Marvin Chan and the rise of R&B hip-hop duo Samurai Champs

The performing artist reflects on his upbringing, his craft, and the inspiration behind the music.

Marvin Chan got his start in music like any other first-generation Asian kid — his mom made him take piano lessons. But it wasn’t until Marvin picked up a guitar and discovered punk rock that he was catapulted into his current love affair with music. 

Fast forward to today: Chan’s CV includes singing in hip-hop and R&B duo Samurai Champs, and serving as Artistic Director for music collective Trifecta Sound Co

We sat down with Chan to discuss Samurai Champ’s momentous journey to Singapore, how his software engineering background influences music development, and finding his identity as an Asian Canadian in the wheat fields of Saskatchewan. 

Marvin Chan of Samurai Champs at a coffee shop
Photo credit: Winnie Jung

Humble Beginnings

“At the time, I really didn’t like music,” Chan said as he recounted memories of his piano teacher yelling at him. It was completely organic when he stumbled upon a guitar at a garage sale and started learning on his own. The songs by emo bands resonated with him more than classical piano.

“I swear that angst has something to do with the racial anxiety. You don’t really know who you are in general as a teenager, but you really don’t know who you are when you’re the only Asian kid in the prairies. That was my first emotional entry into music and because of that, I got more involved with the punk and hardcore scene in high school, and that was how I met Savan [Muth], my partner in the band.”

Engineering the Music

Chan’s journey with music took a lengthy hiatus during his undergrad in software engineering, a familiar career path with his parents.

“[Engineering] was the typical first- or second-generation Asian route. Both my parents are professors. My dad taught engineering and so did my mom, so of course they thought engineering was the way to go.”

But after putting music on pause for school, Chan dove back into music by applying the robust iterative development models he learned in real life. Only instead of applying it to small businesses or lean tech startups, he tried it in the context of music. 

“I didn’t work on music for five years so I figured I should probably do something bigger than usual. So me, Savan, and our friends put together a music festival, and that’s how Trifecta Music Festival started. It wasn’t developed in the traditional way though — I wanted to kill two birds with one stone by applying the research I was using in my masters towards the festival.”

That meant developing the festival in iterations, similar to a piece of software.

“The first festival we did with our friends … would actually count as the first prototype. Then we gather user feedback and keep adapting the model. We continued that iterative model through a concert series that you could test, and that’s how we built the collective.”

Chan and friends continued Trifecta from 2014 to 2016 before the festival became too big to handle. Chan and Savan ultimately decided to put Trifecta on pause to focus on their own music as Samurai Champs.

The Birth of Samurai Champs

Marvin and Savan grew up playing music together. Despite coming from different genres, they appreciated each other’s styles.

“I would always see him [Savan] at house parties being that cool guy free-styling in a circle, and he would come to my coffeehouse shows where I was playing acoustic guitar,” Chan said.

During Chan’s hiatus in undergrad, the two of them had time to develop artistically and individually. In addition to music, the two shared a love of anime.

“Samurai Champs … came about because we’re both big dorks and we just like to watch anime and play video games all the time. [It was based on] the anime Samurai Champloo … it’s this interesting meld of feudal Japan samurai folklore with hip-hop.”

Samurai Champloo poster
Samurai Champloo
Photo credit: Hulu

Melding genres became the unofficial theme of Samurai Champs, both in their music and their friendship.

“The strange theme that’s always run through me and Savan’s relationship is this idea of combining interdisciplinary or inter-genres together. He was hip-hop and I was hardcore indie, and we melded the two,” Chan said.

“When it really comes down to it, this whole theme comes from the thought that in what other year would this half-Hong Kong-nese [sic], half-Thai guy meet this Cambodian guy in Canada, their families both moved to Saskatchewan, the land of country and folk, where they start a hip-hop collective and then be able to use that to go back to Asia? The whole theme of it is always things that actually might be better when you take the best parts of everything … We really subscribe to that phrase ‘consistency is overrated.’”

Ultimately, Chan believed that blending is what art is supposed to be, calling it “a response to your internal struggle.” He viewed hip-hop as an outlet to express or find your identity:

“It’s evolved such that it can just be a medium for people to express what kind of struggle they’re going through now, which are a lot of these commentaries about toxic masculinity or maybe you’re a first- or second- generation immigrant that you don’t fit into your immediate environment.”

On the Come Up

In 2016, Samurai Champs started getting invited to festivals like Canadian Music Week in Toronto and Reeperbahn Festival in Germany. Despite their burgeoning success, Chan and Savan kept the hustling mentality alive by constantly preparing for the worst.

“We didn’t expect Samurai Champs to become what it did or to do so well. We also didn’t expect the festival to do well. We don’t really expect anything to go well.”

“When Savan and I were in high school, we would go into these singing contests and we always lost. When you’re younger you don’t know the value of losing all the time, but that’s one thing Savan and I didn’t appreciate until pretty recently. Whether or not we lose or get rejected from a festival or play a shitty show or get booed off stage, it’s not like it’s going to stop us, we’ll just keep doing it anyway.”

As they prepared for their first performance in Singapore, Chan explained why the trip was especially meaningful for the duo.

“Savan has never been back to Asia before,” he said. “Savan’s family escaped the Khmer Rouge Genocide — he was actually born in a Thai refugee camp while his family was escaping. Since then his family has never really had the opportunity to go back. It still trips us out everyday that the reasons that his parents came and why all our parents come is usually to give a better opportunity to future generations, and that’s available for musicians in Canada.”

Samurai Champs’ Legacy

Despite obvious CV builders like playing SXSW, going to Music Matters in Singapore, or being nominated for Urban Artist of the Year, Chan says he and Savan are most proud of the community that they built, “seeing their little weird clown car community in the same house [at Canadian Music Week or NXNE].”

Natasha Jung in a Trifecta Sound Company sweater and Marvin Chan
Natasha Jung, Marvin Chan
Photo credit: Winnie Jung

“There was no hip-hop or urban scene [in Saskatchewan]. We had friends that were rappers or in hardcore and punk so we took that same idea of ‘why wouldn’t we want our friends and us to live in a good, creative environment’? That’s why we made Trifecta in the first place.” 

As for the future of Asians in hip-hop, Chan was optimistic.

It’s weird because for a long time, a lot of Asian rappers in North America were always seen as kind of corny, but I really feel that there is no better time than right now to be an urban artist or artist in general. Especially if you’re a person of colour in Canada.”

“That’s what Savan and I would’ve liked to hear in high school. Savan still has this story about a girl in high school who straight up said ‘Asians can’t rap,’ and that whole thing is gone and there’s so much proof that anyone can do anything they want.”

What a time to be alive. 

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