I kind of f##k with this song so I’ma hop on. I got you with the video if you need it.” I’m like “bet, that’s tight.” Actually still haven’t met with him in person yet.
AllHipHop: Oh, really?
Chow Mane: Yeah, we were supposed to do the video this March. We had the production team and everything all ready. 3 weeks before the whole pandemic hit, he said “I don’t really feel comfortable about doing this right now, let’s postpone it.” Because he’s living with my grandma. Probably better to be safe anyway, so we’ve been postponing it. It’s been a roller coaster getting to this point, especially with the whole lockdown.
AllHipHop: When did you first get that idea to name a song after Ice JJ Fish?
Chow Mane: I was going through the songs I liked off of my last tape. My last tape was a little all over the place, I wanted it to be more cohesive. I was trying to figure out what’s that sound I f##ked with making the most? I had this song called “Ever Since” I did where I hit a lot of falsetto. That was fun, I want to hit that a lot more. I’m not the best singer, I just started liking myself to Ice JJ Fish with his singing. I didn’t want it to be too serious. I might have some serious songs here and there but my personality’s pretty light-hearted and fun, so I try to reflect that in the music too.
AllHipHop: What do parents think of the music now?
Chow Mane: Well, I don’t know if they listen to be honest. I know my little cousins and my little brother do. My mom called me the other day: “John [little half-brother] saw you on a video on YouTube with a bunch of views. He was so proud.” I’m like oh word? That’s an old ass video from 2 years ago. They always knew I’ve always been doing music. My mom honestly doesn’t in general listen to that much music. She doesn’t listen to radio, doesn’t know who Drake is. My dad listens to mostly music from when he grew up in the 80’s: a lot of the Commodores, the GAP Band, artists like that. I honestly don’t know what they think, I never had that conversation with them. Straight up.
AllHipHop: Talk about your love for cooking and how this plays into your life as well.
Chow Mane: For sure, I’ve been into cooking for a minute. To me, you get to express yourself in cooking. When you’re cooking for other people, it’s intimate. Cooking a meal for friends brings you together, something to do and enjoy. Music’s similar in that way, depending on the music and what vibe you’re trying to get across. My grandparents owned a restaurant, so I came up exposed to a lot of cooking. Made me want to keep that legacy going. Cooking Chinese food and Asian food in general is a way for me to connect with my roots.
AllHipHop: What can we expect from your forthcoming album South Bay Summer?
Chow Mane: It’s nothing too serious, a lot of light-hearted vibes. What I wanted to do with this project was reflect a small portion of the culture in the South Bay. Definitely there’s a lot of Bay Area artists doing a lot of cool Bay Area music. A lot of the South Bay artists are slept on, not really putting on for what we got going on locally. I try to incorporate that in the music. My experience in the South Bay is limited to how my circles do things. I want to have a whole project that gave that perspective about our community and how we are.
I got this video for “San Jose” coming out alongside the album. The song came out last year, randomly got playlisted by Spotify. When I put it together, it was a throwaway song to be honest. People came up to me and started telling me “this is my favorite song of yours, I f##k with it.” I thought it could be a good cornerstone for the whole project. It’s upbeat, but talking about a day in the life of my experience in San Jose. For this project more, connect with the community I grew up around, and the people that have supported me. Give back to them through this music.