DECEMBER 5, 2012 by AARON CARNES
Kung Fu Vampire fans have come to expect the unexpected. He has built a cult following for his theatrical shows, which have included an eight-piece live rap band with drums, cellos, violins and back-up singers. Then, of course, there’s Kung Fu Vampire himself—a bald, pale-white vampire with fangs, goatee, white contact lenses and a lavish emperor’s kimono draped over his body—spitting verses about life, love, sex and death better than many traditional rappers.
Fans may be shocked, however, by what Kung Fu Vampire is up to now, as his current 48-city tour finishes with a flourish at the Blank Club on Dec. 8. This time around, KFV is playing just hard-hitting, no-frills hip-hop—no makeup, no kimono, and only bass player Jeremy Pollett and drummer Chris Paston to back him up.
“Some of these shows, I’ll just straight rock in a fedora and a T-shirt—and people love it,” Kung Fu Vampire says. “They’ve all seen that other guy. They’ve seen that other image. I want people to be blown away by the music.”
Despite doing something so different, Kung Fu Vampire has earned a lot of praise from his fellow San Jose rappers.
“I have a lot of respect for Kung Fu Vampire because as long as I’ve been making and performing music in the South Bay, he has been a driving force, always pushing and creating his vision where others would have given up or changed styles to fit the newest trend,” says Benny Medik from local hip-hop group Language Arts Crew.
It’s been 12 years since he first emerged as Kung Fu Vampire. During that time he has worked around the clock, booking tours, promoting himself, writing music and pressing on even when it didn’t seem like he was getting anywhere. Those who have worked with him know that he is an ambitious, determined performer.
Kung Fu Vampire really started to see an increase in fans over the past three years after he went full throttle with a near constant touring schedule, scoring opening slots for acts like Insane Clown Posse, Twiztid and Tech N9ne. While these groups have come to love and embrace him, he hasn’t signed to any of their well-established labels. Instead he continues to release music on his own label, Mad Insanity Records, which he shares with horrorcore rapper Mars.
“I’ve worked really hard to get where I’m at,” Kung Fu Vampire says.
He has made fans out of people with very diverse musical tastes—horrorcore, heavy metal, electronic music, techno—but not many hardcore hip-hop fans have embraced him over the years. “I hear the word ‘gimmick’ sometimes,” he admits. “Why? ‘Cause I don’t have a rap costume?” He means the familiar baggy pants, grills and bling, and adds, “To me, that’s the ultimate gimmick, because it’s been done over and over again. There’s a percentage of me that goes, ‘OK, now what’s your excuse for not liking me? I just came out with nothing gimmicky—I just came out with a live band and killed it. Where’s your excuse now?’”
This tour marks the release of Kung Fu Vampire’s third LP, Love Bites, his first album in four years. He feels like the album needs to be heard without any distractions. It’s an album he made for serious rap fans.
“Up until now, I don’t think I had that knock-out, ‘Holy fuck’ album. Love Bites is that album. It’s the first one in 22 years that I love,” Kung Fu Vampire says. “Traditional hip-hop fans that have seen the 2010 Kung Fu Vampire, there’s a pretty good chance they’re going to be deterred.”
Lyrically, Love Bites covers a lot of bases, including for the first time, several political songs. The last number, “The Dreamer,” epitomizes his fascination with love and death. It is a song, he says, about how love can kill. It tells the true story of a close friend who was killed this year for getting mixed up in the wrong love triangle.
Some of his raps are very personal, while others are not at all, like on “Go Away,” which takes the perspective of an alcoholic. Kung Fu Vampire has never been an alcoholic. “I don’t want to have any boundaries. I want to be able to write about real stuff, but also perspectives that aren’t mine. I want all those lines to be blurred,” he says.
In the past, he would occasionally write songs that alluded to being a vampire—though he typically steered clear of writing graphically violent lyrics. “I prefer the darkness to be in the music, more than in the lyrics,” he says. But on Love Bites, no such allusions to vampires exist. Even the song “Knockturnal,” which talks about a character that stays up all night, is really an anti-meth song.
Kung Fu Vampire was born and raised in San Jose, and still lives here. Now in his mid-30s, he has been rapping since 1991, beginning with LSP. He started Kung Fu Vampire in 2000 and has kept his real name separate from his stage name ever since.
The name “Kung Fu Vampire” came up when he and some friends were hanging out talking about how they should, for fun, film a movie. They were throwing out different genres—kung fu and vampire movies were two of them. The name “Kung Fu Vampire” just resonated. Not only did it strike him as a powerful rap name, but he also liked the symbolism. It was the melding of light and darkness; of Zen spirituality and ambition. It fit his personality.
Even from the beginning, when Kung Fu Vampire had a very distinct look, the character was never a specific entity. The symbolism and vibe of Kung Fu Vampire serve as his jumping-off point artistically, which allows him to be flexible lyrically but also gives him room to change the physical image as he sees fit and still be “Kung Fu Vampire.”
“To always write as the Kung Fu Vampire would come off a little one-sided,” he admits. “It’s more the dark-sided subculture with a lot of light. The yin and yang of everything. It can be the dark truths of reality. It can be a lot of things. When I get to be Kung Fu Vampire on stage for 45 minutes, it gives me a higher percentage of energy.”
He started to shed some of his theatrical image in 2011, a decision that evolved after he decided to let his hair out because he was tired of being bald. Once he had hair again, he didn’t like how painting his face looked—too much like a scary clown—so he stopped adding extreme makeup.
His overall approach had to change, too, because he was touring so much. It wasn’t feasible to take an eight-piece band on the road. He needed to simplify his act, hone his raw live energy and concentrate on making the best rap music he could.
He hasn’t completely abandoned the showmanship and costumes. Recently, when he was asked to make a guest appearance in the E-40 music video “Zombie,” he made sure that he looked creepy. He is also scheduled to make an appearance on the reality show SF Oddities. The producers made it clear that they want Kung Fu Vampire on the show—and he’s OK with that.
“For the next generation of Kung Fu Vampire, I may come out with a mask,” he tells me. “I may come out painted red with all-black contacts. I don’t know. I want it to stay fun. It’s like a darker hip-hop version of Madonna, if you want to be silly about it. She’s been the master of re-creating herself. I did the one style for a long time. It was me. It was Kung Fu Vampire.”
It was Kung Fu Vampire’s unique persona that got him where he is today. He attributes his surge in popularity these past few years to one random fan he has never even met. In November 2009, this fan changed his career forever by posting Kung Fu Vampire’s video for “iCount” on faygoluvers.net, the biggest Juggalo-related news site on the web.
Juggalos—fans of horrorcore rappers Insane Clown Posse and other bands on Psychopathic Records like Twiztid, Anybody Killa and Blaze Ya Dead Homie—quickly embraced Kung Fu Vampire when they saw this video.
The members of Twiztid saw “iCount” first. They loved it—which figures, because the rap duo paints their faces like clowns.
The video features Kung Fu Vampire in his full Asian vampire persona. The look of the video is ominous; the music is old-school, minor-key gangsta rap; the backup band is an odd combination of big, scary masked men and dazed, drugged-up women. In short, it was a spectacle unlike anything Twiztid had seen before. The end result was an opening slot for Kung Fu Vampire on the band’s next tour.
The Twiztid tour ran for 45 dates, with crowds ranging from 300 to 3,000 a night. The tour led to several others, mostly opening for other horrorcore and Juggalo groups on Psychopathic Records and Strange Music. But unlike many of the bands he has toured with, Kung Fu Vampire doesn’t rap about graphic violence, use campy horror-movie references or talk about smoking pot. In fact, Kung Fu Vampire has several songs speaking out against meth, and he advocates healthy living in several songs.
Before getting discovered by the Juggalo fan base, Kung Fu Vampire was gigging in the South Bay and Los Angeles on a regular basis. His first show was in 2000 at the now-defunct City Espresso in Campbell.
By 2001, he had made his first trip to L.A. with the intention of getting seen by people in the music and film industry. He was encouraged to perform at industry showcases by one early admirer, horror-film director Darren Lynn Bousman, who directed Saw II-IV, Repo! the Genetic Opera and 11-11-11.
“I thought if the right person saw what we were doing, they could help us out,” Kung Fu Vampire says. “I felt like what we were doing was super-dope, and I just wanted people to see it.”
Bousman recalls one particular Kung Fu Vampire show at the Viper Room in West Hollywood in 2008. Several standard hip-hop acts had gone on before him. The audience was enjoying the music. Then Kung Fu Vampire appeared with his full eight-piece band and complete vampire outfit. “Immediately the crowd went silent,” Bousman remembers. “Everyone’s just standing there mouth agape, not expecting Kung Fu Vampire. What he does is so unique and crazy and almost undefinable. His stage presence is so dynamic, within one song he turned that entire crowd around. They loved him.”
While Kung Fu Vampire never got that industry bump he wanted, Bousman still involved him however he could. He performed at the Saw III premiere party and was also invited to attend the Repo! the Genetic Opera premiere—where he sat next to Paris Hilton for three hours at the afterparty. Bousman also included Kung Fu Vampire’s song “Dead Girls Don’t Lie” on the soundtrack for the remake of Mother’s Day, which he also directed.
While he was busy spending time trying to get Hollywood to notice him, Juggalos were starting to discover him and his first album, Blood Bath Beyond.
“I started selling my records online to the Midwest, places like Detroit and Kansas City,” he recalls.
The first time Kung Fu Vampire heard the word ‘Juggalo’ was in 2004. He was opening up for 2 Live Crew in San Jose.
“It’s a worldwide thing now, but I was never exposed to it. No one ever said, ‘Juggalos would like your music.’ If I had been discovered when it started I would be in the top three most famous people in the genre. I already know because I am one of the people doing it without being influenced by the genre,” Kung Fu Vampire says.
Even after he learned who these people were, it never occurred to Kung Fu Vampire to try and market to them, or that they would embrace him so whole-heartedly.
As much as this scene liked Kung Fu Vampire for his dark image, they have been equally receptive to him shedding that image. Kung Fu Vampire has gotten a lot of positive feedback on this tour.
“The thing I hear most is, ‘It doesn’t matter what you look like because the music was amazing,’” Kung Fu Vampire says. From the very beginning the whole point of being so theatrical was driven by wanting to approach hip-hop in a way different than the other rappers—who were, by and large, all sort of doing the same thing.
“I’m very influenced by doing what other people aren’t doing,” he says. “I had never seen what I wanted to see.”
Even when he was in LSP, which he started with the three Huelsenkamp brothers from his neighborhood, he was always pushing rap boundaries. They would sometimes play to backing tracks, and other times to live instruments. Sometimes they would just do instrumental improv jams. Everyone in the group rapped, including Kung Fu Vampire, who also played drums. LSP was a creative, experimental hip-hop group unlike anything else happening in San Jose at the time.
“I really respect and love those guys’ talents,” Kung Fu vampire says.
Some of the change of Kung Fu Vampire’s sound came from his friend Leon Freeze, who had wanted to do a separate hip-hop project with Kung Fu Vampire.
“He would say, ‘I want to get you away from that weirdo style you keep doing. I want to do a more traditional hip-hop album with you,’” Kung Fu Vampire explains.
They worked on what would become the first Kung Fu Vampire album. Ironically, while it was much more traditional in terms of the sound than LSP, conceptually, it was much weirder. It was, after all, made by a rapping vampire. One thing that did not change between the groups was Kung Fu Vampire’s commitment to using live instruments. In fact, for the first couple of Kung Fu Vampire shows, the Huelsenkamp brothers were his backing band.
“I can feel the drums in my chest, in my balls,” he says. “That alone gives me positive energy. It’s just not the same to backing tracks. Rappers are doing themselves an injustice by not having a live band.”
The biggest misinterpretation of Kung Fu Vampire through the years from people unfamiliar with him is that he is something besides hip-hop—which explains why he’s had a tough time convincing hip-hop fanatics to give him a shot. All he really asks is that rap fans go see him live. So far, many of those that have, have walked away with a different opinion of him.
“If they walk in on us at a concert, they would have no choice but to respect us,” he says.