Eugene Ahn really did go to law school, and quit his job as a practicing lawyer to become a rapper. He makes geeky hip hop under the alias Adam WarRock. No, it doesn’t suck.
“What do your parents think?!”
It’s been about two years since I quit my job as a lawyer to be an indie rapper, and I still get that question more than any other. To have that answer make sense, let me establish a few things about myself:
I grew up in an immigrant family. My South Korean parents immigrated to America to get a college education. Predictably, they pushed me and my sister to succeed in academics. I’d say they were pretty successful: my older sister was valedictorian of her high school, and maintained a 4.0 GPA throughout her Masters degree (disgusting, right?). I graduated cum laude with honors from undergrad, and proceeded to go to a top 25 law school. And like so many kids in immigrant families, who stress success as a premium, I had no direction in life by the time I could call myself an “adult.”
When I was in college, I attended a hip hop festival at Oberlin college in Ohio. It was a bizarre collection of indie greats in the middle of nowhere: Common, Reflection Eternal, Saul Williams, et al. Maybe these names mean something to you, maybe they don’t. But the lasting impact this event had on me was seeing a poetry slam for the first time. I remember watching the spoken word artists do their thing, and looking around at the crowd, seeing the reaction from dumb rap kids who couldn’t give a damn about poetry with tears in their eyes, rapt attention, tense shoulders, hanging on every word. I remember how it made me feel. I turned to my girlfriend at the time, and I said “I want to do that” pointing at the stage. I went home and wrote, and began hitting up open mics and performing wherever I could. I learned how to self-record on my crappy Dell computer. Soon, I put beats behind the words, and with that my life as an emcee began.
I grew up an insecure kid. Maybe it has to do with being the kid of immigrants, growing up in the South surrounded by people who were constantly aware that you were different. People like to talk about racism in the South, and while it’s true that I’ve experienced it, I don’t want to paint the picture that the South is viciously against Asians, or even other minorities. I think the awareness of being different just gives you a bit of an inferiority complex. Growing up as a skinny Asian kid who did his homework and did the extra credit, while also listening to Wu-Tang and Public Enemy and dressing in baggy Mecca jeans and Enyce hoodies, who didn’t try to act like a thug or a gangster: I think that made me feel even more different. I was a loner. I buried myself in music, whatever I could get my hands on. My future life immersed in the low hum of tinnitus will be its legacy.
I’ve had horrible stage fright and anxiety ever since I was little. During class presentations, my knees would shake and buckle. When I tried singing a solo in choir, I would have nervous breakdowns and cry. When I would go to a party where I didn’t know anyone, I would get the sweats. When I first stepped on stage to perform, I could’ve made myself throw up if I just let a different stomach muscle flex in a weird way. But when I start performing, I lose all sense of self awareness. I lose inhibition. I don’t feel scared, I don’t feel insecure, I don’t feel anxiety. I just feel like I’m the person I should be. Ever since I started performing, I don’t feel that anxiety, my knees don’t buckle. But I still get that nauseous feeling right before I go on stage. It’s comforting to me, at this point.
I grew up in a culture obsessed with success. I chose to go to law school simply because I didn’t know what else to do, and I hated blood and needles so I couldn’t be a doctor. I went to law school because it was an option, and it would give me a secure job. I would at least look successful.
For four years, I stopped making music, and really doing anything creative. When you’re in school, you can put your head down and focus. You have goals. You have stuff to get done, whether you like it or not. When you have a job, you come home at the end of the day and just sit there. You wait for the next day of work. It took me about four months to realize I had fallen into a deep depression. I was drinking by myself, a lot. I was refusing to go out, I was always tired. One of my best friends, a former hobbyist rapper himself, pulled me out of the mire and told me that I needed to make music again. He said he’d produce an EP for me, and told me to dust off my equipment, and get to writing again. I reluctantly agreed, and suddenly everything cleared away. Suddenly I was making music every night again.
I grew up a logical person. For those who don’t know, being a lawyer involves a lot of screaming. Either you’re screaming at opposing counsel, or you’re screaming at your client to get them to understand that you are trying to help them. If you’re lucky enough, you’ll even scream at your co-workers, or your supervisors even. It’s a weird environment, and one that’s kind of toxic if you don’t have the stomach for it. For the first year of working as a lawyer, you have no idea what you are doing, and you’re responsible for real cases, people’s lives and huge sums of money. Predictably, you screw up a lot. And you get yelled at for it. After a year or so, you realize, “Wait a minute, I know what I’m doing,” and you take all that stress and frustration and you concentrate it into a grown man voice, and yell back. So for the rest of your professional life, you’re just yelling at each other, at everything: the phone, the computer, people, the plant in the lobby, the carpet, whatever. It’s why you drink so much.
I began posting music on a website just for kicks. Music, for me, was an escape from the horrors of my scream-infested daily life. So I started making music about the things I loved: comics, movies, TV, video games. I posted them up and shared them with my friends, and a few songs caught fire. I began getting inundated with requests to do shows, to make albums, y’know, musician stuff. I had to keep saying no, because I had this job thing that was supposed to take up the majority of my life.
Truthfully, I wasn’t a very good lawyer. I’m not sure if that was due to the fact that I didn’t care, or that I simply wasn’t cut out for it. From a logical standpoint, I believed I could be more successful as an indie musician than a lawyer, if you take gross income out of the equation. Call it delusion, but I truly believed that, and still do. I made plans to quit, budgeted out how much money to save, figured I’d stay until the end of the year and collect my bonus. But you know how things like that go, when your mind’s already made up. I had a particularly scream-filled day, and during a pretty bad episode with my supervisor, I found the words “I don’t want to work here anymore” spilling out of my mouth. No takebacks.
I grew up lucky. Since I quit in 2010, I’ve performed close to 100 live shows, released two albums and an EP, gone on a national tour, and showcased at the SXSW Music Festival. I’ve amassed tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt (not to mention my law school debt), and suddenly find myself condensing my “5-year plan” into my “how do I live for the next 3 months plan.” I work harder than I did as a lawyer, and it’s infinitely more rewarding in ways you can’t even imagine. And I’m still foolish enough to believe this can work.
My parents have often told me and my sister that they came to this country to give us a better life, an opportunity to succeed on our own terms. Sure, there’s a certain amount of realism that comes with success, and our parents will always want to see us be happy, stable, secure. But when I quit my job, my parents had seen me miserable for years. And though they didn’t understand one single bit what I was doing, they told me that if this is what I want to do, then “do it better than anyone else.” I’d like to think I have.
So, what do my parents think?
My parents think they did all they could to raise a smart kid who knows what he’s doing. And I just hope with all my heart and soul that they’re right.