Al Rocco stays hungry & leads with love
The LiFTED interview plus an exclusive remix of 'Mask Up' from one of Asian Hip Hop’s major players
As LiFTED celebrates our sixth month of existence, we got the chance to chop it up with one of Asia’s most enigmatic rappers, Al Rocco. This MC is truly multinational and has a backstory that reads like a travelogue. Born and raised in Hong Kong and Taiwan, he has lived in Los Angeles, London, Brooklyn, and Shanghai, where he returned in 2012 to get back to his Chinese roots. It’s there that he started to get serious about MCing and his career took flight with his 2014 hit ‘Red Money.’ Then he caught the Rap of China tsunami and hasn’t looked back.
One thing though - Al Rocco has always distinguished himself from other Chinese rappers by rhyming in English. He’s got skills in Mandarin and Cantonese, too, but English is his main mode of communication. He’s collaborated with big-time artists like [fellow Hong Konger] Jackson Wang and shared stages with everyone from Keith Ape to A$AP Mob while repping brands from Beats by Dre to Adidas. In other words, Al Rocco is a major player in this game. So let’s get at it!
Peace Rocco. It’s great to have you on our August cover! We’ve been watching your career for a minute now, and you have always seemed more international – in terms of flow and use of English – than many of your Asian counterparts. Is that because you moved around a lot as a kid? Can you let our readers know a bit about your background before you blew up in China?
What’s good, LiFTED? Thanks for having me and I appreciate the good thoughts. I have lived in a couple of places before moving to Shanghai in 2012. Growing up in Hong Kong as a third culture kid, my environment has blessed me with exposure to different world cultures around me. Having childhood friends from different corners of the globe and being influenced by different values and traditions each of us has widened my worldview at a very young age. I left Hong Kong when I was 14 years old and have since lived in Taipei, London, Shanghai, and Los Angeles. Through the course of finding myself in an abundance of diversity and independence, the motivation and drive that always kept me growing was the importance of my truest awareness, expressions, and representation of myself and my music, no matter where I am in the world.
‘Red Money’ was your first hit, and kind of put you on the map. Did you have records out before that?
I had probably released over 100 songs before Red Money. But it’s a special song to me because at that time I was moving from LA to Shanghai, and that transitional period in my life was the beginning of me starting to truly learn about my roots. I remember the days when I was delivering fruit and vegetables from the farms of Pudong to the supermarkets in Puxi from 6 AM to 9 PM seven days a week, with a salary of ¥1,000 a month. I told myself I won’t be doing this forever and believed that one day that ¥1,000 will turn into ¥1 million. That experience taught me a lot about myself and the relationship between time and money, and Red Money was definitely heavily influenced by that hunger. You gotta dream big!
Tell us a little about your label Red 8 Records. How did you originally link up with Fader One?
At that time, there weren’t any creative studios in Shanghai. Most of them were commercial studios and did not have the musical and creative skills to cater to my needs as a Hip Hop artist. I’d always wanted to open my own shop since I produced mine and my friends’ music. I thought I could do that for other rappers and singers and as well connect with new artists. So I started in my bedroom, and then I moved into a couple of my friend’s spare bedrooms until I had enough capital saved to invest in my own spot.
I partnered up with a friend of mine, Devan Firoozi, who had his own visual brand, Raised in China. We combined his brand with my studio, Ace Life, and created Red 8 Studios in 2013. Our vision was to provide a one-stop shop for us and our friends to come together and create the independent music and art that we love. Red was my favorite color and 8 was Devan’s favorite number, both related to the Chinese lucky color and number and we instantly felt the fit. I met Fader One through a mutual childhood friend who brought Fader to visit the studio and we’ve been making great music together ever since. Fader was living in Boston at the time and he moved to Shanghai shortly after we met. We partnered up to create Red 8 Records in 2016. Even though Devan and I are no longer part of Red 8’s operations, Fader’s been steering the ship, and we continue to grow and work together closely.
You were living in Shanghai when the whole Rap of China phenomenon took off. What was the Chinese Hip Hop scene like before that, and what is it like today?
Witnessing and being a part of the growth process of Chinese Hip Hop was a magical learning experience for me. It made me believe what once seemed impossible was nothing but my own imaginary beliefs, which I mentally and physically conquered by pushing my limits to the max. The confidence and stubbornness I have is living proof that with the right mindset, belief, hunger, persistence, consistency, compassion, and love everything is possible.
Before the whole Rap of China phenomenon, for decades a number of us had been creating and influencing in the shadows. Even when people around us did not have the education and mindset to understand the expressions we feel in our music and lifestyle, that did not stop us from doing what we love to do, because we love creating our own style of music regardless of the economy or the negative thoughts and limiting beliefs of others. To me, success is a real mind game, and whoever has the strongest mindset consistently wins. Then suddenly, literally overnight, Rap of China put a lot of us in the spotlight. With the pros and cons, through the drama and the success, from being broke to having riches, I personally felt it was an experience money couldn’t buy because it has made me see that I am worthy, and I was able to defeat my inner demons and reach heights beyond my imagination. Today, there are countless commercial opportunities and waves of new young artists coming up and the youth in China just can’t get enough of it.
I love it.
We came a long way but we must ask ourselves now, what can we do today to be better than yesterday? How can I use my music and my skills to be of value to others and the generations to come? Stay hungry, be uncomfortable, and lead with love.
Last year you made a move back to L.A. What was the reason for that? Are you planning to return to China anytime soon?
When I started making music years ago, one of my biggest goals was to challenge myself and have my music bridge the worlds that I love and am blessed to be a part of. After the Rap of China phase of my career, I felt that I was ready to take on that challenge. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, especially with the division of these two worlds. Basically, I will have to start all over again in a new one. But I was excited and committed because I know anything hard is the right path to take and it just felt right.
A few months before Covid, I moved to Inglewood, Los Angeles to make my moves. While I was on a US college tour, Covid hit and everything stopped. While in a pandemic lockdown, protests, racism, hate, inequality, and having no toilet paper all hit at once. At first, It felt like I was in a never-ending zombie movie, but through it all, I came to appreciate my awareness and to keep building my mind and my body every day, no matter what. It took a while to get there, but here we are. Now I’m based in the States and hopefully soon I’ll be able to go back and forth more frequently when COVID-19 smoothes out. In the meantime, the challenge is still on.
We were big fans of your ‘Bruce Lee’ single with Jackson Wang, and excited to see it on the VIBE Presents: Urban Asia Vol 2 album, too. What was it like working with fellow Hong Konger Jackson? Was that track how you became known as the Bruce Lee of Hip Hop?
Thank you, I love that song, too. Being able to work with Jackson and his team was not only a dope experience but an educational one. The way they operated was on a different level from what I had experienced, and I learned a lot. And being able to represent a legend like Bruce Lee with Jackson was a big honor. Haha, I believe anyone who fights for their dreams has a little Bruce Lee in them, so keep fighting!
Out of all your collabs to date, which has been your favorite so far?
‘Bruce Lee’ featuring Jackson Wang and produced by Fader One.
If you could collab with any rapper in the world, who would it be?
We’re super excited to exclusively host the premiere of your latest collaborative single ‘Mask Up’ [Remix]. What’s the story behind the original track and how did the remix come about?
At the beginning of Covid, it was unbearable to watch the inequality and racism between different nations. Being a proud Chinese-American, being targeted and blamed was a hard thing to understand - especially when you feel like you’re stuck in the middle. Fader and I created ‘Mask Up’ to remind ourselves that we need to be clear-headed, self aware, and that ultimately we’re all in this together, so let’s make the best choices. After releasing the song and music video, we were nominated for the Lift Off Film Festival in Berlin, London, and Paris, and have been on replay on MTV Asia. With over a million views on Weibo, we wanted to create a remix to let our fans join in the cause creatively. We created a contest and picked the top 2 remixes that we felt translated the message and style best. And we will be premiering the remix exclusively here on LiFTED!
The Hip Hop world has recently been mourning the passing of the Diabolical Biz Markie, one of Rap’s all-time greats. Who were your favorite MCs coming up?
It’s heartbreaking to lose legends. DMX’s passing really hit me. I grew up listening to Wu-Tang, Dr. Dre, Snoop, Nas, Tupac, Biggie, Big L, Slim Shady, DMX, the golden era.
Please tell our readers what’s in store for the rest of 2021 going into 2022 for Al Rocco. And thanks for checking in!
Currently, I’m going through a major transformation in terms of my health, body, and mind. While stacking up tons of new music, I’m setting up 2022 for a big one - first album and first solo tour. Y’all ready?