Editor’s note: This post was written before Kollaboration Star 2014 and has not been edited for time continuity.
Dan Matthews, also known as the rapper DANakaDAN, is a very busy man. He was only available for an interview at 10 pm, so of course I stayed up until 1am EST to interview him over the phone.
“Lately it’s been pretty busy,” he said on his way home from the San Diego Asian American Film Festival. “We’re in the middle of a big campaign for my job and my schedule is really unpredictable.”
Aside from his usual daily schedule, the alternative rapper is performing this Saturday at the Los Angeles Wilshire Ebell Theater as part of Kollaboration Star 2014 for its 15th anniversary. Kollaboration Star features six different performances from winners all over the U.S. who won their city’s individual Kollaboration Showcase. For their wins at home, the six finalists then go to Star to compete for $10,000 and be judged by singers Marie Digby and AJ Rafael, along with actresses Samantha Futerman and Ally Maki. Actor Jimmy O. Yang and comedienne Jenny Yang are hosting the show and many Kollaboration alum will join Matthews, including indie band Run River North and singer-songwriter Alfa.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun being able to play with a full band, and it’s not just me [performing],” he said. “It’s really important [that] when I did this show it wasn’t just going to be my performance, it’s going to be myself collaborating with a bunch of other amazing artists.”
Those other artists include Chucky Kim, Sam Kang, Travis Graham and Matthews’ friend Victor Velasquez. Matthews considers them amazing musicians on their own, and after collaborating with them in the past on some songs he looks forward to doing a show together at Kollaboration.
“If I didn’t have this way to express myself, I don’t know I’d be able to express it any other way…”
Off stage, Dan Matthews is the director of productions at ISAtv, meaning he produces all content on the channel. But to him “you just do whatever you need to do in order to make the company survive.” At ISA Matthews develops content, builds connections with the Asian American community and tries to find stories people want to hear and see brought to life.
“I really love working at ISA,” Matthews said. “I think that we’ve been able to develop a really amazing platform to really [be] able to create a place where people can come and find content that they can relate to and stories that are special to our community. And because of our connection to the community, we’re able to find really interesting, really cool people that support us and collaborate with us. So it’s provided a lot of really interesting experiences.”
His co-workers at ISA also support and empower DANakaDAN, giving him the chance to stay creative on the side. He’s met a lot of people, both as DANakaDAN and Dan Matthews who help both ISA and his rapping. There’s a bit of conflict of interest between focusing on his talent in front of the camera, and behind the scenes.
“It’s challenging sometimes, but for the most part what I’m doing at ISA makes me a more creative person,” he said. “It helps the passion that I’ve got for being Dan aka Dan, and vice versa.”
His passion for being DANakaDAN and hip-hop began in his junior year of high school. It provided a creative outlet for a bored teenager, and “bored teenagers need ways to get their emotions out and find ways to be able to express themselves.” Writing, rapping and performing became Matthews’ outlet because he found it an interesting and unique way for people to express themselves and became drawn in.
“There’s something special about people that are able that are able to express themselves through rap and lyricism that I just think is really special,” he said. “I think that the stories you can tell with rap are, at least to me, a little bit different stories you can maybe tell through other forms of music. I’m a better storyteller through rap than I would ever be through any other forms of music.”
Hip-hop isn’t the only musical influence to Matthews’ sound, evident on his debut album “Stuntman” released earlier this year. Matthews had already been writing the songs the year before, after his trip to South Korea and meeting his birth family inspired the album. They began recording in November 2013, then finished the mixing and mastering four months later. Listening to “Stuntman” from start to finish, he includes many different genres to tell his story.
“I’m a big fan of rock, or alternative-infused hip-hop, and so it definitely started off just being alternative rock, really, really dark type of direction,” he explains. “[Then] I realized that, especially after I came back from Korea, I didn’t have a lot to complain about. I had a lot to really celebrate so I found ways to work with a lot of different people to produce a lot happier type of music.”
He also became a fan of electronic music and it helped inspire him and include a combination of both genres to create a more positive feel in the second half of the album. Through the album, Matthews talks about a lot of personal topics, saying he finds it easier to explain himself about embarrassing or personal topics through his music and writing.
“If I didn’t have this way to express myself, I don’t know I’d be able to express it any other way, so it became a very important part of me,” he said.
He also takes comfort in knowing listeners relate to him and his experiences through his music, especially the inspiration for “Stuntman” and “aka Dan”, the ISA documentary series: Matthews’ then-recent trip to South Korea, where he was adopted from as a baby, to meet his birth family. A very personal topic, Matthews originally didn’t want to film it, but decided to in the end because he knew if he didn’t he would regret it.
“It was something that was worth filming and taking that risk to be able to capture,” he decided. “It was definitely a big risk, but I’m really happy that it paid off.”
Since its March release, “aka Dan” has reached over 40,000 views on YouTube. The music videos for “Stuntman” and “Is There Anybody out There?” have reached 78,000 and 15,000 respectively. [Editor’s note: these numbers have significantly changed since the writing of this article.] Matthews has been featured on the November 2013 cover of KoreAm magazine and invited to perform around the country, including Kollaboration D.C.’s city showcase. He hopes to get conversations about adoption going, and encourages adoptees to find ways to talk about their experiences.
“I think that it’s important to find ways to be able to express yourself,” is his advice. “I think that the issues are different, between different people, depending on how they were raised or how they grew up, or what the environment is. But there’s a lot of things that we think about that other people don’t have to think about, and that having a way to express yourself is very, very important. Whether it be sports, art, teaching, just finding a way that you can find a way to be able to feel like you’re being heard about whatever issue it is that you might have.”
Photos Courtesy of Dan Matthews, David Kong, Wonho Frank Lee, and John Xiaomeng Zhang.