Mike Gao: Ivory Tower Education, DTLA Beats

(Mike Gao (blonde) with Dumbfoundead, Year of the Ox, Awkwafina, Tony K, Paul Song, and P Lo)

Mike Gao is a producer, music technologist, and university lecturer based in Koreatown of Los Angeles but born in Beijing. He has toured worldwide, earned two degrees in music technology, and collaborated with countless producers such as Kaytranada and Lege Kale. In addition, he has created two iOS applications for music production and worked on projects with teams from both Native Instruments and Ableton. Simply put, Mike Gao has established himself and seen a large part of the digital music arena. Combining his history in the industry with his Asian American identity, we can analyze Mike Gao’s involvement with and creation of music in the context of our class to support, contest, and further complicate ideas from class regarding the model minority myth in relation to Asian Americans in music, Fred Ho’s Kreolization, and class influence on success. Doing so is important to maintain a critically resistant lens while being a part of culture that is constantly evolving.

To address the model minority myth, we should first understand more about Gao’s education (briefly mentioned in the beginning of this interview). He earned a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from USC, a Masters in Music Technology from Stanford, and a Ph.D. in Music Technology from UC San Diego. Mike Gao’s abundant schooling in music closely mirrors the experience of many classical Asian American musicians that we discussed in class, and it also implies a significant amount of economic security. Similar to classical musicians, music producers who use digital software typically need to spend large sums of money on various programs, plugins, and equipment in addition to spending much of their time practicing or exploring their DAW (digital audio workstation). Gao’s post-graduate transition to Music Technology also evidences a sense of economic safety that many working- and middle-class people may lack. These details of his experience reflect the same concepts of dedication, hard work, and investment that are illustrated in the model minority myth.

Gao even displays some anti-Blackness (something I consider to be a key in the model minority myth) in another interview. He says, “In America, there’s this irreproachable coolness of hood Black culture…it could be the stupidest thing…the most ignorant lyrics, but for some reason it’s entertaining.” Although this comment is somewhat aware of the American social climate, Gao removes himself as an agent while simultaneously referring to Black culture as stupid and ignorant. This paradoxical demeaning of Black culture justifies both Black subjugation and the cooptation of the culture by more “intelligent,” “worthy” individuals such as Mike Gao himself. The paradox here is Gao’s belittling description of “hood Black culture” while he is infatuated with it, as is clear to any listener of his music.

Conversely, Gao contests ideas in the model minority myth by being involved in music scenes that are far from being white or, in some cases, Western. Rather than assimilate into the hegemony and study the oppressor’s music, Mike Gao studied music technology and took an interesting approach to the underground beat scene. I refer to his approach as interesting because Gao seems to view himself as separate from some communities that he produces music within. For example, in this Beat the Future radio show, he speaks on the Black phenomenon of trap music saying, “As someone with my background, it’s always cool for me to see people that may not be very technologically advanced, but they make music that’s very catchy to me.” I can’t tell here whether he separates himself from makers of trap music because of his educated background or possibly his Asian American identity (I believe some of Gao’s music could easily be considered trap). Either way, I read this comment as condescending, especially coming from someone who had to make an app in order to play certain compatible chords together.

Regardless of his identification with trap music, Mike Gao does much to support a communal and more accessible experience in creating music, which I read as parallel to Fred Ho’s concept of Kreolization. Ho describes this idea as cultural synthesis “at the bottom of society, among the varying oppressed peoples,” (117-118). Gao fits precariously into this description because he is far from the “bottom of society” as someone with the significant cultural (and likely economic) capital that he has, but he consistently collaborates and interacts with countless other producers of color, many of whom likely come from backgrounds of lower class standing (a short list includes Gravez, TEK.LUN, Ta-Ku, and Mr. Carmack). He also seems to have an approach to music that aligns well with what we have discussed from Ho, as he said in a previously mentioned interview on a radio show, “It’s impossible to trace the genealogy of a genre to just one person or one scene,” when asked about the contribution of Los Angeles to the underground future beat scene.

(Mike with TEK.LUN, Drewsthatdude, and PyrmdPlaza)

Mike Gao also furthers Ho’s concept of Kreolization with the applications that he created, Vocal Beater and Polyplayground. The former is an iPhone app that converts vocal beatboxing into MIDI input for use in a DAW, and the latter is an iPad app that uses colors and shapes to make playing compatible chords and progressions easier. These apps help deconstruct the relatively lucrative world of music production, as many people who may want to enter the field are hindered by lack of money or traditional education in music.

In researching for this post, I learned many things about Mike Gao that I hadn’t known before, but I still would say that I appreciate his music and his contributions to both the underground future beat and digital music production cultures. With that being said, he seems to have a social lens that needs more critical thought. I like to give underground artists the benefit of the doubt on social awareness because much of their publicity focuses on the creative aspects of their art and therefore give minimal opportunity to voice opinions or grow them (what I imagine is the reason for his absence of any information on his Asian American experience, as every artist seems to be asked about theirs), but I think Mike Gao has had numerous opportunities to open his mind that he has not taken advantage of.

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