Milwaukee is the home of Shaolin Entertainment, a collective of young Hmong artists who like to hang out and chill in their neighborhood with friends and family. It’s also the home of Tony “Telo” Yang, an up-andcoming Hmong hip-hop artist who recorded his debut album just slightly after fellow Shaolin artist Paul “LP” Yang. Both men made their debut albums on almost the same day, at the Hmong Labor Day Tournament in Green Bay in September 2006.
LP and Telo, both 20, have the same fans and work for the same record label. But their lives have been completely different. They may have had some of the same experiences growing up, but Telo talks about his life in a way that most Hmong people have never exposed themselves before. He has been active in the Hmong music scene for quite some time and like LP, has been rapping since a young age. However, Teto never really thought he had it in himself to be who he is today.
Telo wandered through life like many others, working hard to make a living. Finally, with the help of close friends from Shaolin Entertainment, he can concentrate on a career in the world of music.
“I started to freestyle in front of friends and every time I did, they would compliment me and consider the odds of making a career out of it. I never thought I’d be really doing this with this level of passion. ” – Telo
Eye.D Magazine: When I first saw your CD, I thought it was very interesting. I never thought that your album could inspire and capture what our lives are really like. Your lyrics are all true and seem to reflect the life we all face and the dreams we all keep in a diary. I’ve listened to all your songs and they all make perfect sense. I also know that it took you at least four years to complete your debut album, “Where J Started: Before & After.” Why did it take so long?
Telo: Well, thank you! I really appreciate the gesture. That’s really what my aim was – to actually put out music to the public ear and have one or two people stand back and say, “Wow, that’s how I feel.” To answer your question, yes, it really did take me a long time to finish; a long hard four years to be exact. When I started this project, I had to set a time frame for when my album would be finished, but at that point, my family faced a lot of stress and difficulty. My parents decided they would move to Missouri and live on a farm (not on a chicken farm, but to just retire) and see what opportunities would come out of it. So after recording a couple of songs, I packed up my bags and followed them down. Not knowing anyone or anything, I spent 2 years just writing songs and making beats.
Excerpt from Dear Diary:
March 27, 2005, I got my leg ran over by a car and you better not hide I know your faces, I know where they live
Some brothers thought it’d be funny and try to come in my way. They scared for life with disability in me,
A metal rod, two screws and I’m still walking,
My leg ain’t never gonna be better what ya’ll B****** did, 3 weeks in the hospital, trying to recover my leg.
Eye.D Magazine: In one particular song, “Dear Diary,” you describe an attack, which injured your leg and got you disability checks. Is that true?
Telo: The injured leg, yes, the disability checks, no. I got the disability, but not the checks.
Eye.D Magazine: Can you describe that particular event for us?
Telo: Every time I think about that incident it gets me mad, but I’ll tell you anyway. On March 27, it was about 11 p.m. in Missouri and I was heading to bed when I was disturbed by the barks of my two pit bulls. It wasn’t a friendly bark, but one of those “I don’t know you, get away from me” type of barks that got my attention. When I looked out of my bedroom window, I saw two figures trying to open the dog kennel gate. My initial reaction was to run out to my porch and yell. They ran to their vehicle, which I didn’t remember seeing. I noticed there was five guys total, all of them were Hmong and related to us somehow. I grabbed a shovel and ran after the two while keeping an eye on my dogs. They started the car and hit me once, but I got up. The second time they hit me, I fell down and things went blurry. That’s when I knew they ran over me and crushed my leg. I thought that they were done, but they reversed the car once again over my leg before taking off. I knew they wanted to kill me but thank God they failed. With a broken left leg, I managed to get up on my right leg and my shovel, hop onto my porch and call my parents for help. AU of that over some dogs. But to those that did this to me or might be reading this: I’m not dead yet. I’m still walking!
EM: Did you and your family report the incident to the police?
Telo: Yes we did. The cops and the ambulance were there at my house after the incident. I remember my mom just losing it she couldn’t even dial 911. I had to tell her to give me the phone so I could call and tell them where I was located. It was cold and I was talking slow but I managed to stay on through the whole conversation with the operator. But I did report everything to the police. After the attack, I was rushed to the hospital by ambulance with my mom in the front seat. It was a long painful ride and when we got to the hospital, I had to go to surgery. They put a metal rod and two screws in my left leg and I’m still walking!
EM: Have there been any arrests following the incident?
Telo: As of right now, things are slow and we are still in process of doing a lot more. It’s not as easy as you think, but justice will be served. Since the incident, there have not been any more disturbances. But you never know. What goes around comes around!
EM: There are tough issues facing the community regarding the younger generation and gang violence. There must have been a reason why you wrote about your private life and such activities in your raps. Was it to inspire Hmong youth about life’s toughest issues?
Telo: Most definitely. I’m sure everyone can relate to this issue some way or somehow, but there’s no cure for that. We can sit here and debate it, but at the end of the day, it all depends on what we’ve achieved. lf could trust me, I’d make it go away. But it’s never that easy. I’m just trying to be somebody in life and that’s what everyone needs to do. Life is too short to be doing dumb things but it’s never too late. Trust me. Go with your heart and follow your dreams, that’s what I’m trying to say. I based my music on things that I’ve faced in life and hopefully never face again. If my songs inspire people than I’m proud to say I wrote it.
EM: Is that how you used to live your life? Going out, partying and catching up with what is happening in the world? Or were you never into that particular scene at all?
Telo: I tend to think that everyone experiences this life differently, no doubt about it. Some people start partying young and tend to slow things down as they get older because they’ve already experienced it. Others pick up their pace because they’ve missed out on partying. Me, on the other hand … I guess you could say I’ve been there, done that. Nowadays, you can catch me at home 24/7, guaranteed.
EM: The songs “Hard Enough” and “Superstar” describe life as it is and in “Growing Up Ghetto,” we all work a 9-5 job, doing our best to live out the rest of our lives. What do you think of what our younger generations are like today? What else would you do to encourage our youngsters to be more than they have to be?
Telo: You know, I see an array of characteristics with the younger generation. More and more kids have the heart, the sense to go out there and get what they desire. I mean, you see more and more success stories than anything else today. Keep going to school; get that education because, believe it or not, it is the key to life. If you take a look at our parents and see what they’ve endured for us, that should be the reason to make a difference. I know we’ve called our parents stupid and dumb but look at the big picture. It may not be riches or gold but they’ve accomplished so much and said so little. To all the kids who gave up hope and threw their lives away, pick yourselves back up and start over. God always seems to forgive and forget. So live in the moment, plan for the future; make a change in life and be you.
EM: How was it working with Rare, LP, and the rest of Shaolin Entertainment group?
Telo: It was a journey of a lifetime that I’ll never forget. I love those guys. We’re like a big family of brothers who get on each other’s nerves. I would have never made it this far if it weren’t for them. Lots of unforgettable moments I have, but that’s for a whole different interview.
EM: When I first met you at the Labor Day tournament, where you made your first debut, you were sitting comfortably in a chair and thanking people for their support. How did you get in touch with Shaolin Entertainment in the first place?
Telo: Honestly, we’ve known each other for quite some time now. We all grew up together, but I never really considered them as rappers who I’d like to meet one day but rather just ordinary friends I hung out with. It wasn’t until about six years ago that I was really interested in joining the Shaolin family. Now here I am today.
EM: I also have to ask about your Uncle Cher Thao. Since he was in your song, “A Better Place”, what was he to you? Did he inspire you in some way?
Telo: My uncle was my everything! Everything I said in that track was the honest truth. Ti! this day I miss him like crazy! I know he’s watching me from above and proud that I’ve accomplished so much so far in my life. That’s why I had to do this song for him, just to let him know that we didn’t forget about him and that we still love him dearly. RIP.
EM: Are you currently working on another album? There seems to be a buzz for LP’s upcoming release. Are you in any hurry to release a new album?
Telo: You ‘re not the only one. I too am waiting for LP’s next release. He’s a great artist full of potential and I only wish him the best. But to be honest, I’m happy with my progress and the pace that I’m at the moment. I know it took me a long time to finish my first album and I’m sure it’ll take some time for the second album. I’m sure it won’t take four years, but then again it just might. Personally, I feel as though those four years of work have allowed me to experiment and helped make this album a personal achievement that I’m proud of. I’m in the process of working on some new projects and I’m sure it’ll be a shock to all the fans. So be on the lookout, because the Shaolin family will have a few surprises in store.
EM: Thank you, Tony, for this interview. I’ll be looking forward to your next album?
Telo: Thank you See and everyone for their support.