On Xiangyang Bei road in Shanghai, one floor above a sitdown restaurant and one below a dive bar serving beer by the bucket, sits ALL Club, ground zero for a community of young musicians and DJs pushing club culture forward. Viewing the ALL scene from Instagram, it’s easy to attach labels like ‘cyberpunk’ or ‘dystopian’ to its mix of extreme fashion and discordant dance music. But unlike the first waves of UK punk and Berlin techno, which were fed by an undercurrent of cold-war nihilism, this group of genre-transgressing club kids come from a place of hope, an optimism that they’re articulating a new start, not an endpoint. Nevertheless, their jagged mix of icy techno, gabber, footwork, grime and other high-bpm micro-genres has resulted in a sound that can come off as alienating to unconditioned ears. It’s a sound of acceleration.
The ALL scene gestated over long nights at The Shelter, a converted air-raid bunker that’s since been closed. “It was a really mysterious, legendary place,” says Shanghai producer Tess Sun AKA Hyph11E, who’s represented the scene at London’s Corsica Studios and CTM Festival in Berlin. Parlaying her day job as a commercial producer into night work at ALL (The Shelter’s successor, opened last summer), Hyph11E laid the groundwork for Genome 6.66Mbp, the essential label defining a new Shanghai sound.
“The visual and sonic sides of things have become more deeply intertwined,” Hyph11E says of ALL Club. “Fashion, visuals, design and music are all being thrown in the blender and the end product is something really unique.” Hyph11E’s music pulls together different styles she heard at The Shelter, without sounding too much like any one genre. The sartorial styles on view at ALL likewise reference distant corners of rave, punk, goth and cosplay, but it’s difficult to get the full picture from your phone screen.
“It’s hard for people outside China to see the rate of change here through the limited scope of what makes it online,” says Hyph11E. Many artists express frustration with western commentaries about China’s repressive political atmosphere as a barrier to expression. Crackdowns happen – a handful of drug busts in recent years have resulted in scattered arrests – but the major challenge remains cultural, not political. While the parents of an average 20-something in China came of age during a period of violent social upheaval, the current generation is inheriting decades of economic growth – a buildup manifested in the skylines that have shot up in cities like Shanghai over the past 30 years. Relative political stability and the steady accumulation of wealth over this period have created a gap between mainstream and countercultural values that can be likened to the post-WWII west, though on a much vaster scale.
“There’s still a huge gulf between the mainstream and the underground,” says Hyph11E. But that’s changing: where The Shelter’s crowd was, by her estimation, 70 per cent foreigners and 30 per cent locals, those figures are flipped at ALL, where “more and more Chinese people have become interested in underground music culture, and are trying to do something different”.
33EMYBW & GOOOOOSE
Through their work in various experimental rock groups, Wu Shanmin and Han Han have been influential figures on Shanghai’s underground rock scene for over a decade. But more recently they’ve gravitated to the club circuit with distinctive solo projects.
Wu, who performs as 33EMYBW, says ALL’s “diversity and tolerance” attracted her to the scene. She adds that the attitude embodied by Genome 6.66Mbp and SVBKVLT – the label run by the forces behind ALL, which just released her debut album, Golem – constitutes a new voice for the city: “It’s because of ALL that I have a nightlife.”
“I wouldn’t say that the club is the most comfortable place for me,” Wu continues, “but that is where there’s a fast and violent, vital development at the moment. The young people who go out to clubs are the ones who prefer unique, stylish music.”
Wu’s partner, Han Han AKA GOOOOOSE, has also been attracted to the “forward-thinking club music” he’s heard at ALL, where a uniquely local identity is slowly being synthesised from a broad spectrum of foreign sounds. “When a place tries to absorb something fermented for over half a century in ten years, some weird shit will happen,” he explains. Following his 2017 EP, they, the producer is busy preparing new work for SVBKVLT, inspired by the younger generation he’s seen come up on the scene. “I think some new words should be invented to describe this music.”
“I’m tired of conversations about ideology and government regulation,” says Kilo Vee, Genome 6.66Mbp co-founder and a lodestar of the ALL scene. Bucking western media narratives, he wants the collective to be viewed on its own terms: “energetic and full of forward-moving passion”.
“Clubbing is becoming a way of life for local young people,” Vee explains. “In the Shanghai scene, a mature group of self-styled club kids is now being cultivated.”
Vee got into skateboarding after college, and through that scene was dragged into the Shelter orbit. He responded to a call for part-time bar work at the club in 2012, and found himself increasingly drawn to the music after life-changing sets from Madlib, Kode9 and Mykki Blanco, among others. He ultimately realised that his place wasn’t behind the bar, but in the booth.
“We’re in an environment where we can create many possibilities,” says Vee of the club, which has proved a crucial platform for Genome 6.66Mbp’s “uncompromising sound”. For Vee, ALL’s “extreme music and vision (of) no skin-colour boundaries, no gender boundaries, no political boundaries” allow his cohorts to “form an alternative, purely unique and undefinable aesthetic”. So far, Genome’s efforts have inspired upstarts like Hangzhou label FunctionLab and Shenzhen club OIL, but Vee says it’s still early days: “Eventually, this catalyses a culture that truly belongs to us… The biggest challenge is our own – passion and patience (through) music.”
“I don’t like to label my style,” says DJ and model Xanthous Bae. “My fashion aesthetic is very freewheeling, depending on my mood.” The 23-year-old Qingdao native is a relative newcomer to the world of club music. Her entry point was through fashion – specifically, her unique, found-fashion aesthetic that’s at once evocative and tough to pigeonhole – and the attention it gained her on social media. On any given night, she’ll match a spiked crimson radiation mask with an eye-patch, or stick-on elf ears with fake tribal tattoos.
A self-taught designer and stylist, Bae has been a follower of the underground scene at The Shelter and ALL for several years, attracted by the sounds released on Genome 6.66Mbp and SVBKVLT. In August she launched her own club night at ALL, Morbid, which she spearheads under the DJ name unhea7thy4u, and soundtracks with her eclectic interests in hardstyle, electro, rave, grime, Chinese pop and “kawaii music”. “What I present is a very fanatical and brutal environment,” says Bae of her approach to DJing.
Speaking to the evolving fashion sensibility at ALL – which she has been instrumental in shaping, both online and off – Bae says: “Good music is first and foremost, but (the) visual (aspect) is more likely to bring the party to a climax if it works well… Most young people are still following suit. Only a small percentage will know exactly what they want, and actually create something of their own. But I think (we’re) in a phase of growth.”
DJ and promoter Elsie Liu – AKA Illsee – is an essential presence on the Shanghai scene, as one half of the longrunning Stockholm Syndrome night and the major driver of Cosign, a weekly Wednesday gig at ALL showcasing “music you rarely hear on the weekend”.
Through Cosign, Liu has worked alongside other progressive forces in the community, including NÜSHÙ, a workshop for “femme-identifying, queer, LGBTQ and non-binary people to learn DJing basics”. Cosign has also played host to collaborations with online platform Shanghai Community Radio, as well as Pengzhuang, an ambient synth project by the husband-wife duo who run a local record shop called Uptown.
“Media reports on the club scene usually only (focus on) negative news, which leads the public to think that the clubs are decadent, dirty and unhealthy,” says Liu, adding that it can be an uphill battle to promote established western artists with little name recognition in China. But this fresh ground – as well as the particular cultural quirks of the city – generates interesting opportunities.
“Shanghai has a large population, a developed economy and fierce competition,” says Liu. “Whether you’re a DJ or in the audience, we all have a need for catharsis. When you dig out the negative emotions such as weakness, anger, anxiety and pain and show them to others, you may be more likely to resonate with them.”
“In the last few years, with the audience shifting to more Chinese and less expats, the crowd is newer to underground dance music,” says Tzu Sing Tho, who produces under the name Tzusing, of Shanghai’s rapidly evolving club culture. “It adds a layer of freedom that allows for new possibilities.”
Speaking on his years of involvement in stirring up the Shanghai scene via his night, Stockholm Syndrome, Tho claims “it’s taken way more seriously now… It’s not so much a novelty thing. People don’t go see Chinese artists because they’re surprised Chinese women can use synths. They’re there to see a producer or DJ they enjoy.”
Born in Malaysia and raised between Singapore, Taiwan and China, Tho moved to Kunshan – an industrial suburb of Shanghai – in 2007 to start a business, eventually refocusing his energy on to music. The DJ and producer acknowledges the open-minded attitudes of bookers at The Shelter and Shanghai club Dada for “actively encouraging DJs to take chances”. He also credits Kim Laughton – ALL’s in-house visual artist – with pushing the scene’s aesthetic into new territory.
“Instead of being a club that just regurgitates what is happening in Europe, (ALL is) trying to do something of its own, and because of this it has resonated with young people from different practices,” says Tho. “This has fed back into the club and added another, much-needed dimension to the culture.”
Although she lives in Taipei – a 90-minute flight from Shanghai – Sonia Calico is tapped into the Shanghai zeitgeist. Through connections with Beijing-based label Do Hits, the producer otherwise known as Sonia Lai has had frequent contact with new movers from mainland China, including a show at Shanghai venue Le Baron that she played in the gap between The Shelter closing and ALL opening. She maintains close contact with fellow Taipei artist and streetwear designer Veeeky, who recently made the move to Beijing, and has often shared the bill with Tzusing, who spends about half his time in Taipei.
As founder of the UnderU label, Lai has done more than most to take the rumblings of greater China’s underground overseas. In the past couple of years alone, she has represented Taiwan at SXSW and LA’s legendary Low End Theory. Lai calls her latest EP, Desert Trance, a sonic picture of “scenery which is futuristic and desperately beautiful, with complicated human emotions. Something between apocalyptic fiction and Chinese martial arts movies.”
“Electronic dance music has been a one-way export, from the west to the east, for a long time,” says Lai. “It is interesting to see now that influences can go both ways. Through the time I spend in the west, I can see people now have a lot of interest in Chinese electronic music, which is exciting, as this recognition means we’re very motivated. Everyone is trying to create something no one has made before – our own thing.”
US-born producer Eli Osheyack is a bridge between the Shanghai scene and its overseas counterparts. Originally from Vermont, he has gravitated to DIY shows in basements, warehouses and other non-traditional venues since his teenage years. His latest album, Sadomodernism – released in September – brings together disparate international sounds that help to shape the Shanghai scene, incorporating operatic arias sung by Michael Cignarale (founder of Medusa, Shanghai’s premiere queer club night), doom drone from French producer Raphaël Valensi (an audio engineer who masters much of the SVBKVLT and Genome 6.66Mbp output), and stray influences like gabber, thrash metal and hardcore punk.
“Everyone was already riding a wave of excitement about all the new music coming out when the move from The Shelter to ALL took place,” says Osheyack of the current mood of optimism in Shanghai. "The new space seemed to help focus the entire scene."
“There is a futurism in the music being made here in the sense that a lot of it feels reflective of the accelerating reality that is Shanghai. The main difference is that what’s happening in Shanghai is new, and there’s a lack of context for club culture. Other cities like Berlin or New York have a long history with electronic music and clubbing, and there’s a defined identity to those places and the artists living there. Shanghai is writing its own story now.”
Originally from Taipei, Stella Chung began producing music during a stint in London in 2009 and, as Scintii, has been steadily building a body of work around her own voice ever since.
Chung moved to Shanghai in 2017, and the city has proved to be a fertile ground for the expansion of her creative energy. After being invited by the Genome 6.66Mbp crew to perform at Dada Shanghai and The Shelter, she says she “felt really lucky to have people with welcoming ears – those were the first few times I felt connected with the crowd”.
Though her music is warmer and more melodic than that of many of her local peers, Chung feels at home among the budding group of experimental producers and DJs she often shares bills with in Shanghai. “I think that China is weird and interesting like no other place at the moment,” she says. “New and old is often being put together and taken out of its original context in a very aggressive way – it almost feels kinda punk. Despite strict regulations from the government, the general atmosphere is optimistic.”
After a sporadic stream of EPs and singles – including the cerebral, house-inflected “Papier” – Chung is preparing her next release for SVBKVLT, a series of baroque electronic tunes grounded in her own ethereal vocal samples that push at the boundaries of established dance music genres. Much like her Shanghai peers, Chung is motivated by the possibility of pure originality.
Josh Feola is the culture editor of RADII
Hair John Zhang, make-up Clive.X, photography assistants Liu Yifei, Qiao Dongbin, styling assistants Zhou Yicun, Bao Shuman, hair assistant Sussie Lee, make-up assistants Beata Xu, A Leng, production Oolong, Jiaozi, translation Emma Sun, special thanks Adam Chen