China Mac Interview: Bars Behind Bars

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By Alex Shtaerman

It’s true that in 2016 Hip-Hop doesn’t have many new tales left to tell. For those old enough to remember, it sort of feels like Rock N Roll did in the 1980’s, but instead of the tight pants, makeup and wild hairdos … oh, wait – my bad; that’s pretty much exactly what mainstream Hip-Hip has become – the parallel is truly striking. I guess we can now conclude that in the life-cycle of a musical genre (be it Rock, R&B or Hip-Hop) we ultimately reach a plateau where commercialism extracts so much substance from the original blueprint, the only selling point that remains intact, even for the male artists, is the time tested technique of stylizing or sexualizing oneself in an attempt to garner commercial appeal. Of course, while no less debasing, this is the unfortunate path often traversed by female artists in the music industry. But when we consider the industry today is still mostly run by men, as it was in the heyday of Poison and Motley Crew, it is even more telling to see so many male rappers “put out on the track”.

Be that as it may, there were still many compelling Rock acts that first debuted in the1980’s, and the same will be true for Hip-Hop artists during the present decade. Even as the debauchery of commercialization and the mass corporate appropriation of a once renegade movement rages on, certain individuals will retain the ability to infuse the culture with the type of vivid realism that first rose to prominence in the shadows of decrepit Bronx tenements. If there is one universal truth in Hip-Hop that continues to endure, it is as follows: If an artist comes to the table with true passion, legitimate skill and a unique perspective, there will always be an opportunity to make an impact, no matter the prevailing climate of the times.

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China Mac is the type of MC that doesn’t fit too many stereotypes, in Hip-Hop or in general. Very few things about Mac are “as you might expect”. Having spent close to half his life institutionalized, China Mac, government name Raymond Yu, learned how to freestyle and write rhymes in prison. Prior to that, Mac joined the notorious Ghost Shadows street gang in Chinatown, NYC at age twelve; running the familiar street-level gambit of organized crime: extortion, drug dealing, robberies etc.

Shortly after coming home from a three year bid for a litany of gang-related offences, Mac was involved in a dispute at the Chinatown nightclub Yellow. Ironically, it was an altercation with the first rap artist of Asian decent to ever sign a major record deal, Jin, who at the time was a member of the Ruff Ryders collective along with DMX, Jadakiss and Swizz Beatz, among others. During an ensuing argument that escalated into a brawl between rival crews, Mac ended up shooting, and seriously wounding, one of Jin’s associates. Both Mac and Jin escaped the club unharmed that night; but with one rash decision, Raymond Yu’s life had forever changed. The justice system, with which he had become intimately familiar as a habitual juvenile offender, was once again closing in around him.

After spending a year on the run, Mac was finally apprehended attempting to cross the border into Canada from Seattle. With his plan to flee the US unsuccessful, Mac was handed a ten year prison sentence. At a cross-roads and facing the prospect of life as a career criminal, Raymond Yu eventually made the choice to leave his past behind and delve into one of the few things that brought him solace during a turbulent childhood: Hip-Hop music. “That music really made me feel like I wasn’t alone”, says Yu, reflecting on his days as a nine year old, hanging on the words of Golden Era MC’s coming out his radio. “It made me feel like there was a whole culture out there that understood how it felt to be a lost one”. And so, Yu adopted and became a participant in the culture that helped heal him, leaving behind the street escapades that ultimately landed him in prison yet again.

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While incarcerated, Yu continued to sharpen his rhyme skills, eventually connecting with future Red Money Record co-founder Duke. The two spent countless days in the yard of Sing Sing maximum-security prison plotting out every aspect of China Mac’s aspirational rap career. When Mac was finally freed in 2014, the diligent preparation was put quickly put to work. Red Money Records was founded and Mac scored notable collaborations with Jadakiss and Dave East. But perhaps his most potent, and controversial musical contribution to date has been the anti-police brutality anthem “Buck A Cop”.

As frequent victim of justice system batons – one of his front teeth is still notably missing from to a sustained beating – Mac felt compelled to speak in solidarity with the victims of police assaults and fatalities. With close to a dozen major incidents coming to light following the August, 2014 police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, protests erupted across the country, bringing attention to a widely recognized injustice that is so often swept under the rug. Mac, despite being on parole and under police supervision, elected to join the movement, releasing the song “Buck A Cop” and filming a video in support of the track. And so it was.

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Several months later China Mac’s parole would be revoked, the meaning of “Buck A Cop” would be dissected in hearings, and Mac’s alleged inclusion of reputed gang members in several videos would also be brought into question. The end result? Another trip back to prison, where China Mac remains today, having left behind a burgeoning rap career and a growing fan base. Set for an early 2017 release, Raymond Yu’s life is once again on hold. However, with new projects in the works and more to look forward to than ever before, China Mac’s determination remains steadfast and his spirit unwavering.

In fact, Mac has new mixtape dropping this July called, appropriately, FREECHINAMAC. The mixtape features tracks recorded prior to Mac’s most recent incarceration and should hold fans over until Mac can get back in the booth. Another China Mac project presently in the works at Red Money Records is M.I.T.M (Movie In The Making), which will consist of previously unheard China Mac material in addition to videos and a documentary about Mac’s life. Hosted by the legendary Deric “D.Dot” Angelettie, aka The Mad Rapper, M.I.T.M features a series of hilarious skits where D.Dot revives the Mad Rapper character and unleashes his trademark hater tirades at Mac.

With a multitude of new projects on the horizon Mac will have a busy schedule when he finally comes home; hopefully this time it’s for good. We catch up with China Mac from Jamaica, Queens, where Red Money Records operates a recording studio. Calling in from Altona State Correctional Facility, Mac talks Hip-Hop, his unconventional life journey, plans for the future and much more.

RIOTSOUND.COM: A few months back you were sent back to prison on a parole violation. Given that the unexpected nature of the situation, how have you been holding up?

CHINA MAC: I’ve been coming to jail all my life, that’s sad to say – but this particular time is worst of all since I had the most going on. All the other times I was really just fucking up all across the board; I was in the street and doing all types of shit. But this time, I wasn’t in the street; I was trying to do everything for my future.

I worked really hard and I was being really diligent from 2014 through 2015. And right now, with just one mistake – while I’m in here I’m seeing the results of all that hard work diminish. It’s not all the way, because I have good support and I got good people that’s helping me hang on and keep [my career] alive. But if it wasn’t for them, all the stuff that I was working hard for, it’s slowly going away. It’s like watching your baby die. It’s really fucked up man. That’s the most stressful part of it.

RIOTSOUND.COM: Prior to this current bid, your rap career was really starting to gain traction. Of course you had the song “Buck A Cop” addressing police brutality as well as several other well-received tracks. Are prison officials treating you differently now because of “Buck A Cop”?

CHINA MAC: Well, when I first got to Riker’s Island, my folder came up to the gang intelligence office. They don’t just [look at] gangs, they look into [other issues they think could be serious]. So my folder came up and it was about the “Buck A Cop” song, plus all the gang members I had in videos. So [prison officials] were definitely cognizant of my music and some officers spoke to me about it.

But, you know, on Riker’s Island there’s a lot of black officers. So it wasn’t like they were necessarily out to get me over that. A lot of them really told me like – yo, we feel what you’re saying. Some officers told me – we wouldn’t go about it in the way that you’re talking about, but we definitely feel where you’re coming from and it doesn’t seem like it’s faked, it feels real, and we can understand it and we just wish you the best.

So, I’ve really had some pretty good encounters with that. No cops have lashed out on me yet. And thank god I’m not in a maximum-security prison, I’m in a medium security facility and none of that type of stuff is really going on. If the officers who do know who I am or know about my music, they are not vocal about it. And for the most part they are just letting me do my time so I could get the fuck outta here.

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Mac surveys the stream of pedestrian traffic on New York City’s Canal Street.

RIOTSOUND.COM: For people who aren’t up on your background, can you talk about what it was like for you growing up? What kind of things were you dealing with as a youngster?

CHINA MAC: Well, shit was real! You know what I’m saying? [laughing] But, yea, I grew up in China Town, New York City. I was born in Brownsville, Brooklyn, in Brookdale Hospital. I don’t know what my mom was doing there, but that’s where I was born. My mom had me when she was young and she didn’t have her own house really, so she was bouncing around from here to there and I was always going with her to different places.

I’ve never really had one place to call home, but for the majority of my life China Town was where we lived. Back then, in ‘80’s and early ‘90’s, the ethnic gang presence in China Town was really prevalent; the Flying Dragons, Ghost Shadows and all those type of gangs. It was a different era and a different China Town than it is now.

I grew up having to watch what block I could walk on because of gang affiliations. My father was in a gang; he was one of the top figures in the Flying Dragons, the Pell street group. When I was a kid there was a dope arcade on my street and that was Ghost Shadow territory and I could never go there because the Ghost Shadows were my dad’s rivals. I never quite understood, but I guess in a childish way I did understand.

“I did my ten years and during that time I was controlled. I couldn’t say what I wanted to say. I couldn’t tell a police officer or a correctional officer exactly how I felt. But once I got home I felt like it was time for me to express [those feelings]”

RIOTSOUND.COM: In America we have a mythology surrounding Asian gangs, most people know about Chinese gangs from Hollywood or the Hong Kong martial arts flicks. We tend to have a much clearer picture of the mafia or the traditional Black and Latin gangs. What does Chinese gang culture in America actually entail?

CHINA MAC: You have to understand, the kind of [organized crime] structure that existed back then, can’t exist anymore. I’m not saying it’s non-existent, but it’s not how it used to be. Back then the Chinese in America where still insular. There was still a language and a cultural barrier. The Chinese back then didn’t trust the police system, they didn’t trust the government; even though someone robbed their store or killed somebody, they would rather not say anything to the authorities because [they lacked trust].

So with that dynamic, there was room for those gangs to really thrive because the people wouldn’t say anything. But as the generations passed, the government started planting Chinese people [into the neighborhood] that spoke English and knew the culture – eventually all the underground activity was exposed. The FEDs pretty much went in there and dispersed it all.

RIOTSOUND.COM: So what is it like now?

CHINA MAC: Now, the [Chinese criminal] culture has shifted. As opposed to the Bloods and the Crips, those gangs haven’t necessarily switched their agenda; but with the Chinese, they made changes. So now, there are no more street gangs, they moved into other things.

Where I came from, back in those days with my father being part of it, growing up, all the male figures I looked up to were part of it as well. The culture of the [Chinese] gangs was different then say the Bloods, Crips or Latin Kings. However, at the end of the day, the same things still happen. Once the FEDs started coming in and giving people all these [extended prison sentences], people ended up telling on each other, turning on each other. All of those things came into play. So, yea, the Chinese gangs are different in certain ways because the culture is different; but the end result is basically the same. The same things end up happening in the end.

RIOTSOUND.COM: Besides Chinatown, do you also rep for Harlem? You’ve shot videos in Harlem, you recorded the track “Going Down” with Harlem artist Dave East, you’ve also done shows in Harlem. Is there a Harlem connection?

CHINA MAC: I guess you can say that, a lot of my peoples is from Harlem. [Red Money Records co-founder] Duke, even though he’s from the Lower East Side, he’s up in Harlem a lot too. We have a lot of brothers out there and a lot of people that were with us through the struggle while we were in prison. So there is a connection. Plus Harlem and Lower East Side are not too far, we’re all from Manhattan. I’m not from Harlem but I fuck with a lot of Harlem people. Shout out to La Brim, shout out to Dave East, shout out to all the Harlem people, man.

RIOTSOUND.COM: When did you first realize that you could pursue a career in Hip-Hop?

CHINA MAC: I realized that back in 2002, I saw that there was a void for [what I could offer]. I learned how to rap in prison, and the response that I was getting when I would rap was always big. Every jail that I went to, I was always known for rapping. With the response that I was getting from both the prisoners and the officers, I knew at that time that I could really do this.

And to be honest, I really didn’t have a lot of other things going on. I knew that I could market myself, because at the end of the day, I do have a business acumen. And I knew what I had to offer was something different; something nobody has offered yet. This was back in 2001, 2002 – and still to this day, I haven’t seen anybody else offer what I am bringing to the table.

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China Mac leans on a storefront near his childhood home of Chinatown, NYC

RIOTSOUND.COM: As an MC you’ve addressed some serious topics, things that have been mostly swept under the rug the last decade or so. In your view, how important is it for Hip-Hop to have a political component – to be the voice of the under-represented and disenfranchised?

CHINA MAC: Yea, I know, and I hate that. I hate that because that’s what Hip-Hop was about. That’s the backbone of Hip-Hop. That’s what gave it that appeal to everybody. That’s the reason Hip-Hop appeals to so many people throughout the world. And now it’s all commercial; the powers that be sank their teeth in the culture and they couldn’t care less about the people who the culture is actually about. It’s all about the dollar now.

At the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with getting a dollar, but there is something wrong with losing your identity and selling yourself for that dollar. For me to go out there and say the things that I say, it’s really risky, because I’m not totally free to say what I want [due to legal system supervision]. I can go to McDonald’s and hop the 2 train to the Bronx, but I’m not really free because if I’m on parole, at any moment, if I say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing … even if it’s not a crime but it appears like I’m going against something that [in the legal system’s eyes] I shouldn’t be, I’m putting myself at risk.

RIOTSOUND.COM: When you’re out there speaking on some of these things and you are basically putting your freedom on the line, it makes the silence we hear from many of our other artists all the more telling.

CHINA MAC: Everybody on my team can vouch for this, before I released the song “Buck A Cop”, we had a major discussion. Should I release this song knowing that I could possibly go to prison over this? Knowing that a police officer could potentially harass me for it. When you’re on parole, they could basically say anything and fuck you. So I sat down and I looked at it and I didn’t want to be controlled. I didn’t want my freedom of speech, my artistry to be subject to that. I wanted to say what I wanted to say.

I had done my sentence. I did my ten years and during that time I was controlled. I couldn’t say what I wanted to say. I couldn’t tell a police officer or a correctional officer exactly how I felt. But once I got home I felt like it was time for me to express [those feelings]. I think people don’t have to go out there and say exactly what I said but if people are not saying what they think is right because they are afraid they might not get any money for it or whatever else, I think that hinders the art. It contains the art and it won’t be able to have the same impact as before if people take that path.

When we’re only thinking about the dollar and not about how to speak on behalf of our community – I really despise that about Hip-Hop now. Although, we should have fun with it, we should pop bottles, we should do all of that. But we shouldn’t leave out the most important things. We shouldn’t say – oh, forget the kids that’s getting shot down by a police officer for nothing, let’s just pop this bottle, pop this molly and drink this lean and let’s just not worry about all that. I think that’s where we fall short in our artform today.

And for me, personally, I want to continue to say what I want to say. Listen, people think that because I made “Buck A Cop” I’m not going to make a club song, or I’m not going to make a song about a love interest or whatever else. I say what I wanna say; whatever I’m feeling at that moment, whatever I’m inspired by, that’s what I talk about. So, in the future I will continue to do that. As an artist I should have the right to say what I want, that’s why we are in America and that’s what makes this country so great.

“Everything that came into fruition now was planned in [prison]. We had nothing, it was just words in the wind. And Duke entrusted that I would go home and I would fulfill my part of the bargain and I did that to the best of my ability”

But at the same time, it’s being taken away from us, because now the people don’t even want to say it, they shun from saying [anything controversial]. Our own people, people that come from our own blocks, the same people that are being targeted by crooked officers. Artists don’t seem like they want to talk about that anymore because they’re fearful they may lose a marketing dollar.

RIOTSOUND.COM: Who were some of the MCs you admired growing up?

CHINA MAC: The first song I ever heard that caught my attention was KRS One “Love’s Gonna Get’Cha” and the rhyme Got myself an uzi and my brother a nine. That beat and that freakin’ line, I was like whoooahh! When I first understood what they were saying, I was like, yo, this is craaazy! Just the rebelliousness of that, that feeling of Hip-Hop that song put inside me. I was like, wow, this is the shit, you know what I’m sayin’?

After that I started listening to Leaders of the New School and pretty much everything else. Biz Markie and then Kris Kross. I was really diggin’ Kris Kross ‘cause I was that same age at the time. And then after that it was Nas. All the music before, it was cool, it was dope, but when I listened to Illmatic, I was just staring at the radio thinking – how’s this guy painting these pictures with these words. It was remarkable to me. Right now I can see myself as nine years old just staring at the radio like, what the hell did I just hear?

And then Wu-Tang Clan came out with “Protect Ya Neck”. It felt like this was more than music. It represented the rebelliousness that I was going through at that stage of my life. I felt like the world was giving me the shitty end of the stick and that music really made me feel like I wasn’t alone. It made me feel like there was a whole culture out there that understood how it felt to be a lost one.

RIOTSOUND.COM: During that time you could feel like you were part of a movement just by listening to the radio…

CHINA MAC: Yea, that’s exactly how it felt. And then, also, [don’t forget] 2pac. He gave something else, that’s one of my favorite MCs. He may have not been a very witty lyricist but he said things that made you think. And he wasn’t scared to voice his opinion and be everything that he truly was. I really loved Pac’s music; he influenced me a lot. So Pac, Jay, BIG, Pun, Snoop, Eminem, those are the artists that I really fucked with coming up.

RIOTSOUND.COM: How did the vision for Red Money Records come together?

CHINA MAC: Red Money Records came from nothing, At the end of the day, everything comes from nothing, everything comes from an initial idea; but with us, we really had nothing. Me and Duke met each other in the yard [in prison]. I already had designs on going home and doing music, but I was kinda struggling with it. I knew I was going to do it, but I didn’t know exactly how. When I met Duke, he came at me at a time when I was coming to grips with exactly what my plan would be.

Before then, it was just an idea – I’m going to do it because everyone says I should. But when I met Duke we started talking and I began telling him my ideas and plans, and he gave me the confidence [to go forward]. He just believed in it without even knowing too much about me; he saw my energy, he saw how I spoke about it and the hunger that was in me. He took the hunger I already had and helped me bring it out even more.

When we were in the yard, we didn’t even have a name [for the record label]. We would brainstorm and explore different ideas and everything was pretty much created like that. Everything that came into fruition now was planned in [prison]. We had nothing, it was just words in the wind. And Duke entrusted that I would go home and I would fulfill my part of the bargain and I did that to the best of my ability.

RIOTSOUND.COM: You did a track with Jadakiss called “The Yard”, how did that collaboration come together? Also, the reason I ask is because years ago you had the situation with Jin – and many fans will remember Jin was a member of the Ruff Ryders for a time. Was there any kind of subliminal angle, as far as the collaboration with Jada goes?

CHINA MAC: [Laughs] … Yo, with Jada … me and Duke, we put that in motion while we was still in jail. My boy Chi Ali was doing a record with Jada, and [after I heard that] I went back to the yard and I was like – yo, I’m about to go home too – so I told Chi Ali – yo, plug me in, let me get that plug, so I could do a joint with Jada too. Cuz Jada is one of my favorite artists out now. So Chi Ali said he would do it and he got Jada on the phone. Jada was like – yo, I’m feeling the energy, let’s do it. So he was true to his word and we made it happen and did the joint.

Now, in terms of Jin and him being a Ruff Ryder and all that … I don’t even think Jada knew about that at first. But I know he did know when I went up to the studio, because he kinda gave me this look … [laughs] you know what I’m sayin’? He kinda smirked at me and gave me a look. We didn’t really talk about it but I know he knew about it because of the interview with [VladTV], and I’m pretty sure someone pulled his coat on it.

But, at the end of the day it wasn’t like Jin was part of their family. Although he was a Ruff Ryder, he wasn’t there from the inception of it. So, Jada never really said nothing about it, but as far as any designs I had on doing the joint – I didn’t do it [for that reason]. I just did it cuz Jada is that motherfucka’ when it comes to these bars. And that’s what I do. So why not get one of the best to do it with you?

RIOTSOUND.COM: Five years from now, where do you see yourself?

CHINA MAC: I’m gonna take it one day at a time but I want to be at the top, wherever that is. I want to be at my best and I want to bring my people and myself to success. I’m not really planning exactly what I’m going to do, life has its twists and I’m just here for the ride. But at the same time I know what I want in terms of success. And I know I’m going to keep gunning for it. So I can’t really tell you where I’m going to be in five years but I can tell you this: I’m going to keep on gunning until all my people are good.

RIOTSOUND.COM: Do you know when you will be coming home?

CHINA MAC: Early next year, so in 2017, the exact date is still up in the air but it’s not going to be past April. So it could be any day from January 1st until April. I’m still waiting to see what’s going on with that, but that’s what it’s looking like.

RIOTSOUND.COM: What can fans look forward to in the meantime as far as music and other projects from Red Money Records?

CHINA MAC: We have a mixtape about to drop as well as a documentary series that’s in the works. We still have a lot of videos that I haven’t dropped yet, and I’m just waiting for the best time to strategically put those out. It will most likely be right before I’m going to come home. Because if I drop it now [while I’m still in prison] – I don’t want to waste any bullets. Right now me and my team, that’s what we are working so hard on doing, making every bullet count and making sure we keep my name alive to the best of our ability while I’m doing my time.

RIOTSOUND.COM: If fans want to write to you and offer their support, is there a way they can do that?

CHINA MAC: Yea, definitely. Fans can email ChinaMacMusic@gmail.com and request my address. My people will get the address to them. I definitely appreciate everyone that supports. Everyone that has been a support and that may be a supporter in the future. I just want to let everyone know that things happen, man. Life happens, twists and turns and unfortunate circumstances happen for whatever reason.

All we can do is pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and keep on moving. The only way these things defeat us is we let them prevent us from following through on what we set out to do. So, I just encourage anybody that goes through anything difficult, to just keep on truckin’ man. Pick yourself up, like I’m doing, dust yourself off – I’m gonna look at my people to make sure we all good and we going keep on moving forward. And that’s what Red Money is about.

Check out the new mixtape FREECHINAMAC and stay up on China Mac news and upcoming projects at ChinaMacMusic.com

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