Randall Park plays the father of a rap-loving son in ABC’s new sitcom, Fresh Off the Boat. The debut trailer has him singing the loudest of the Huangs to Ace of Base’s “I Saw the Sign,” while Eddie listens to Notorious B.I.G. on his headphones. In real life, though, Park is an avid hip-hop fan himself. He likes listening to Clipse and Run the Jewels. He was in not one, but two rap groups. Hudson Yang, who plays young Eddie in Fresh Off the Boat, says he listened to a hip-hop playlist Park curated to prepare for his leading role.
Park has referenced his love for East Coast rap in his acting career before, though not in his most recent roles. As Kim Jong-un in The Interview, Park walks James Franco through a showroom of cars and tanks, MTV Cribs-style, to “A Milli”—though, since Lil Wayne is from New Orleans, this doesn’t count. As the first season of Fresh Off the Boat winds down, revisit Park’s best hip-hop moments from before The Interview hack that made headlines—the freestyles, the beatboxing and more.
The premise behind Baby Mentalist is bizarre, yes: The webseries, itself a spoof on the CBS police procedural series, starred Park’s daughter Ruby as an infant prodigy who helps solve murder and robbery cases across Los Angeles. In the third episode, though, Park doubles down on the absurdity when he introduces an American outlaw couple who plans to steal a Rick Ross chain wearing a Rick Ross chain – a one-of-a-kind piece that had only previously been seen in a 2010 Nike commercial.
The closest Park has come to referencing his hip-hop past in his acting so far was also in his most unexpected role yet, on Armando Iannucci’s Veep. There He plays Governor Danny Chung, a Chinese-American war hero who immediately seems like a political threat to U.S. vice president Selina Doyle (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Chung can be charming, as he proved at a fundraiser by kicking off a beatboxing challenge. He won, of course.
Clipse rapped about the distribution and desperation fueling an existence revolving around cocaine sales. So it makes sense that Park featured their music in his webseries The Food, as out there as its premise was: Two friends run a failing Chinese restaurant that doesn’t use MSG, and so in attempts to compete with the neighboring Panda Express, they add cocaine to their chow mein recipe. As Clipse once said, keys open doors.
Park actually rapped in his first-ever regular TV gig, on Nick Cannon Presents: Wild ‘n Out. Sometimes he impersonated Asian stars. (His take on Jackie Chan is okay.) He impressed the most, though, when he tackled Asian stereotypes in his freestyle battle raps: “You can make fun of my dick, but show it some respect / ’cause the head of this is smarter than the one on your neck.”
Before Park was seen on ABC, he was on YouTube—where he, like other Asian-Americans, carved space for themselves to produce media. Once, he used hip-hop to help explain why. “In the past, I’ve turned down opporutnities that I found to be offensive,” Park said to culture site 8Asians. “But I also know that turning down a role won’t change the grand scheme of things. Because for every Talib Kweli, there is a bus full of Flo Ridas just waiting to play the part.”
Before Park appeared in Wild ‘N Out, he was in a hip-hop group called Ill Again that released one self-titled album in 2004. Above all else, Ill Again approached rap as friendly competition. “Sometimes we talk arrogant and act cool / but in reality we’re humbled with the respect,” Park spits in “Next.” A stand-out track, though, was “Figueroa”—a moment where Park gets serious, after a girlfriend who didn’t believe in his rap endeavors (“She said a yellow fellow wasn’t meant to rhyme”) decides to leave him.
A few years after Ill Again released its only album, the group’s two resident emcees, Park and Andrew Johnson, formed another group called Novelists. Songs like “Treats” give away how Park was inspired by former Gang Starr affiliate Jeru the Damaja, a bookish emcee who would sometimes take aim at the early ’90s shiny suit era that Puff Daddy’s Bad Boy Records help to perpetuate. With comparable precision, Park switches flows and unleashes internal rhymes at rappers posing as thugs. He was being clever, and he made it look easy.