Adolescent boys on a faded green basketball court in Beijing, loosely dressed in a mix of NBA and CBA team jerseys, rhythmically exchange the ball and bob their heads to the beat of an Eminem song. This scene captures just one of the many ways in which black American popular culture has taken root in China. Some see the Chinese adoption of black cultural symbols as culturally appropriative. But many do not comprehend the country’s strict censorship and thus the resulting limits on self-expression. This situation limits most Chinese people’s understanding of the underlying historical narrative that informs rap in the United States.
With roots that stretch beyond the Bronx and Los Angeles all the way back to the African continent, American rap music is a complex ethnography of the African American struggle. Chinese rap is, put simply, a contradiction.
Starting in the late 1990s, rap music migrated to China largely in commercialized form, first through illegal, and later through public channels. While American rap musicians often tap into their own personal experience and shared history to create meaningful content, most Chinese rappers, especially in the early scene, began their careers by imitating the limited pieces of black culture and music available to them. Many times, rappers and ‘rap-heads’ discover these pieces, and subsequently rap music, accidentally through learning the English language. After moving to the United States, Chinese-American rapper Bohan Phoenix first discovered rap through Eminem’s feature biopic, “8-Mile”, while Shanghai based Straight Fire Gang frontman STG Cuckzigga (Zige Jiang) first heard rap music on a pirated Lil’ Wayne CD as a middle-schooler. As a result of the United States’ position as the primary exporter of modern rap music, many Chinese rap musicians look to the West as an example for what content to produce and how to produce it, without questioning their own motivations or understanding. But as the industry grows, musicians, fans and industry innovators define a generation by pioneering a Chinese rap scene that is not only unique, but more complex than meets the eye.
Rap first began to take hold in China in the early 1990s, when pop artists around China began experimenting with elements of hip-hop that were popular in the United States at the time. The first Chinese album to gain popularity branded as “rap” was “Stranger”(某某人), released by early pioneers Xie Dong, Yin Xiangjie, and Tu Tu. The music video for the opening track on the album, “La La La” (啦啦啦), features tight tank-tops, hard synthesizers, and neon graffiti cut straight out of a scene from the 1980s cult classic, “Breakin’”. The next major development in the scene began in 2000, when Beijing based Yin Ts’Ang (隐藏) and Shanghai based Bamboo Crew (竹游人) introduced the idea of a quintessential “rap crew” with “gangster” outfits, witty verses and revolutionary (at least for China) rhyme schemes that the next generation of Chinese rap artists would emulate. Despite this early growth, there was still little individualism and creativity in the scene, as many who called themselves “rappers” continued to imitate Western styles — to the extent that rappers performed memorized popular Western rap.
In this classic battle, Beijing’s Chen Hao Ren goes blow for blow against two of Shanghai’s young and upcoming battle MCs, Shady & Jverson 中国嘻哈说唱大赛
At the turn of the century, Dana “Detroit Showtyme” Burton arrived in China with a vision ‒ to bring rap to China. Burton, a Detroit native and Muslim convert, began his career by curating and promoting small rap shows in Shanghai nightclubs. In 2001, in response to what he felt was a lack of Chinese rap community, Burton organized the first nationwide Chinese rap battle ‒- “Iron Mic”. These Chinese language one-on-one contests were often held in gritty underground venues and provided a platform for emerging rappers to express their rage and frustration induced by societal and familial pressure, or just life in general. Diss lyrics filled contestants’ freestyles, and fist fights were a regular occurrence. Starting with MC Webber, the competition gave rise to rappers like Beijing OG’s Lil Ray and MC Dawei, and inspired a generation of rap crews across the country. Among them, Beijing crews Purple Soul (龙胆紫) and Yin San’er (阴三儿), whose hard-hitting lyrics embodied rebellious youth spirit, anchored growth in the late 2000s.
As the underground community grew, it quickly attracted the attention of the government who did not understand the art form. Fearing the the scene’s anti-establishment values and propensity to promote violent and criminal activity, starting in 2012, the government launched a tense string of interventions that sought to silence the growing movement. Yin San’er (阴三儿) was barred from performing in China and shows all over the country were cancelled or raided. Some artists including Yin San’er (阴三儿) members Chen Haoran and Jiawei were even jailed in 2015. Despite all of this, the community of rap diehards hung on and helped revitalize the scene some years later.
New York based Chinese-English language artist and revolutionary MC Tingbudong (MC听不懂）discusses his own experience and some major differences between the two eras of Chinese rap in an interview with US-China Today at RADII’s China.wav event in Los Angeles last May.
The rise of platforms such as Weibo and WeChat after 2009 made it easier for artists to connect with each other and the world. Hundreds of new artists and groups have entered the scene, drawing from diverse experiences and combining elements of Chinese heritage and modern hip-hop to create unique content. Higher Brothers is considered to be the most successful group birthed during this era. The four members Masiwei, Psy. P, Melo and DZ Know, hail from Chengdu and comprise one of the few internationally-recognized Chinese groups. Since signing with New York based 88Rising, the “trap kids from Chengdu” have toured around the world, even making appearances at festivals like Austin’s South by Southwest in 2018, and released two studio albums that feature American artists — Black Cab (2017) and Five Stars (2019). Meanwhile, artists like Xi’an’s PG One, later of Xi’an based group HHH (红花会), Chongqing based group GO$H, Chengdu based CDC, and others became some of the most influential figures in the underground scene back in China. These artists often include their native Chinese dialect, English, and Mandarin in their music. Some incorporate Chinese instrumental samples, sing in traditional Chinese styles and feature glimpses of daily Chinese life in their videos. The connectedness and saturation of the scene at this time created a healthy competition that drove artists in this period to carve out their niche and improve their production quality.
The overall development in this period set the stage for what would be Chinese rap’s most profound revolution.
In 2017, web-series “Rap of China” (中国新说唱) was the tidal wave that unexpectedly brought rap from the underground venues of Chengdu, Beijing, and Shanghai to the forefront of popular culture. The show invites rappers to compete in a series of challenges that test their “flow” and performance ability, and features renowned K-pop-star Kris Wu, Will Pan, G.E.M (邓紫棋), and Taiwanese musicians MC Hotdog and Chang Chen Yue (张震岳) as judges.
Prior to the show’s airing, “nobody could have predicted what a success it would be,” says Wes Chen, the host of Chinese rap-centered radio show “The Park” (嘻哈公园) , but “one reason Rap of China was so exciting was because it was untread ground” says Radii Associate Editor Adan Kohnhorst. Especially in the premier season, “it was really going to decide who the famous rappers are in China,” ‒- and it did. In just over a month, the show recorded over 1.3 billion views, rocketing Season 1 favorites PG One, Gai, Tizzy T, and Bridge to superstardom practically overnight.
PGOne and Kris Wu team up to deliver a performance on the Season 1 finale of Rap of China
As new episodes aired, more everyday citizens began identifying with rap culture ‒- wearing streetwear, idolizing their favorite contestants, and even posting their own freestyles on social media platforms like TikTok. While “Rap of China” afforded the everyday person exposure to rap music, which benefits industry development, many agree that this level of public exposure was too much in too short of a time frame. Almost immediately following their transition to the center of public attention, nearly all major contestants were forced to censor their music; both Season 1 co-champions, PG One and GAI, were banned from performing due to “obscene lyrics.” The effects of this new level of stringency were not just felt by the show’s contestants. Advancements in technology and new bureaucratic processes are making it easier for the government to censor rappers all over China.
“Before Rap of China, you could upload your music to Netease (网易音乐) as long as your lyrics weren’t too sensitive,” says Chinese rapper STG Cuckzigga (Zige Jiang). “After, rappers who had been denied uploads were forced to either upload instrumentals or not upload at all.”
“There is also a lot more hoops that artists and promoters have to jump through to perform,” says Bohan Phoenix. “It’s become way more difficult to permit a venue, venues have to pay [police] a lot more to stay open late, festivals are being shut down altogether, and artists’ houses are even getting raided.” But, “[these] regulations are in line with the regulations that [we’re] seeing happening all around China,” says Allyson Toy, Phoenix’s manager.
While it can be easy to judge this as an impediment on freedom of speech or expression, many involved in the industry agree that if you are trying to win the game in China, you have to abide by unwritten rules.
“For the most part, what China controls in the media is what they control in peoples’ lives,” says Kohnhorst. “The things that people aren’t allowed to rap about aren’t part of [the rappers] lives anyway.” Some artists have also found ways to bend the rules without breaking them. Shanghai-based group Straight Fire Gang (直火帮) releases more profane versions of their tracks on international platforms and self-censored versions in the domestic market, likening the process to artists releasing a clean version for radio.
Recent protests in Hong Kong and the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the PRC have only made censorship practices in China more stringent. But even though this has the potential to impact musicians’s ability to produce authentic content, Kohnhorst believes that “it will not be end of story for Chinese rap.”
The end of the “novelty phase” brought about by “Rap of China” seems to have created another turning point for the industry. A growing number of domestic and international media outlets now promote Chinese music, and more labels are competing for Chinese artist contracts. It is now more common than ever for artists to abandon quality in favor of commercial gain.
“The old school guys, whether you were a rapper, bboy, or DJ, we’re all doing it for the love. The whole scene was more organic,” says Chen. Nowadays, “there are so many artists out there who only have their eyes on the [money] or are trying to chase clout that you don’t know who really cares about the music or the culture.” This conflict that pits artistry and popularity against each other in the post-“Rap of China” boon defines the scene today, but there are still plenty of artists working for their big break that are producing content that is authentic to their unique experience out of love for the art, not the money.
Given the influence of globalization, technology and domestic Chinese factors, predicting where the industry will go from here is no easy task. Ten years down the road, “rap may not be one of the mainstream genres” in China, says STG Chuckzigga (Zige Jiang), but “I feel like most rap fans in the US will be able to name at least two or three Chinese or Chinese diaspora artists” says Kohnhorst. But as the world becomes more connected, future industry leaders will be those that have the cross-cultural competence to navigate both the Chinese and international markets. The hope is that these trailblazers will remain uncompromised by the allure of commercial gain and will continue to speak their minds in the face of new government and industry challenges, staking the claim that Chinese rap is not going anywhere.
Bohan Phoenix’s latest EP “The Prince” (王子）and Straight Fire Gang’s latest album “The Second Bar” are streaming now on all platforms.
Featured image: Straight Fire Gang performing in Guangzhou on their most recent tour.