Scott Jung, aka CHOPS, is the producer and rapper from the seminal Asian American hip-hop group Mountain Brothers. From hits like PaperChase to Galaxies and their live-instrument productions, they were the first Asian American hip-hop group signed to a major label. The three—Chops, Styles Infinite (Steve Wei) and Peril-L (Chris Wang)—formed the group as college students at Penn State.
Fast forward more than two decades later, and CHOPS is the only member still doing music (Wei is a doctor and Wang is a medical researcher). He’s worked with artists from Nicki Minaj and Snoop to Kanye West and Talib Kweli. He has also produced music for soundtracks and scored a few films. Jung says one of his proudest achievements so far is Strength in NUMBERS, a collaboration album featuring over 30 standout Asian American rappers and singers, with guests from Korea and Japan. Check out the tracks on SoundCloud, or go here to download the album for free!
We’re excited to have Jung emcee our Directions in Sound show this year at CAAMFest. He also scored, along with Adam Rubenstein, the soundtrack for Ursula Liang’s 9-Man documentary (A CAAM-funded film) about Chinatown street volleyball. Rappers Awkwafina and Suboi will co-headline the Directions in Sound show.
I Skype-chatted with Jung from his home studio just outside of Philly.
We can start maybe by talking about Mountain Brothers. You guys formed 20 years ago?
Longer than that. We started as a group in college and we went to college quite a long time ago. We got together—the three of us—and started recording together probably, I want to say, ’92.
How did you guys end up forming a hip-hop group?
I was always into making beats and stuff. I actually wanted to be an R&B kind of producer. I was into producers like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and Babyface and people like that. Chris was actually like a serious hip-hop head and so was Steve and they kind of got me more into rap music actually.
One of the things that I did at school was I had a class on electronic music. I’d been into drum machines and synthesizers and things like that and recording. I had a class where you had to hand in projects so for some of my projects, what we would do was we would make songs with the guys and stuff.
First it was just for the heck of it, for fun. But in school, they had different events and there was in particular where there was a black fraternity that had a rap contest and we entered it. We had some friends who were in the contest, and we took second. So that was a big deal for us at the time. We were kind of just goofing around and stuff, and that was kind of a boost of confidence, as far as people’s perception of us. From then, we started sending demo tapes to labels and we got a good response off of that.
One thing that we did after while was we would stop sending pictures of ourselves and we would just send the music. We had a note that said that we do have pictures, but if you don’t like the music, then it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what we look like. And so when people called us back or wrote us back, we would send the pictures; that way we could kind of get judged on just what we did. It’s very difficult to do today, because everything is so visual now. You can’t be judged just based on your art itself.
Was your main role in the group as a producer? Did you have different roles?
Yeah. I was one of the rappers too in the group. I don’t remember how or why but they kind of encouraged me to do it as well and so I kind of picked that up too. All of us did a bunch of different things. We didn’t have a label, we didn’t have a manager. Anything that a manager would do or what a label would do, we did on a very small scale. It was a lot of work.
You also do soundtracks for film and score music for like 9-Man which will be playing at CAAMFest. How did you start producing songs for soundtracks?
There was a movie called Face by Bertha Pan and it was an Asian American film. I got in touch with Bertha through someone that was involved with The Roots. Overtime, there were different chances to actually score and watch the picture and actually write stuff to it. But I hadn’t done it for a while so I was happy when Ursula got in touch with me about doing some scoring for her movie.
The only two jobs that I ever really had were at recording studios and movie theaters. Before Mountain Brothers had even signed a deal, I had been working at movie theaters, making popcorn and stuff like that. I’ve always liked movies and music, and so scoring is a unique opportunity to put them all together. One thing that I wanted to mention, that I just found out, there are films in my family history too. My great grandfather had the first air-conditioned movie theater in Canton in China.
Wow, that’s cool. Have you ever played 9 Man before?
I have not. I’m not a sports guy. When I was growing up, there would be that one fat guy who never got picked for anything. I got picked just before that guy, for teams. I don’t even watch sports. I guess what was cool to me about 9 Man in that respect was I was more into it for the more human aspects—or the stories of the individual people—and just the fact that these guys are out there in a sport that the mainstream population doesn’t really know about. Just the fact that these guys had swagger, I felt the need to provide the right music to support that. One thing that I like about the film is that it goes against the Asian man stereotype.
On the surface, it’s a movie about guys playing sports, right? But it’s way more than that. One thing for me is that I learned more about Asian American history that I was not expecting. It kind of encouraged me to look into my own family’s history more. It’s good to know a little bit about where you came from.
CHOPS’ TRAVEL ESSENTIALS
“In case there is an opportunity to work or there’s a chance meeting with somebody and there’s an opportunity to do something, work-wise.”
Directions in Sound is sponsored by Singapore Airlines.