I’m really excited to launch my new show Coffee with BAO. It’s a series where I have coffee with people in business, music, entertainment, pop culture, and more. We chat about their roots, process, personal and cultural identity, and personal growth. Coffee with BAO is a Youtube video series and an audio podcast available on all major podcast platforms.
Watch Episode 1 featuring Director, producer, and storyteller Hieu Gray:
My first episode features fellow Vietnamese American creative Hieu Gray. Hieu is a director, producer, and storyteller whose Asian American immigrant story starts in Vietnam, makes detours in Indonesia and Hong Kong, and spans a childhood in Georgia. Formerly, Hieu worked for years as an award-winning producer at CNN on shows including Larry King Live and Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown.
More recently, she’s been an on-camera superstar in her own films, including a short food documentary film “Quan 13,” which she also produced and directed. The film features a soundtrack by BAO and is screening during the month of October 2020 at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Get passes at festival.vcmedia.org
Let’s play a game! I’ve put together a Spotify playlist of tons of songs that have inspired me and my music. It’s really a nonsensical assortment of music that ranges from 60’s French pop star Christophe to Nine Inch Nails to Bieber. Post a comment to ask me about any of the songs. I’ll respond with why it’s significant and maybe some history too. Anyway, I really love all these songs and I’ll continue adding to it as I find new inspiring music.
I recorded this radio interview back in September with DJ Mister Vee from “Beats from the East.” The show focuses on musical artists of Asian descent and lots of Asian-American music. The episode aired on Montreal-based Concordia University’s CJLO Radio 1690 AM and we’ve got a transcript and audio for you below. In the 20-minute interview, we talk about my previous work with Ming & Ping, my inspiration, musical influences, and goals for the future. We also talk about a few songs from my debut record, the BAO EP.
Listen to the Interview
Listen to the audio on this page or download an MP3 of the interview here. We’ve also got a transcript of the entire interview to read below. If you’re interested hearing more episodes, visit the Beats from the East Archives. Leave a comment to let us know what you think!
* The transcript has been slightly edited for clarity.
DJ Mister Vee: As I mentioned at the top of the show, we have a special guest in the house tonight repping LA. It is my man, my namesake, Mr. Bao Vo. How are you doing out there, Bao?
Bao Vo: Fantastic, Mike. Thank you for having me on.
DJ Mister Vee: Yeah, my brother from another mother even though we have the same last name, right?
Bao Vo: Yeah. I was thinking we could start a boy band.
DJ Mister Vee: I think so. You know what?
Bao Vo: “The Brothers Vo.”
DJ Mister Vee: Yeah, Vo.
Bao Vo: I like that.
DJ Mister Vee: Yeah. If Hanson can do it, why not us, right?
Bao Vo: No, it’s true! In English, it could be the “Vo Bros.”
DJ Mister Vee: Yeah, the Vo Bros. I’m down, man. I’m down. You’re going to do most of the work though because I don’t sing, right?
Bao Vo: Cool.
DJ Mister Vee: I will be the DJ.
Bao Vo: As long as you know how to gyrate and pelvic thrust.
DJ Mister Vee: Yes, sir.
Bao Vo: You’re the hype man.
DJ Mister Vee: There you go, the hype man. Yeah. I dig that. Awesome, man. So once again, thanks for joining us. I’ve been wanting you here for a while. But we’re going to get into why there has been a delay on that. But to begin with, I want people to know a bit more about you because there’s not – unfortunately, there’s not too much written about you on the internet yet. But we’re going to spill some of that tonight.
So I did find a bit of you on the internet and here’s what I found, that you were born in Da Lat, Vietnam in 1985, and you moved to the United States when you were only five and that was the same year that We Are the World was released and therefore – yeah. As you were growing up, the kind of music that you like – that you make, whether it’s the New Wave, the Minneapolis funk pop sound, by the time you were growing up, that music was a lot less mainstream.
So my question to you is, “What attracted you to it so much and how did you get so heavily involved in it?”
Bao Vo: Awesome. Great question, Mike. I’m actually a little older than 1985. In ’85 was when we immigrated to the US.
DJ Mister Vee: Oh, man. I read that wrong. OK.
Bao Vo: So my family actually… Single mom, five kids. She brought us over here. She really, really worked hard to get everything stable, not knowing the language or how society worked here and I’m very grateful for her. Thanks Mom, if you’re listening!
DJ Mister Vee: Thanks Mom!
Bao Vo: So yeah, I grew up listening to R&B and some rock stuff and my older siblings – I’m the youngest of five – my older siblings were really into ‘90s R&B and ‘80s rap music.
DJ Mister Vee: Nice.
Bao Vo: So a lot of that kind of infiltrated my music taste. But I’ve always, always, always been a huge Prince fan.
DJ Mister Vee: Yes!
Bao Vo: You can be a Prince fan from as early as you want to be, so I’ve always been a huge Prince fan. And I really – even [in] a lot of the work that I did with Ming & Ping, you can hear a lot of the syncopation and some of the melodies are heavily inflected with some of the things that Prince explored, and being extremely diverse and not really locked into a certain style or genre.
But as I got a little older, some of that funk and some of the R&B and the black music influence really became a lot more evident in my music. I think that’s what you’re seeing now.
DJ Mister Vee: That’s a good point because yes, I did notice and I mentioned this at the top of the show that – actually before you got on. Yes, it’s – what we’re going to talk about is yeah, definitely different from what you’ve done in the past with Ming & Ping. But yeah, we’re going to talk about that in just a little bit. But just a little bit more about you, if you don’t mind. Now, you mentioned – you said the magic word “Prince” and now I know that – it’s very amazing and clear to see that the legacy of the purple one is still alive and well especially in your music and I know you’re a huge fan. So I have to ask you, how did you take it when you heard that we lost Prince?
Bao Vo: Pretty poorly. I think that there has only been a couple of people where I’ve been extremely really affected, other than family, when they passed away. First was Michael Jackson, obviously being an extreme influence on my music and performance and creativity.
Secondly when Steve Jobs passed away, I was really affected just because of his groundbreaking inventions and design thinking. It was really inspiring to me coming from an altogether creative background, not just music. And Prince was devastating. Prince is my absolute number one musical influence, not just musically but like on stage. The guy was just a genius in every sense.
And so it really inspired me to stop messing around and get out there, get my work out there because some of these songs you’re hearing like have been around for like four years or something. They’re pretty old.
And especially the first single on this EP called Fish Sauce. I had been sitting on it for about four years at least. I’m going to open up a little bit: I was actually a little bit insecure about putting it out. Not only is it a little bit irreverent. But there’s a little Vietnamese rap part in there where it’s kind of like a parody of how I thought the Vietnamese community would react to me, kind of reclaiming this idea of this funky, nasty fish sauce as kind of like my blood. You know, this is my blood. It stinks. But you know what? That’s what we are. We love it.
DJ Mister Vee: It’s great.
Bao Vo: I did feel pretty… I was a little scared to put it out to be honest.
DJ Mister Vee: You know what? I’m glad that you did. We played that last weekend. I thoroughly enjoyed it and it’s definitely a fun track. Now, Los Angeles where you’re from, great music scene when it comes to producing the legends over the years. A lot of legendary and groundbreaking artists come from there and one of the biggest exports of LA is of course gangster rap and this genre I would say was one of the prevalent ones that – during your upbringing. So were you a fan of that?
Bao Vo: You know, to be honest, I wasn’t at the time. So I was in like middle school when all of that was like the hottest stuff. And I liked it sort of. But I wasn’t REALLY into it. And at a similar time period, it was like Ace of Base and Boyz II Men was really massive.
DJ Mister Vee: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
Bao Vo: And I was actually a little bit more into Boyz II Men. But during that era, I had just discovered like alternative rock and grunge and guitar music. So I was actually really into that at the time that gangster rap and Dr. Dre and all of those guys were, you know, at the top of their game.
DJ Mister Vee: At the top of their game, yeah. All right. Fair enough. I just have to give the play a little ID drop from the station. But you know what? I might as well get yours right now. Let me just lower the volume down and I was wondering if you can give us a radio drop. Just introduce yourself and you’re listening to the Beats from the East on CJLO.
Bao Vo: You got it.
DJ Mister Vee: All right, go ahead. When you’re ready.
Bao Vo: Hey, it’s BAO and you’re listening to Beats from the East from CJLO.
DJ Mister Vee: Thank you so much for that guys. All right. So let me just play you one.
[Audio clip plays]
Tia Carrere [via audio recording]: Aloha! This is Tia Carrere and you’re listening to Beats from the East on CJLO Radio with DJ Mister Vee.
DJ Mister Vee: Yes, sir. All right. So, do you know who that was by the way?
Bao Vo: Tia Carrere!
DJ Mister Vee: Yes, sir. She was here last summer at the Comic Con. OK.
Bao Vo: That’s rad!
DJ Mister Vee: Yeah, that’s pretty rad. Yeah. OK. So now, just one more question about yourself prior to the EP. So a few years back, you might remember very well I interviewed actually two of your protégés, Ming & Ping. But recently you’ve revealed that you were indeed the man behind it all. Not just producing but also performing. So the brothers have a huge following. So do you think that the people who are following them are now disappointed?
Bao Vo: Wow. You know, you just blew my cover. I hadn’t announced it.
DJ Mister Vee: Oh, shoot!
Bao Vo: No, I’m just kidding. You know, that story will be coming out in the next few weeks and months. I’m very, very excited to kind of detail that process and tell everybody why and how all of that came together – the act of why I invented Ming & Ping, sort of as a reaction to all of the Britney Spears kind of manufactured celebrity and also kind of a parody of a lot of the Asian stereotypes that were floating around in the media.
So I think that fans, regardless of how they feel about it now, will really appreciate the reasoning and the process behind my creation of Ming & Ping and my carrying that project out for a decade or more.
DJ Mister Vee: All right. Thank you so much for giving us the exclusive.
Bao Vo: You got it.
DJ Mister Vee: But just out of curiosity, because they were pretty fun guys. So did the brothers also have a music talent as well or was this really a Milli Vanilli thing?
Bao Vo: You know what? I created Ming & Ping and I wrote those characters to really fit into some of these hyper Asian stereotypes. So whatever musical talent that they had was what I had and what I had tried to develop in order to make that act “real.”
DJ Mister Vee: They were fun like I said, but yeah, the music was pretty awesome and I still play it to this day and I will. I will continue. It’s amazing music. We’re going to talk about your new project now, the self-titled debut EP. Five tracks deep. And you know what? I’m going to have to ask you. Why did we have to wait so long for this to happen? I know you’ve covered a bit of it. But I’m going to have to – I want to play this like from the beginning.
Bao Vo: Thank you. That’s a great question. At the tail-end of the last few records that Ming & Ping put out, I was already creating a lot of this new BAO music. And I think at the time, I was going through a career change. I had been working at some various marketing, digital marketing agencies and doing marketing and design and creative stuff. I actually dropped out of that career and started my own business called JuicyKits, which I sold earlier this year. And when you start a business, you’re really all in. You’ve got to be. So that was the sacrifice that I made and it really took a toll on my ability to not only create in full quality, but also to publish and release music.
And I think there was a lot of other life changes going on at the time and I felt like “This is the first time I was putting stuff out under my personal name BAO” and I really wanted to deliver something that was 110% me and 110% the quality that I expect from my debut under my own name.
DJ Mister Vee: Cool. And of course the unfortunate passing of Prince, right?
Bao Vo: Yeah. You know, that was a big impetus. That made me feel like “Holy smokes! Tomorrow is not guaranteed, my friend.”
DJ Mister Vee: Yeah. I hear you, I hear you. When you’re on stage, do you also wear flashy costumes and mascara like your predecessors did?
Bao Vo: Ming & Ping, quite the showmen, weren’t they?
DJ Mister Vee: Right.
Bao Vo: So we did our first show last week: BAO and my backing band. Very awesome dudes. We need some females in the band, by the way, if anyone is listening.
DJ Mister Vee: I hope they are.
Bao Vo: And we just – at that time, it was appropriate just to wear some black suits, some formal attire. The aesthetic, I was really influenced by some older Southeast Asian pop and rock music from like the ‘60s, ‘70s. So we kind of just copied that style. You can see that in the packaging as well, the album art.
DJ Mister Vee: Yeah, that’s right.
Bao Vo: So I used solid colors, black and white image and I really dug deep into those old record covers of Malaysia, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Thai music.
DJ Mister Vee: Yeah. It looks familiar, yes, yes.
Bao Vo: Yeah. [On] my YouTube channel and my website, I will be outlining a lot of this design process as well. So you will see sort of the mood board of the inspiration for not only the music, but the aesthetic as well.
DJ Mister Vee: Nice. As we mentioned earlier, musically, you set out to do something that you haven’t done before. The sound is a little different than what it actually looks like, a lot different from what you’ve released previously with Ming & Ping. But it’s amazing. I like it very much. It’s pop. It’s rock. It’s funk.
Now do you ever fear that your sound might sound too “dated” and might not appeal to the new generation of music fans who are more in touch with K-Pop, Justin Bieber and Rihanna?
Bao Vo: You know, that was heavy on my mind. Absolutely it was. I really did think about that a lot and in the end, I came to the conclusion that I’m going to make music that I want to hear, number one. Then number two, I want to make music that’s honest, from my past, my experiences. I think by doing that, the product will be unique to me and I think fans and listeners will appreciate that more than me trying to fit my songs into a certain aesthetic that’s popular at the moment.
So even though it’s referencing a lot of older stuff, I feel like it’s drawing from quite a few things in my past that I really adored.
DJ Mister Vee: Amazing. I’m glad you’re doing it. Have the younger fans been receiving this warmly?
Bao Vo: Yeah, yeah, surprisingly.
DJ Mister Vee: Yeah, that’s amazing.
Bao Vo: Surprisingly, people kind of enjoy the vibe. It’s different and one modern comparison I can think of right now is some of the Minneapolis influence that – some of the new Bruno Mars tracks have been referencing. So I feel like I’m not that far off as far as whatever is mainstream right now.
DJ Mister Vee: Good point.
Bao Vo: But I am definitely exploring kind of everything and making something new out of it. So whatever comes out is what it is.
DJ Mister Vee: It is what it is and it’s great. So now, I’m going to name a few people and if you just give me the first word that comes to mind that best describes them in your opinion, that would be great. OK. So you ready?
Bao Vo: Yeah.
DJ Mister Vee: All right. Let’s start with MC Jin the rapper.
Bao Vo: Oh, I’m not a very big rap and hip-hop person at the moment. I don’t know… “Icon!”
DJ Mister Vee: Yeah, he is. OK. You know these guys The Juan Maclean.
Bao Vo: Yeah, “New York.”
DJ Mister Vee: Yeah. Little Dragon.
Bao Vo: Yeah, the Swedish band. I actually love them. I think “Delicate” is the way I would describe her voice.
DJ Mister Vee: Yes. George Michael.
Bao Vo: Wow, “Deep.”
DJ Mister Vee: Yes. Rest in peace.
Bao Vo: I mean some of George Michael’s songs were written when he was like 17 or something. That is deep!
DJ Mister Vee: Yeah, good word actually. Rick Astley.
Bao Vo: “Meme.”
DJ Mister Vee: Meme, yeah. And one very last one, Madonna.
Bao Vo: Oh, Madonna, “Idol.”
DJ Mister Vee: Yeah. If there could only be one for you, what’s the definitive…
Bao Vo: Oh, you set this trap up real good!
DJ Mister Vee: Yes, I did.
Bao Vo: That’s great, man. The one word for me, I would say – gosh, if there was one word for like “bustin’ out.” That’s two words but it’s just like bursting at the seams. I just want to be honest and I want to express myself and my people and my experiences. If that is just overflowing out of me, that’s what I want people to see out of my work.
DJ Mister Vee: All right. And last question is that you’re no stranger to alter egos. But if there was one superhero from either Marvel, DC or any other company that you could be, who would that be?
Bao Vo: I think it’s kind of a trite answer, Mike, but I would say Batman. You know, you put on the mask and you can be whatever you want.
DJ Mister Vee: And you have all these cool vehicles, right?
Bao Vo: Yeah. Well, he just happens to have a lot of money and a lot of toys. But just the idea that – to relate it back to Ming & Ping – that you can literally be what you want to be and if you need to put on a mask to do that, like Deadmau5 style, just do it! As long as you get to express yourself and as long as that makes you feel comfortable, go out and do it.
DJ Mister Vee: Wow. Well-answered. I like that one very much. So thank you so much for being here. You know what? Just to prove that we have the real guy on the line with us and this isn’t just another Ming & Ping type setup, I was wondering if you could bless us with like one of your – like a little bit of – one of your new songs.
Bao Vo: Let’s see. So there’s a song on the EP. I think it’s number three. It’s called 4th on the Floor and I think vocally that’s probably my most – on that album at least, vocally the most vocally challenging, vocally diverse song.
DJ Mister Vee: Yeah.
Bao Vo: But it’s kind of sexual, Mike.
DJ Mister Vee: Oh, let’s do it!
Bao Vo: It’s kind of sexy. It starts with a little falsetto. [Sings 4th on the Floor] How about that?
DJ Mister Vee: Wow. You know what? I would have bought the track just like that without the instrumentation or the background music. That was awesome, man. Oh, wow. And, you know, we’re going to play that song right now on the way out. So I was wondering if you can set us up. How did you come up with this?
Bao Vo: Oh. It’s a little bit embarrassing. It’s actually – like most of my songs, they are kind of semi-autobiographical. So [it’s] actually influenced by a lot of past relationships and actually one particular intimate experience on the 4th of July… on the floor. So just spilling the beans there.
DJ Mister Vee: Just spilling the beans. Well, man, thank you so much for being on the show. You’ve been a great guest. We hope to have you back and you’re working on – are you still working on – even though this just dropped now, you’re still working on new music as well while waiting?
Bao Vo: Yeah, absolutely brother. These five songs, like I said, some of them are pretty old and I probably have enough for three full length albums. But I will be trickling them out as singles because that seems to be the way I want to consume music these days. Not in huge drops, but kind of like a steady trickle.
DJ Mister Vee: Sounds good to me. And yes, once again, we hope to have you back in the near future and this – everybody, 4th on the Floor from the debut self-titled EP. Bao Vo, and this is 4th on the Floor, track number three. Thanks a lot, brother.
Bao Vo: Thank you, Mike. I appreciate it.
DJ Mister Vee: Yes, sir.
Bao Vo: Have a great night and thanks for having me on. I appreciate it.
Every artist needs a little nudge sometimes. We tend to create, revise, and fine tune until we’ve outgrown our original idea. To be honest, I was a little scared to put out some of my recent music. I didn’t know if my message was acceptable or interesting. When I heard a radio story about Vietnam’s lost wartime rock and soul music, my mind changed. The music was so adventurous, raw, and reflective of the Vietnam war’s trauma – something I felt like had been repressed by a lot of the older Vietnamese generation. I decided to stop worrying about how my art would be received, or whether anyone would even care about it.
As a kid I always thought that Vietnamese music was either old school Cải Lương (Vietnamese opera/folk music) or corny 1990s ballads. A couple of years ago I heard this radio story called “Saigon’s Wartime Beat” from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). I KNEW Vietnam had to have rocked at some point, with all the trauma its people experienced, but I had never heard the resulting music before. You should understand that for Vietnamese parents and grandparents, that period in time was pretty intense and not everyone had the luxury of music or the desire now to relive those memories. The radio story highlighted a compilation called Saigon Rock & Soul: Vietnamese Classic Tracks 1968-1974, released on a label called Sublime Frequencies. You can listen to the album on YouTube here.
I bought the records immediately and knew I had to finish and release the music I had been making after taking a break from Ming & Ping. I wrote Fish Sauce about growing up an immigrant in the US. I wrote a bunch of other songs about the pressure and confusion of being raised Asian in a predominantly white, Christian society. I was inspired to leave my songs a little bit dirty and unpolished and express my raw emotions as honestly as possible. I hope that my debut EP is received as honest and raw and I really hope it inspires others to delve into their cultural history too, before it’s too late.
Since then I have become online friends with the story’s producer Sheila Pham. Working from Australia, she’s continued to produce other thoughtful content that dives into cultural issues that immigrants and refugees also face here in the US, including this great piece about returning to Vietnam at 30 years old and learning much more about her family.
There are a couple of publications I follow that give Vietnamese immigrants a platform to tell similar stories. Project Yellow Dress is a beautiful collection of very interesting perspectives from people who are in various levels of assimilation into the culture of their new countries – and various stages of discovering their history.
Anyway, a lot of this is explored in my music, whether it’s obvious or not on the surface level. I’m really thankful to have an outlet for these ideas and also very grateful to have access to these other stories from around the web.
Hey it’s Bao! Thought I’d use my very first blog post to tell you a little bit about some of the thinking behind my debut solo EP–and where we go from here. The music of my previous band Ming & Ping was and is very focused, stylistically and topically. We deliberately created these self-imposed limitations to keep the brand simple and recognizable. While there’s still a lot of Ming & Ping spice in my new work, there’s also a lot of the other influences that I’ve absorbed in my lifetime and the topics that are important to me that didn’t really fit into M&P songs. It really feels good to share my new work with everyone, in my own voice. Here’s a little bit about my 5-song debut called the BAO EP and the other music I have in the pipeline.
You’ll probably hear some Ming & Ping elements in the new music, like the upbeat tempo, the rapid sequencing and arpeggiating of short musical notes, and the call-and-response style vocals on some parts. The call-and-response thing is a little different now. In the Ming & Ping songs they acted as a way to have Ming sing a part, balanced by a part sung by Ping. In the new music, it’s more influenced by James Brown’s funky soul music, which he clearly got from church. 🙏 You also hear a lot that I took from my biggest musical influence, The Purple One himself: Prince and specifically early 1980’s Prince and the Minneapolis sound he helped create. The “BAO EP” relies heavily on vintage drum machines like the Linn Drum, big juicy analog synthesizers like the Oberheim and Jupiter 8, and both funky Nile Rodgers-inspired guitar and distorted rock guitar. I also took huge musical cues from Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam regarding big drums, funky bass, and pretty melodies. Yes, that’s a lot of black music. Thank god for the music that African-Americans have contributed to our culture!
You’ll probably also hear some of the rock, grunge, R&B, and pop influences that I’ve absorbed. Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, and Smashing Pumpkins were my favorite bands in the 1990’s before I discovered electronic music like Autechre, Squarepusher and Aphex Twin. I’ve also always casually liked R&B and Hip Hop. Neo-Soul in the late 1990s was an influential moment for me–basically all the work that Questlove was involved in. I hated pop music as a kid, but I love it now that I’ve had a career in design and marketing. A pop song is like a perfect little treat: it’s quick, it hooks you, and if it’s good it’ll stick you with clear and simple message. These types of pop songs are what I aim to make.
What Are The Songs on The BAO EP About?
The songs on my EP reflect a few things I care deeply about, including personal identity, mental health and life as a minority in America. I wanted the opening track to represent my experience as an immigrant because I felt that a lot of people could relate to a story that’s not often given an outlet. Fish Sauce essentially has the same story of negotiating and accepting being an outsider, which you can find in many of the Ming & Ping songs. A lot of it is a lighthearted look back on my own experiences, but also those of the Asian-American people as a whole. The song is not too serious because sharing my story is a way to grow and not a way to complain. The rap in Fish Sauce, for those of you who don’t speak Vietnamese, is satirizing the embarrassed reactions of the Vietnamese community when the (hypothetically) see me reclaiming the notoriously funky fish sauce as a symbol of pride.
“Many people feel shame or trauma about their family’s immigrant experience. But it helps everybody when those stories are told, especially in these times.”
Both Dani and Learn From It deal with identity and mental health. Dani is more about the support system you need around you, while the more somber Learn From It incorporates references to internalized racism and the Asian-American community’s reluctance to address mental health issues. If any of my songs helps even one person, I’ll consider myself a successful musician.
4th on the Floor and Let’s Make Jam deal with S-E-X because S-E-X is G-O-O-D. LOL WTF OMG. 4th is more about the nostalgia of past relationships, while Jam is just stupid and fun. What else do you want to know? Let me know in the comments.
What’s In Store In The Near Future?
I’ve got some Youtube videos upcoming that go a little deeper into some of these songs. Please subscribe to my channel so don’t miss when they come out. I have a lot of unreleased music that all center around some similar themes and styles. My goal is to release one new single each month along with some videos. I also look forward to collaborating with more talented people to create new songs, videos, and images. You wanna work together? Send me a message, or text me at 629-888-1938.
In the comments below, tell me what you think of this post and what else you wanna see. Thanks!