Meet the underground Asian creative making brutal sci-fi rap

We spoke to Yen Tech about his new, genre-blurring sound and how 00s boybands inspire him

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Yen Tech
Meet the underground Asian creative making brutal sci-fi rapCourtesy of Yen Tech

It’s difficult to describe Yen Tech (aka Nick Newlin). Born from the same loose digital art scene that spawned DiS Magazine, he makes music that deliberately defies neat labels. At times, his sound is comparable to the bouncing Korean trap of artists like Keith Ape and Okasian, and at other times, he delves into winking 00s boy band territory, with R&B hooks and slick dance routines, before throwing it all out for some dirty, sweat-inducing, bass-heavy techno.

Yen Tech’s debut album, Mobis (below) thrives on this conflict, embracing a kind of creative digital futurism that makes him particularly intriguing. “Yen Tech is hybridized, vaguely futuristic and Pan-Asian,” he tells us, explaining his name, adding: “it basically sounds like the music I make.” His vocals are chaotic and freefalling, the lyrics pumped up with faintly ironic machismo: “Cup filled up with some vodka and a kickstart, fuck yeah damn I live strong,” he yelps in “Holo Mode”, his high energy, feverish delivery teetering on the brink of derangement. It’s clear to see that Yen Tech is an innovator, not a follower – we wanted to find out more.

What was your upbringing like? Was it creative?

Yen Tech: I grew up in a family of mostly academics and artists. My grandmother was a poet. My upbringing definitely cultivated what I ended up doing, but at the same time it was never expected of me to pursue the arts.

Some of my earliest memories revolve around music. Growing up my best friend and I would record tape after tape of these weird improvised punk/noise songs. We did this literally for years, and for no apparent reason - it was like this cathartic thing. While we were in High School, he tragically passed away, and I think that moment kind of hardened and motivated me to get serious about music.

Your music feels like a mishmash of genres – trap, electronic, K-Pop, R&B, techno – how would you describe your sound?

Yen Tech: I think we too quickly typify artists to fit a mould. I try to play with genre expectations in a nuanced way, while also making music that can stand on its own rite. My goal though is for Yen Tech to continue to evolve into something more amorphous. There are hints of this on Mobis, but I think my next phase will be focused on creating music that’s more experiential and sprawling. I eventually want my listeners to be able to turn up, but in a way that’s totally removed from genre and structure. It’s about to become more fully cinematic.

Your aesthetic can look quite 00s boyband. Is this something you’re inspired by?

Yen Tech: I’m definitely interested in the idea of the “idol”. This term generally implies a manufactured or impersonal character, but since I create every aspect of Yen Tech myself (from the production to the visuals) I think it’s an interesting parallel. It’s very much human. From Hatsune Miku to American Idol to EXO-K, it’s all equally a kind of IRL science fiction in the end.

You come from the same art school background as DiS Magazine and its affiliates. Tell me a bit about that.

Yen Tech: I went to school in Chicago actually, but I met a lot of talented people there who then migrated to NYC and became friends, collaborators and affiliates of DIS. That’s how I initially met and discovered that crew. I consider them friends now and I highly respect and admire what they are doing.

When music is overly intellectualised, do you think there’s a danger in isolating people? This is a criticism some have levelled at PC Music, for instance.

Yen Tech: I think it depends on how you approach art. It can function as pure entertainment, or it can be something more layered, or both. In regards to your example, I think PC Music manages to do both very well. It’s fun to look at, fun to listen to, and is completely functional as pure pop music. On a broader scale though, I wouldn’t say I feel isolated by this newer wave of conceptual net musicians – if anything I feel too included. I’m down with more isolation personally. I’d love to be the last artist on earth, just to see what I’d end up making.

You’ve worked closely with designer Ximon Lee. How important do you think fashion is, as a medium?

Yen Tech: I’m not really involved in fashion, but I like clothes. I used to wear Billabong and now I wear Demeulemeester. To me that’s just a personal evolution. It’s another piece of cultural knowledge, and I’ve learned to appreciate designers and style in a very natural way as I’ve grown older and my tastes have evolved. But I’m pretty casual about it all. Fashion is a personal experience. That’s why I don’t get parents who make their babies wear designer clothing. It’s like, that baby has no sense of style yet, let alone any real self-awareness: you need to relax.

Tell me about your debut album Mobis. What themes does it explore?

Yen Tech: I was having a really hard time in New York last year while trying to write this record, and I got so paranoid and antsy about it that I basically had to start over from scratch. Once I did though, I made it a point to embrace that uneasiness and channel it into the record. Mobis is the result, and I think partly because it’s overtly dystopian or futuristic in its aesthetic, that those emotions fit so perfectly. There are other conceptual influences that went into the record but it seems overkill to talk about them. Ultimately I just wanted to make a really insane, high energy rap record. That was the goal. I especially wanted to do this for the fans who stuck with me, I felt like I owed it to them to deliver something worthwhile.

Which artist has most inspired you creatively and why?

Yen Tech: It’s so hard to just pick someone. I know he’s polarizing but Kanye West is someone whose music has been important to me for a long time now. The post-spiritual, God complex type relationship he has now with himself and the public just makes it even more impactful for me. It’s performance art, maybe.

What is one book that has changed your life and why?

Yen Tech: I can’t say it changed my life, but one book that heavily influenced Mobis was Hyperion by Dan Simmons. It’s a blend of horror, space-opera and Medieval literary allusions and it really hits hard. It’s entertaining and super brutal.

What does 2016 look like for Yen Tech?

Yen Tech: 2016 is looking crazy. I have two music videos coming out. The first video for my track “Y-3” is a throwback, and I think shows a very important, comedic side to what I’m doing. After that I’m becoming an expat and moving to Asia in the spring or summer. I’ll probably be in Seoul and Shanghai for a bit, and do some touring from there. I also have some interesting collaborations coming up that will serve as teasers for the next EP that I’m working on right now. The EP is going to be something really next level and I can’t wait to release it.

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