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Love of the Game in a Time of Civil Unrest and Outbreak: A conversation with Asian Man Records’ Mike Park

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Mike Park has been releasing punk and ska records out of his mom’s garage in the Bay Area since 1996. He built the label on DIY (do it yourself) principles, with a heavy focus on fighting racism through music. Mike is not only an icon in the subgenre music world — playing in bands like Skankin’ Pickle, The Bruce Lee Band, The Chinkees, Kitty Kat Fan Club and Ogikubo Station (while giving breakthrough bands like The Alkaline Trio, Less Than Jake, Lawrence Arms, The Broadways and Bomb! The Music Industry some of their earliest exposure via full releases or compilation tracks), he’s also a wise and rabid basketball fan (though I’m sure you — like me — are going to take issue with his plan for the Pelicans).

Mike and I’s relationship began because of music with our involvement in the scene, shared mutual friends and ideals, but I’d say our love of basketball is really what built our relationship. When the music business brings him to New Orleans, we always take in some live Pelicans action, and he’s been a multi-time guest on The Bird Calls Podcast. With politics latching onto the game and brands racing to become allies, I was excited to hear someone who not only drools for dribbles, but has been extremely active in integrating social change into his business plan’s take on the current state of affairs.

While politics and social commentary have always been a part of everything you’ve done, you started Asian Man Records seemingly with a much more aggressive mission statement to attack racism and unify people through music after breaking away from Dill Records. We are now seeing so many brands jump on the unity train, whether they are sincere or just pandering. What is the key to building a brand around actual progression and social justice instead of just lip service?

I’m not sure if I have a recipe, but I can just go by my experience. For me, music started being a platform for social change before Asian Man Records, and as I picked the name of the label, I wanted people to identify that a person of color — and specifically an Asian American — was running this label. From there, I continued the process of working with bands with progressive ideas, working with people within the business that shared my same ethics. And through actions from the start is how I believe you build trust.

TOPSHOT-US-RACISM-POLITICS-DEMONSTRATION Photo by KEREM YUCEL/AFP via Getty Images

NBA players are currently having an internal debate over if they should finish this season, pondering if participating in what could be a distraction from the Black Lives Matter movement during a time of overwhelming and unprecedented support, protest and change may lead to a weakening of the tide. They fear that perhaps if the focus gets shifted we could end up with just another band-aid fix to a festering pus-filled wound in our country that hasn’t been properly addressed in centuries. Others believe that playing will give the leaders of the league a spotlight in which they can further add support to the movement, and help open the eyes and hearts of those fans who may be personally unaffected or ignorant of the many systemic issues Black Americans face daily. What side do you fall on?

As a basketball fan, I am dying for an opportunity to watch my favorite game again. But I hate the thought of being selfish, undermining those who are directly affected by this. As far as BLM and the message? I don’t feel qualified to answer for those that don’t want to restart the season. I am coming strictly from a selfish standpoint and could argue that YES, this will give a huge platform for BLM, but again I am a basketball fan.

What do you say to fans who argue that sports are an escape from the world’s problems, proposing that we need this return to play to help fix our mental and emotional state due to what we’ve been going through with these murders by the police and COVID-19? Is there any validity in separating social/political issues from entertainment until we make strides in leveling the playing field for all Americans? Will sports, comedy, music and entertainment have to serve as catalysts for societal change, or can we have a separation?

Music has always been my salvation when I need help. Whether it’s sadness, happiness, anger, etc. Music reacts and helps nurture all of your emotions. And I think that holds true for entertainment. Anyone with a mic and an audience should be vocal for what they believe in. Especially sports, where so many young black men come from poverty and now ha’ve been able to provide stability for their family, they’re told SHUT UP AND DRIBBLE. That’s bullshit. At the same time, I do believe sports will help us immensely. For me, I’m watching old YouTube NBA games from the 80’s. I’m going down crazy rabbit holes.

A byproduct of this surge of progressive thinking and examination has led to a cancel culture. Do you feel like these outright dismissals of people or companies due to problematic behaviors, comments are actions — especially those from the past — are totally fair? How do we balance educating and empowering change within people who have had troubling views versus just banishing them outright? Do we need to allow people some time to learn and change? How do we know when change in perception and beliefs are real or are just motivated by fear of rebellion and dismissal?

Not at all. The woke culture sucks. It’s crazy to see how fast people will throw someone under the bus without knowing anything other than a blurb they read on twitter. And I’m all for growing and letting people learn and become better. Otherwise what’s the use of moving forward? And the loudest folks are usually the ones hiding the most.

Asian Man Records has survived the streaming and illegal download era of the music business — having to adapt your model and get innovative to do so. Now we are faced with another hurdle as COVID-19 continues to cancel live music for the foreseeable future. How are you adapting to this new crisis?

As a record label, we don’t have any dealings with bands live engagements. That gives us a step-up as people are leaning to us for their entertainment. Our sales have increased during the pandemic. Each day has me more curious about how exactly things will unfold, but for now it’s been beneficial to my business.

Assuming the season starts up again as planned — momentarily removing the BLM issues from the plan — how confident are you in the season being able to play out? What policies or rules concern you? What would you have done differently, from health protocols, location and even season structure? (Would you have liked to see the World Cup group stage format, or something else?)

I don’t think the season will resume. At the current pace of new positive tests of Covid-19, I think we are going to go into a second lockdown and shit will hit the fan. I’m not a health expert so I’m following what the CDC says to do. It’s not that hard to put on a mask. I’m not sure what the complaints are? To be inconvenienced to help protect not only you, but others around you shouldn’t be a question.

If the games do go on, what would you like to see incorporated into the branding or broadcast that would keep focus on the BLM movement?

The easiest thing to do would be to have a black stripe on all the uniforms. That visual will keep people talking and something you wouldn’t be able to escape.

Adam Silver has been looking into the viability of a mid-season tournament in coming seasons. Are you on board with changing the 82-game format? Are there any other changes you’d like to see to the season structure or rules to improve the entertainment value and competitive nature of the sport?

Nah, let’s keep it as is. I love the current game. Perhaps shorten to a five-game playoff series until the conference finals and finals (seven games).

Being from the Bay Area, you’ve been a lifelong Warriors fan, but you are also just a giant hoops head. One time you joined us on The Bird Calls podcast and lamented the Kevin Durant signing because it was just too much excess for the talent-rich Warriors and it was making the team inaccessible to the middle and lower economic class fanbase. You actually lusted over the idea of going to a Suns, and at the time, a pretty bad Pelicans team matchup on a Tuesday night. Was this season of Warriors basketball slightly rejuvenating for you?

Heck yeah!! Seeing G Leaguers and 2nd round picks starting and scoring big and losing every game! Just like my warriors of old. I actually don’t mind it. It makes the upset wins so much more satisfying. But yeah, I love B market basketball. Atlanta vs. Memphis on a Monday night. Heck yeah!

With the Warriors not being included in the 22 team Orlando bubble, do you have a rooting interest?

Pelicans, baby!

We’ve gone to a few games together in the past, and I’ll never forget how excited you were when you got to see Lou Amundson suit up for the then New Orleans Hornets. You clearly have a type — the physically ungifted, hustle hard guy who does all of the dirty work and outplays his talent level with heart. Who are some of your current Lou Amundson All-Stars?

Patrick Beverley and Marcus Smart are two of my favs right now. I loved when Bev blocked LeBron earlier this season to ice a game.

Miami Heat v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

The general consensus around the league is that the Pelicans have an extremely bright future. Looking at this roster and the trade assets they’ve collected, what move or set of moves would you make to elevate this team to a contender if you were given the keys?

I’d love to GM the Pels, and I would build around Lonzo and Zion. I’d move B.I. because his trade value is high and try to come away with a couple first rounders and a 2nd rounder. I would also trade Jrue. Even though I love him, if you can get a couple first rounders and build through the draft, that’s the way I would go. I would let Hart run more 2-guard with Lonzo — both are good defenders. Perhaps give a bigger look at Nickeil Alexander-Walker and see if he can develop. But the vets like Derrick Favors and JJ Redick are replaceable and specialty players. They just need a couple stars and good chemistry.

Did you watch The Last Dance? What were your key takeaways?

Jordan is a dick, Pippen is a bitch, Rodman is crazy, Horace gained a lot of weight and Kerr and Paxson can shoot the open J.

Michael Jordan is often criticized for his leadership style and for his infamous line, “Republicans buy shoes too.” Do you consider him a role model? What athletes have inspired you the most with the use of their platform?

Even though LeBron has been on the receiving end of a lot of my hate, I’m just not gonna deny his courage to speak up, and how he puts his money to work in Ohio — building a school and creating so many opportunities for people of color. I love Kareem. I like that he vocally criticized Jordan for not speaking up when he had the world’s ear. I’m not a fan of Jordan.

I believe you and I feel the same way about the band Fugazi. My parents are quite liberal but are also very Catholic. They put me in the Catholic school system from kindergarten through senior year (with half day breaks my junior and senior year for a public arts high school) hoping that religion would shape my worldview. It did not. In fact, I believe the set of morals, ethics, rules and political beliefs I’ve fostered throughout my life are rooted deeply in the ethics, business practices, politics and messages of Fugazi. I truly believe that discovering them and understanding what they represented in my early teens was critical. It was at a time when I was feeling isolated and unsatisfied with societal norms and especially with the mostly white suburban neighborhood I felt trapped in. I was angsty and tired of other straight white people feeling comfortable with saying shitty things to me about other races and people of different sexualities. I think 13-15 are very formative years for how a person develops ethically and politically. I’m very glad to have found a musical movement that not only aesthetically channeled that angst and aggression that was developing into a communal outlet, but also educated me on political issues and provided a framework to build upon in how I treat people, vote and approach society. The aesthetic of punk rock will often appeal to anyone feeling different, angsty and rebellious, but as we both know, that can go two ways — being very politically active and progressive or just violent, ignorant and sometimes extremely racist. I mean, I know both of us have had our run-ins with skinheads and Nazis in the scene throughout the years. How important is it for you to be a musician and a label owner to find each generation of these kids and get them on the right path as a kind of a gateway drug during these formative years? Also, who provided this formative experience for you?

“7 Seconds: The Crew” was the first album that I read the lyrics to and realized how impactful music can be. At age 50, I’ve seen so many generations of young people come and go. It gets harder each year, but I truly believe I have a voice that’s being heard and has helped young people develop ideas of equality into adulthood. I know they will raise their children to love each other. Fugazi and Ian MacKaye in particular was the one who got me thinking about business ethics — all ages shows, cheap ticket prices and the confidence to run a label in my moms garage.

We briefly met when Skankin’ Pickle played at Jimmy’s and you once talked me through some record label starting hurdles over the phone, but I’d say our real relationship started in 1998 when you brought the Ska Against Racism tour to the Tipitina’s Big Room. I knew a lot of the bands on the tour from my years of booking shows in New Orleans, but I was mainly backstage because my partner in Pelicans season tickets was in The Supaflies who were on Fueled by Ramen, which was owned by Less Than Jake at the time and were on the bill. They were also on one of your compilations too, correct? Anyway, if you were able to curate a tour with a strong political message again and weren’t constrained by a genre, a venue size or even living band members, what would your line-up be?

Oh my. Here we go:

ARENA TOUR:

U2

NWA

THE CLASH

PUBLIC ENEMY

and me opening acoustic.

The punk scene has always viewed the police as an enemy. You can look to Fugazi’s, “Great Cop,” Operation Ivy’s, “Officer” and The Broadways, “Police Song” which is on an album on your label for examples. What are the underlying issues with the policing system in America that seem to attract people who historically perpetuate harm on the marginalized in our society?

Punk rock and the problems with police stem from the 70’s when punk first came into the public eye. The common thread was that these hooligans are here to destroy the morality of our great nation. Fast forward to the 80’s, skateboarding and punk music were so integrated, and it was just a constant mindfuck from police antagonizing this demographic. The power trip mentality of the man in blue has always been a constant. As for the police mentality, I think even if you start off with good intentions, the good ole boy mentality of keeping it in the locker room starts to take hold. You see stuff you know is wrong, but you keep quiet so as to not to stir the pot. Everyone is infected.

Should we defund the police? Should we abolish the police? Have you seen any proposed policies for police reform that give you faith in changing the culture?

I’d be talking out of my ass if I gave an answer to this, because I don’t know what will work. But I know change needs to take place and I need to be more aware of the disenfranchised and how anything moving forward can be either a plus or minus. Basically, I can’t just put blinders on. I need to be proactive and take an interest in how things affect everyone.

What advice would you give to someone who is looking to be a part of positive societal change in a tangible way? How can they involve themselves in the fight for social justice?

It takes one person. That person can be you. Whether you decide to unite a group of friends to peaceful protest and mobilize in some way, you are doing something. With social media and the ease of finding stuff in 2020, there are endless organizations that can be a good fit. But you need to go out there. Meet people. Talk to people. Find out who you agree with and whom you would like to ally with.

And finally, as an old guy now, I often get stuck listening to the same old things or digging back into the past — especially into soul music — though I’m trying to get better at keeping my ear to the ground. What new music should I be excited about?

Grumster on AMR is the future!

You can follow Mike on Twitter and Instagram at @mikeparkmusic. Check out his record label, Asian Man Records at asianmanrecords.com.