The US entertainment industry has an Asian representation problem. Casting Scarlett Johansson in the box office tanking Ghost in the Shell was hopefully the last straw in giving Asian roles to white actors and actresses. Unfortunately, dance music isn't doing too much better. Other than a handful of exceptions like Steve Aoki, when was the last time you saw a DJ or producer of Asian descent playing the main stage of a big dance festival?
Seattle-based Taiwanese-American promoter Allen Huang was sick of being slighted. Spurred by the dearth of Asian and Asian-Americans gracing stages in one of the most Asian cities in North America, he took matters into his own hands. In 2014, the 33-year-old, who holds down tech jobs by day, started Customs—a roving party in all-ages rock venues and dark basement clubs that spotlights DJs and producers from Asia.
Customs, which Huang runs with four collaborators, hopes to create a positive feedback loop for up-and-coming Asian musicians, with the hope of landing them in the international club circuit. Many of these artists on their first visits to the US. In March, Huang brought over Osaka's Seiho, an eclectic producer inspired by Squarepusher, for his first stateside gig at Kremwerk. Osaka's And Vice Versa, Tokyo's Seimei and Fukuoka's DJ NHK Guy also had their American debuts thanks to Customs. But Huang's strongest import has been Japanese footwork; he hosted DJ Foodman and Fulltono on their first stateside tour last year, as well as Tokyo's inventive Trekkie Trax label.
Huang is currently preparing for his next phase: later this month, he's moving to Taipei, where he hopes to recreate the Customs magic in the opposite direction—bringing underground North American talent to Taiwan. His ultimate goal? Establishing a full-fledged Trans-Pacific Partnership for electronic music that bridges East and West. Ahead of his farewell Customs party in Seattle on April 6, Huang spoke to THUMP about why he started Customs, and the hurdles facing Asian DJs and producers in dance music.
Allen Huang: Seattle has been an indie rock town for a long time. Rock bands are white. Seattle's indie heroes were white. So growing up, I gravitated toward the few Asian rock acts that would occasionally come to Seattle, like Guitar Wolf and Japanese punk bands.
In my 20s, most of the Asians I knew were in South Seattle, and they were into hip-hop. There's a local history of Asian-American hip-hop, like Blue Scholars in the 2000s. Venues like The Last Supper Club were playing Three 6 Mafia, and they were not even VIP joints—just places where Asian people could be Asian people. These crowds were rowdy. They called themselves the Ragin' Asians. This lifestyle was very aligned with Asian-American communities on the West Coast like San Jose and especially Koreatown in LA.
I didn't go The Last Supper Club. I was totally a rock kid. I'm not going to say "whitewashed," but I didn't read Asian Avenue—which was like MySpace for Asians—and I didn't go to car shows. I read Spin, got hyped over this band called Coldplay that everybody was buzzing about, and eventually became album review editor for a Pacific Northwest zine called Redefine.
Every Asian-American electronic artist doesn't need to sound like Giraffage. We should feel free to carve our own experiences.
I didn't think that being a rock kid had to be a white experience. But it definitely was, as far as the way rock and indie music was going in the late 2000s. I transitioned into electronic music via [Radiohead's] Kid A, Daft Punk, UNKLE, DJ Shadow, that sort of thing. Electronic music was a little more nebulous as far as identity went because no one was singing from a perspective. It was something I didn't have to un-relate to.
It was hard for Asian-Americans to imagine themselves as being involved in electronic music for a long time. The exposure that we had to Asian-American or Asian-appearing artists was not very prevalent. Before I started Customs, an Asian or Asian-American producer like DJ Krush would only come through Seattle once or twice a year.
In college, I had a roommate from Kobe, Japan. We would trade music all the time. He introduced me to Japanese hip-hop—Scha Dara Parr, who are like the Beastie Boys of Japan, and Shakkazombie. Their producer, Tsutchie, went on to do the soundtrack for the anime series Samurai Champloo. That was my watershed moment for getting into Japanese electronic music. I started listening to that more than to the top rock acts.
But no one was bringing Asian electronic artists to Seattle. They were always rock shows. Then Decibel Festival came along. That was a very big influence—the idea that you can take a financial risk and book the artists you love, even if they aren't the most commercially viable. I realized I don't have to do what the club tells me; I can throw my own money at this. Even if the expenses don't come back in full, the city will be culturally richer for it.
I started throwing K-Pop and Asian funk parties in 2012, then moved on to booking my first out-of-town guests in January 2014 for a party I called "Dial-Up." In May 2014, the party became Customs.
My biggest goal was to get Asian and Asian-American artists to Seattle in front of as many people as I thought I could and do it in a way that would respect both the artist and the audience. Seattle is the "well, duh" gateway for Asian music coming to America. We have the population, the venues, and the music knowhow. Logistically, the flights from Asia to Seattle are cheaper than a lot of other places in America. We have so much advertising for Chinese airlines.
I never had a booker come up to me and say, "There's too many Asians on the line-up." I have had people come up to me and say, "I don't see any big names," when I would think there's a big name. There are definitely different judgments as far as the popularity or the potential for success for some artists that I booked. I've won that argument and I've lost that argument.
There are more Asian-American DJs now than four years ago, and I hope there are leagues of promoters out there who will help those young people succeed. But there is the Asian-American experience, the stereotype of being encouraged in STEM and not being encouraged in art and music. We need a more dynamic projection of what the Asian-American experience could be. Every Asian-American artist doing electronic music doesn't need to sound like Giraffage. Or like Meishi Smile. Or like Mark Redito. They can do beats. They can do lush sounds. They can do ambient. We should feel free to carve our own experiences out of electronic music.
My goal has always been to break down the barrier between East and West.
As for Asian DJs and producers, it's even harder in Asian society to say, "I'm an artist and I'm paying my bills as an artist." There's less of a structure for freelance work. It's really tough not to be a salaried person in Japan. But Japan has a really diverse scene and they have artists who've been playing Tokyo for years and years, like Seiho and Foodman. They're ready for something new and ready to take a risk by coming to the U.S.
I'm now looking at those scenes that aren't as well established as Japan, like Korean artists. I really love Howie Lee from Beijing. And one of my favorites is Tzechar, a Chinese-Singaporean duo that lives in Sydney, whose last EP, Ancestor, was released on Seattle's Hush Hush Records. They told me they want to sample traditional Chinese instruments, but make an album that reconfigures Western tropes of "Asian sounding" into something globally neutral. The Taiwanese scene is very up and coming. Tickets are getting cheaper. Promoters are getting more aware. You don't need to have a thousand dollars for a show to make it work. If you have the routing and the timing right, you can do a tour and get 200 bucks a show. That's really exciting. While I'm there, I'm hoping to build another pillar for artists trying to tour Asia. At the end of the day, my goal has always been to break down the barrier between East and West.