I heard about Eugene Ahn through a mutual friend of ours, who happens to be a lawyer. Eugene was also a lawyer until he quit to become a full-time rapper. Pretty awesome, right? He goes by the stage name Adam WarRock and has developed quite a following among comic fans through his “nerdcore” rap. From being featured alongside mainstream rappers on iTunes’ hip hop and rap genre frontpage to contributing to FakeAPStylebook, which has turned into a book deal, Ahn’s decision to follow his dreams is a perfect example of how we should all do the same. Read on to learn more about this awesome dude.
Serial Optimist: Hey Eugene! What are you up to right this instant – where are you – how’s your day going?
Eugene Ahn: I am sitting in a mostly empty apartment, waiting for my stuff to arrive from the movers. I’m literally typing on a computer on a box, on the floor. It’s like a scene from Trainspotting.
SO: Adam WarLock was born in a cocoon at a scientific compound called the Beehive. Where were you born, tell us anything about your childhood you think we should know.
EA: I was born in the crumbling steel economy of Pittsburgh, PA, and I grew up in the humid Southern climate of Memphis, TN. I would say something about the Steelers here, but it’s the weekend before the Super Bowl, and I’m pretty sure that it would seal the deal that whenever this interview posts, I would look like an idiot if they lost. That’s what the Greeks would call hubris!
SO: You have done what many people dream of every day – quitting their lame job as a corporate whatever and following their dream. What finally pushed you to do it? Was there a moment where you just couldn’t take it anymore? Anything you would do differently in hindsight or advice you’d give to others wanting to take the plunge?
EA: I started posting music on my website just to have a place to store them and let my friends hear the tracks. I never really expected it to take off beyond me getting to maybe do some music projects totally for fun; but it started to take off, and at a certain point, I had all these opportunities that I had to keep turning down because I had a day job. It was getting harder and harder to maintain both sides. I’d show up to work without shaving, bags under my eyes, my shirts weren’t ironed. I’m pretty sure that my bosses thought I developed some kind of destructive drug problem. One day, I just had to admit that I couldn’t do everything, and think hard about what I wanted to do with all this opportunity laid at my feet. So I started slowly saving up money, making plans, scripting out a nice, diplomatic exit from my day job to a more creative lifestyle. Then I had a bad day at work, and in the midst of being yelled at; I just up and said, “I think I’m done here.” It wasn’t so much an impulsive act, as it was just me switching all the knobs from the safest possible option to “well, let’s see how quick we can jump into this.” I was deluding myself into thinking I could take a stable path to changing up my entire life, when it’s pretty well documented that you always have to jump in feet first.
If there was any bit of advice I’d give to others, I’d say don’t ever think that what you’re good at is too niche, or too stupid and weird to be a viable thing. Forget about careers, just talking about how you view the thing you love doing. In this day and age, there is a community of people like you, there’s an audience out there, and there’s probably a way to get the good stuff in front of them. The second you understand that the thing you love doing is important, not because it’s of worldly import but because you love doing it, the decisions you have to make for your future become a LOT easier.
SO: Were your friends and family supportive? Particularly as an Asian American, did your mother take a cue from Amy Chua and want to beat you when you told her your plans?
EA: My mother and father definitely have their traditional aspects about them, but they have been incredibly supportive, mostly because I think they understand the need to be creative having come from a bit of a creative place themselves. My mother was an operatic voice major in college, my father could play guitar, and my sister played concert piano her whole life. They may not LOVE the fact that I don’t have a steady paycheck anymore, but they don’t stand in the way of me trying to do something that makes me happy, so long as I have an organized plan to go about it. Maybe I was lucky. I’m sure many people’s parents would not be as cool with this kind of a decision.
Friends, it’s weirder. You get the feeling that a lot of professional peers all of a sudden treat you like you’re a bit radioactive, as if you have some kind of flu that they may be in danger of catching. So I’ve had my fair share of casual friends step away from me, not really knowing how to interact with me anymore. But in turn, I’ve had a number of people come out to support me; people that I never even knew were in my corner to such an extent. So in the end, I’d say it’s about equal, but you definitely have to understand that your place in your friends’ groups sort of change. It’s a big reason why I moved to Memphis, TN and have begun sharing office space and working with my friends who make the webcomic Let’s Be Friends Again, it’s nice to be around other people doing the same kind of creative work. But the real friends, nothing ever changes with them. I can hang out with my best friends, and I’m pretty sure that our jobs never really come up, just like before.
SO: How did you get into rapping?
EA: I came from a place of writing a lot of poetry and spoken word as a high school student. When I went to college, I saw spoken word and live hip hop for the first time in my life, and I am pretty sure I turned to my girlfriend at the time, and said, “THAT is what I want to do.” So I started hitting open mics and writing in a more performative way. I grew up as a hip hop fan, so it was really only a matter of time before I started putting those pieces to beats. And the rest, as they say, is history.
When I finally decided on going to law school, I decided to put away all the extracurricular noise and focus on my career. So I stopped creating music for a period of three to four years, graduated, and started working as an attorney. And I was totally miserable. One of my very good friends had to pull me aside and basically say, “Listen, just dust off your equipment and start making music again. Even if it’s just for yourself.” So I started to get back into the swing of creating, and it just sort of took off from there. I needed a place to dump my music, so I started a website and just started posting songs whenever I finished one, without thinking twice about the quality of the track, or who would want to hear it. At that time in my life, I just happened to have a bunch of friends who were blogging for sites, making podcasts, creating webcomics, active in the online community. So I just started making these de facto tribute songs, or theme songs for their things and posting it online for people to hear. In between, I’d make songs about whatever I felt like rapping about in pop culture, in politics, a lot of stuff about comic books and geeky stuff. The site took off, and before I knew it, I was talking to beatmakers about making a real album.
SO: Tell us about your gigs. You play a lot of comic stores/conventions. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen? Any moments of stage fright or do you just pretend all those nerds are naked?
EA: I don’t think I’ve seen anything remarkably crazy or weird, beyond the normal things you’d see at a comic convention: people cosplaying, anime fans doing coordinated dances, awkward geeky kids playing the Wii Michael Jackson experience next to hired models on a stage. Y’know, the usual. I do try to branch out and book shows outside the normal hip hop and indie music venues. I did the comic book store tour because I wanted to do something to help comic stores get more foot traffic, and to find a way to directly reach my biggest audience. I also do a series of shows called “An Intimate Evening of Comedy and Rap Music” with an Atlanta-based stand up comic, Viet Huynh, where we combine a stand up comedy show with a music performance where I tell stories and talk about my experiences quitting my job. I love involving other genres, or even non-musicians into the live performances, simply because I like watching comedians and seeing different acts at a show, myself. It’s my excuse to find a stage for acts or people that I really love watching work.
As for stage fright, I still get insanely nervous before every live show I do. I kind of disappear and fret by myself, going over lyrics and psyching myself up. I’ve kind of grown comfortable with it. It makes me feel like there’s some superstitious merit in going through that torturous ritual before every show, as if I’d do a badly if I didn’t freak out a bit. But when I hit the stage and start, I basically black out and don’t really remember how any performance goes. I’m sort of that way with everything: I’ll worry about it to death, but when the thing is happening, I just kind of shrug and go with it. I mean, why not?
SO: How have you built a following and gotten publicity? I heard something about you getting contacted by the producer of Scott Pilgrim because of your recap rap? Is that true or a nasty rumor?
EA: Honestly, the Internet is such a self-starting thing, that a lot of my stuff just gets passed around via social media or word of mouth. I have a unique ability to write and record songs very quickly, so a lot of times I can kind of judge what it’s in the media and just make a song about it. Some believe that that there’s TOO much content on the web, so it’s harder to get your stuff out there amidst the noise and garbage. But there’s an opportunity when you narrow your content to something incredibly specific, while still meeting a high level of quality. People will actively seek that out, and then become ambassadors for your song to other people. So while I make plenty of regular hip hop, I also like to make songs about Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla engaging in rap battles with their enemies or a mixtape about The West Coast Avengers to famous west coast gangsta rap beats, and people end up really enjoying it because it’s so specifically tailored to this nerdy sensibility, but is still done well and has some sort of message behind it. It really is like watching a snowball roll down the mountain.
As for the Scott Pilgrim rap, I don’t know about “nasty” rumor. But it is true that the director of the movie, Edgar Wright, did find the song and blog about it. That, and my “Ira Glass” song were probably the two things that propelled my music into a higher echelon of geek domain. Relevant to this question, I was also contacted by Mr. Glass in connection with that song, and he did give his blessing to me.
SO: We also learned that you contribute to the epic FakeAPStylebook. How did you get involved in that project? Any other rad side projects you want people to know about? What’s next for you?
EA: I was just friends with the co-creators, Ken Lowery and Mark Hale. They were kind enough to let a bunch of people contribute to the twitter feed, and we got a book deal and all of a sudden I was writing for a soon-to-be-published book. It is my duty to inform everyone that our book, unlike other twitter-deal books, is mostly brand new material from our twitter feed, including original artwork, broader sections, and an introduction from fan, Roger Ebert. April 5, in stores! But in all seriousness, it was just an excuse to make my friends laugh, just like I loved reading their entries and laughing myself. There is a contingent of very dedicated Bureau Chiefs who keep that machine rolling. I admittedly haven’t been able to contribute nearly as much as I used to, but they do amazing work, and make me laugh on a daily basis.
As for what’s next, I’m hoping to keep making good music, doing live shows and working with musicians and artists that I love and respect. I’ll also be giving some talks at universities to student groups about choosing a creative career, having the perspective to make that kind of a choice for yourself, convincing kids to not go to law school. And at some point later this year, I’ll be making a follow-up to my debut album. For now, I’m just trying to stay afloat so I don’t have to go back and get a day job again. Living the dream, or the closest thing to it.
SO: Living the dream, indeed! Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us, Eugene!