There’s only one rapper on the entire face of the Earth who has collaborated with both Nas and the Dalai Lama, and his name is Dwagie. A living legend, Dwagie is widely credited with releasing the first all-Chinese rap album, 2002’s Lotus From the Tongue. His latest, Refuse to Listen, further bridges the gap between Taiwan’s and America’s hip-hop scenes, boasting both an appearance by Nas, on the title track, and production from DJ Premier. The Taiwanese MC is playing a rare American show Friday at Highline Ballroom along with his country’s two other biggest music stars, A-Lin and Ascent, and an additional show Saturday at Coco 66. We spoke to Dwagie about having pioneered a hip-hop scene in Taiwan, as well as if it was harder to get the Dalai Lama or Nas on a track.
Do you recall your first exposure to hip-hop?
I think when I was a student, about 16 years old, I listened to my first mixtape. The mixtape had lots of types of music on it, but when I heard hip-hop, I knew it was the music I liked.
Was it an American hip-hop artist?
All from America.
In 2002 you put out Taiwan’s first hip-hop album, Lotus From the Tongue. What made you decide to pursue doing a full album?
I think hip-hop is different from other music. I can spread out my message with my lyrics. If you can read my lyrics, they’re not only about love or heartbroken, my songs are [about] social justice, human rights. I want my listeners to make this world a better place.
In your new song with Nas, “Refuse to Listen,” one of your lyrics translates to “If you want to make money, don’t provoke.” Since 2002, have you faced much resistance to making the music you want to make?
Yes, I think so. The tension between Taiwan and China is complicated, and when you have beef with China, you jeopardize the market in China. I remember in 2008, [with] Chinese rappers I got into a battle like the East-West coast in America. My boss from the record company at the time told me to back off. I was supposed to drop my second album around 2008, but because of the battle it was canceled for two years.
With you being one of the pioneers of rapping in Taiwan, did any live crowds have a hard time accepting a rap performance?
I don’t think so. Hip-hop is for everyone, not just for students or adults. It’s for everyone. We would perform everywhere, clubs, schools, government. Lots of people would come. At Chinese New Year’s Eve, we performed at a party the government held for 100,000 people. Lots of people come to see us.
Have you performed much outside of Taiwan?
Not really much. I’ve performed in Hong Kong, Japan, and New York, too, but 10 years ago at Columbia University.
How different are Taiwanese hip-hop audiences compared to the other places you’ve been?
In Taiwan, people understand what you are rapping, so at the venue they immediately get it. In Japan, they don’t know what you mean, so you have to use a lot of body language to hype up.
How did you link up with Nas?
I grew up listening to Nas’s music. At first I thought collaborating would be impossible, but after collaborating with the Dalai Lama, everything becomes possible for me. I used all my connections. I have a friend who works at Universal in New York. I told him I want[ed] to try to collaborate with Nas. Of course, it’s a really tough challenge, because we spent so much time on email, like a year. But that’s how it happened.
Did it take longer for the collaboration with Nas to happen than the Dalai Lama?
[Laughs] The Dalai Lama collaboration took two years. At first it was supposed to be one year. We bought a ticket, got everything ready to go, and then got a phone call that said, “Sorry, he’s got to meet with Obama.” [Laughs] So, “OK, what’s the next time we can see each other?” — and it was a year later. But I’m a devout Buddhist, so it was beyond my wildest dream to meet him in India.