Hip hop is one of China’s fastest growing (and most controversial) scenes – after exploding in 2017, this year it looks set to cross over in the west
Although the Chinese rap scene has been fermenting since the early 2000s, in 2017 The Rap of China took the genre mainstream. The hugely popular reality television show – the most expensive ever made, to the tune of £23.7 million – brought Chinese-language rap to the screens of millions of viewers around the country, clocking in more than 2.5 billion views.
The show, hosted by K-Pop idol Kris Wu, took terms like ‘spitting’, ‘dissing’, and ‘freestyling’ to a new and eager audience. The image of Chinese youths clad in streetwear, sporting dreads and chains, and spitting rapidfire lyrics in various dialects of Mandarin, may be unfamiliar to traditional hip hop fans. But for Chinese youth culture, it’s the new normal – and the western world is starting to pay attention.
The question of cultural appropriation that gets asked of white hip hop artists – see the beef between Iggy Azalea and Azealia Banks for one particularly high profile example – has so far passed over the Chinese artists, themselves coming from a culture with a history of white oppression. However, as Chinese rap grows in popularity, so does its controversy. PG One, one of the two winners of The Rap of China and seen as one of the country’s hottest talents, came under fire at the end of last year for rapping lyrics that degraded women and promoted drug use. The government stepped in, cancelling shows, and he was quickly dropped from brand collaborations worth millions.
PG One took to social media to complain about his treatment, attributing his unpopular lyrics to his “early exposure to hip hop culture, which is deeply influenced by black music”. Speaking to Dazed, Bohan Phoenix, a Chinese rapper who has previously lived in the US, calls PG One’s defense “fucked up”. “The dude makes millions of USD in a year off black culture, and then blames his own doings and choices on black culture,” says Bohan, who worries that PG One will have made it harder for other hip hop artists to operate in China. “It’s possible that this one dude ruined the whole party.”
Here’s hoping not, because there are some pretty sick names to watch on the Chinese rap scene. Emerging artists like Higher Brothers are proving that it’s entirely possible to respectfully pay homage to one culture while building something totally new. Here are some of the musical talents creating spectacular sounds for 2018.
Without a doubt the biggest name on the rap scene in China, and set to go global this year with a 2018 North American tour, Higher Brothers are the Sichuanese brethren who are blazing a trail fierier than the spicy food for which their province is famous. The foursome chose their name after the Chinese electronics brand Haier, because they too wanted to be in every household, and the best in any style. That said, their style is pretty specifically trap rap with a raucous, Sichuan flavour – tracks such as “Made in China” and “WeChat” tackle topics specific to urban Chinese youth culture.
The band’s members cite US figures like J Cole, 50 Cent, and Kendrick Lamar as their influences; a special shout out to Lamar appears on the 2017 album Black Cab in the form of the track “Bitch Don’t Kill My Dab”, a trancey, drawly number in which the lyrics switch seamlessly between Sichuanese and English. As familiar as their sounds are to fans of old school 90s hip hop, Higher Brothers are without a doubt mixing the game up with Chinese characteristics.
An established crossover artist, Bohan Phoenix has been “consumed” by rap since his teenage years spent in Boston, where he moved from Sichuan aged 11. Despite his Western upbringing, Bohan’s music is unmistakably Chinese, even if it does draw on American styles of R&B and hip hop. He describes his own style as “trying to achieve some sort of harmony… between these two mega cultures.” His standout track, “Jala”, is a funky, energetic rap riffing in English and Mandarin on questions around his origins and ethnicity. The track takes its name from the Mandarin phrase jia la, which means ‘to add spice’. So spicy is it that it caught the eye of Broad City producers, who featured it on the soundtrack of a New York party in the show’s fourth season.
Bohan recently moved back to China to spend more time with his family, but he’s still focused on challenging western stereotypes about rappers. “There’s a lot of doubt still, but it all takes time,” he says. “Artists who are Chinese just need to step it up and make better shit, shit that can compete with the world, not just within China.”
An underground producer and the co-founder of the acclaimed Do Hits label, Howie Lee is the man everyone in the business wants to talk to. An experimental artist who dabbles in rap amongst other (mostly electronic) genres, he was recently approached by the team of Charli XCX to remix her smash hit track “Boys” for a Chinese audience, with Charli learning some Mandarin especially for the production.
The track has so far only been released on the Chinese streaming site Xiami, but Howie says the Chinese reaction hasn’t been totally positive. “There was some negative feedback,” he says from Taipei, his home when he’s not recording in Beijing. “Some people thought it was too stereotypically Chinese. A lot of people just hate Chinese songs, they prefer other stuff.”
Howie tends to look outwards from China with his work. “My life is experimental, my audience is always western,” he says, but also remarks that his new album will be more Chinese, drawing inspiration from the lost mountain songs of rural Chinese workers who have migrated to the cities in the past 40 years. Being so abstract and experimental, many of his tracks have a universal appeal, although he says he feels more free in the west “to make random sounds” even if “people don’t get it, they think I’m singing in dialect Chinese.”
A runner-up on The Rap of China, VaVa has nonetheless had huge national success since the show finished, and is one of the biggest female rappers in China. VaVa raps predominantly in Mandarian or Sichuanese, making her slightly less accessible to an international audience, but her upbeat, electronic sounds are bouncy enough to keep all but the most ruthless rap enthusiasts interested. Given her reality TV background, VaVa is perhaps a more commercial product than other underground Chinese stars, but she’s unlike some of her peers in that she openly talks about her difficult childhood. VaVa was raised by a single mother, who she later dropped out of school early to support, before she started making music of her own. She’s spoken sensitively in interviews about the challenges facing Chinese hip hop artists, acknowledging “potential issues… when it comes to cultural appropriation”, and emphasising the importance of a “distinctive hip hop environment” in China.