Jin Au-Yeung was 19 years old when the "big break" came. Known as MC Jin, the Miami-born rapper is most widely recognized as the first Asian-American rapper to be signed by a major record label. During that first wave, Jin looked unstoppable. Even early Urban Dictionary entries defined "jin" as "the future of hip hop" and "the best frestyle [sic] MC out there right now."
But after his first studio album tanked in the U.S., Jin stepped out of the spotlight and eventually out of the country, ending up in Hong Kong where he was heralded as "the changing face of Cantopop"--a man whose face seemed to be "emblazoned across our entire city."
Success flooded Jin's life for years abroad, but now the 32-year-old rapper is back in America. After a decade of highs and lows, and a newfound devotion to faith, Jin has released the album he says he wished the world got to hear 13 years ago.
For Jin's fans, his meteoric rise to fame is legendary. A year after moving to New York City with his family in 2001, 19-year-old Jin found his way onto BET's 106 & Park for the show's weekly "Freestyle Friday" rap battle competition and faced off against reigning champion Hassan, who was well on his way to the show's Hall of Fame.
Dressed in an oversized Enyce shirt and a red bucket hat, Jin filled his 30 seconds in the spotlight with confident rhymes ("You've got six victories? I wonder if this'll hurt: the closest you'll get to seven is the number on your shirt") and quick jabs about his own ethnicity ("If you make one joke about rice or karate, NYPD be in Chinatown searchin' for your body").
Jin won the battle after Hassan failed to finish his rap, falling flat with references to wontons and sexual inexperience before throwing in the towel with 15 seconds left on the clock.
Looking back on the battle over a decade later, Jin says it was all strategy.
"I wasn't 100% sure, but 99.9999% sure, that when I stepped on that stage, he was going to say something about me being Asian," he said. "There's this idea that I can kind of soften the blow by acknowledging it first, but it's all strategy and a risk. If I acknowledge it and he doesn't say anything about it, then it works against me. People would be like, 'Man, nobody even cares you're Chinese. Why are you trying to bring it up?'"
"They came to this country with a core belief of wanting to work hard so their son could have a better future. In their minds, a better future was not a rap career."
But Jin's assumptions were usually on point, giving him the upper hand when his opponent did turn to race to try to insult him. "Everybody was like, 'Man he called you on that. He said you were gonna say it, and you did say it!'"
The victory against Hassan was the start of a seven-battle winning streak that ended with Jin taking out his final challenger with a rap that included Cantonese, securing him a spot in the Hall of Fame and a contract with Ruff Ryders, a now-disbanded label that once managed billboard chart toppers DMX and Eve.
It was the moment Jin had been waiting for his entire life - the legitimacy of the record deal and the chance to become a rap star - despite the disapproval of his parents. "I know without a doubt in my mind that their anti-hip hop mentality was just coming from a place of love and concern," Jin said. "They came to this country with a core belief of wanting to work hard so their son could have a better future. In their minds, a better future was not a rap career."
By the time Jin signed with Ruff Ryders, his parents had started to come around to the path their son had chosen. Two years later, in 2004, Jin released his first studio album "The Rest is History," featuring producers such as Kanye West and Wyclef Jean. "The Rest is History" was met with mixed reviews, and though his single "Learn Chinese" went gold in China, it failed to achieve success in the U.S., peaking at #74 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart.
"I didn't have a creative mindset of my own," Jin admitted. "Everybody [around me] had the best intentions. I can't imagine anyone wanting to see it all go awry." He doesn't mince words when assessing his studio debut: "It bombed."
Jin and Ruff Ryders parted ways in 2006. Jin spent years trying to keep his head above water, recording and producing music independently. He even sold one album on MySpace. "I literally said to my Myspace following, 'Hey, I have an album,'" said Jin. "'If you want to buy it, Paypal me and I'll mail it to you.'"
The following he had cultivated since his BET breakout was not strong enough to turn things around. By 2008, Jin was ready to call it quits. "It was out of not only frustration and bitterness, but also out of reality," he said. "I was approaching my mid-to-late-20s, and I was thinking about my future. I didn't want to just be this depressed, non-successful rapper for the rest of my life."
"Did I find a new life there? Totally."
Six years after his first "big break," Jin was given a second chance. Despite watching a Cantonese-language album he recorded get rejected in 2007 by record labels abroad, Universal Music Hong Kong reached out in 2008, and offered Jin the chance to come to Hong Kong. "It was a no-brainer," he said. "I didn't have a premeditated thought in terms of how long I would be out there or what it would really mean. It was just like, 'Let me get on this plane and go.'"
Jin arrived in Hong Kong in 2008. Months turned into years. In the four years he stayed, he re-discovered success. Jin scored television and film roles, endorsement deals and awards. Gossip about his 2010 engagement made the front page entertainment news, much to his amusement. Jin became a star in an unexpected place, even once calling himself the "Justin Bieber of Hong Kong."
But the shift in Jin's career and status sent him in the opposite direction of Bieber's tabloid-grabbing antics. While in Hong Kong, Jin was baptized and began a relationship with Jesus that changed his life.
"Did I find a new life there?" Jin asked. "Totally."
Whereas he sauntered onto BET with expectations and an ego, Jin said his time in Hong Kong changed his heart for the better and forced him to realize he wasn't entitled to any of the opportunities that came his way. "Even if you look at just the idea of the walk and the journey in the Christian faith, the thing I love the most is that it isn't a thing where you can 'finally arrive,'" he said. "You're constantly on the journey...it's a continuous thing."
"Maybe things not panning out how I wanted it to saved my life."
Jin's journey in Hong Kong took an abrupt turn in 2012 when he announced he would be moving back to the U.S., a decision fueled by the birth of his son Chance and a desire to raise him with his wife in New York.
Now back in the States, Jin has approached his career with more clarity and a determination to stay authentic to his voice, which has included coming to terms with his relationship to the Asian-American community (though he remains hesitant to be any sort of "spokesperson").
Last October, Jin released "XIV:LIX," his first studio album since returning to the U.S. The album's title, the Roman numerals for "14:59," represents the countdown from the phenomenon known as "15 minutes of fame"-- a concept Jin says he is all too familiar with.
"Maybe things not panning out how I wanted it to saved my life," Jin said of the struggles he faced after watching his first album fail. "You've heard of those stories where the person makes tons and tons of money and their career is completely out of this galaxy, only to implode and you're often wondering, 'How could that happen? They had everything a person could want.'"
These days, Jin puts faith and family before rap and fame, and he's ready to write the next chapter in his story. "I was in the rubble at one point," he said. "I'm out of it now."