“I put on for my community,” Chow Mane says to me over the phone, “I learn from my peers, they’re my biggest influence.” Chow Mane has found a unique intersection between Asian food and West Coast music to paint the picture of his life as an Asian-American artist living in the South Bay. His goal is to put South Bay on the map for his community through humor, food, and multicultural beats. Chow Mane chats with us his experience as an independent artist and what he loves about hip hop right now.
To start off, I hope your quarantine is going okay. What have you been doing to keep yourself busy?
Originally, the lockdown had kind of put a dent in some of the plans that we had. We had a lot of music video shoots lined up, and a lot of sessions got postponed or moved to virtual sessions. It was an adjustment period for maybe the first few weeks, but after that, stuff started just resuming as usual. In terms of music, I’m able to continue working on stuff at home. I finally got my own setup at home with some good equipment. Many producers and artists that I’ve been working with have been doing sessions over Zoom. Most things have been business as usual, just working remotely. The only thing is that we’re not really able to do video shoots right now because of the safety hazards and everything.
Okay, so I was really curious about why you chose Chow Mane as your stage name?
Yeah, so it came from a variety of reasons. My name is Charles. My grandparents growing up pronounced my name like “Chow,” especially my grandmother. In terms of when I actually started releasing music, I’ve been writing since I was like 14 or something, and I started producing when I was like 12. Around then I was just putting stuff on MySpace, or whatever. I didn’t really start doing official releases and videos and whatnot. Three years ago was when I repurposed my name to Chow Mane. At the time, the first project I put out was Mooncakes. It was kind of about this uniquely Asian American experience and my perspective on that. With that, Chow Mein is not a Chinese dish or American dish, it’s distinctly a Chinese American dish. So yeah, reason number one is you know my real name. Number two is that whole mixture of food and music house. Reason number three is when I came up with a name I was listening to a lot of Gucci Mane.
Could you expand a little more on being Chinese American in the Bay Area, a place that is not really like any other Asian American community in the country?
Well, I think definitely the Bay Area is its own little pocket in California in particular. I think that the culture here is pretty diverse and even within the Asian community here, it’s a little different from what you might find on the East Coast or Midwest, just because I think we have so many of us that have kind of created this monolithic culture here. And so part of the music is representing my experience uniquely growing up as an Asian American, but it is also about being particularly from the South Bay and the Bay Area in general and talking about kind of how we just do it out here. From going down to LA all the time, I’ve seen the culture and have a lot of friends down there. And yeah, it’s similar, but I feel like there’s still such a niche up here, and there’s something that’s so real, so prevalent for everybody that’s here, something that the rest of the world might not know about.
Can you give me some examples of how the culture or the vibe is different?
Exactly, it’s kind of a vibe that I feel up here. Well, I will say I had this conversation with someone I knew from OC a few weeks ago. She was from Westminster, and she was talking about how Westminster culture is a little similar to San Jose, with Vietnamese gangs—the whole community coffee shops and a lot of underground spots. And she was saying that she feels South Bay is like 10 years behind what they have down in the OC because they’re a lot more modernized in terms of attitudes and societal norms in how people talk and treat each other. But I grew up in Salinas, Central Coast—my parents split up when I was young—and down there, there weren’t many Asian people. I was like one out of three kids in my school, so I wasn’t super immersed in the culture. My dad was in San Jose, so I would come up here pretty often because up here, there is such a bubble. There are a lot more Asian people. Take something small like boba. In Salinas, there was one spot in the whole city and it was really mediocre. However, in South Bay, there’s like 10 on one corner.
Something I noticed when I was listening and watching your music video is that you have a lot of reappearing people, I’m guessing your friends, in your music videos. Is that on purpose or out of convenience?
I think part of the music and part of what I want to do is put on for the community, for the people I know. Luckily, I do have a lot of people who are interested in being involved. So yeah, definitely part of it is just trying to put everybody in the videos, and it’s cool that people are reappearing and that you’re recognizing that because a lot of this is just doing this on our own. We don’t have crazy budgets or professional models, special actors, whatever.
Yeah, that makes sense. Do you think you could give me your day-to-day of what it’s like to be an independent artist?
Music is definitely something that I focus a lot of my time on, but it’s not something that I’m doing all day, every day. I didn’t really start doing music full time until right before the lockdown hit. Before that it was a lot of just working on music on my own, pulling up to a lot of sessions or networking with artist friends up here in the Bay or down in LA. Business-wise I would say most of my money is between shows and doing features for people and merch. My day-to-day has been mostly working on some songs here and there; I’m currently working on three projects. One is a collaboration project with Sawhee, so working on that, and working on my solo project that’s coming out September called South Bay Summer, which is centered around the South Bay and furthering that whole idea of trying to put on for my community and put the city on the map. In addition to that, I think music’s just kind of a nonstop thing, even though a lot of the songs might not have release dates or release plans because they kind of sound different, and I don’t want to over saturate the market. Today’s a lot of music creation, and then just trying to figure out what next steps are in terms of video projects, or whatever else that we might be able to do to stay relevant or keep the momentum going.
What is the best thing about being independent?
Freedom. The ability to just keep working and keep the people I want to work with.
What’s the hardest?
I think the big benefit a signed artist probably has is having a team behind them that is more experienced in terms of being able to link them with opportunities and collaborating with other artists and providing promotional marketing, budgets, and whatnot. Luckily, I am working with a small label who is able to provide some sort of funding, so that’s been a big help in some of the productions—especially like the “Tasty” video that just came out—and some future projects.
You mentioned “Tasty.” You have a really unique music style, you’re humorous, talk about food—you actually rap a lot about food. How did you find the intersection between food and music?
Well, I think food is such an integral part of my life. When you share a meal with somebody it’s pretty instant. It’s something that can bring you closer to somebody. At the same time, in terms of how it relates to a more, I guess, cultural and maybe heritage standpoint, I think food has also just always been a big part of Asian culture, and especially Chinese culture, such as having meals be family style. Meals are something that is meant to be shared and not eaten alone. Whoever’s cooking, there’s a bit of themselves and their personality in the dishes they make. It all just kind of came together and made sense.
So was that kind of a natural segue to “Cooking with Chao”?
Part of the “Cooking with Chao” segment was also just promotional for “tasty” as well. I did have ideas of expanding that into segments, but I think at the time just with the lockdown and also with constraints, there are other things that we’re trying to focus on in terms of music and other productions.
I have a silly question. I was curious where you came up with your little “tasty” adlib? Is it something you actually say?
That started kind of as an accident. Before getting into music, I wasn’t really on social media, but around the time I started to get into music, I felt the need to get into social media. I was cooking a lot, like basic stuff: curry and orange chicken and whatnot. I would make a lot of stories and one day I just said “tasty” after having a bite of my creations. People responded, and I kept doing it. And then a year or two later I made the song.
Talk to me about your latest EP, luv or lack thereof.
That was a really last-minute thing. That was the one I did with Wes. We’re making so much music and sometimes we don’t know what to do with it. We made it in like two or three days and we just had the songs pretty much done. We were like, “Hey, you know what, why not just drop it?”
What is something you wish you would have known before you started delving into the music industry?
I think the process could have been clearer to me about how everything works. It took me a while to figure it out and how to do everything independently. Even the creation aspect, like before, I think it would take a while for me to put together a song. I do like a song a week or something like that. Now, I can knock out a few a day from just seeing how other people work. I don’t think my perspective really changed until I got out of the Bay Area and started working with artists in LA, hopping in studio sessions and seeing how everybody is pumping songs out 30 minutes and just the whole system of creating.
What do you like about hip hop right now?
I like how diverse it is. I like how there are so many sounds and people are able to tell their stories. I think right now we’re in a space that’s really cool because there are so many sub-genres. I don’t know, it’s cool to see influences from so many different sources and regions. There’s a very specific South Bay Area sound, Detroit, Atlanta, New York. It’s cool seeing that come back and seeing people talk about you, their own experiences, and stuff that is real to them.
How would you describe your sound?
I think I’m definitely most comfortable when doing music that has a little more influence from the West Coast and the Bay Area, just because that’s kind of what I grew up on. But I do like to explore different sounds. That luv or lack thereof EP was a lot more melodic and R&B driven because of who I was working with, versus a lot of my solo stuff that’s a lot more upbeat and fun. That project was more downtempo. I like to think that I can be versatile.
What’s your most favorite song that you have been a part of?
I did like “Sorry” a lot, the song I did with Oksami. I like working with Oksami; we went to school together, and we started out around the same time. He’s crazy talented with production and he’s been picking up a lot of steam with Kenny Beats. He came up with this melody for the hook that I ended up having there and the lyrics came to me easily because I got back to my storytelling. I like the baseline he put down in the second verse. He is constantly evolving and a lot of his production is improv. But I will say I think I am more excited about some of the new music that’s coming out. I have a project coming out in August called “IceJJFish” with Guapdad 4000. That’s going to be fun.
Who do you look to for inspiration?
That’s a good question. I think I get most of my inspiration from my friends who are also just doing music probably on the same level as me. I get a lot of energy and inspiration from seeing them work so hard and being able to work with them. Like Jae Luna, afterhours (aydioslio and yoso), Sawhee, Wes, Flannel Albert, LATE LEE, Kazi, Jig, lefrost, and damnboy. There’s a lot of people to name but yeah, I would say most my inspiration comes from just my peers who are working just as hard. Oh, Dane Amar, let’s not forget him.
Where do you see yourself in the next five to ten years?
In music, I do want to perform at a large festival. Performing something at like Outside Lands or Coachella would be nice. I also do have aspirations of hitting, hopefully, Billboard charts, Top 40, and being able to put an Asian-American face there. That hasn’t really happened since the Far East Movement a little while ago. There have been a lot of Asian artists who are popping up but not a lot who are breaking through in terms of Asian-American artists, versus Asian artists from Asia. So I definitely do want to put on for the community, the Asian-American community and also for the South Bay Community. So trying to accomplish these with my love of music.
You told me you’ve been working on some new music during and releasing soon. Can you tell us a little about it and the specifics?
The “IceJJFish” project is supposed to come out August, I don’t have a release date yet. The South Bay Summer Project, which is 11-12 songs should come out in September. We are shooting a video for “San Jose” soon. The goal is to not overlook.
Before I let you go, is there anything that I didn’t ask you that you wished I did?
I just want to shout out to all the other artists that I mentioned before, who are just equally as hard-working!
STORY MEGHANA PATNANA
COVER PHOTO WILL NGUYEN