Eddie Huang and Jeezy On Racism, America and Bossing Up
Following the turbulent liftoff of Fresh Off the Boat, ABC's sitcom based on the 2013 memoir of Baohaus founder, hip-hop head and gonzo raconteur Eddie Huang, we knew we wanted Huang's take on the American Dream for our new issue. After all, only one or two other shows in the history of American television have revolved around Asian-American families. So we linked him up with one of his all-time heroes -- Young Jeezy, the inveterate Atlanta rapper whose lyrics pop up repeatedly in Huang's book -- and stood back as they compared their harsh histories and explosive successes. Here, they discuss the stereotypes they've faced and how a sandwich, in the right hands, can be an agent of cultural change.
Jeezy: What up though! What's happening?
Huang: Chillin' man. How you doing?
Jeezy: You know me, man, enjoying my beautiful city on this beautiful day.
Huang: You in Atlanta?
Jeezy: Yeah. Just sippin' on some Avion, doing what I do best, ya heard?
Huang: You got everybody drinking Avion now. So I wrote this memoir [Fresh Off the Boat], and I quote you a lot -- shit from Thug Motivation 101, 102, all that. It's always been an inspiration because I feel like your music is work music. So when they asked me who I wanted to talk to, it was either Jeezy or Cam.
Jeezy: Real talk man, real talk. I was just upstairs explaining the same thing to my son. We was just talking about being in the position to use your opportunities and your resources to better yourself. I remember being a young guy, 13, 14 years old, standing on the street corner and having big dreams of being where I'm at now. I just had to figure out how to navigate without becoming a statistic, you know, losing my life or getting incarcerated like a lot of my friends. And I was explaining that to my son, like, "I did all of these things so you don't have to." I think that's what the American dream is about: putting yourself in a position, even when you don't have all the pieces, to make it better for your loved ones so they don't have to go through what you went through. And I think that's what you call "bossing up."
Huang: When I listen to your music, you literally talk to yourself on the track. People talk about ad-libs, but there's like three Jeezys on every song. And that's the way I am. I got to talk to myself to get myself going. I've heard your shit at SoulCycle! You can go to Soulcycle and then go to Houston and hear the same Jeezy song.
Jeezy: [laughs] Real shit. But yeah, that's what it's about, man: telling your story from every angle and getting people to understand the struggle is real. But there's nothing better out of life better than making something for yourself that wasn't there in the beginning. It's all about being self-made at the end of the day, meaning that if anything was to happen tomorrow, you would know how to get back up and do it again.
Huang: Let me ask you this though: how have you dealt with acceptance and success? Because I have only recently been going through it, and I feel like acceptance is kind of the worst shit because you spent your whole life being the underdog.
Jeezy: I remember those long, cold nights just standing outside, hustling for school clothes and school paper and stuff like that, and going home to my grandmother's house at five in the morning before school and knocking the roaches off the microwave to heat up the chicken that she cooked. I always think about how hard that was for me and what I lost, and that's the thing that balances me out. I went from the kid on the block to having dinner with presidents and politicians and governors and even hood figures. And I can go from a Fortune 500 company and then walk through the Blue Flame strip club and get the same love, you know what I'm saying?
Huang: And you stayed the same, that's my favorite part. You stayed the same dude the whole time.
Jeezy: I mean, I wouldn't even call it the same, but I kept the same morals; I just stepped my goals up every time I accomplished a goal. I just try to stay the same at heart, because I had a humble beginning and I try to stay humble because I want to be at peace with myself. So that's why I do a lot of community shit. Another thing you can do is always give back to the community that helped you get where you at. Those faces always will remind you where you came from and how hard you got to work to stay there. Because that's the thing: it ain't about coming up. Everybody's success story is great, but the key to the game is staying there, maintaining that, building from that and becoming bigger and better and wiser and smarter. But I want to ask you a couple of questions about your humble beginnings, man. Like when did you figure out that you was really onto something?
Huang: Five years ago, I was just sitting in a park in Fort Greene, selling sneakers and T-shirts and weed and chilling outside my boy's crib. I had passed the bar in New York and I was an attorney. Asian kids, our parents focus on school, so I was smart, but I was always hanging out with kids outside, running around, and I could see the office shit wasn't for me. When I went to go work at the law firm,I won this minority fellowship, and they stuck me at a top 50 firm. But the work wasn't about what I wanted to do. I was into social justice, and they stuck me working on the investments for the people that own Purdue Pharma, selling OxyContin. And I was like, "These are the for real criminals!" So I got laid off and never went back to the law. I was just hustling. But then my parents came to my crib, and they saw people running up and down the stairwell late at night, so they were like, "Yo, we know what you're up to. Why the fuck would we see you go to law school, be successful, do all of that and then you're back outside doing this?" And it made sense to me. I was like, "This ain't for me. I'm too smart for this. I'm 27 years old, sitting on a fucking park bench."
Jeezy: Real shit.
Huang: So I started cooking again, because my parents owned restaurants. And I just started telling all my stories with food. I got on some TV shows, and people were like, "Yo, you could cook for real." So I opened a restaurant with all the money I saved up hustling, and then it just popped in New York. And once I knew it popped, I didn't want to talk about food. I respect it, but I was like, "I got to say something with this." So I started to talk about my identity as a Taiwanese-Chinese-American, and I used the sandwich to do that. Americans don't know that much about Taiwanese-Chinese people: we are a small island, but we got dope food. And so when people came and they liked the baos, I made them listen to what I had to say about our struggle coming up in America, the things that we care about, our values, and it really resonated, 'cause New York is one of those places in America where people want to hear your story; they want the weirdos. So in 2010, I just knew it was on, and I saw my opportunity and I made sure people didn't see me as a chef; I wanted them to see me as a writer, as a voice, somebody representing my culture in America. Using food to talk about race: that was it.
Jeezy: My grandmother, she never got to see me successful in the music world, 'cause she had passed right before that, but I remember her saying all the time, "Boy, you going to jail, you getting killed." Everything that she thought was going to work against me worked for me. And I think that's what life is about. Now, when people call me, ask me my opinion on things, like when Obama ran for president or something happens in the city, or if the kids need something for school -- all those things are worth it because I want to be in the position to actually help, with my music, with my message, with my celebrity. What you're doing is the same shit, but instead of standing on the corner and peddling drugs, you did it with what you knew and what you came up around. I think that's what the American Dream is all about: working hard and actually accomplishing something, and knowing you'll hit your mark and other people will see your success and go, "Wow, that's what's up!"
Huang: Yeah, 'cause America loves extremes. They understand black people as gangsters and they understand Asian people as cooks; they understand us in the laundromat, working hard. In a way, it's like ruin porn. But for me and you -- I never saw myself as a cook, and you probably never saw yourself as just a gangster. You're a businessman, you're an individual, you're an inspiration. Sometimes we have to dance, sometimes you've got to do the entertainment thing, but we never forget who we are and what we came to say.
Jeezy: Damn right.
Huang: I always remember the hard work. My favorite basketball players are like Draymond Green, Matt Carroll, Khris Middleton... they work mad hard and they just play defense, get rebounds, but when they get an opportunity, it's just shots. I always tell the people at the restaurant: keep your head up, work hard, grind, but when there's an opportunity to come up, you have to take your shot.
Jeezy: Absolutely, and you can't be scared to miss. If you miss your shot, when your next shot comes back around you gotta try it again.
Huang: You just got to keep grinding. Keep working.