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一直以来我都有一 一本专门介绍成都 贡献的书籍。 作为 实追随者以及一名 我力所能及的事。 现在,这本书,它就 你会喜欢。

一个梦想,就是想做 对中国嘻哈所做的 为一名嘻哈音乐的忠 名平面设计师,这是


About the curator: Wei Yin is a graphic designer from Wuhu, China. He is currently getting his MFA in graphic design at Otis college of art and design. He holds a BFA in visual & communication design from Anhui University and a BA in visual & performancing art from California state university San Marcos. He aims for self-oriented, content-driven design practice that opens for collaborations and innovations. For more information/ commission, go to weiyindesign.com

For everyone who loves Chinese Hip-Hop, you are not alone.



Setting the scene: Mao's Revolution and the Chinese Pop Culture Climate



Chengdu Cool: The Rise of Sichuan’s Homegrown Hip-Hop


70 BO$$ X


178 Conclusion


The history of Rap in China: Hip-Hop Goes Mainstream (2010-2019)


With Dreadlocks, Rhythm and Flow, China Embraces Hip-Hop

90 Higher brothers



This is Chengdu

120 156 Bohan Phoenix

Yitai Wang


Setting the Scene: Mao's Revolution and the Chinese Pop Culture Climate By Adan Kohnhorst 10

Young female workers perform an anti-Confucian Maoist ballet for a crowd of onlookers.


Setting the Scene: Mao's Revolution and the Chinese Pop Culture Climate

The westerner’s perception of modern China is often tied to images of red propaganda and Mao Zedong’s imposing, smiling face. Why is this? The Cultural Revolution came to an official close decades ago, yet still presents the most readily-accessible imagery of Chinese Communism. The period from 1966-1976 represented the peak of Mao-fever in the country, when the Chairman’s cult of personality and political influence were both at their strongest. It’s also the period in which the policies and direction of the Chinese Communist Party reached their lowest depths of misguided error. After the resounding failure of the Great Leap Forward, Mao ushered in the Cultural Revolution partially as a way to reassert his dominance and ideologies within the party. Its stated goal was to purge Chinese society of lingering traditional and capitalist components in the pursuit of true Communism. Temples were torn down, books were banned, and art or media in any form that was deemed to stand in opposition to the Maoist wave was grounds for execution. The latter phenomenon here is the most important for our own purposes. The stranglehold that was placed on the Chinese creative community – at this crucial moment of its intended tip into modernity – effectively paralyzed the country’s artistic development. Ten years passed in which all plays produced, books written, and music performed were for the express purpose of praising Mao Zedong and the Party. Naturally, when the Cultural Revolution finally came to an end, artists found themselves chillingly face-toface with the freedom to create. But the rest of the world had already passed them up. Eager to leave behind the fresh sting of failure, China rushed to develop comparable pop culture content, largely to no avail. Early attempts to fill this vacuum were, for the most part, rather mediocre. The instrumental tracks were filled with discordant sounds, obvious products of the preceding decade’s Patriotic and Revolutionary Songs. The drum lines sounded like they were taken from then-current American Pepsi commercials. Of course, to a nation that had been not only deprived of, but kept blind to, the international pop culture explosion of the 70’s and 80’s, these songs were worth their weight in gold. Due to the enormous national audience, overnight hits were not only common, but planned out in alignment with national TV events, etc. This allowed China’s pop music growth to remain stagnant, while its Eastern neighbors began taking steps to improve the international appeal of their music and expand their influence overseas. By the time terms like “J-Pop” and “K-Pop” (Japanese and Korean Pop, respectively) started becoming household words among diverse American youth, China had already lost too much ground, relegating the less popular “C-Pop” to the MP3 players and iPods of an almost exclusively ethnic Chinese audience. It’s clear to see that the Cultural Revolution, despite having ended decades ago, continues to have a lasting impact on the social, financial, and cultural climates of China’s music industry. To understand the aftereffects of the Cultural Revolution, we have to understand the


characteristics of the period itself, and in order to do that, we need to look to China’s condition just before Mao brought the era into existence. In 1965, one year before Mao would announce the launch of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution the period’s formal name - China was in a state of disrepair. Mao’s ambitious Great Leap Forward, an economic and social campaign that had promised to double agricultural production and catapult China into a renaissance of industrialized modernity, had instead proved to be a catastrophe. Its primary tenets had included the mass mobilization of the country’s population into rural communes, and the assignment to many of these communes of single commodity production goals – for the most part, steel. Uneducated farmers struggled to produce steel on an outrageous scale, yielding mostly useless, low quality product and substandard pig iron. Meanwhile, with the population’s focus being forcefully directed to the failed manufacture of unnecessary steel, agricultural output fell lower and lower, resulting in the Great Chinese Famine. This period of famine can be viewed as one of the most devastating losses of life in history, during which an estimated 18 million to 45 million people died of starvation, as a direct result of Mao’s policy. This led to two important things: 1) Mao Zedong was forced to take major responsibility, reducing his status within the party and causing him to resign from his position as State Chairman, and 2) the Party, the people of China, and Mao himself became desperate to embrace


whatever was “next.” With the country in shambles, the stage was set perfectly for a strongman leader to muscle his way in on promises of revolution. Or in Mao Zedong’s case, to muscle his way back in. On May 16, 1966 during an “expanded session” of the Politburo in Beijing, Mao, armed with a rhetoric of class struggle and eliminating secret bourgeoisie insurrections (whom he labeled “counter-revolutionaries” and warned had “sneaked into the Party, the government, the army, and various spheres of culture”), began to destabilize the Party itself. He created a black-and-white dynamic of Communism vs. the bourgeoisie, in which Communism was defined by “Mao Zedong Thought” (毛泽东思想). This power play effectively damned anything in opposition to Mao’s policies, on the grounds of being an attack against the proletariat and against Communism itself. Those who spoke out against Mao or were accused of doing so were removed from their positions. Once the party itself lacked the strength to stand against Mao’s influence, the citizens of China were powerless against it, and became swept up in the movement. Immediately following, these ideals began to be implemented on every level of society. Mass propaganda campaigns were carried out, urging people to band together in the spirit of China to eliminate the bourgeoisie plague on the country. Students and youth across the mainland were galvanized into paramilitary “Red Guards”, whose

Adan Kohnhorst

Setting the Scene: Mao's Revolution and the Chinese Pop Culture Climate

mission was to protect the ideology of Mao and to seek out and punish those who were labeled counter-revolutionaries. They harassed and abused much of the elderly and intellectual community, snatching up everyday working class people and presenting them to the central government for torture or execution. This was all in an attempt to destroy the “Four Olds”: old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. Almost instantaneously, China turned its back on its 3,500 years of history. All religious practice was outlawed. Libraries full of ancient texts were burned to the ground. Red Guards from Beijing Normal University ransacked the tomb of Confucius himself, China’s most dearly-held and influential thinker. The violence of the Red Guards became even more serious in August 1966 when a central directive was issued to stop police intervention in Red Guard activities. The national police chief said it was “no big deal” if Red Guards were beating “bad people” to death, and the Red Guards took this to heart, effectively constituting an ever-present eye of Mao with the legal and quantifiable strength to kill in the name of his policies. The Red Guards were, one could argue, a way of blurring the line between government and society. It wasn’t just a matter of monitoring one’s speech in front of state officials – anything said or rumoured to have been said at any time could work its way by word of mouth to someone who would take action on it, allowing the gaze of the Party to permeate every level of society. It’s crucial to note the effect this had on the creative community at the time: that no artists of any medium could produce work without fear of retribution on the part of the state or its agents. The poster child for this phenomenon is playwright Wu Han, who wrote the 1961 opera Hai Rui Dismissed from Office. The opera centered on the story of Ming dynasty minister Hai Rui, an honest man who is imprisoned for criticizing the emperor. Although the play initially received praise from Mao, when critics began to interpret it as an allegory for Defense Minister Peng Dehuai’s criticism of - and subsequent imprisonment at the hands of - the Chairman, Mao Zedong saw an opportunity to use the play to eliminate his chief rival within the party, Liu Shaoqi. By attacking and removing Wu Han from his position, he aimed to remove his superior, Peng Zhen in Beijing, from his position. Peng Zhen was one of Liu Shaoqi’s closest supporters, so after denouncing Peng, it was not a great leap to reach Liu. Wu Han, innocent, died in prison in 1969. This landmark precedent occurred before the Cultural Revolution, and set the tone for perceived artistic critiques against the Party. During the years of the revolution itself, the creative climate only became darker. A paralyzing blow was dealt in 1966 by Jiang Qing, wife of Mao Zedong and leading member of Mao’s trusted “Gang of Four”, a political faction within the Party on whose shoulders much of the blame for the period’s chaos falls. It was Jiang Qing who put forth the Theory of the Dictatorship of the Black Line in


Literature and Arts, a report which stated: “…since the founding of our People’s Republic, the ideas in [Chairman Mao’s] works have basically not been carried out by literary and art circles. Instead, we have been under the dictatorship of a black anti-Party and anti-socialist line that is diametrically opposed to Chairman Mao’s thought. This black line is a combination of bourgeois ideas on literature and art, modern revisionist ideas on literature and art and the so-called literature and art of the 1930s… As a result of the influence or domination of this bourgeois and modern revisionist counter-current in literature and art, there have been few good or basically good works in the last decade or so (although there have been some) which truly praise worker, peasant and soldier heroes and which serve the workers, peasants and soldiers; many are mediocre, while some are anti-Party and anti-socialist poisonous weeds. In accordance with the instructions of the Central Committee of the Party, we must resolutely carry on a great socialist revolution on the cultural front and completely eliminate this black line.” Jiang Qing’s report broadened the punishable territory of art from that which was anti-Communist to that which was not deliberately pro-Communist. All pre-existing operas were banned from being performed, and Jiang Qing took it upon herself to introduce the “revolutionary operas” shortly after in 1967. The revolu-


tionary opera was based on Peking opera, but modified in form, and centered without fail on themes of Communist victory and Mao Zedong’s strength as a leader. Eight “Model Dramas”, six operas and two ballet pieces, were rolled out as the official theatrical repertoire of the entire country, the most famous of which being The Legend of the Red Lantern. The opera tells the story of Communist undercover agents working at a railway station and fighting off the Japanese invaders during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Each other opera followed a similar formula. Rather than drawing the line here, at the complete eradication of China’s theatrical tradition, Jiang Qing made efforts to imbue all other spheres of culture with these same dramas. They were broadcast on the radio, made into films, and assigned as required study to students and factory workers, whose political fervor was judged on how passionately they sang the lyrics. The songs boomed loudly from public loudspeakers, and their complete scripts were printed in different publications and newspapers. While these revolutionary operas constituted the bulk of consumable Chinese art at the time, there were a few independent pieces of music which stood alone, though they didn’t differ greatly in theme from the model dramas. Paralleling the rise of the revolutionary opera, the Cultural Revolution’s musical identity came about after pre-existing popular music was banned. Instead, a select handful of songs extolling the virtues of Communism and of Mao

Adan Kohnhorst


Setting the Scene: Mao's Revolution and the Chinese Pop Culture Climate


Zedong became the national musical landscape. Songs like Ode to the Motherland, Sailing the Seas Depends on the Helmsman, and Without the Communist Party There Would Be No New China became the only commonly heard music. One song praising Mao, The East Is Red, rose to such popularity it became the de facto national anthem of the period. This dearth of valid artistic expression crippled the country’s ability to produce what the rest of the world would call “regular” or “real” music. On one level, it formed a solid ten-year period in which China was not experiencing musical growth. Meanwhile, the western world was transitioning at comparatively lightning speed through the stages of pop, soul, disco, rock, and more. Even some of China’s eastern neighbors were beginning to catch on, with Japanese groups venturing out and trying their own takes on the same genres. On a deeper level, the Cultural Revolution set the next generation of artists up for continued failure. The Chinese sound wasn’t just “not evolving”; the generation of artists that would have been capable of putting China on the map was rotting away into musical decrepitude. A decade passed with the entire population of China in musical limbo. The only feeling music was thought to be capable of generating was that of patriotic Communist fervor. They weren’t hearing the sounds, seeing the sights, or experiencing the energy of music that the rest of the world was. Talk to any musician and they’ll be able to tell you the story of their musical journey. What they heard as a child around the house, how they reacted to it, the eventual genres they found themselves seeking out as listeners, the kinds of people and things those genres put them into contact with, and the culmination of these experiences into one human product as they picked up a microphone/instrument/turntable and moved from the realm of “listener” to “creator.” China was not afforded these opportunities; how can you expect someone to go from an adolescence of reciting The Legend of the Red Lantern to picking up a six-string guitar and shredding on stage?

After a decade of isolation from not just the evolving music of the world, but from the pre-existing music of their own country, China’s entrance into the pop music game was understandably weak. In the Reform and Opening-Up (改革开放) period that followed the dismay of the Cultural Revolution, alongside economic reforms, China began producing its first pop culture products. TV shows, movies, and music began to spill out rapidly. While there were some notable successes (rock legend Cui Jian produced his song “Nothing to My Name” during this period, which is lauded for giving a voice to the dispossessed youth of the time and is regarded as one of the most important songs in modern Chinese history), for the most part, there’s a reason nobody talks about 80’s Chinese hits. Musicians’ attempts to reconcile the knowledge they’d carried over from the days of Communist music largely resulted in discordant tracks where traditional Chinese instruments clashed with simplistic guitars and horns. Furthermore, music producers living



in China lacked the technical skills their foreign counterparts had developed long ago, imbuing Chinese-produced music with a categorically “inferior” sound quality. If you compare the first mainland Chinese pop song - Li Guyi’s 1980 “Township Love”, which was initially met with much criticism and banned on the grounds of being “bourgeois” – with a 1980 American counterpart, for instance, Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”, the difference is immediately clear. Queen’s track sounds crystal clear, with each individual instrument making a name for itself and taking up its own sonic space, and Freddy Mercury’s vocals riding perfectly on top, each one of his breathy inflections audible and unmistakeable. Western producers had also long understood “doubling” and “adlibs”, and in the song you can hear Freddy come in at times on a separate vocal track underneath the lyrics for a backup “yeaaahh!” In contrast, Li Guyi’s track quality sounds much more dated. The high frequencies and low frequencies blend into one another, with her voice swimming amidst them, struggling to separate itself from the instruments. There’s only one layer of vocals, closer to a live performance, but without the nuanced touch of a master behind the mixing boards. Uniquely though, mainland China was a large enough, and specialized enough, audience to completely self-sustain and support its own comparatively mediocre music. Very little of the rest of the Chinese-speak-

ing world was consuming any mainland music – Hong Kong and Taiwan both had more refined and more established pop music output (having escaped the reach of Mao’s policy a decade earlier), and on the contrary were responsible for many of the popular hits in mainland China. Mainland China, it seemed, made music for mainland China. In this spirit, songs that were directly aimed at a Chinese audience were often sure to become hits. Songs like “My Chinese Heart” were specifically designed to appeal only to Chinese listeners, and relied on a kind of “throwback” to the patriotic sentimentality of the Cultural Revolution, thus continuing the recycling of stagnant Chinese sounds. China’s focus was too self-centered to tap into the international currents that were driving modern music. Japan and Korea, meanwhile, were laying the foundations for their own explosion onto the global stage. Japan would later go on to use its first globally-recognized pop product, anime, as a way of launching its music into the hands of overseas fans. By linking J-Pop and J-Rock to anime subculture, Japan was able to access an immense base of listeners worldwide. Korean music, during the initial phases of mainland pop culture, was still in its ballad era. But the consumable appeal of 1980’s Korean artists as individuals made waves across Asia, and would later lead record execs to double down on their investment, eventually giving rise to the modern K-Pop phenomenon. Modern K-Pop follows

Adan Kohnhorst

Setting the Scene: Mao's Revolution and the Chinese Pop Culture Climate

a strict formula, and is largely based on the appeal of “boy bands” and “girl groups”, a formula that American record execs had thought to be extinct after the end of groups like The Backstreet Boys, N’Sync, Destiny’s Child, and the Spice Girls. K-Pop today is also heavily reliant on sex appeal and a complete visual product, with looks and dancing ability, as well as music videos, playing a large part in the success, or failure, of a group. Both Japan and Korea’s formulas, it should be noted, are unavailable to Chinese artists. China possesses no international pop product like anime off of which to build a widespread musical following, and the sexuality present in many Korean videos would immediately be labeled “morally harmful” by China’s Ministry of Culture (though that doesn’t mean that Chinese youth are not currently devouring every piece of K-Pop they can get their hands on). Today, China’s international listenership is light-years behind that of Korea and Japan. Korean artist Psy’s irreverent 2012 “Gangnam Style” took the world by storm. An anthem to nothingness, the song is catchy, comes with a fun dance, and has a music video that features baby blue tuxedos, explosions, and the singer screaming at a girl’s buttocks. Gangnam is a wealthy district of Seoul, evidence of the singer’s understanding that consumerist themes are the driving force behind much of today’s music. The music video, at this time of writing, has 2,541,600,331 views on YouTube, more than any other video ever uploaded to the premiere international video-sharing site. In 2015, in line with China’s habit of “imitation over innovation”, a Chinese music video called “Xiao Ping Guo” (Little Apple) emerged. “Xiao Ping Guo” by the Chopstick Brothers attempted to piggyback off the viral success of “Gangnam Style” and copy the same formula: catchy melody and beat, nonsensical music video, accompanying dance, and an ugly-but-loveable male lead backed by a beautiful woman. In China the song became a huge success, peaking at number one on the CCTV Global Chinese Music Chart. Despite this, at this time of writing, the song has only 6,734,786 views on YouTube, dwarfed by “Gangnam Style”, and indicative of the international audience’s disinterest in Chinese music. Because YouTube is a censored website in mainland China, Chinese viewers would have watched the video on Youku, China’s number one video-sharing site, rendering the amount of YouTube views as a quick way to gauge the song’s non-Chinese listenership. The video’s current view count on Youku is approximately 311,188,000. China’s first pop efforts were defined by early attempts to merge what post-Cultural Revolution musical knowledge existed in the country with the foreign imagery of pop culture, and tailoring it to the evolving attitudes of the new China. In this respect, China’s first interaction with hip hop culture was not too different. The true origin of hip hop in China can be traced to the year 1987, with the Chinese release of the 1984 American film Breakin’, released in China as Piliwu (霹雳舞 “Thunderbolt Dance”). At the time, only ten or so Hollywood films would be officially released each year, so any one of them would be


expected to draw in a lot of viewers. By the late 80’s, Chinese youth were beginning to fully embrace the spirit of the new era, and the culture gap between generations began to become more and more clear. Rock and disco became popular, with the definition of each term not yet fully fleshed out, and the words (yaogun/摇滚/ rock, and disike/迪斯科/disco) being used to refer to any high-energy music with a powerful beat. Dancing, too, captured the attention of young people, who were eager to embrace the new music associated with youthful rebellion as a way to express oneself as well as interact with the opposite sex. Before Piliwu, the little material on breakdancing or hip hop to be found in the country came in the form of video cassettes or word-of-mouth in Guangzhou via Hong Kong. But after the film’s release, the dance immediately became a national craze, one that was immediately accessible to its audience, and required no prerequisite knowledge of English or technology like rapping or DJing did. Even today, dance remains the most widely practiced element of hip hop culture in China. Sociologist Zhi Zhao translates the account of Mr. Sun, who founded the first Chinese dance studio to offer formal “street dance” (jiewu) classes, upon first seeing the film: “For our generation, regardless of whether or not they danced, this film got us excited. Today, many people will reminisce about this film; I watched that movie in theatres no less than ten times. There were a lot of


people like me. We thought that some of these moves were not humanly possible, but they did it. There was popping, strange movements, we couldn’t understand it ... this type of attitude and movement, we were completely absorbed into it.” In the years that followed, breakdancing became a true “street” culture, and it was common to find practitioners in parks across Beijing spinning and sliding on slick boards for crowds on fascinated spectators. Out of the four elements of Hip Hop (DJing, breakdancing, rapping, and graffiti) breakdancing was easily the most accessible for the Chinese audience, requiring no expensive equipment, knowledge of English, or disregard for the law. Mr. Sun also speaks on breakdancing as the most immediately accessible element of Hip Hop culture, explaining that “with rapping, there’s a translation problem...Chinese people are still Chinese people, so it’s hard to say that all Chinese people will like rap or learn rap. I like rap, I like graffiti, DJing, but I feel that hip hop dance is what is most suitable to Chinese people. Chinese hip hop culture will be primarily dance-based.” It was breakdancing, not rap music, that set the tone for the Chinese reception of hip hop. Rap music was seen by many as a little strange, with foreigners bobbing their heads and shouting incomprehensible lyrics over beats. In the early days, people would breakdance to rock and roll, rap music, or pop almost interchangeably. The older generation naturally disapproved of it,

Adan Kohnhorst

Setting the Scene: Mao's Revolution and the Chinese Pop Culture Climate

and there was a popular saying that “bad people are those who smoke, drink, and dance piliwu.” The gap between generations in this time began to grow, the uniform Maoism of the previous decade giving way to the natural difference in ideology between youth and their elders. One breakdance enthusiast from Xinjiang named Chen Qiushi explained his feelings: “Whatever your pastime, none can be considered low grade. So long as you put your heart and soul into something, it shows you’re a genuine person. What’s the point if you only listen to what other people say? They tell you to do this, you do this; they tell you to do that, you do that. In the past, loyalty dances [to Chairman Mao] were not a pastime; they were controlled. Ballet relies on skill, the traditional skills of standard dancing have a kind of beauty. These also have a kind of accepted artistic value. But dances as a pastime depend on a person’s feelings and the free development of emotions. So things that are pastimes will always reflect your values in life. You can’t do without them. Losing them means you lose your own self-worth. The key is that this era is the ‘me era’ (ziwo shidai). People like breakdancing, and like these pastimes. That’s the way it is. No one resists this wave.” Chen’s candid speech encapsulates the essence of the era. The old ways were falling away, and the question on everyone’s mind was how to bring in the new. Sadly, for hip hop, it was not built to last. Breakdancing’s breakneck rise to popularity stalled out after a couple of years. With no accomplished dancers to teach the style or studios to practice in, the method of watching Breakin’ and copying the moves could only last so long, and with no established breakdance community, the phenomenon was unsustainable. The breakdancing fad began to turn stale, hopelessly coinciding with the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989 and the subsequent crackdown on foreign culture. By 1990, breakdancing had all but disappeared into the wind. Mr. Sun remembers the period: “It got to the point where if you danced piliwu, you would be laughed at. By 1990, there was no one left who danced piliwu, even those who danced were ashamed to tell others... When it was popular, everyone followed it. China has this tendency: either it’s completely popular, or it’s nonexistent, maybe because of Chinese peoples’ collectivist tendencies.” Breakdancing, and with it, hip hop, had essentially ended in China. Die hard fans might still be caught hitting a one-handed freeze or bumping Run DMC in their headphones, but as a cultural movement, the force of hip hop had reached a sudden halt. It wouldn’t be until later, when piliwu was rebranded under the all encompassing term jiewu (street dance), that breaking would find its way back into Chinese youth culture, and this time in a much more specialized capacity in studios and competition arenas across the country.


China would continue to develop its relationship with hip hop, eventually yielding an entire generation of Chinese breakdancers, rappers, graffiti artists, and DJ’s who were knowledgeable in their own right in the roots of hip hop culture. But it was a development that would occur later, and would not come without its own new set of obstacles and challenges.

Japan, and Korea in each subsequent stage of music evolution. While these countries were each taking further steps into unknown territory in order to demarcate their own musical identities, China was left no choice but to copy them and rush its own learning process, sometimes skipping over important elements. Early attempts at Chinese hip hop were fad-like, based on the novelty of the image, and lacked China is a nation that shot from a underlying substance. But China also has period of third-world darkness into the another expression, “one generation plants sunlit splendor of the 21st century almost the trees, another gets the shade.” Although overnight. But as a result, contemporary the China of today is in many ways still international currents vie for position hindered by its past identity, it’s also with older ways of thinking that haven’t continuously building towards new heights. quite yet had time to dissipate. There’s an Every day new minds are being exposed to expression, “Just as the waves of the Yangnew music, and a new wave of rappers, DJ’s, tze River behind drive on those ahead, so breakdancers, and graffiti writers is waking does each new generation replace the old up. In this way, the hard-sowed seeds of the one.” In China, the waves set into motion by generations before them will become trees the Cultural Revolution have not yet dwinof experience, in whose cool shade the hip dled away, and continue to push and sway hop revolutionaries of tomorrow will proseach aspect of contemporary Chinese life. per. Music is no exception. The attitudes and policies of the Cultural Revolution were, in the words of the Party, “the most severe setback” for China since the founding of the People’s Republic. The tight restrictions on the country’s musical output killed any chance at developing meaningful modern music during the period, and set China up for an underwhelming entrance to the pop culture game when the widespread reform of the 1980’s rolled around. Forced to play catch-up and build new foundations, China was left in the wake behind more powerful pop culture entities like the United States,


Adan Kohnhorst

The History of Rap in China: Hip Hop Goes Mainstream (2010-2019) By Fan Shuhong




The History of Rap in China: Hip Hop Goes Mainstream (2010-2109)

The current decade kicked off with a memorable Iron Mic finale. The final battle between Beijing rapper Dawei (大卫) and Xinjiang MC Max (马俊) is viewed as a classic, and a turning point where Max won with his freestyle without the use of any curse words. But Iron Mic wasn’t the only battle arena. In 2012, Xi’an hosted the first 8 Mile Underground (地下八英里) competition, named after Eminem’s autobiographical film. Participating rap crews

2010-2017 24

and labels included C.H.A.O.S, NOUS, HHH, and STA, while the freestyle contests between Young Dragon and PG One, PG One and GO$H’s Watch Me (aka 山鸡), and Bei Bei and Masiwei (later of Higher Brothers) were instant classics. The new generation demonstrated in these battles that they were ready to take Mandarin rap to the next level.

recognition behind the 2017 release of their debut album Black Cab. That the same year, yet another Sichuan group called CD REV, got their start, and set out on another path to widespread recognition. Today they’re known as  “China’s reddest rap group”  due to their baldly pro-State lyrics.

Over the years, 8 Mile Underground would continue to bring rappers to broad national audiences, a rarity in the pre-Rap of China days. Champions included Xi’an’s PACT (派克特, 2011-2012), Young Dragon (小青龙, 2015-2016) from Kunming-based hip hop label Monster Gang (开山怪), and Monster Gang founder MC Fei. Courtesy of the competition, Bei Bei (贝贝) and  PG One from what would later become HHH (红 花会), Xi’an’s biggest rap group, plus Bridge from Chongqing-based label GO$H and Sun Bayi (孙八一) from Guizhou all became widely acknowledged on the national stage, a rarity for underground rappers back then. In 2013, Chengdu jazz rapper  Kafe Hu  released his first album,  The Guy. One year later, fellow Chengdu rapper  Fat Shady  (谢帝) brought his Sichuanese rap “Not Going to Work Tomorrow” (明天 不上班) onto  Sing My Song,  a music show produced by national network CCTV with a large viewership. Several years later, in 2015, another group of Sichuan rappers called Higher Brothers put out their first, self-titled demo, starting them on a road that would lead to global


Fan Shuhong

The History of Rap in China: Hip Hop Goes Mainstream (2010-2109)

CAPI AND B By 2017, hip hop had been bubbling away on the under- LESS ground level for about two ARE decades. Yet in the summer of 2017, it went mainstream almost overnight. Previ- TWO M ously underground rappers suddenly became major stars, CHALL rap battles went viral online, and terms such as “freestyle”ES THA entered the mainstream CHIN lexicon. With a production budget of over 200 million RMB (29 million USD), Baidu- RAP S owned streaming platform IS C iQIYI’s The Rap of China show FRON WIT 2017-2018 26


changed the Chinese hip hop game forever.

years ago, but he couldn’t even afford it.”

First aired on June 24, 2017, the show’s first season has been viewed over 3 billion times. Fronted by celebrity judge and K-pop star  Kris Wu, the reality TV extravaganza brought the previously underground  genre to mainstream Chinese audiences for the first time, inadvertently setting off a series of controversies — and making a massive difference in terms of many rappers’ income, and the overall recognition of hip hop in China.

Such dire straits were in stark contrast to the situation in other countries, Chen said. “Hip hop continues to develop pretty well overseas, and merges well with commerce. Before Rap of China, Chinese rappers had no visibility. We hope the production level of their work will increase a lot, so they just need to concentrate on their verses. This is what we want to do for them, to offer them a world class stage, the best production and the best promotion.”

For example, in May 2017, Modern Sky-signed rapper Tizzy T  was paid 30,000RMB for a music festival appearance. Just weeks later, he was commanding fees of 300,000 RMB, having made the show’s top seven finalists. Today, he has more than 5 million followers on Weibo — the type of popularity an underground rapper could never imagine to gain through small-scale live concerts or freestyle battles.

Chen adds that his generation grew up with rock ’n’ roll, but that Chinese youth today are exposed more to rap. “We should use the mode of expression that this generation likes to engage them, and let them enjoy higher-quality shows,” he says, admitting he’s been inspired by the likes of Empire and The Get Down. “The content that doesn’t fit mass media should not be present in our show.”

In an interview with RADII  in June, the producer of the show and iQIYI’s VP, Chen Wei, claimed that improving the financial situation of the artists was an explicit goal of The Rap of China: “They were really poor, because people didn’t know about them, and they didn’t have many performances, which meant they had no money. In 2017, some rappers might have just made 200 RMB [$29  USD] for a concert. No money means low quality. The beats they used maybe were just illegally-obtained parts of other people’s beats. GAI wanted to pay a couple of hundred RMB for a beat several

But a TV show airing in the carefully-controlled, carefully sanitized space of China’s pop-cultural mainstream isn’t necessarily compatible with underground rap culture, as The Rap of China’s first season proved. After GAI and PG One were crowned co-champions at the end of season one, they were hit by a series of scandals. Even blatant, cringe-inducing displays of loyalty to the Party’s brand of harmonious patriotism couldn’t stave off an apparent “hip hop ban” being implemented on mainstream media.

Fan Shuhong

“Rappers have to take social responsibility as public figures,” Chen told us ahead of the return of Rap of China  last summer. “After [the first season], some kids didn’t do a good job. We were not happy with it, but it was just out of our control. They should have done better, or there should have been someone who told them what to do. They got confused when they suddenly became public figures, rising from their roots as underground rappers. This



The History of Rap in China: Hip Hop Goes Mainstream (2010-2109)

made the authorities feel that something is wrong with this culture. Every government should keep their teenagers away from bad influences. So the regulations that came out [last year] were necessary.”

respect for his endeavor to promote rap in China, but look what his fans did against HUPU. Now Chinese rap is like a prostitute sold to brothels by the pimp, capital, and brainless fans are the clients. The pimp gets the workers dressed up for money, and the There is no doubt that rap — and a few clients spend a lot of money on… I don’t rappers in particular — has become well know what.” known in China at a lightning-fast speed over the past year as a direct result of the Gao says some of these issues have arisen show. Season one co-champ PG One has due to elements of American hip hop culture been the worst hit by the government’s swift getting lost in translation. “This culture response. He was  blocked from Weibo  for was imported from overseas, so it has to months, and forced into a  pseudonymous be decoded then recoded. But the whole return via WeChat, where he continues to process hasn’t gone well. We are always release new music (his first few tracks there imitating what is popular overseas. With the were timed to coincide with the airing of tones [of spoken Mandarin], Chinese can new episodes from  Rap of China’s second be a lot more complicated to rhyme than season. English. Therefore, there is a lot more fun with wordplay, not to mention the unique PG One’s plight has also exposed how elements of Chinese classical music and hip hop has taken on elements of the instruments that would be awesome if we “fan economy” phenomenon previously used them properly. Now anyone can rap limited to pop music. In  2018, his fash- and can be heard online, which is a good ion brand DEEVAN sold 2.6 million RMB thing, [but] if rappers don’t listen to more ($377,000  USD)  in its first 30 minutes, music or cultivate their own aesthetics then surpassing sales figures for Uniqlo and Gap their work will suck.” on its first day on e-commerce giant Taobao. This tremendous performances was due Eyedee, a rapper and hip hop lover who mainly to direct fan support. Meanwhile, has been close to the Chinese scene since loyal fans of his and rival rapper Bei Bei 2006, agrees. “It’s important for today’s have shown open hostility to one another rappers to cultivate themselves, and to on Weibo and other forums. think. In the current environment, mature rappers can take advantage of the devel“Capital and brainless fans are the two oped techniques and the equipment [at major challenges that the Chinese rap scene their disposal], but [The Rap of China] is confronted with,” says Gao Fang, a 30-year just wants to promote young rappers who old white collar worker and a hip hop head for nearly two decades. “I give Kris Wu


Fan Shuhong

The History of Rap in China: Hip Hop Goes Mainstream (2010-2109)

have a clean history with more plasticity, which means most of them don’t have their own attitude. As a rapper, you gotta have your own attitude and principles.” As a rapper who has featured on songs with the likes of Sbazzo, MC Max and Taiwanese rapper Daddy Chang (脏爸 爸), Eyedee feels qualified in calling out the new generation of pop-star rappers, but also lays blame at the feet of labels and other organizations looking to take advantage.


“The culture has no roots in China. It is not promoted by people, but by institutions. People don’t know Nas, 2Pac, Fat Joe or Jay-Z. The show is just a commercial cooperation [between] Kris Wu and iQIYI. Hip hop is growing higher in China, but it’s not growing stronger.” While old-school rappers and hip hop heads fret over the “corruption” of the genre, Rap of China producer Chen points to Chinese hip hop’s increasing international profile as justification for his company’s actions. “P Diddy heard GAI’s track ‘Parched’ (天干物燥) after someone sent it to him, and said, ‘Wow! This is Chinese rap for sure!’” For better or for worse, Chinese rap seems at a turning point, and exactly where it’ll go next remains unclear. As Chinese rappers reap the rewards of unprecedented commercial opportunity, countless questions are still left for us to observe, discuss, and reflect on. How can a streaming reality show promote the music and the culture better than just blasting out updates on its official Weibo? Does Kris Wu have anything more insightful to say about Chinese hip hop’s sudden explosion than “skr”? Maybe we can wait a little longer, let brilliant music from real rappers break out through the filter of time, and give new fans some space to learn and become proper rap aficionados. In the meantime, RADII will stay laser-focused on the best (and worst) of the future of rap in China.


Fan Shuhong

Chengdu Cool: The Rise of Sichuan’s Homegrown Hip-Hop By Yi-Ling Liu


The moment the elevator doors opened, Pema Tenzin found the party that he’d been looking for. He just hadn’t expected to find it here. From the outside, Poly Center appears to be one of many dull, nondescript office buildings ining the streets of the Chinese city of Chengdu. But inside, on the twenty-first floor that autumn night in 2016, the air was thick with laughter, strobing multicolored light, and the muscular thud thud thud of the bass was booming from the speakers. Young people leaned against the walls of the cramped corridors, taking hits of laughing gas from candy-colored balloons before diving back into one of three clubs in the vicinity. At the end of the hall was his destination, the experience he’d been anticipating since he left Gansu: NASA, Chengdu’s hottest hip-hop club, where an MC that Pema had long admired from afar freestyled for the sweaty crowd. Then a lanky 18-year-old, Pema had arrived in Chengdu a few months ago from Gannan, a small Tibetan prefecture up north in Gansu Province. He had no friends, no mentors, and no idea how to proceed with the dream he’d been nursing since he was a boy: to become a rap star. Like many aspiring Chinese rappers, Pema got his first taste of hip-hop from the internet. Sitting in front of his computer listening to his idol, Lil Wayne, he was hooked. Unlike the squeaky-clean, rosy-

Nasa, one of the first hip-hop clubs in Chengdu. Photo by Bryan Denton for The New York

cheeked male pop stars (referred to in China as “little fresh meats”) whose music his peers played on repeat, the swaggering, foul-mouthed American rapper who strutted around in snapbacks was bold, subversive, and cool. More than anything, Pema wanted to be cool. At 13, as a tribute to Lil Wayne—who also goes by the name Young Mula Baby—he adopted the name Young13DBaby. (The romanization of Pema’s name is Baima Denzing, and 13 resembles his initials “BD.”) A true rap star must tell his own story and rep his own hometown. Imitation can be sniffed out instantly; coolness requires authenticity. So Pema, who had no thug life to rap about—who hadn’t gotten rich, let alone died trying—spent his teenage years writing lyrics that reflected his own reality. He wrote about life as a high-schooler at a rigid, military-run boarding academy in the smoggy city of Lanzhou, the capital city of Gansu province and center of the Chinese petrochemical industry. His parents, both low-level government workers, dreamed of a more conventional future for Pema: going to college, finding a respectable job, and getting married. Although his songs about skipping class and boyhood dreams had garnered a healthy fan base of a thousand followers on his Xiami social media account, Pema knew that his future as a rapper in Lanzhou was as bleak as the city’s grey skies. Pema had heard that things were different in Chengdu, a city in the warmer climes of the neighboring Sichuan province. In the last few years, the sprawling, land-locked capital had emerged as


Chengdu Cool: The Rise of Sichuan's Homegrown Hip-Hop

Rappers Young13DBaby (left) and TSP beside their rooftop studio in downtown Chengdu. Photo by Rob Schmitz/NPR.

the proving ground for a new generation of Chinese hip-hop artists. Their predecessors from the last decade produced cringe-worthy, second-rate imitations of their Western counterparts. But Chengdu-based groups like the Higher Brothers, Fat Shady, and Ty were the face of a playful, provocative style—influenced by genres like trap—that was all their own. In Chengdu, the rent was cheap, the food was good, and people were open to artists like Pema hoping to make a living out of their music. To convince his parents to allow him to leave Lanzhou and go to Chengdu, Pema devised an excuse: college application season was here, and all of Pema’s picks were in Chengdu. If he wanted in, he would have to ace the gaokao, China’s notoriously grueling college entrance exams. For a year, Pema “quit rap for rap.” He stopped writing songs, closed his social media accounts, hit the books, and applied to Chengdu’s Southwest Minzu University. The results paid off: he rose from second-tolast to second-best in his class, and was admitted. Pema enrolled, but he had no intention of studying. That summer, after graduating from high school, he packed a small suitcase filled with his favorite records and moved to Chengdu. Now, stepping out of the Poly Center elevator, Pema smiled. This—the throngs of young people and their frantic, creative energy; the feeling that they had something different to say and weren’t afraid to say it—this was cool. This was why Pema had come to Chengdu.

Photo by Yi-Ling Liu.


The rest of the world is now discovering what Chengduers have known all along: that Chengdu has always been cool. A city once known for its population of panda bears was now on the map for something else: hip-hop. The Rap of China, a reality show with many Chengduese competitors, accumulated 1.3 billion views in July 2017, taking an underground subculture mainstream. A year earlier, a Chengdu-based four-man rap group called the Higher Brothers had stormed the global stage, appearing in Adidas ads, receiving praise from American stars like Migos, and landing their first North American tour. Suddenly, Chengdu’s artists were on the map. “Let me break it down for you,” said Guancheng Xiang, a Chengdu native and a friend of a friend of my mother’s. He had invited me and three middle-aged friends for a hot-pot dinner, a messy feast of spicy fondue emblematic of Sichuanese hospitality. After we sat down, a copper vat of deep red liquid brimming with chilies instantly arrived, accompanied by eight jumbo bottles of beer. “The first thing you do when you arrive in Chengdu is get hot pot and get drunk.” Chengduers are proud of their ability to live in the moment. The city’s history of suffering—from the wars of the Ming Dynasty that wiped out a third of the population, to Mao’s man-made famine, to the devastating Sichuan earthquake in 2008—has only strengthened its residents’ resolve to enjoy the present. Deep in China’s west, Sichuan Province, the second-largest province in China and roughly

Photo by Yi-Ling Liu.

the size of France, is insulated from the commercial activity and political authority of the nation’s east coasts. Chengdu has a reputation as a city of misfits, sheltering thinkers and radicals in exile or seeking refuge. Two of China’s greatest poets, Li Bai and Du Fu, spent a good chunk of their careers in Chengdu, lamenting the tragedies of human life while getting ridiculously smashed. (Li Bai allegedly died while drunkenly reaching out of his boat to grasp the moon’s reflection in the river.) A distinct regional identity has flourished in the fertile Sichuanese basin: a laid-back, epicurean approach to life, paired with a stubborn resilience. The phrase that best encapsulates this vibe, according to Chengdu-based rapper Kafe Hu, translates into English as “easily, breezy, flopping around!” In Chinese, “flop,” which refers both to jitters of excitement and to a dead fish flailing on a woodblock, captures the paradox of Chengdu playfulness. It is a phrase rooted in both joy and suffering, yelled by old grandmothers and young rappers alike. I spent the next day ambling through market stalls, soaking in the pungent blend of durian and mala pepper, and walking through People’s Park in the city center. It seemed like all of the city’s inhabitants had decided to gather in the park at once to drink tea, nap on benches, and sing alfresco karaoke to folk-pop remixes. “You have to let the feeling of Chengdu wash over you,” Jordan Porter, the Canadian-born founder of Chengdu Food Tours, told me when I asked him how to do the Du. He


Yi-Ling Liu

Chengdu Cool: The Rise of Sichuan's Homegrown Hip-Hop

Photo by Yi-Ling Liu.

moved to the city eight years ago to study Chinese, and stayed behind because he was so smitten with its laid-back charm. “If you’re in a rush, you’ve already lost.” Though still enamored of its youthful, easygoing ways, Chengdu is undergoing a growth spurt. Thanks to trillions of dollars of resources pumped into the region by the Chinese government through the “Go West” program—a five-year plan to boost economic development in twelve Western provincial level regions historically less developed than their Eastern, coastal counterparts—the city has transformed into a commercial hub, shopping mecca, and source of two-thirds of the world’s iPads. Now Chengdu is undergoing an awkward adolescence. A former plot of farmland in the city’s south is now a 32-square-mile high-tech development zone, but stoic office buildings still host hip-hop ragers after dark. In one mall, a fight club rumbles at night. Drawn by the abundance of opportunity, low living costs, and an alternative lifestyle from their buttoned-up peers in Shanghai and Beijing, young people like Pema are flocking to Chengdu from all over China. They want to make money, but also take mid-day siestas. They want success, but on their own terms. It is no surprise that this combination of financial power, creativity, and free-wheeling youth with


something to say—three crucial elements to the rise of hip-hop culture in New York City in the 70s, according to Yale professor Nicholas Conway—would enable hip-hop’s rise in Chengdu. The earliest hip-hop music in China emerged as a niche subculture, concentrated in large cosmopolitan centers like Beijing and Shanghai. Over the past decade, the rise of a generation hyper-connected by social media apps like WeChat, QQ Music and Douyin, and with greater spending power and exposure to Western music, has enabled homegrown hip-hop to spread throughout the country. Many songs are about money: wanting it, hating it, making a lot of it, throwing it around. The Higher Brothers’ name refers not to drugs but to Haier, China’s largest home appliance manufacturer. A line-up of Higher Brothers song titles reads like a teenage boy’s wishlist: “7/11,” “Black Cab,” “Room Service,” “Chanel,” and “Rich Bitch.” Their breakout track, “Made in China,” is a song about how Western products—chains, gold watches, toothpaste, umbrellas, and now, hip-hop—are made in China. The song is a bold assertion of Chinese pride, a comic riff on Western stereotypes of the quiet and inscrutable Oriental. “What are they even saying?” a whiny, American voice asks over a mandolin at the beginning. “Sounds like they’re just saying ching chang chong.” These sentiments bear no

resemblance to the knee-jerk dismissal of the West that populates state-run media. The rappers are boasting, not about the nation’s large GDP or hefty set of military arms, but about the “mah-jongg set on the table” and the “jar of hot sauce so spicy foreigners start to burn” that define daily life in Chengdu. The lyrics aren’t in Mandarin, the language of classrooms and national television, but in Sichuanese. Many rappers expressed to me that Sichuanese, rich with rising and falling tones, has better “flow” than Mandarin, and that this allows for greater lyrical experimentation. “I grew up on Chinese hip-hop, and I never messed with it because it never felt authentic,” said Jaeson Ma, co-founder of the American media company 88Rising, which discovered Higher Brothers. According to Ma, rappers in Asia have tried too hard to imitate what they were seeing in Western music videos instead of than embracing and remaking hip-hop culture as their own. But when Ma heard the Higher Brothers for the first time, he was impressed. “They’re reppin’ the city and the dialect. They had their own personalities and their own style.” Chengdu’s new crop of artists embrace their city and dialect proudly. “We wanted to become city heroes in the same way Drake was for Toronto,” Li Erxin, a member of the newly-formed hip-hop trio ATM, told me. ATM’s breakout song, “Local,” is one of many odes to Chengdu that have been written in the last year, alongside China-born, U.S-educated rapper Bohan Phoenix’s “3 Days in Chengdu,” a


Yi-Ling Liu

Chengdu Cool: The Rise of Sichuan's Homegrown Hip-Hop

12-minute chronicle of his return to the city. In hip-hop, the centuries-old Du vibe has been reincarnated as the Du-Cool. As Chengdu modernizes, and the rest of the country chants saccharine pop numbers and bland nationalist harmonies, the city’s young hip-hop artists voice a distinct, regional sound, proudly holding fast to the city’s irreverent spirit and not taking themselves too seriously. Within months of arriving in Chengdu, Pema had found a group of young rappers just like him. There was TSP, from the outskirts of Sichuan; Rainbow and Skinnyyoyo, from the flat, central grasslands of Xi’an and Shandong; Kong Kong, from the southern coast of Hong Kong; and Fendi Boi, from the northern mountains of Lhasa and Gansu (like Pema himself ). “We’re all misfits and a little bit rebellious,” TSP, the 25-year-old ringleader of the group, explained with a grin. “And all extremely handsome.” His name, short for Teacher’s Pet, was inspired by his first naughty rap, about a high school crush. We were seated together in the living room of TSP’s apartment, cluttered with cardboard boxes and a new bookcase displaying a collection of Power Rangers figurines and a skateboard. The group had moved in together into one building, and the group’s studio is the apartment one floor below, where


Rainbow, Skinnyyoyo, and Kong Kong live. Fendi Boi, who had just moved in from Shanghai, having dropped out from university, sits on the couch holding a bulging suitcase. A week prior, the group had decided to create a record label, tentatively called “Whostar.” Pema, who commutes from campus every afternoon, waltzes into the living room ten minutes late, dressed entirely in denim—ripped jeans and jacket, with a Louis Vuitton patch sewn into its breast pocket. On any given afternoon, you’ll find all of them gathered together here: Rainbow and Skinnyyoyo bouncing lyrics back in forth in the bedroom, Pema and Fendi Boi recording a track in the living room, and Rainbow and Kong Kong out on a snack break at the noodle joint down the road. Fendi Boi, who admired Pema’s music, reached out to collaborate after meeting him at a party. TSP stumbled upon Pema’s work online while scoping out fresh talent, leading to the pair’s first collaboration: a track called “Fast Food” that takes jabs at urban Chinese consumer culture. The others found each other in a similar fashion: parties, collaborations, online shout-outs. On the weekends, they perform in live houses and clubs in Chengdu and in neighboring cities, fetching up to RMB 10,000 (around $1300) per gig. The group is ambitious. This year, they want to release four mixtapes, film a music video, and ramp

Fans waiting in line to enter the hip-hop festival in Chengdu. Photo by Bryan Denton for The New York

up their profits. Their parents approve of and prop up their musical careers to varying degrees: Rainbow’s parents are supportive, while TSP’s have all but shunned him. Recognizing the extent to which they have strayed from their parents’ expectations of a conventional life—shuttling from college to an office job to marriage—they recently dropped a song called “Sorry, Mom.” In the apartment, TSP put on one of the group’s latest collaborations, a track titled “Happy New Year.” They started bopping their heads to the chirpy chorus (“Happy new year, happy new year/make a wish, make a wish”). The track had the quality of an amateur production. The performers present themselves as rebellious outcasts, but they cannot conceal their earnestness. Kong Kong’s still-fresh tattoos, Skinnyyoyo’s Power Ranger bracelet and pants sagging to his lower thighs, all seemed like gawky affectations. But as the song progressed, I was struck by how smoothly they had woven together lyrics in Tibetan, Cantonese, Sichuanese, and Mandarin. In hip-hop, the cypher refers to the circle of participants that closes around rappers as they freestyle for each other, challenging ideas and flexing language. The cypher is the essence of hip-hop, a meld of community and competition and creativity. Sitting in a messy living room in south Chengdu, watching six boys from six different regions of a nation of more than one billion, nod their heads in unison to the beat of the artwork they had created together, I felt


Yi-Ling Liu

Chengdu Cool: The Rise of Sichuan's Homegrown Hip-Hop

as if I were standing in a microcosm of the entire Chinese cypher, one song yielding a slice of the rich plurality of the Chinese language. “No one in China is making stuff like this,” Pema said. It was only a matter of time before hip-hop’s burgeoning popularity piqued the interest of bigger players. Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party has begun to flex its soft power muscles, stepping into the cypher to dictate to young people its own vision of Chinese cool. The CCP’s history of censorship and stance against both political dissent and the morally impure has long been at odds with contemporary culture. Over the past year, the government has promoted a band called the TFBoys—three fresh-faced, better-behaved Bieber-types who sing pop numbers with titles like “We Are the Heirs of Communism”—and released a rap about anti-corruption with Xi Jinping’s sonorous speeches as backing vocals. The Party propagates the national Voice of China, and has recently debuted a new state-run media outlet with that very title, tasked with “telling good China stories.” On January 19th of this year, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television—the country’s top media regulator—announced new legislation forbidding TV programs from


depicting hip-hop culture and demanding that media outlets remove all traces of the “vulgar, tasteless and obscene.” The songs of Rap of China winner PG One, accused of depicting drug use and misogyny in his music, were removed from every music streaming platform in China. Drugs, actors with tattoos, and profanity were out; patriotism, purity, and filial piety were in. Foreign news outlets flocked to the scene, many surprised that China had hip-hop in the first place. Two months later, Xi Jinping cemented his authority as the most powerful man in China after lawmakers passed changes to the country’s constitution, abolishing his five-year presidential term limit. The rappers that I spoke to reacted to the ban in classic Chengdu fashion: they shrugged it off. For them, it was a slap on the wrist. At most, it was a nuisance, and an ineffective one: the ban is for television, which most kids don’t watch. It has also drawn attention to a music scene that the media, both in and outside of China, hadn’t known existed. “In a weird way, the ban happened to be one of the biggest promoters for my music,” Bohan Pheonix told me, chuckling. “All these big magazines and blogs that I wanted to get my music on were trying to interview me. ‘Hip-hop is banned! By the way, my new album is coming out.’”

When I mentioned GAI, who has led chants of “Long Live the Motherland!” on a national entertainment competition, they wrinkled their noses, as if the rapper reeks of the pungent odor of uncool. But they get it: there’s a sense that coolness sometimes has to make way for compromise. “GAI’s smart,” TSP said. “He flipped a switch and decided to be a good boy.” When the record label reminds the Chengdu-based rapper Kafe Hu to remove swear words from his music, he reluctantly agrees. “At my age, with a family to raise and a newborn son to feed, I don’t have much space in my lyrics for anger and profanity anymore.” “I don’t care. I’ll say what I want to say,” Pema asserted, when I asked him about his reaction to the ban. Pema, whose family is Tibetan, occasionally expressed to me reservations about the Chinese government’s treatment of citizens from that country. But he is wary of broaching sensitive subjects: “It’s not like I really wanted to write about political stuff in the first place.” There were plenty of things to write about that fell neither into the category of contrarian dissent nor that of commodity capitalism, Kafe Hu told me. Unlike his most popular and now-censored track “Hope and Reality,” which explicitly digs into issues of government corruption and freedom of speech, his next track will address Chinese society’s discrimination against unmarried women, dubbed “leftover.” Some have made the case that the hip-hop ban allows the subculture more time to mature


Yi-Ling Liu

Chengdu Cool: The Rise of Sichuan's Homegrown Hip-Hop

organically without the frenzied pressure of rapid commercialization. “The artists who were never really interested in hip-hop in the first place will move on, and those who really love the art form will stick around,” Kafe said. Perhaps these artists’ nonchalance is a shrewd survival mechanism in the face of the censor, founded on the belief that things will change with a bit of grit and good humor. “Whenever we’re confronted by difficulties, we always find a way to work around them and in the process, discover something new,” Bohan Phoenix said. The Higher Brothers laugh off their constraints, singing the praises of the highly censored Chinese app WeChat in their eponymous song: There’s no Skype, no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram/We use WeChat, yeah. In China, Evan Osnos writes, “every enterprise and individual has to dance with shackles on.” The hip-hop artists of Chengdu must do exactly this: test the boundaries of the permissible and challenge the status quo, all while keeping their cool. Be patient, take it slow, play the long game. If you rush, you’ve already lost. Dancing with shackles on is better than not dancing at all. When the elevator doors opened, I found the twenty-first floor of Poly Center silent and empty. The walls of the corridors were peeling, and the door to the defunct NASA club was off its hinges.


“Don’t know,” the guard at the lobby responded curtly, after I asked him what had happened to the storied clubs. At its peak, one night two Christmases ago, there were more people waiting in line for the elevator than in the clubs themselves. Now, one EDM club stands alone, hosting quiet gigs every now and then, where the remaining smattering of partygoers bop their heads to lyricless techno. I couldn’t get a straight answer about why the clubs had disappeared. Perhaps it was something to do with drug use. Perhaps they were too rowdy, and the city wanted to clean up the gentrifying district. Perhaps the government was exerting its control, yet again, over a subculture it didn’t understand. When I came back one night, stubbornly hoping to stumble into some sort of Poly Center revival, the guard looked incredulous. I asked him why he thought they shut the parties down. “Who knows?” he asked in a way that sounded more like, “Who cares?” But I cared. So did Pema. “It’s a shame,” he said, shaking his head. Once, when the clubs were still open, he rented out a cheap Airbnb with a group of friends for an entire week in the basement of the building. Every night, they made the twenty-one-flight pilgrimage to the top floor and danced until dawn. It was the best week of his life. Pema dreams often of those nights: the smoky air, the disco lights, the giddy laughter. In his dreams,

The Chengdu hip-hop festival performances were also screened outside the venue. Photo by Bryan Denton for The New York Times.

he’s always dancing, hands bopping in the air, long legs strutting to a ceaseless trap beat. All of us—all the young people of the city of Chengdu with something to say—are dancing alongside him, unbridled, ecstatic, free.


Yi-Ling Liu

With Dreadlocks, Rhythm and Flow, China Embraces Hip-Hop By Amy Qin


CHENGDU, China — Standing under a phalanx of flashing blue lights, Masiwei gazed down at the sea of waving fans. Cheers erupted as he threw his head back and called out to the hometown crowd. “Chengduuuu!” Just minutes later, the wiry rapper — one-fourth of the four-man Chinese rap crew known as the Higher Brothers — was stomping across the stage with his shirt off, tattoos out and short dreadlocks pulled back into a high ponytail. At the other end of the stage, Dzknow, another Higher Brothers rapper, grabbed a fistful of cash and took aim, sending a flurry of fake bills raining down on the sweaty fans below. It was a classic rapper move in a not-so-classic setting: a small hip-hop festival on the outskirts of the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu. Once an underground subculture, hip-hop — the music, the culture and the fashion — 47

With Dreadlocks, Rhythm and Flow, China Embraces Hip-Hop

Sichuan province, China as the orange area indicated in the map. Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province.

has stormed the Chinese mainstream in recent months. Fans are flocking to nightclubs and music festivals to see their favorite local rappers and D.J.s perform, while English terms like flow, freestyle and even diss have made their way into popular urban parlance. Perhaps nowhere is that more apparent than here in Chengdu, a sprawling metropolis of nearly 16 million that is best known for its pandas and mouth-numbing spicy food but is quickly becoming a hotbed of hip-hop, particularly rap. The city has produced a steady stream of prominent underground hip-hop artists, including Fat Shady, Kafe Hu, Ty and, most recently, the Higher Brothers, the current breakout stars of the Chinese hip-hop world. And, as is often the case among rappers, hubris is not in short supply here. “Of course Chengdu rappers are much cooler than rappers from other cities,” said Masiwei, 24, in an interview backstage before the recent show. Less than two decades ago, few people in Chengdu had even heard of the term hip-hop, “xiha” in Chinese, let alone listened to it. In the late 1990s, when access to the internet and pirated videos became more widespread, locals began to discover the genre. Many were teenagers when they heard artists like


Jay-Z, 50 Cent and Eminem (referred to rather affectionately among Chinese as “Em”) for the first time. Some stumbled upon the music through N.B.A. mixtapes; others through watching break-dance, or B-boy, videos. Demi Zhu, one of the first amateur rappers in Chengdu, recalled hearing DMX and Run DMC in a B-boy video for the first time at the age of 17. “We had no idea who they were or what they were saying, but we liked the tempo and we liked the feel,” said Mr. Zhu, now 32. “You could feel their passion.” No one can quite say why hip-hop took hold here so early, compared with other Chinese cities. Local rappers say the Chengdu dialect, with its bouncy rhythm and irregular tones, is versatile in a way that is especially well suited to rap music. “I use the dialect as a tool when I write verses,” said Masiwei of the Higher Brothers. “If I want to achieve a certain flow, I can Amy Qin


With Dreadlocks, Rhythm and Flow, China Embraces Hip-Hop

use Chengdu dialect in one sentence, then English in the next and then standard Mandarin.” But when it comes to writing songs, government censorship is the bane of every Chinese rapper. Local rappers say the unofficial list of sensitive topics is long: politics, drugs, sex, violence, gangsters and explicit language — in other words, many of the themes that have come to define modern hip-hop. As a result, rappers, like most creative workers in China, find themselves constantly testing the boundaries of what is permissible. “It’s like hip-hop 2.0,” Luo Sang, a local D.J. and a manager at Nasa, one of Chengdu’s first hip-hop nightclubs, said with a wink. Even setting aside censorship concerns, many rappers say that while they look up to American hip-hop, they are not necessarily looking to replicate the music. “What I want to say, what I want to express, is different,” said Kafe Hu, 30, a local rapper. “I am not black. Even though I was once very poor, I have never been in physical danger. I have never lived in a ’hood. I’ve seen people doing drugs before, but it was nothing like the U.S.” Still, there is certainly one traditional hip-hop obsession that has become a favorite theme among local rappers.

Chengdu Metro Map


“One theme that really resonates here is money,” said Andre Alexander, also known as Harikiri, a British music producer and D.J. based in Chengdu. In “Made in China,” the Higher Brothers’ most popular song, for example, Masiwei boasts: “My chains, my new gold watch /made in China.” “Rappers here love to be like, I was poor before, and look what I’m doing now,’’ Mr. Alexander said. The “making it to the top” narrative has become more relevant in recent months since the huge popularity this summer of the new online show “The Rap of China” (think “American Idol” for rappers). Each episode got more than 200 million views, and some of the participants on the show are now household names. Hundreds of fans — mostly women, mostly in their 20s — turned up on a recent Sunday afternoon at a newly built art park in Chengdu to watch the Higher Brothers Amy Qin


With Dreadlocks, Rhythm and Flow, China Embraces Hip-Hop

and others perform. On the lawn outside the venue, fans puffed on cigarettes while lounging on brightly colored inflatable cushions. Some meandered over to a row of tents to inquire about the dreadlock braiding services and tarot card readings on offer. For every recent hip-hop convert, there seemed to be at least one longtime hip-hop buff. Many spoke enthusiastically about their love of the genre, citing its authenticity and its straight-talking nature. “Hip-hop lets me express my individuality,” Yang Jinyue, 24, a local D.J., said as she sat cross-legged on the grass, sporting a black baseball cap and a skimpy black romper that revealed numerous tattoos. That fixation with individuality was a sentiment echoed repeatedly throughout the day, among both rappers and fans. “When it comes to our careers, we’ve already made the most important decision,” explained Masiwei, gesturing toward his fellow Higher Brothers crew members. “That was: Should I become a rapper or should I listen to my parents?” “We’re all doing what we want to be doing now,” he added, as the other members nodded in agreement. “We are living our own lives.”


The Higher Brothers performing in Chengdu, China, in September. Hip-hop has gone mainstream in China, and Chengdu is the center of the action. Photo by Bryan Denton for The New York Times

Amy Qin


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E TURE. 67

Photo essay

Real name: Zhenhong Cai



Anatomy of a Shift: Get After That Paper By Adan Kohnhorst


Music criticism’ scores pretty highly in the world rankings of ‘Least Meaningful Input.’ What I mean is, an album review by so-and-so music writer at a big name blog doesn’t really tell you if you’ll like the album or not. In fact, it might surprise a reader to learn that the person writing that review is in no way at all connected to his/ her life or musical palette! So a music review is not information on whether you’ll like the songs or not, but rather a set of arbitrary and baseless value judgments from the writer that try and gauge the inherit worth of the music. A practice which, many of you will agree, is fruitless, because the value of music is relative, and just because I can’t personally get down with Metalcore doesn’t mean the genre doesn’t speak volumes to its intended audience. The best we can do is try to determine the amount of emotion a given artist has put into a song, and the level of effectiveness with which that emotion is conveyed. It’s important to remember that all music criticism is, at its heart, meaningless to the individual listener. So, on that note, let’s get into some music criticism. After listening to, or ruminating on, Yin Ts’ang’s decidedly lacking single Zai Beijing, a die-hard hip hop head might be tempted to give up on the efforts of the Chinese rap community altogether. The song’s banal content asks zero emotional commitment from the listener, and both the rap and the beat have aged poorly, coming across today as simple and corny. But for every wack record out there, there is


an equal and opposite hot one that’ll push some juice into your veins and force your eyes open a little bit. This brings us to Chengdu native Fat Shady’s local dialect trap triumph, Get After That Paper. Get After That Paper’s Chinese name is 票儿吃 起走 (piào ér chi qi zou), which translates essentially to "Money to Go Eat", and carries with it a connotation of struggle. The song comes off Fat Shady’s new album People, Society, Money, maybe the first dedicated Chinese trap offering. Trap music is a subgenre of hip hop that comes out of the American south, especially Atlanta, and gets its name from a slang term for drug houses. But Fat Shady sees parallels between the problems in his home country of China and the class and crime struggles of the American trap community. In an interview with The Huffington Post’s Matt Sheehan, Fat Shady explained: “China is full of these low-class, dirty millionaires, and they live the same way. They don’t give a shit. They might have people killed, or a bunch of their workers might die on the job, but they’re still rich. Thirty workers die? No problem. They just cover up the news about it. To me, China is one big trap.” Now the fact that China has begun dealing with trap music is already a groundbreaking step. Trap is, to sum it up, maybe the most accessible area of rap for current Chinese artists to explore. That’s because in trap music, the meaning of the lyrics is secondary in importance

to the hardness of the beat and the flow of the words. It’s less about what you say, and more about how you say it. Repetition is a big theme and the level of lyrical complexity is generally much lower. All these things make the subgenre of trap easier for an international audience to grasp than certain previous iterations of hip hop. For proof, look no further than Keith Ape, Korean trap sensation whose viral Korean-language trap banger It G Ma led to a successful American tour and collaborations with American artists. Is the same success story within reach for a Chinese rapper? Fat Shady thinks so, and I’m inclined to agree, because his track absolutely bangs.

off guard each time. The lyrical flow doesn’t just work with the beat, but compliments it in a way that grows in strength with each progression.

Compare this with the offbeat shenanigans of early Chinese MCs and the difference is clear. Most were trying way too hard, squeezing in an unnecessary amount of syllables into places where there really wasn’t room. The results were unpalatable, and the tracks were almost difficult to get through. Hearing them next to a track like Fat Shady's is a harsh indicator of the difference between those who “get it” and those who don’t, and also maybe an indicator of some of the changing currents in Chinese hip hop. Ten years When I first heard Get ago, every rapper sounded After That Paper, my face the same. That’s an overimmediately scrunched up statement, but what I in response to the nastimean is that during that ness of Fat Shady’s flow. time, in the worldwide He opens on a repeated echo of the Eminem effect hook of the song’s title when an MC’s machine (literally, “Go get my gun lyrical complexity money to eat”) and then was among his most hightakes the energy right into ly-valued traits, a lot of what is probably the most Chinese MC’s overreached in-the-pocket Chinese and did stuff that was verse I’d heard at the time. really fast or rhymed a lot The flow (hip hop termiwithout having any kind of nology for the cadence groove or musical purpose. and rhythm) of Fat Shady’s Rappers like that are still lyrics fits perfectly into around (let’s be real, there the spaces between the are still rappers like that booming 808 kick drums in America), but ten years and spacy synths, two ago an MC like Fat Shady characteristic sounds of would’ve been hard to the trap genre. His ability imagine. The rapper’s flow to shoot off rapid fire lyrics is casual and offhanded and still land a rhyming but still full of energy. The syllable on the correct way he uses his voice count makes his rapping makes trap music and his style dynamic and almost native Chengdu dialect hypnotic. The rhyming seem like a match made in syllable tends to jump out heaven. But perhaps most of the rest of the phrase importantly, he’s interactand make itself known, in ing with the music in a way a way that is understood that comes across not only early in the track but still as more listenable, but manages to catch your ear more authentic.

If I were to point to one thing Fat Shady has that makes him stand out from the Chinese rappers of the past, it would be emotional content. In an early scene from the 1973 martial arts classic Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee asks a young kung fu student to kick him. The student performs a technically sound but unenthusiastic side kick, which Bruce avoids without effort. He looks intensely at the boy and asks him, “What was that? An exhibition? We need emotional content. Try again.” Similarly, emotional content can be the difference between a hip hop song that stands the test of time and one that sputters to an early death, forgotten after one or two months of radio play. The thing people crave in an artistic product is the transmission of some kind of emotive expression from the artist to the audience. That’s what creates the necessary element of human interest in a work. Even with no knowledge of Chinese, the grit in Fat Shady’s rhymes is audible from the beginning. That’s because he’s talking about something that matters to him: money. Fat Shady in particular is a rapper who understands the importance of that emotional connection, and capitalized on it. His own initial rise to fame occurred on a talent show similar to the American show The Voice. Fat Shady’s performance of his first hit song“老子明天不 上班”(Daddy Ain't Going to Work Tomorrow, video available in the Film tab) was a huge success with both the judges and the


Anatomy of a Shift: Get After That Paper

audience. The lyrics are an assault on the futility of the Chinese working class rat race, and Fat Shady’s desperation to break out of the cycle. The message resonated with viewers across the country, and with “Chinese workers fed up with the daily drudgery of their jobs”, and footage of the performance blew up, going viral on Chinese media sites. It went so viral, in fact, that its rawness was felt across the ocean, reaching a significant portion of the Chinese American community.

booking his own modest shows, at places like a local mango festival and the opening of the ‘Golden Paris’ real estate development. This is why Fat Shady is a more valid representation of underground hip hop culture, while Yin Ts’ang is more victim to the pitfalls of the Chinese music industry. Fat Shady’s alternative origin story is also what allows him to include more vibrant lyrics. Free from the coerced banality of the Zai Beijing era, each bar is saturated with intent, emotion, and message. The song opens with a grimy repeated chanting of its title phrase, wasting no time in getting straight to the point - below is a rough translation of the first verse:

Here we have another important point of distinction between Fat Shady and Yin Ts’ang. Yin Ts’ang’s rise to fame occurred before the realization of the internet generation, and for that reason needed to happen on the ever-gracious wings Go get my money to eat of the Chinese govern(repeated intro) ment. They worked their My money, my meal way up the classical music money. Where’s my food industry ladder, receivat? Where? ing all the trappings (and blessings) of the Ministry Wait for us to blow, then, of Culture along the way: we’re gonna go get ours they produced a demo tape, which led to a record Money on the rise, so I deal with Scream Records, ain’t got a problem which led to a studio album, which culminated They ask me to drop in Zai Beijing. The single flows, easy, no problem reached a #11 spot nationEarning more, more, no ally and secured Yin Ts’ang problem the award for Best New Music Group of 2003 at Got it in the bag, gonna the China National Radio go get my cash Music Awards. In contrast, Fat Shady’s breakout moment was self-initiated and self-sustained. His fame was catalyzed, and guided, by a viral success, free from the meddling hand of censorship and “social values.” Fat Shady does not have a record deal; he records his songs in home studios. He supports himself by


That cash, don’t count on the slow-witted to see it

I got strength, that paper is mine Go! That paper’s mine [English and Chinese mixed:] Shout out to 牛逼的* flow, shout out to 牛逼的 rapper (niu bi: literally, “cow’s vagina”, a slang term for “cool” similar to the English “badass”) [Return to Chinese]

What’s the purpose behind what you’re chasing? If you still can’t catch these lyrics and flow, you’re outdated and far behind Go, get paper to go eat, do it to show them, won’t give them any ‘likes’ Some people do differently, but I’ll set an example for them to see My money to go eat, don’t talk nonsense, these words definitely won’t fade away

My turn to eat, don’t even open your mouth with that garbage Go back to your parents, there’s no difference between empty talk and idle dreams, I don’t fuck with either I don’t wanna go back home and put on a show, I just wanna tell you that making money isn’t wrong Then just go, go get my money to eat Eat my fill, then eat again Finish my struggle, then struggle again, and celebrate with my brothers Celebrate to show what you want, because we do it right and we win We put on a show that’s straight fire Feast your eyes, you say you want more

Moving down the line, making more each time

Go! Stopping at any shop, [English] my yellow young niggas

Go, go get that paper, because we want money all over the place

If you get it, you get it, I’m not tryna hate my young niggas

City turned battlefield, we’re all soldiers, don’t be one who loses

Suppressed for so long, the old dogs on the street bark

Go to eat, that money to go eat, [English] pay me, pay me, don’t talk nonsense Cash, cash, cash, that meal money (Repeated outro into next verse) In Chinese culture, food is of paramount importance, and in many ways can be said to be a symbol or placeholder for life itself, as seen in the Chinese expression 民以食为天 (“The People Consider Food as Important as Heaven”). In a country where famine is not just a historically recurring state of existence, but a frighteningly not-so-distant memory for many Chinese who once lived under Mao’s regime, food as a symbol represents the continued ability to exist. Fat Shady links his message to a subject (food) that’s immediately accessible to his audience, allowing them to easily grasp the stakes of the song’s lyrics. Fat Shady manages to paint a picture here that embodies the original “hustle” energy of New York hip hop culture,

Adan Kohnhorst

while also remaining deeply and authentically Chinese; the monumental importance of this balance cannot be overstated as China moves forward in developing its own hip hop identity. At some points in the song, you can tell Fat Shady is deep inside the aggressive energy of his music, cutting down hypothetical haters with razor sharp rhymes: “My turn to eat, don’t even open your mouth with that garbage/Go back to your parents, there’s no difference between empty talk and idle dreams, and I don’t fuck with either.” Other times he’s riding rap music’s international currents, floating casually in and out between English and Chinese (and unintentionally raising questions about the cultural appropriation of black language): “Shout out to 牛逼的 flow, shout out to 牛逼的 rapper.” “Go! Stopping at any shop, [English] my yellow young niggas If you get it, you get it, I’m not tryna hate my young niggas” And still other times Fat Shady seems to immediately turn serious, addressing his audience directly and confronting the listener with questions that are more nuanced and relevant than expected: “Suppressed for so long, the old dogs on the street bark/What’s the purpose behind what you’re chasing?” Fat Shady’s ebb and


Anatomy of a Shift: Get After That Paper

flow throughout the track offer a diverse range of moments that all contribute to the expressive effectiveness of the final product. True to form of the trap music genre, Fat Shady’s actual message (“I’m making money”) comes second in importance to how he conveys it. While the theme of making money and chasing success is certainly nothing new for the rap genre, Fat Shady’s interpretation of the trope is largely innovative and steeped in unique cultural context. What’s more, is that his own energy as an individual is palpable through the song. The listener is made to feel the combination of self-taught ambition and feverish desperation that defines the young Chengdu viral rapper. Fat Shady climbed from obscurity entirely on his own, and that attitude is present in Get After That Paper. It’s evident in both his lyrics and the offhanded self-confident tone in his voice; Get After That Paper is the story of someone who opened their own door, and is now determined to walk through it. Knowing that that door was opened on national television in front of millions, we find ourselves invested in the rapper’s story, and ready to be swayed by the force of his personality. Fat Shady himself offers a possible explanation as to why his music seems to strike a specific chord with his listeners: “Every city has its own personality, and the personality is in the dialect. When you hear the Chengdu dialect, it has a kind of ‘whatever’ feeling to it. Standard Mandarin just doesn’t give you that



ing cycles of poverty and stranglehold on personal stagnancy. Students study expressive freedoms are The use of the Chengdu tirelessly to ace their Gao still visible in that sense. dialect, normally hard to Kou exams, which their After the close of the Mao find outside of Chengdu, is parents make clear from era, there was a kind of the vehicle that allows the the outset is their greatnationwide communal song’s message to perme- est chance at a successful shrug of what do we do ate the everyday noise of future within the system. A now? Chinese musicians Mandarin and connect commonly accepted end started to poke their heads with a different part of the goal in Chinese society is out into the wider world of listener. The other element simply to make enough music and see what there that makes this possible money to get married, was to be done there. But is a distinctly Chinese buy a house, and get a later attempts to instantly message. Although the car. Meanwhile, the more fill the vacuum and copy idea of “getting money” affluent can be found the cultural landscape of has been around since shelling out major RMB American pop and hip hop early on in hip hop’s on whatever foreign brand music left the country with history, Fat Shady’s use of has the most upper-class about one million songs cultural imagery and refer- reputation at the time, or that all sounded the same. ences to China-specific paying steep fees to enter Vapid, ambiguous croonsituations (I don’t wanna nightclubs, only to sit ing about love and dancing go back home and put on down and scroll through to the beat became the a show [Migrant Workers]; their phones the whole status quo – and inside I just wanna tell you that night. For those who have China’s bubble of governmaking money isn’t wrong money, it’s all about being ment-administered [Confucian Values]; The seen. One’s social status is censorship, that can be a city’s turned battlefield, inextricably tied to one’s hard thing to shift. Once we’re all soldiers, don't wealth, and rich people in the Ministry of Culture be one who loses [Urbanthe big cities use money finds something it deems ization of China]) allows largely as a device through to be morally acceptable, the classic rap formula which to display their it can be difficult to functo hit home with a new social position. The wealth tion outside of that. That’s demographic in a new way. disparity has left countless why artists like Fat Shady Whereas Yin Ts’ang overex- Chinese people frustrated are necessary right now. tended themselves in a flat, and disillusioned with the His work not only destaone-dimensional attempt rat race. bilizes the homogeneity to pander to a cookie-cutof China’s music industry, ter Chinese audience, Fat So, despite possessbut represents a growing Shady succeeds in telling ing far fewer explicit hunger within the country a story that is both meanreferences to China and for truth, meaning, and ingful and relatable to a Chinese culture, Get After individual expression in Chinese consumer. China, That Paper manages to be music. For these reasons, although a Communist more deeply Chinese than Fat Shady can be held as country on paper, in Zai Beijing by touching a case study of successful recent years has been on concerns and expeChinese hip hop culture – seeing a surge of Capitalist riences that are real to a just one of many more to values. Wealthy Chinese Chinese listener. Rather come. buyers are eager to flaunt than being Chinese in the the latest Louis Vuitton way “taco” is Mexican or bag or Rolex watch, with “kangaroo” is Australian, those below them on the Fat Shady chooses to pour financial ladder simulhis own lived reality into taneously condemning the song, and in doing so, their materialism and also guarantees the validity of doing their best to achieve its appeal. This may seem those same salaries. But unremarkable to a westin a country with a popuerner, but many Chinese lation of nearly 1.5 billion, artists are only now beginthis is no small feat. The ning to learn to speak on Hukou housing system has the topics that are importbeen the subject of much ant to them - the effects of criticism for propagatthe Cultural Revolution’s

Adan Kohnhorst

Meet The Chinese Rappers Bringing Hip-Hop To The Middle Kingdom By Matt Sheehan


CHENGDU, China — Earlier this week, the Ministry of Culture banned 120 songs from Chinese websites on the grounds that they “trumpeted obscenity, violence, crime or harmed social morality.” Hip-hop accounts for just a tiny sliver of mainstream music in China, but at least 50 of the 120 banned songs are by mainland Chinese and Taiwanese rappers. No one ever thought hip-hop and the Chinese government would be a match made in heaven, but this was pretty cold.


Meet The Chinese Rappers Bringing Hip-Hop To The Middle Kingdom

Still, here in a modest apartment covered in cat hair, an architect at the local Chengdu zoo is plotting his takeover of the Chinese hip-hop scene. Xie Yujie, aka Melo, is a 23-year-old recent college grad who spends his days designing structures for animals, and his nights ripping into rival emcees. Rail-thin and with a chest covered in tattoos, Melo came up in the local freestyle battle scene, plowing through opponents until there weren’t any challengers left. He took on the nickname “Mr. Nobody Can Fuck With Me.” Hip-hop is carving out a niche within Melo’s generation, and he’s confident that his local Chengdu rap collective is going to steamroll rivals and dominate markets. “Back in old-school China... the emperor was like, ‘If there’s more land and we don’t use it, we’re fools,’” Melo told The WorldPost. “There’s only one standard for success: using rap, using my fame and my music, to earn enough money to really” — here he switches into English — “make it rain, get that paper.” In discussing his plans for domination, Melo likes to allude to the Mongol Empire’s 13th-century invasion of Europe, but for now his aims are more modest. He’s in a duo with another rapper, Psy.P, and they’ve printed 1,000 copies of their first full mixtape, “Prison Trap.” The group, Tiandi Hui, is hoping to sell at least 500 units. The rappers in Melo’s crew are some of the most talented hip-hop artists in China, but only a couple can support themselves with music alone. The crew records songs in home studios and shoots music videos using GoPro cameras on selfie sticks.


For the past decade in China, if you wanted to live like a hip-hop star, you wouldn’t actually go into hip-hop. You’d have a much better chance of partying in the champagne room as a provincial tax official than a top-tier rapper. That is starting to change — for  corrupt officials  and aspiring rappers alike — but hip-hop still faces a serious culture clash in the Middle Kingdom.

The rapper Fat Shady gets a crowd live in Kunming, China. Photo by FAT SHADY

Matt Sheehan


Meet The Chinese Rappers Bringing Hip-Hop To The Middle Kingdom

Violence, rebellion and sexually explicit rhymes are common themes for many of the American artists whom local rappers idolize. But the Chinese Communist Party has shown zero tolerance for any of the above, and has blacklisted artists who cross these unwritten lines. Then there’s the Chinese listening public itself. Can chest-thumping emcees find a wide audience in a conservative culture where education, family and personal humility are among the most dearly held values? Fat Shady, a 25-year-old rapper and a member of the same crew as Melo, is easily one of the country’s most successful hip-hop artists. But he sees China’s culture and history as major obstacles to the art form’s growth. “Chinese audiences can’t accept music with any attitude or individualistic stuff,” Fat Shady told The WorldPost. “China used to be a Confucian society, and it was all about being humble, stifling, smothering, suppressing. Then we went through a lot and everyone dressed in exactly the same clothes. Again — stifle, smother, suppress.” But hip-hop is perfect for giving voice to that kind of frustration. That’s exactly what Fat Shady did with his song “Daddy Ain’t Going to Work Tomorrow,” an angsty anthem in which the emcee rails against the petty indignities of the working world and demands a chance to “live out a little bit of truth.” “When I finished writing it, I was like, ‘This track bangs, the people are going to love it,’” Fat Shady said. “Every week I’d perform it for all kinds of different people — old dudes in their 50s with gold chains, young tech kids with glasses, soldiers.”


Local love turned to national fame when Fat Shady performed the song on a TV talent show similar to “The Voice.” Video of the performance went viral among Chinese workers fed up with the daily drudgery of their jobs. Just as important as what Fat Shady was saying in his rhymes was the way he said it: Fat Shady, like all the members of the Chengdu hip-hop collective, raps almost exclusively in the local Chengdu dialect


Matt Sheehan


Meet The Chinese Rappers Bringing Hip-Hop To The Middle Kingdom

of Chinese. The languages spoken in China comprise a sprawling family of tongues, some of them as unintelligible to each other as French and Romanian. Today, speaking in dialect or with a regional accent is often seen as a sign of poor education. Ambitious young Chinese men and women work hard to scrub such inflections out of their speech. But Fat Shady and Melo are proud of their hometown, and when they rap, they don’t try to disguise where they’re from. “Every city has its own personality, and the personality is in the dialect,” Fat Shady said. “When you hear the Chengdu dialect, it has a kind of ‘whatever’ feeling to it. Standard Mandarin just doesn’t give you that feeling.” Staying true to his roots paid off: Fat Shady has managed to turn his song about quitting his job into a lucrative career in and of itself. During a typical week he bounces between corporate events, doing short sets that always end with “Daddy Ain’t Going to Work Tomorrow.” Last month, he performed at a local mango festival and the opening of a real estate development called Golden Paris. Although Fat Shady still believes most Chinese listeners can’t really handle hip-hop with attitude, he was able to support himself with these shows while putting together his new album, “People, Society, Money.” The album is inspired by trap music, a genre that developed in the American South and takes its name from a slang term for drug houses. That world might seem light-years away from


this corner of southwest China, but Fat Shady sees parallels between the seedy underside of his home country and the Atlanta neighborhoods where trap evolved. “China is full of these low-class, dirty millionaires, and they live the same way,” he said. “They don’t give a shit. They might have people killed, or a bunch of their workers might die on the job, but they’re still rich. Thirty workers die? No problem.

English-language tattoos on Fat Shady’s arms read “Hustle & Flow” and “Shady.” Photo by Matt Sheehan/The Worldpost

Matt Sheehan


Meet The Chinese Rappers Bringing Hip-Hop To The Middle Kingdom

They just cover up the news about it. To me, China is one big trap.” Hip-hop in China — as in many other countries that have adopted the form — exists as a striking mashup of global and local cultures. Fat Shady has inked Eminem’s face and the phrase “Hustle & Flow” onto his arms, but he raps in a dialect so local that even other Chinese people can’t understand it. Melo took his alias from the NBA star Carmelo Anthony, but the name of his duo with Psy.P comes from an 18th- and 19th-century secret society dedicated to the overthrow of China’s last dynasty. Rappers mimic the dance moves coming out of Compton, but instead of handguns, they carry blades of the sort favored by local criminals. Of all the nefarious foreign influences that could have gotten Melo into trouble, it was Uber that finally pushed him over the line. In May, when Melo heard that Chinese police were cracking down on his beloved ride-hailing app, he went straight to his home studio to throw down the gauntlet. “Where there’s oppression, there’s resistance,” Melo declares at the start of the track. “I only represent myself. I just like taking Uber. It’s just better than your taxi. What you trying to do? Bite me, bitch!” The song takes aim at taxi oligopolies and meddling bureaucrats. Within hours, the track was trending on social media and gathering hundreds of thousands of hits. But the joy was short-lived. In the second verse, Melo had crossed way over one of the invisible lines. “I don’t write political raps,” he says in the song. “But if politicians try to force me to stop rapping, I’ll cut their heads off with a knife and lay them at the feet of their corpses.”


The song was scrubbed from the Internet, and local police called Melo to the station. After warning him that he could be charged with promoting terrorism, the police made Melo promise never to release the song again. It was a scare, but one that feels good in hindsight. “It proves that I can stir things up so much that the government has to hold me back,� Melo told The WorldPost. “I think if I can make one song like

Matt Sheehan


Meet The Chinese Rappers Bringing Hip-Hop To The Middle Kingdom

this, I can make a second and a third.” Whatever comes next, the Uber incident changed the game for Melo. “The path of a rapper is a hard one — only a tiny percentage will end up succeeding,” he said. “Even though the government stopped one of my songs from breaking out, this gives me a big push. I’m like, fuck, all that practice wasn’t for nothing.”


Fans of Fat Shady gather at a show marking the opening of the Golden Paris real estate development in Luzhou. Photo by Matt Sheehan/The Worldpost

Matt Sheehan


Real name: Ma Siwei Ding Zhen Yang Junyi Xie Yujie



The American Dream of The Higher Brothers By Alex Wong


Three hours before the start of the final show of their first North American tour, the Higher Brothers—a hip-hop group from Chengdu, China—are waiting inside the lobby of the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto. Outside, a considerable line has formed, consisting mostly of younger Chinese kids waiting for a chance to shake hands with their idols. Everyone is here to see MaSiWei, Melo, DZKnow and Psy. P, four rappers who named themselves after the Haier fridge in the apartment they share together back home. As teenagers start to file in one by one to take pictures with them as a part of a VIP meet-and-greet package, all four are relaxed, dancing to their own music and posing for the cameras. Amidst the chaos, as fans try to snap an extra photo or take a video with them for their Instagram story, tour manager Colin Miller is trying to move things along. But the Higher Brothers are in no rush. They understand the fanbase that they have cultivated, and they’ve traveled across the globe 93

The American Dream of The Higher Brothers

to greet them at each stop of their tour. When one pulls out a t-shirt and a Sharpie for all four of them to sign, the group happily obliges. One by one, they are greeted mostly in Mandarin, many of the fans congratulating the Higher Brothers with the pride that is usually reserved for your closest family members. As the VIP signing comes to a close, one even them drops off a bag full of October’s Very Own apparel that the group gladly accepts.

Photography by Tony Wu

The Higher Brothers make their way backstage. DZ, the funny one, is rummaging through a pile of snacks, curiously examining a maple syrup cookie before finally taking a bite. Melo, the introspective one, is adjusting his new OVO beanie in a mirror over in the corner of the room. MaSiWei is the ladies man, and he sheepishly smiles as Psy. P, the group’s strong-and-silent type, grabs a Hallmark card that a fan had dropped off moments earlier. “From the bottom of my heart,” Psy. P begins reading aloud in Mandarin. With each line, the group laughs and teases MaSiWei. They’re in awe when Psy. P reaches the end of the card and they all realize that the fan left her Weibo and WeChat contacts. You know, in case MaSiWei ever wants to connect.The Higher Brothers are living out the American dream, but like any other foreign act trying to stake their claim to a piece of their own territory in hip-hop, there are barriers to overcome. I mention that some people refer to them as the Chinese Migos. Melo quickly replies, “We hope


one day they can be referred to as the American Higher Brothers.” The origin of the Higher Brothers begins in Chengdu, where the group started recording music in 2015, built a mass audience online, caught the attention of an international label, signed a record deal, and put out their first studio album Black Cab in May of 2017. The group has built off the momentum of the album with two EP released this year,  Journey to the West  and  Type-3, which feature solo tracks from all four members. The Higher Brothers have taken the first step toward that this year, by being in North America for the first time, soaking in every single moment on the road in every city they’ve traveled to, whether it’s commiserating with fans who worship them as rock stars, or simply taking in the joys of being in this new world of opportunity and excess. They can’t pinpoint exactly why they’re so enamored with North America. It may be the Alex Wong


The American Dream of The Higher Brothers

prevalence of streetwear and sneaker culture (“We’re young people,” MaSiWei tells me. “We like clothes.”), but maybe it’s just because them being here is a symbol of how far they’ve come. To be clear, the Higher Brothers haven’t been totally balling out, partying at the Playboy mansion in between shows—even though Psy. P does  have the bunny logo tattooed on his body—but they’re so young, and the States are so foreign, that each semblance of glamor has made every day feel like a Hype Williams video. “I like the Airbnbs,” DZ says. “Every day we cook and then we jump in the swimming pool. It’s amazing. Feel me?” “His life,” Melo says, pointing at DZ, “is like a movie.” “Now it’s like a movie,” DZ clarifies. Which movie? “Project X,” Melo says. Before the Higher Brothers landed a record deal and made their lives resemble a movie about a gigantic house party that literally ends in flames, they grew up with parents who hoped they would become doctors, lawyers, or accountants. “It’s the same for every Chinese kid,” MaSiWei says. “But we struggled against it.”


Melo grew up wanting to be an astronaut, then a soccer player. Then he thought about becoming a street food vendor who’d sell popular local snacks in Chengdu. DZ wanted to be everything from a scientist to a “spaceman.” For each member, though, American hip-hop started to become a bigger part of their lives as they grew up. MaSiWei fell in love with 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’; DZKnow remembers being fascinated by Lil’ Jon and Ludacris’s rap stylings on Usher’s “Yeah!”; Psy. P preferred T.I. and Lil’ Wayne. The Chengdu Rap House (“CDC”), a hip-hop collective in China, ultimately brought the Higher Brothers together. Psy. P and Melo joined CDC in 2011, while MaSiWei joined in 2013. In 2015, the entire collective rented an apartment and turned it into a recording studio and live-in space with bunk beds. Around this time, DZ connected with MaSiWei on Weibo (basically Chinese Twitter) and purchased a beat from him. Eventually, DZ was invited Alex Wong


The American Dream of The Higher Brothers

to join the collective and move into the studio space. Soon, MaSiWei, Psy. P and DZ were living together, and just started to create music together. Melo had already been in a previous group with Psy. P, and was incorporated into the process soon after. Together, the group is charismatic, and often surprising. They don’t sound like any other Chinese rappers who have come before them. Listen to just few songs off of the Higher Brothers’ first studio album, Black Cab, released in 2017, and you get a sense of what makes them different. The Higher Brothers call their style “Chinese trap,” and list A$AP Rocky and Migos among their influences. Yet, it feels less like they’re imitating a style; rather, they’re taking what has been done and adding their own touch to it. In 2016, the group released  Higher Brothers Mixtape, which includes early versions of “WeChat” and “7/11,” two songs that would end up on their first studio album. One evening, Howie Lee, a DJ in China, played one of their songs, “Black Cab,” at a local party. Shortly after, it made its way to Sean Miyashiro, the founder and CEO of 88rising, a media brand that features Asian and Asian-American artists. When Miyashiro reached out to the group via email, none of them had any idea what 88rising was, but they recognized some of the names on their roster: Keith Ape, a rapper from Seoul, and  Rich Brian, a rapper from Indonesia who built his following online.


If you ask Miyashiro, he needed the Higher Brothers on his roster—they were unlike any other Chinese hip-hop group he had ever heard. “They are on another level in terms of their musicality, their charisma and their work ethic,” Miyashiro says. “They have a deep love and respect for hip-hop but they are also fearless in pushing boundaries and seamlessly infusing their own local culture. There isn’t another Chinese rap group that can top them.” “I was like, okay, let’s try it,” MaSiWei says. “They paid us American dollars for the first time. I needed to translate it into my Chinese bank account. It felt very different. That gave us a push.” The Higher Brothers’ success story  is more than a tale about four kids “making it”—it’s emblematic of a bigger trend towards globalization in hip-hop. Whereas entry into the genre was once reserved to acts across the United States, rap’s surging popularity has led to its adoption around Alex Wong


The American Dream of The Higher Brothers

the world. And now that the genre’s gone global, cultural cross-pollination is beginning to occur. With it, there have been plenty of other international hip-hop acts who have forged their way onto the scene, and questions of appropriation has come up. Rich Brian originally made music under the name Rich Chigga. His approach to music has often been viewed as veering closer to mockery than homage, leading to questions as to the sincerity in the artform, even after he publicly apologized for the use of a slur in his original name and changed his rap moniker.

Photography by Tony Wu

Music critic Jeff Weiss says the matter of appropriation in hip-hop is very much a case-by-case basis. “Appropriation is like pornography. You know it when you see it,” Weiss says. “You can’t close off an artist because they’re making music that is historically and still mostly a black American artform. There’s a difference between doing it with taste and processing it with love and respect. The question becomes: are they adding something? Are they making music that is authentic on some level to where they come from?” Even with the authenticity and passion in hip-hop music that Weiss speaks of, many Asian artists have found getting into the hip-hop world to be an unscalable wall.


In the mid-’90s, The Mountain Brothers— an Asian-American hip-hop group consisting of CHOPS Styles Infinite, and Peril-L—set out to get a record deal after their music and concerts received warm receptions on the campus of Penn State. Their demo barely got a response from major labels kindly told the group it wasn’t what they were looking for at the moment. One suggested the group might work if they dressed up in karate outfits and hit a couple of gongs. CHOPS, whose real name is Scott Jung and who produced the Mountain Brothers’ beats, realized that if the group was ever going to be accepted, they were going to have to trick labels into judging them by their music alone. ,

“We would just send our music and put in a note with it which would say, ‘We have pictures and we would be glad to send them to you if you like the music. But if you don’t like the music, the picture doesn’t matter,’” Jung says. The strategy worked. Once the labels prioritized the quality of their music, Alex Wong


The American Dream of The Higher Brothers

the Mountain Brothers received a more positive response. They signed a record deal with Ruffhouse Records in 1997. Two decades later, as hip-hop becomes more globally attuned, the Higher Brothers doesn’t have to face those obstacles. “You don’t need to be mainstream now,” Jung says. “You can just get your own material out there and reach the folks that you want to reach.” Up-and-coming rappers are now their own promoters. They prove to A&Rs and other industry executives that they’re marketable and can grow a fanbase by building it themselves, through their own independent channels on YouTube and SoundCloud. To date, the music video for “Made in China,” one of the Higher Brothers’ hit songs of their debut album Black Cab, has over nine million views on YouTube. In some ways, it’s less surprising that right now is when Asian culture is finally infiltrating hip-hop. “Hip-hop is all about cool shit,” says Jonathan Park, who was part of the 88rising A&R team that helped discover Keith Ape and Rich Brian during the early days of the imprint. “Asian culture has gotten cooler in recent years. Every producer from Atlanta that I work with, these young black kids in America—they’re hella into anime. There’s been a shift, just Asian culture becoming a lot cooler. People are more open to it.” He goes on: “A lot of Asian youths can relate to them, because we’re all outcasts in our own right. We’re a very invisible race. We’re nerds, we’re weirdos, and 88rising has those weirdos.”


The Higher Brothers are also using their hip-hop inspirations to cultivate an audience that is decidedly their own. There’s a mentality coursing through the Higher Brothers’ music that the music caters to an Asian audience specifically. The songs embrace the group’s origins, and provide a palette of references that are refreshingly relatable to their fanbase. The opening track on Black Cab, “WeChat,” refers to China’s go-to messaging and social media app. “7-11” pays homage to the convenience store, a popular latenight hangout spot among young teens in Asia. “We go to 7/11 every night because we work so hard,” MaSiWei says. “We record, we write songs all day. The only thing close to us that is opened is 7/11. It’s where we get our food. So we’re talking about our lives here.” If it’s not clear that the Higher Brothers are making music for their own, all of the subtext is removed on the track “Made in China.” The intro, voiced by Lana Larkin, Alex Wong


The American Dream of The Higher Brothers

band mom and anthropologist who has been instrumental in the Higher Brothers’ tour success, opens by asking, “Rap music? China? What are they evening saying? Is this Chinese rap music? Sounds like they’re just saying ‘ching chang chong.’” It’s followed by the hook, in which MaSiWei points out how everything—from his new gold watch, to the ping-pong ball they use to play table tennis, to all the designer shit they buy—is made in China. “We saw people talking shit—they said Chinese people are not good for rap,” MaSiWei says. “But everybody buys Chinese stuff. Your shirt is made in China. Now, you listen to Chinese music.” After the show in Toronto, the Higher Brothers will make their way to New York for a music video shoot, and then back to Chengdu where they have plans to record and release another album later this year. They will also return to North America in a few months as part of a larger tour featuring artists from the 88rising roster. If the group has fulfilled the checklist of what is required for four Asian rappers to gain entry into the hip-hop world, how they sustain it and what comes next will be what truly defines them. Other Asian hip-hop acts have gained notoriety before, like MC Jin, who rose to stardom with his memorable freestyle battle run on BET’s 106 & Park and parlayed it into a record deal with Ruff Ryders Record. (His debut album with the label flopped, he ended up moving to Hong Kong and later returned to the United States to pursue a stand-up career.)


Near the end of their sold-out show in Toronto, the predominantly Asian crowd is decked out in the most recent Supreme releases and an assortment of Balenciaga Triple S sneakers—and screaming out every single word to every single song. As the Higher Brothers perform a second encore for the audience, Melo disappears into the audience in a crowd surf. He safely makes it back on stage minutes later. DZ tosses his shirt into the crowd and walks around hyping a crowd that doesn’t seem to want to go home. “I’m motherfuckin’ Franklin,” MaSaiWei shouts performing the song “Franklin” inspired by a character from Grand Theft Auto V. Psy P. is in his own corner high-fiving as many fans as he can find in the front row. The four play to the crowd perfectly, speaking to them in Mandarin, rapping in English. Afterward, backstage, the group is exhausted, as they scroll Yelp to figure out the best Chinese food near the venue. Everyone is slumped on the couch, with the completion Alex Wong


The American Dream of The Higher Brothers

DZKnow 1/4 OF HIGHER BROTHERS of their first North American tour behind them, and everything in front of them.





Photography by Tony Wu


From Chengdu With Flow: How The Higher Brothers Brought Chinese Hip-Hop to Western Ears By Christina Zhao


Chinese rap group Higher Brothers were named after an air-conditioning unit. In 2016, on a humid summer’s day in Chengdu, Sichuan, the four friends‚ÄîMaSiWei, 25, DZknow, 21, Psy. P, 23, and Melo, 23‚Äîwere listening to beats in the studio when they looked up and saw the Haier Group logo, consisting of two ethnically diverse animated robot boys. The electrical brand’s mascots, made famous through an accompanying 1995 Chinese cartoon where they travel the world exploring unknown cultures while saving humanity from natural disasters, remain one of the mainland’s most iconic images today. “We wanted to become as famous and worldwide like those Haier brothers,” MaSiWei told¬†Newsweek. “We were inspired to write a song imagining that as our future.” Fast-forward to current day: The Higher Brothers have become one of the most heralded rap collectives in Chinese history and the mainland’s first internationally acclaimed hip-hop group. On February 22, the subversive quartet released their sophomore album,¬†Five Stars, featuring appearances from major American rappers, including ScHoolboy Q, J.I.D, Soulja Boy, Denzel Curry and Ski Mask the Slump God, ahead of their upcoming worldwide tour starting in May. In recent months, the four-piece have also been tapped by brands like Adidas, Sprite, Guess and Nike for campaigns back home and abroad

after being named 2018 Hip-Hop Artist of the Year by NetEase, one of China’s top music-streaming platforms, with over 600 million active users. After playing to soldout crowds across China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, the Higher Brothers embarked on their first American tour last spring, named after the popular 16th-century Chinese novel¬†Journey to the West. Their international success is unprecedented among mainland Chinese musical artists from any genre. Despite the billions of dollars invested into attempts to manufacture homegrown pop stars each year, Beijing has largely failed to export one single act to the West. But the Higher Brothers could break this trend. Whether it’s intentional or not, the four rappers are fast fulfilling former President Hu Jintao’s vision announced in 2007: “The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation will definitely be accompanied by the thriving of Chinese culture.” The Higher Brothers’ success is largely attributed to their seemingly effortless ability to tap into the sweet spot of rap culture that bridges the East and West through bilingual (English and Mandarin) songs promoting Chinese pride. One university student summed up the enthusiasm surrounding the collective: “China FTW!” Represented by 88rising, a New York-based media company focused on creating representation for Asians in hip-hop, the rap quartet made their

loudest splash in 2017 lyrics about WeChat, a through¬†Made in China, popular Chinese social a Richie Souf‚Äìproduced app that serves as a substirap song off their first tute for banned Western album¬†Black Cab¬†that counterparts (Facebook, discusses the hypocrisy in Twitter, Instagram, prejudices against Chinese Google), and Chinese New people, with lyrics such as Year into their trap beats. “My chain, new gold watch, Because of this, fans and made in China.” critics alike have repeatedly praised the band’s Lana Larkin, the Higher relatability and its efforts Brothers’ band mom in championing Chinese and translator, voices the representation in Western prelude: “Rap music? areas that severely lack it. China? What are they even saying? Is this Chinese rap “It’s nothing forced,” music? Sounds like they’re MaSiWei explained. just saying ‘ching chang “We’re just being ourselves, chong.’” being authentic in our music, doing what we like, The song was intended making the music that we to respond to the haters want to make.” who questioned whether Chinese people were good While Chinese faces are for rap music. “I was so now more visible than mad. I watch TV shows, ever on the global stage and people in Amer(Fan Bingbing in X-Men, ica have a lot of things designer Chen Peng, and made in China,” Psy. P Awkwafina, to name a few), told¬†Newsweek. “So I oppressive censorship wanted to use this to make practices throughout the a song. The intro [sets it mainland have stunted the up]. And then for the rest nation’s hip-hop industry. of the song, I’ll show you Despite the proliferation how we rap.” of foreign culture in China, domestic musicians still Made in China¬†has face the arduous task of been viewed over 15 treading a delicate line million times on YouTube. between being favorably An accompanying reaction viewed by Beijing and video with established producing successful international rappers, authentic content. including Migos, Lil Yachty and Playboi Carti, helped Last January, Gao Chanto boost the group’s gli, director of the People’s profile stateside. “I don’t Republic of China’s State think I ever wanted to be Administration of Press, Chinese more than this Publication, Radio, Film moment right now,” Kyle and Television, banned commented. “Oh, this hip-hop culture and n***** snapping right now. public figures with visible Yo, he’s like the Chinese tattoos from appearing in Biggie.” the media. According to Chinese news outlet Sina, “They bring their culture regulators now “specifiinto it. That’s what sticks, cally require that programs that’s what makes this should not feature actors s**t amazing,” Xavier Wulf with tattoos [or depict] added. hip-hop culture, sub-culture and dispirited culture” The Higher Brothers in a bid to crackdown on have also incorporated


“low-taste content.”

From Chengdu With Flow: How The Higher Brothers Brought Chinese Hip-Hop to Western Ears

Several prominent Chinese hip-hop figures, including PG One and GAI, were sanctioned as a result of these new censorship practices over their content, which authorities claimed conflicted with Communist Party values. But the Higher Brothers managed to scale the Great Firewall unscathed. Aside from a minor clash with authorities Melo had years ago during his solo career, the foursome told¬†Newsweek¬†that their music has never gotten them trouble with police back home‚Äîan astonishing truth that has baffled those familiar with the group’s subversive lyrics and harmonized scumbro aesthetic. Uncertainty surrounding how the Higher Brothers managed to evade censorship has led the internet to speculate that their success could be attributed to unintentional pro‚ÄìChina propaganda. Although there’s little concrete evidence to support this theory, some have argued that the group’s lyrics peddle subtle nationalism without alienating foreign audiences. But the real answer to why the regime has allowed the group’s growth will probably remain a secret, unless the inner workings of the Communist Party one day becomes widely available for analysis. For the Higher Brothers, turning down questions from the free press about censorship in fear of state retribution is just another hurdle the band will face as it continues to expand its base in America. And


though the cultural barriers are high, it is also true that the four-piece have broken into the U.S. at a time of unprecedented openness to fresh sounds and foreign influences in hip-hop. “In America, you have people of all different colors and backgrounds, people that don’t speak Chinese,” Melo told¬†Newsweek¬†in New York, ahead of the band’s upcoming global tour. “They all bring their energy and their feel to the live performances.”

Christina Zhao


Higher Brothers Smash All Kinds of Barriers With ‘Five Stars’ By David Opie


In the hours leading up to the release of their sophomore album,Five Stars, Higher Brothers reflected on their sudden rise to fame via Twitter, looking back at how much has changed in just two short years. In their post, the Chinese quartet reveal how they were all living together in one room ‚ with nothing at all‚ and now, they’re leading a whole new wave of Asian hip-hop into global territory.


Higher Brothers Smash All Kinds of Barriers With 'Five Stars'

Jumping from the underground Chengdu rap scene to starring in American ads for adidas Originals is a leap by any measure, let alone in such a short space of time. So far, they have proved they have what it takes to smash through both language and cultural barriers, bringing their unique brand of Chinese rap across to international markets. Buoyed by both their association with the 88rising label and the rise of homegrown hip-hop in China, Higher Brothers now have plenty riding on this second full-length record; and for the most part, it works. Comparisons with Migos undoubtedly helped secure the kind of guest list that plenty of US rappers would kill for, featuring the likes of ScHoolboy Q, JID and even Soulja Boy, as well as label mates such as Rich Brian and NIKI. However, there is a reason why Pitchfork singled the Higher Brothers out as a clear highlight among all of the acts featured on Head in the Clouds, last year’s 88rising compilation. Most of the collaborations impress, but as they have shown before, Higher Brothers don’t really need anyone else - their own distinct personalities shine on every track. Just a quick glance at the madcap album cover reinforces this, drawing equal inspiration from both the Beatles and the Persona video game series. Although Masiei is clearly the leader, DZknow, Psy.P, and Melo all bring their A-game across a record that barely lets up from the spitfire raps and heavy trap beats the group have become known for. One key exception to this is the standout single, “Open It Up.” Inspired in part by Playboi Carti, the song trades in the group’s signature beats for something remarkably old school, acting as a perfect introduction to each member’s unique flow. It’s only been two years since the Higher Brothers first started learning English, and yet they effortlessly switch back and forth from their native Sichuanese.


Written during one of their recent US tours, the track is particularly fascinating for its lyrics; describing everyday life through lens unaccustomed to consuming American culture up close. These observations continue across the album in songs like “16 Hours” and “Do It Like Me,” yet the project as a whole is still unmistakably Chinese thanks to a sincere lack of compromise. International success is usually the end goal for

David Opie


S HOUR — 16


“I B E




Higher Brothers Smash All Kinds of Barriers With 'Five Stars'

music acts born outside of America, yet aside from their use of English, Higher Brothers don’t seem overly concerned with reinventing their brand for Western appeal. “Gong Xi Fa Cai” works well as a typical brag about riches, but it’s also a proud celebration of Chinese New Year and thus sets itself apart from other songs of its ilk. In fact, it’s rather telling that this distinctly Chinese song was chosen to promote Five Stars as one of the lead singles. However, describing Five Stars in purely oppositional terms can be somewhat reductive, no matter how tempting it might be to do so. Higher Brothers often expand their scope beyond the album’s Chinese and American influences to incorporate a more internationally minded approach too, something which becomes particularly apparent towards the record’s final moments. Indonesian singer NIKI channels the best of contemporary R&B in her vocals for “No More,” another album highlight that proves swag isn’t the group’s only concern. This would have been a perfectly adept album closer, ending the project on a more reflective, somber note, but the group instead switch things up yet again for one final song called “Zombie” that literally slays from the get go. Japanese-Australian labelmate Joji became the first Asian artist to top the R&B and hip-hop charts in America last year, and while he doesn’t appear on the album in physical form, his production on this standout track is second to none, perfectly channeling the focused and yet frenzied energy that‚Äôs become a calling card for the Higher Brothers sound. Overall, Five Stars doesn’t quite live up to what that ambitious title might suggest. In particular, some of the energy drops off two thirds in, and if you don’t understand what’s being said, it might be easier for some listeners to zone out at this point. However, the


linguistic barrier shouldn’t be too much of an issue - after all, there are plenty of English-speaking mumble rappers out there who are far less intelligible and also far less deserving of your time. Higher Brothers told us last year that they have a lot to learn‚ still, and while it’s clear that their music has evolved from their “Made In China” days, any collective like this can only develop so



OPEN T SHIT UP Higher Brothers Smash All Kinds of Barriers With 'Five Stars'

much in such a limited time. Fortunately, there’s still plenty of potential to refine their sound further. Given what the Higher Brothers have achieved in just two short years, it’s genuinely exciting to imagine what’s next for them and Asian hip-hop as a whole. A true five star album is certainly within their reach and when it does arrive one day soon, there’ll be thousands of fans ready to sing their words back to them in both Chinese and English, no matter where they might tour next.



Photography by Zhihu.com

David Opie


Real name: Leng Bohan


Q&A With Bohan Phoenix About Hip-Hop & Cultural Expression In China By Markus Sherman


Chinese hip-hop is becoming a global phenomenon. With stars like the Higher Brothers making waves internationally and the seemingly overnight success of the Chinese language rap competition Rap of China (中国新说唱), Chinese language hip-hop and rap artists are receiving more attention than ever. The increasing influence that western culture has on the modern Chinese hip-hop sound brings up contradictions regarding cultural appropriation, identity, and intention as Chinese artists struggle to tell their stories on a global platform.


What makes you unique and what brought you to rap as your medium of expression in the first place?

Q&A With Bohan Phoenix About Hip-Hop & Cultural Expression In China


I’m from a pretty rural place in Hubei (湖北). I shared a bed with my grandparents for the first 11 years of my life. My mother was never around because my pops left before I was born, so she was hustling in Shenzhen (深圳) and sending money back to us. Even without my mom, without a father around, I was just like any other kid. Just playing around and whatnot. But in China the academic situation is really disciplinary. My school grades as a kid were not that great so my mom realized that it would be really tough for me to go through middle school, high school and college in China. So, she had a colleague in the states, and she had heard that US education is more well-rounded. So, she thought going to the states might be easier for me. It wasn’t really the American dream – ‘going for a better life’. It was more just so I could go to school and then maybe go back to China. When I got to the states in 2003, I didn’t speak any English. Watching cartoons and movies were methods we thought were helpful for learning English. Flipping through movie channels one day, I somehow landed on “8 Mile”. The language barrier made it difficult for me to understand what Markus Sherman


Q&A With Bohan Phoenix About Hip-Hop & Cultural Expression In China

was happening, but from the way things were being portrayed, I could tell that Eminem, a white guy, was having a tough time in a predominantly black world but was still able to succeed in his own way and find a comfort zone with hip-hop. Rap was by far the furthest thing from being understandable because, not only was it a completely new genre of music I had never heard, it was also full of English slang that I couldn’t understand. So, it wasn’t really a beginning with rap, it was more of a fascination with Eminem and his life and his story. I related to it because as a kid in Boston who didn’t speak English, who really missed his grandparents that were basically his father and mother, I thought one of the ways that I could be cool or maybe make friends and find a place where I can have fun and feel comfortable was rapping, the same way that Eminem did. So, I basically started off just imitating him. I started writing and recording. When I was in high school, I joined the gospel choir because I just felt like there was always a side that I was missing by just listening to rappers. So, Gospel choir in high school was where I really started understanding rhythm and everything.


I ended up going to NYU. Once I got to New York, the vibes there made rapping feel more real to me. I went to open mics at Pyramid Club, and the Karma club. And then I realized, the Apollo Theater is in Harlem. That’s where everybody did their thing, from Michael to Lauren to James Brown. So, I went to amateur nights like six times and never got booed off. And they invited me back to do a BET show with Doug E Fresh, Gladys Knight and Michael Bivins. I guess while every other kid was doing internships at NYU, I just kept rapping. When I graduated NYU, I couldn’t get a job. I applied to all the record labels for internships and they said, ‘you have no work experience besides your caddying back in high school.’ So, I got a job working at Lucky Brand folding jeans to just pay my rent. It was a struggle, but it was the most beautiful struggle, because it shaped my perspective on the world, how I saw life, and how I saw music in relation to myself… Around 2014 or 2015, I stopped folding jeans, quit, and started treating music as if it’s the only thing that I got. Everything starts with imitation, I was imitating for the longest time. I remember, I thought I Markus Sherman


Q&A With Bohan Phoenix About Hip-Hop & Cultural Expression In China

had the most unique [sound]. Back in 2011 when I put out a mix tape with 42 songs, my producer and best friend said, “Yo, stop trying to sound like J Cole.” I slowly figured out – the only voice, the only story that other people couldn’t tell, was my story. So, I started writing down my story, and I realized that people who didn’t have the same experience as me, were still able to relate to my songs even though they were from South Africa and had moved to Russia. Then I realized I got into music because Eminem’s music left such a heavy mark on me – I thought that’s what I needed to do. It was a moment of clarity for me. From then on, I could never talk about what everyone else was talking about in songs. Going back and forth between China and the states, the duality of my identity, and speaking both languages, all contribute to this type of music that I am making today.


Photography by Jiaqi Kang

Markus Sherman


So how did music specifically help you find this cultural identity as a Chinese born child living in America? Did you have a set of educational experiences, or things you learned along the way? Did it help you fill your own space?

Q&A With Bohan Phoenix About Hip-Hop & Cultural Expression In China

FOREIGN EP 03/2016


Yeah. Because I was performing and rapping as a Chinese face in New York, especially on a stage like Apollo, where it’s predominantly black and Hispanic people going there just to boo people, I realized that as a Chinese person living in black and white America, it’s hard to be neutral because there’s always a lot of racial tension – if you’re not on one side you’re on the other side. Growing up, I noticed it all around me, but the only time that goes away is when music is in play. I realized that all my homies in Brooklyn, never saw me as different because we’re all just speaking the language of music. When I brought them back to China, the only language barrier that existed was outside of music. So, music helped me look at everybody on an individual basis instead of as a group. When I encounter somebody, I don’t think about skin color or how we should have a conversation. I look at it as where is this conversation going? Am I speaking to a good person? Am I speaking to somebody with their own personal agenda? Music really helped me realize that.

Markus Sherman


How did you feel going back to China then? How were you received as an adult, as a rapper there?

Q&A With Bohan Phoenix About Hip-Hop & Cultural Expression In China

JALA EP 01/2017


I have this line called “too foreign for here, too foreign for home”… So, when I’m in China, I look Chinese, but the minute I open my mouth people say, “You probably spent some time in the states.” Even with my family out here, when we talk about certain things and I ask, “what does that mean?” They’ll go in on me for a few seconds. In the states, although it’s a “melting pot”, it’s still black and white America. So, when I’m over there, I speak perfectly fluent English, I get the culture, I get all the idioms, I get all the subtleties. But there are still many moments where I am treated as an outsider. I was born in Hubei. My grandmother’s grave is there, [so] that’s obviously my home. But my grandfather now lives in Chengdu, my mother lives in Boston, and New York is where I found myself and all my homies. So, this idea of ‘where is home?’ was at first conflicting. But then, one of my favorite lines by Mos Def is from Habitat: “it’s not where you’re from, it’s where you at.” You become a piece of where you’re at and then you’re able to move on. So, when I came back to China, people definitely looked at me differently, especially because most of my songs are still predominantly Markus Sherman


Q&A With Bohan Phoenix About Hip-Hop & Cultural Expression In China

English. But there isn’t really much discrimination in the way [Chinese people] look at me. It’s more a sense of curiosity. In all the years I’ve been rapping, not a single black or white person has said to my face that I shouldn’t be rapping. Funnily enough, the only time I’ve been confronted about the idea that I’m Chinese and a rapper was when I did a show [at] Oberlin [College], in Ohio. Their Asian student organization invited me to do a show and asked, “Can we have a discussion panel on culture beforehand?” I sit down, and it’s all Asian kids, not a single white or black person. This Chinese girl says, “How do you deal with the fact that you’re Chinese and a rapper?” I’m like, ‘how do I deal with the fact that I’m Chinese? I never thought about it like that. What do you even mean by that?’… I’m challenging what her world of being a Chinese American is supposed to mean. I’ve seen it while performing so many times. Looking down and seeing audience faces and how confused they are when I’m rapping – it’s like they’re trying to enjoy the music but they’re still trying to figure out why am I up there.


Photography by Jiaqi Kang

Markus Sherman


You talk about, “Chinese rappers” versus “Chinese people doing rap” in a recent Radii article. You say, “Chinese people doing rap” aren’t trying to steal culture away from the black community, but that’s a really difficult line to find, and then navigate. How have you as an artist navigated that line?

Q&A With Bohan Phoenix About Hip-Hop & Cultural Expression In China



I mean a lot of people don’t even know this, the first time the Chinese national anthem was sang on record was by Paul Robeson, a black person. So, the Chinese and the black experience have been intermingling for decades now. Again, I look at everything on the individual basis based on intentions. If I wanted to say, anytime one person does another person’s culture, that’s appropriation. Then let’s talk about Wu Tang Clan building up their entire career off of Chinese culture. If Wu Tang was in the forefront of New York hip hop, then the whole New York scene, kind of owes to Chinese culture. But of course, that’s not how I want to look at it. For them, the only thing that was seeping through the television was martial arts and the only thing that was able to get to the hood was Chinese food. So that’s all they knew of China. If they appreciated this so much that they’re willing to mix that into their form of expression, that’s beautiful. To me, that is a beautiful [method] of cultural exchange, the way it’s supposed to happen. But if you’re a Chinese rapper and your intention is to be more famous, become more popular, so you get a face tattoo, you get the dreads and Markus Sherman


Q&A With Bohan Phoenix About Hip-Hop & Cultural Expression In China

you drop the n-word on tracks to be more provocative, to me that’s just running away from the fact that you don’t want to put hours into your craft. People just think hip-hop is like – once I get my lifestyle figured out, everything else will fall into place. And unfortunately, that’s kind of how it’s working out for a lot of people now because of social media. But everything will always go back to the music. I’m all about making the money, but I think there’s a right way to do it and then there’s a wrong way to do it.


Photography by Jiaqi Kang

Markus Sherman


Do you see the Chinese hip-hop scene moving away from that?

Q&A With Bohan Phoenix About Hip-Hop & Cultural Expression In China


Chinese hip-hop exists in the sense that I’m a Chinese person doing hip hop music. But Chinese hip-hop in itself is kind of a contradiction… I remember sending stuff to Fader and HYPEBEAST forever. But, until they could place me as a Chinese hip-hop artist, they never even looked at my stuff. So Chinese hip-hop is such a selling point to sensationalize us, to sensationalize this music and some Chinese hip-hop artists are trying to use Chinese hip-hop as an easier way to promote themselves. It’s a very ambiguous term that’s become a cheap way to sensationalize what we’re doing. There’s Chinese artists that say, “I’m out here spreading Chinese culture.” I’m like, where?! The way you’re expressing your [message], your hairstyle, the way you talk and the way you dress – it’s all black culture. It’s just too confusing. I’m not saying that at every step, we have to decide this is black culture, or this is Chinese culture. I’m saying don’t do the other side of that – using race alone to sensationalize yourself.

Markus Sherman


Are these types of artists already fading out of the limelight because there are other groups that are more authentic to the Chinese experience?

Q&A With Bohan Phoenix About Hip-Hop & Cultural Expression In China



You just nailed it. The Chinese experience, the Chinese narrative is our own narrative. We can still use this form of expression, but we don’t have to talk about stuff that’s not our narrative. Going back to Eminem, there’s a funny skit on Slim Shady where Steve Berman is like “Dre is talking about blunts, forties and b*****, you’re talking about homosexuals and Vicodin.” The point is not to not rap, it’s about the intentions. Chinese rappers who still rap about girls and guns, they’re unoriginal. They just think, “oh what’s working in the West? That is working in the west. I’ll do that.” Because their intention is to blow up really quickly, capture the limelight and squeeze the money out of it. There are plenty of hip-hop artists in China, and in the states, who are not trying to copy other people’s experiences and narratives. But because that is so far removed from what is being spotlighted, it takes a lot of artists with a healthier state of mind to move this thing forward.

Markus Sherman


So, music obviously has the incredible power to bring individuals together, regardless of ethnicity, nationality, etc. Do you feel like you’re bridging this cultural barrier between the two worlds, especially coming from this unique perspective?

Q&A With Bohan Phoenix About Hip-Hop & Cultural Expression In China


I think we all have the responsibility to just, be good. So, if music is my medium, I guess from an outside point there’s this responsibility of bridging that [cultural barrier]. But, the more you think about trying to bridge this culture, you find yourself asking what does that exactly mean? How do you bridge this culture? To me, at the end of the day, it’s making the best music I can make and making sure that what I’m talking about is true to my life. If I’m making good music, people can listen to the music first and then realize that I’m Chinese. So, I guess in that way, I feel the responsibility of making good music more than, intentionally trying to bridge this east and west [gap]. Again, I think when any artist says, “I am the “culture bridg-er of the east and west,” that’s just sensationalizing. You don’t have to be talking about it if you’re doing it. People will recognize, people will hear it. So, when I get asked this question in interviews, “do you feel like you’re the one bridge?” I mean, if that’s how people look at it, that’s great! But, it’s hard for me to put that title on myself.

Markus Sherman


When you’re doing tours and shows and trying to post music to platforms like QQmusic and Douban (豆瓣) what has your experience been with having to change lyrics? Do you feel like your message is being in-authenticated by these types of difficulties?

Q&A With Bohan Phoenix About Hip-Hop & Cultural Expression In China


I have a pretty easy time because my subject matter isn’t really challenging of the Chinese government, which is the quickest to get flagged. Most of my content is about my personal journey, life, love. So, I haven’t had any direct conflict in that sense, but me being an American citizen, trying to tour out here and book shows has definitely become more challenging as hip-hop music becomes more popular in China. I remember two years ago when I toured [in China], there was no approval process. Nowadays, there’s a lot more headache with permits and approvals [that] both artists and promoters have to jump through, and it’s putting a lot more pressure on the indie/ underground scene than ever before. It’s definitely a more difficult game out here, but it’s still totally doable. I think people who are doing music for music’s sake, are going to keep doing it no matter what. But [the restrictions] will discourage a lot of people who are doing it for the fame. But I think if China was going to put a ban on hip-hop for real, they could ban it overnight. It’s so early, it’s hard to say. To give you one valid example of what you are Markus Sherman


Q&A With Bohan Phoenix About Hip-Hop & Cultural Expression In China

saying, a couple months ago I woke up and I had a lot of messages on my Weibo asking where my song “No Hook” went. I checked on my 网 易 (Netease), a Chinese streaming platform, and “No Hook” was gone along with thousands of rap songs. “No Hook” had no profanity in it, it had nothing that was topically sensitive, and neither did a lot of artists’ songs that got taken down with no hopes of [being put back up]. I asked them, “is there a lyric problem? is there some things that I should have censored? if so, let’s do it and put the song back up. It’s a popular song.” They said no. There was no explanation. But again, it’s just one song… If I’m a hip-hop artist in China, I know my boundaries and limitations. If I make a song like “Mosh” here, knowing the consequences, then that’s just me not being smart. The fact that a Western influence such as hip-hop can still thrive in China the way it is now is fascinating to me. The fact that the government has allowed hip hop to come here and do its thing is crazy to me. I’m just grateful that I am still out here rapping more than anything. It gets chalked up, at least in America, to be this


kind of big red wall, but after speaking with you and SFG [Straight Fire Gang (直火帮), a Shanghai-based rap group], it seems more like a hassle than anything else. I’m still to this day more scared of the New York police than the Chinese government. The funny thing is the states tell you that you have freedom of speech. This is a free country, you can do whatever you want. We all know that’s not the truth. You walk up to the police and you call them “pig”. You might get yourself in trouble. But in China they’re real[ly] transparent. They tell you ‘don’t talk about the government, don’t talk about drugs and guns and killers and you’re good.’ You walk up to a police officer in China you can call them whatever you want to his face. They don’t have a gun. They can’t arrest you. They just walk away like “are you freaking crazy?” Like you said lyric censorship definitely is a nuisance. Again, I have it easy because of what I choose to express through my music, but there’s definitely hip-hop artists in China, that want to express something more provocative, something more challenging, that’s being censored more. That’s unfortunate Markus Sherman


Q&A With Bohan Phoenix About Hip-Hop & Cultural Expression In China

because that doesn’t happen in the states. But that goes back to me saying, if you’re functioning in an environment like China, if you’re playing a game here, you have to know the rules. If you’re a boxer, you think “I’m a fighter, just like a UFC fighter. Why can’t I kick a guy in the face?” Well, because you’re playing a different game.


Markus Sherman


So, where do you see Chinese music, or hip-hop produced by Chinese or Chinese diaspora artists in 10 years?

Q&A With Bohan Phoenix About Hip-Hop & Cultural Expression In China


Basically, better music. One of the main problems that’s slowing down the process is the lack of appreciation for producers in China. So right now, as always in China, the idol culture is so strong that people behind the scenes are easily overlooked. So, people love the rappers, but they don’t know what the whole producer role is. They don’t want to understand that without the producer, these rappers are slam poets. Rappers are making money hand over fist, while producers are getting a very small flat fee for their beat upfront… There’s no infrastructure yet for a producer to really support themselves the way people in the states do… But in 10 years, there’s definitely going to be a lot more awareness, a lot more good music, a lot more communication between Chinese artists and American artists and just the two markets in general.

Markus Sherman


Bringing it full circle back to the start of our conversation, you were a kid once. On the track “Back in the days� from your last EP Yaode, you talk about being a kid and growing up while having this Chinese American experience. If you had to give one piece of advice to a bi-cultural or multiracial kid living in the states to help them navigate identity struggles, what would it be?

Q&A With Bohan Phoenix About Hip-Hop & Cultural Expression In China


I’ve dealt with identity struggles. It’s brought me nothing but headache until I realized I had nothing to struggle about. The whole world is completely coming together. Whether you are actually an immigrant from overseas or not, your mind is everywhere because of the Internet. So, I wouldn’t even think about that as a negative thing. If you’re from multiple backgrounds, you’re blessed right now. Absorb everything. Learn about where you’re from, don’t forget about where you’re from, but look full steam ahead and think about the possibilities that you could do a with your backgrounds. If you have different language skill sets, man, utilize that. Do your part as a human being to just be a good person and realize that it is not easy being a mixed person. You have this hardship. Realize how hard it is and [how] hard other people might have it too, and just be a good person. My advice to anybody, whatever profession, music or whatever – all of that is easy as soon as you learn the disciplines. But the hardest part is being a good person. Man, I’m still trying to learn that every day. So that would be my advice.

Markus Sherman


Real name: Wang Shanhuo


PopCulturalist Chats with Wang Yi Tai By Kevin



Photo by Sohu.com



Pop-Culturalist Chats With Wang Yi Tai

How did you discover your passion for music?



I’ve been in love with music since I was in school. I listened to a lot of music in different styles and watched a lot of different hip-hop performances during my study abroad. Since then, I’ve found hip-hop so attractive. I decided to go back to China and become a rapper.


Kevin 161

Pop-Culturalist Chats With Wang Yi Tai

Who or what has hadCDC the biggest influence on your career?



WANG YI TAI There are a lot artists, from Boss X to TY. TY brought me out to perform a lot in the beginning when I started to do hip-hop. I met a lot of friends who love hip-hop during that time. In 2018, I went on Rap of China and more people got to know me. I really appreciate all the help from my friends and brothers—they’ve helped me get my music out there.


Kevin 163

Pop-Culturalist Chats With Wang Yi Tai

What’s been the biggest lesson you’ve learned being a part of this industry?



There are so many different styles of hip-hop and I can show that with my personal style and flow techniques.


Kevin 165

Pop-Culturalist Chats With Wang Yi Tai

What does the rest of the year hold for you as we look ahead in 2019?



Yan Shuo Jia, 2019

I’ve learned a lot in 2019. I met a lot of friends who have inspired me to produce. I look forward to working with more great musicians, and of course, the new album, which will be released later this year.


Kevin 167

Hip-Hop Is About Finding One's Own Tone And Style By Yu Peiying



“Hip-hop is a young man thing now and we are trying to eliminate the prejudice against it in China, trying to show people that hip-hop is all about unity, joyfulness and peace in our own way,” said Chengdu-born rapper Wang Yitai in an interview with National Business Daily (NBD). The 24-year-old rapper shot to fame in The Rap of China Season 2, a rap competition show credited for making hip-hop widespread and mainstream in China. This January, Wang was awarded as “New Artist of the Year” and his song Can’t Take My Eyes Off You was awarded the “Ten Best Songs in 2018”, by NetEase Cloud Music, a Spotify-like online music platform in China. Behind the young man’s road to fame is unfolded a story of underground rappers gaining mainstream attention.



Hip-Hop Is About Finding One's Own Tone And Style

Underground rapper walks to stage



“The show gives us a stage and a chance to perform something that is not really recognized by people,” recalled Wang, referring to The Rap of China. Acclaimed as “putting hip-hop music into the national spotlight for the first time in China” by BBC, the rap show also exposed underground rappers like Wang to a wider public. “For people go to a singing show, they may not be able to sing whatever they write. While in this show, it basically keeps us original,” said Wang. The season one of The Rap of China aired in June 2017 and celebrity rapper-singer Kris Wu, the pioneer of Chinese rap music MC HotDog, rapper Will Pan and rock musician Chang Chen-yue joined in the show as judges. China’s rap, influenced by American rappers like Eminem and Jay-Z, has been gaining momentum ever since the popularity of the rap show. Nowadays the burgeoning rap force is shaping the future of rap music in the country. Independent labels encompasses C-Block


Yu Peiying 171

Hip-Hop Is About Finding One's Own Tone And Style

in Changsha, GO$H in Chongqing, CDC Rap House in Chengdu, HHH in Xi An, DMOB in Beijing, LSD in Shanghai and etc. Used to be an active underground rapper and now a member of CDC Rap House in Chengdu, Wang initiated his exploration of music when he was at elementary school. “I first found myself interested in hip-hop when I was in elementary school. During that time, I got my first MP3 which can only store less than 20 songs. Most of those longs were pop music talking about love whose content was not that strong for me,” recalled Wang in the interview. “While a pop musician Jay Chou put a lot of rap into his songs. I found it different. I think it has more diversified content and it has more power.” Original pop music by Jay Chou with revolutionary lyrics and flow ignited Wang’s enthusiasm for rap music. “After Jay, I grew up while listening to MC HotDog who is a really famous rapper already during the rest of my elementary school. When I turned into middle school, I started to listen to Eminem, 50Cent, D12, Jay Z, 2 Pac...” shared Wang.



Photo by Zhihu.com

After completing his first original rap work in 2012, Wang went to the U.S to study recording engineering one year later. However, he found it deviated from what he expected and then 2 years later, he quitted in a bid to be fully devoted to his hip-hop music career. When asked about how to push forward with China’s rap, Wang said to NBD, “We should have a better understanding of people’s acceptance level of hip-hop culture and be patient and humble.” The show’s popularity may fade away some day while hip-hop music will keep moving forward in China, Wang added. Although shooting to stardom already, “keep calm” becomes Wang’s most frequently mentioned word during the interview. “If I can give younger rappers any advice, that would be keep calm and stick to your own way,” said Wang in earnest. “Do not need to follow anybody’s step. You must know what’s your own tone, what’s your own style and find your own way. How Wang Yitai made it maybe does not fit you.”


Yu Peiying 173

Hip-Hop Is About Finding One's Own Tone And Style




Wang Yitai hails from Chengdu, a cultural hub in the country’s southwest region, one of many cities across China where hip-hop music is gaining popularity. “There was a group called Big Zoo which is formed in probably 2004. They started to rap in Sichuan dialect at first. The founder of Big Zoo initiated CDC Rap House around a decade ago. From that time, it started to go on really seriously,” recalled Wang. “(After CDC Rap House was founded,) people started to treat us as like professionals. They started to listen to our music more carefully,” Wang said. He joined CDC Rap House in 2015. There witnessed other Chengdu rappers rising, such as Higher Brothers dubbed “the charismatic, genre-bending quartet” and rapper Boss Shady who made waves domestically with his work Daddy Ain’t Going to Work Tomorrow in Sichuan dialect in 2014. “In Chengdu, the environment for hip-hop has already been established. If you try to do rap, Chengdu is the best place for you,” speaking of Chengdu for nourishing hip-hop scene, explained Wang. “The lifestyle here, it is unique and it is more like Los Ange-


Yu Peiying 175

Hip-Hop Is About Finding One's Own Tone And Style

les because everybody is trying to have fun, to get a new start, to receive new information. It doesn’t cost a lot if you rent a house here and the pressure of life is not that big.” Chengdu aspires to not only become a hotspot for a unique genre but also develops itself into an entertainment and music district. “Before hip-hop, Chengdu used to be a rock and roll city, a town of bands. It is a diversified environment. Band culture still develops now. Besides hip-hop, I think that’s the second biggest genre in Chengdu,” claimed Wang. In January, Chengdu reported the overall revenue of its music industry in 2018, with the number reaching 39.79 billion yuan ($5.75 billion) and an increase of 21.69 percent over the previous year. This city hosted more than 1600 shows and over 2000 street performances last year. Chengdu now wants to use music to promote tourism, and music is already a big part of the area economy as the city ranks among the top three nationwide for revenue from music shows, media outlet China Daily reported citing a consultant in the music industry.



Photography by Sohu.com


Yu Peiying 177

Conclusion By Adan Kohnhorst





In the 21st century, the road a song must travel before it comes into existence is far more winding and complex than it’s ever been before. No longer an individual or small group effort, a piece of music moving from the mind of an artist to the ears of his or her audience will pass through the hands of any number of third parties. These third party influences could range from the input of an online contact, to the practiced touch of a trained audio engineer, to the weight of greater forces like market demographics and industry co-opting. In China today, the creative community is on the receiving end of a range of factors that make it more difficult for authentic content to achieve a cultural impact over the more diluted products that are engineered to sell from the conceptual stage. The country’s capitalist wave surges forward, with industry funding and developmental effort going to the groups capable of reaching the broadest listener demographics: the ‘largest lowest’ common denominator. Meanwhile, genuine voices often struggle to be heard, or are stifled by the larger processes of what is deemed culturally and legally acceptable. Niche artists (or those who can be considered accurate representations of niche culture) find themselves in new territory, trying to walk the line between being true to their work and being legitimately marketable in a society that is only becoming increasingly commercial and market-driven. But as China grows, slowly climbing out of their own often-cited domain as a developing country, the communities who live there edge closer and closer to the realities of their American and western counterparts, and the line of “culturally and legally acceptable” begins to blur. Those who hold on to older social norms start to coexist with newer ideas once their validity is established (i.e. what was seen in the 90’s after the initial “explosion” of hip hop fever died down), and legal restrictions on creative output become more difficult to enforce as a new generation comes of age, one whose existence has been defined by the internet, and by a deeper connection to the outside world than their parents had ever had. At first, it might be natural to guess that China’s eagerness to modernize and its increasing leaning towards capitalist tendencies would spell disaster for the non-commercial hip hop community. That the millions of RMB being poured into the industry would eclipse the smaller artists, and that the country’s white-knuckled grip around the flow of its media would preclude the “self-made” revolution that an increasing number of musicians in America are experiencing, having matured in the worlds of websites like Soundcloud and Bandcamp. And, if you were to have made this guess, you would have some valid points. But while these factors do have a detrimental effect on the subculture, they are in reality dwarfed by the larger factor of our modern world’s increasingly unilateral global culture. One half century ago, not only were the citizens of China leading lives completely different from their American counterparts, but they were powerless to even understand on a


surface level what kinds of things could be going on outside the borders of their country. Information was not just restricted, but nonexistent. In China today, remnants of this history can unfortunately still be seen functioning on every level of society in the forms of media censorship, penalties for criticizing the government, and restrictions on individual freedom of speech. But whereas the last generation was at a loss for even the most minimal piece of foreign news, today’s middle schoolers only have to reach for their pockets in order to access detailed information and multimedia on a place, event, or individual. The number of people in China who have access to anti-firewall VPNs or an education in English is growing as well, carving new depth into this well of detailed information.

the tools and the knowledge to tap into the practice of essentially any subculture. It’s become clear that the outward-expanding force of China’s international consciousness is impossible to confine.

What’s more is that Chinese youth are no longer satisfied with their immediate surroundings. Growing up in a modern China that is poised halfway between millennia-old cultural values and up-tothe-minute transglobal relevance has bred in them a hunger for world citizenship. More and more Chinese high school graduates are traveling abroad for higher education and the country’s international tourism expenditure has more than quadrupled in the past decade. After a childhood and adolescence immersed in the maelstrom of subcultural vocabulary that developed alongside social technology in the 2000’s, today’s Chinese youth are eager to rush into what George Zhao called “a cultural free-for-all”, finally equipped with


Adan Kohnhorst


Fan, Shuhong. “The History of Rap in China, Part 2: Hip Hop Goes Mainstream (2010-2019).” RADII, 26 Aug. 2019, radiichina.com/the-history-of-rap-in-china-part-2-hip-hop-goes-mainstream-2010-2019/. Kevin. “Pop-Culturalist Chats with Wang Yi Tai.” Exclusive Interview: Pop-Culturalist Chats with Wang Yi Tai, Pop- Culturalist, 6 July 2019, pop-culturalist.com/exclusive-interview-popculturalist-chats-with-wang-yi-tai/. Kohnhorst, Adan. “Anatomy of a Shift.” The Tao of Hip Hop, www.taoofhiphop.com/anatomy-of-a-shift. Kohnhorst, Adan. “Setting the Scene.” The Tao of Hip Hop, www.taoofhiphop.com/new-page. Kohnhorst, Adan. “Conclusion.” The Tao of Hip Hop, www.taoofhiphop.com/conclusion. Liu, Yi-Ling. “Chengdu Cool: The Rise of Sichuan’s Homegrown Hip Hop.” Guernica, Guernica, 12 Sept. 2018, www.guernicamag.com/chengdu-cool-the-rise-of-sichuans-homegrown-hip-hop/. Opie, David. “Higher Brothers Smash All Kinds of Barriers With ‘Five Stars.’” Higher Brothers - ‘Five Stars’ Review, HIGHSNOBIETY, 25 Feb. 2019, www.highsnobiety.com/p/higher-brothersfive-stars-review/. Qin, Amy. “With Dreadlocks, Rhythm and Flow, China Embraces Hip-Hop.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 26 Oct. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/10/26/world/asia/china-hip-hop. html?searchResultPosition=1. Sheehan, Matt. “Meet The Chinese Rappers Bringing Hip-Hop To The Middle Kingdom.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 13 Aug. 2015, www.huffpost.com/entry/chinese-rappers-hip-hop_n_55ca6009e4b0923c12be783e. Sherman, Markus. “Q&A With Bohan Phoenix about Hip-Hop & Cultural Expression in China.” Q&A With Bohan Phoenix About Hip-Hop & Cultural Expression In China, US-CHINA TODAY, 2 May 2019, uschinatoday.org/features/2019/05/02/qa-with-bohan-phoenix-about-hip-hop-cultural-expression-in-china/. Wong, Alex, and Tony Wu. “The American Dream of the Higher Brothers.” GQ, GQ, 20 July 2018, www.gq.com/story/the-american-dream-of-the-higher-brothers. Yu, Peiying. “Hip-Hop Is about Finding One’s Own Tone and Style, Says ‘Rap of China’ Star Wang Yitai.” NBD, NBD, 22 May 2019, m.nbdpress.com/articles/2019-05-22/6772.html. Zhao, Christina. “From Chengdu with Flow: How the Higher Brothers Brought Chinese Hip-Hop to Western Ears.” Newsweek, Newsweek, 21 Mar. 2019, www.newsweek.com/2019/04/05/ chengdu-flow-how-higher-brothers-brought-chinese-hip-hop-western-ears-1343518.html. Zhou, David, and Lucas Farrar. “China’s Hip-Hop Capitals: Chongqing and Chengdu.” MAEKAN, MAEKAN, 9 Feb. 2018, maekan.com/article/chengdu-hip-hop-chengdu-hip-hop/.

BOOKS WRITTEN BY : Yi-Ling Liu, Amy Qin, Adan Kohnhorst, Matt Sheehan, Alex Wong, Christina Zhao, David Opie, Markus Sherman, Kevin BOOKS CURATED BY: WEI YIN ©2020 For more information, go to weiyindesign.com


Profile for wyin

Made in Chengdu  

Hip Hop music and artists in Chengdu since 2010

Made in Chengdu  

Hip Hop music and artists in Chengdu since 2010

Profile for wyin

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