The Changeable Fortunes of Beijing’s Underground Hip Hop Scene
‘Hip-Hop culture’ is a broad concept. It includes not only the music, but also the fashions and ideals of a now global phenomenon. Couple that with an equally broad and varied concept, that of Chinese culture, and the result is bound to be intriguing. After considering the recent surge to popularity of the glossy hit TV show ‘Rappers of China’ – which seeks to prove the existence of a Chinese rap scene through an X-factor-style big money talent competition – I went in search of the other side of Chinese hip hop -underground in Beijing.
The earliest evidence of Hip Hop culture in China, according to several long-time fans, was the import of the film ‘Breakdance’ in the 1980s. The film, and several others like it, were remarkably popular – not only introducing Beijing to the sounds, clothing and dance of Hip Hop, but also leading a wave of young Chinese enthusiasts to take up breakdancing themselves.
However, it wasn’t until 2001, and the formation of the group Yin Ts’ang 隐藏 that China had a serious hip hop champion of their own. Their 2004 album Wei renmin fuwu （为人民服务）or Serve the People (a parody of a Mao-era slogan) was met with national and international acclaim. The track In Beijing was distinctly Chinese, using a traditional Erhu fiddle and a drum machine for a backing track and describing the various neighborhoods of the capital. The years 2004 to 2008 saw a flourishing of underground, subversive Rap groups, most notably Yin Sanr(阴三儿) or In3, who used rap as medium to critique the social injustices of post-Mao China. However, in the run up to the 2008 Olympics, and especially since the presidency of Xi Jinping, subversive hip hop artists have found themselves marginalized from record labels, prevented from performing or even detained and intimidated for days on end.
I wanted to look beyond the simple rhetoric of success followed by oppression. I used WeChat and Weibo and went to cafes, parties and concerts. I spoke to friends, fans, bartenders, rappers and anyone who expressed an interest in hip hop culture, hoping to to ascertain its true underground nature.
The Music and the Fans
From the start, a common theme with many of the people I spoke to was the influence of North American culture on the scene – particularly in the early stages of a fan’s enthusiasm. Huang Shuo, for instance, a 27 year old rapper I met in Beijing, told me that he was first introduced to rap via The Beastie Boys’ Get it Together, which would play before and after the ad breaks during the NBA games he watched on TV as a child. Bunny, who owns a hip hop lounge in Beijing’s student district, related to me how she came across MC Hammer’s infamous Can’t Touch This after looking through her uncle’s record collection.
Other fans, however, came to hip hop via other countries. Several fans told me how they listened to Korean, Japanese or Taiwanese rap music before discovering that of mainland China. As New Foreign, an American rapper currently living and performing in Beijing describes, “Chinese Hip Hop imports cultural artifacts from the world over”. What’s more, increasingly Beijing Hip Hop fans grew up listening to home-grown Chinese Hip Hop. Another rapper, MC BeCareful explained “MC Webber [of Yin Ts’ang fame], we all listened to his music, he started all of this”. Another even drew links between rap music and Beijing’s traditional Xiangsheng theatre (whereby two performers, usually men deliver puns and gags at a rhythmic, fast pace).
Internationally, it is not uncommon for people to be derisive of Hip Hop cultures outside spawned outside of the US. This is especially true of Chinese Hip Hop, which is viewed as false or superficial. Some of my Chinese interviewees seemed to share this perception, as one told me, “Chinese Hip Hop is just imitation… Gangsters in the US or in Europe are all real gangsters. But China, China has a lot of fake gangsters. A lot of Chinese kids wanna wear baggy clothes and dark glasses, they’ll say ‘what’s up?’, but it’s all just posing. Gangsters in America can pull out a gun and kill people if they feel threatened, they challenge everyone and dare to use rap lyrics to resist and to ridicule society, do the Chinese dare to do this?” This was a frequently-voiced concern for many Beijingers I spoke to: was China a suitable arena for the uncompromising ideals of Hip Hop? One fan I spoke to articulated the underlying concerns of those worried about ‘fake gangsters’ and superficiality within Beijing’s hip hop scene more simply, “Is this Hip Hop? I don’t just don’t know…”
Wanting to investigate the ‘fake gangster’ phenomenon first hand, I went to Section 6, an underground Hip Hop party organised by the godfather of Chinese rap, MC Webber. There I found that the superficial features of hip hop culture, the baggy t-shirts and the dark glasses were indeed especially notable. Fans wearing bandanas, massive white t-shirts and loose-fit jeans stood coolly at the back of the venue nodding slowly to friends. This, however, is a feature of Hip Hop concerts the world over. What’s more, of the people I spoke to there, the majority gave me detailed accounts of their favourite artists and tastes in Hip Hop music. The rest emphasized the appeal of the ‘Hip Hop lifestyle’. All of my interviewees, both those who favoured the music, and those who favoured the culture, gave considered and compelling reasons for their appreciation of Hip Hop.
Those who favoured the culture in general appreciated Hip Hop’s authenticity, or “keeping it real” attitude. Several fans at the Section 6 concert made an active distinction between ‘real’ (such as the works of 隐藏 or 阴三儿) and ‘fake’ hip hop (such as Jay Chow’s Huo Yuanjia, the soundtrack to the patriotically-charged Jet Li Kong Fu epic, Fearless). They expressed frustration at the rising popularity of this ‘fake hip hop’, as indicated by the popularity of ‘Rappers in China’ in recent months, and the direction of Chinese pop music in general.
Another common criticism of Chinese Hip Hop is that it lacks the subversive, critical attitudes of its American or Europeans equivalents. This however, is an over simplification. Take In3, one of China’s most famous and most outspoken rap groups, as an example. The group came to prominence during the presidency of Hu Jintao. Their songs are a mix of frank critiques of society and mildly subversive anthems about teenage insubordination. One of them, Mei qian mei pengyou（没钱没朋友 ）or No Money, No Friends, goes as far to criticize President Hu by name, accusing him and his family of corruption and greed. Other songs since banned by the state, including Hello Teacher （老师好） and Beijing Evening News （北京晚报）, talk of the minor classroom rebellion and social inequality respectively. Although many of their songs were officially proscribed, the group were able, more or less, to operate unhindered in delivering their socially subversive lyrics, so long as hip hop remained away from mainstream attention.
However in 2015, long after band dropped the more controversial songs from their set lists and had more or less disbanded, two band members, Jia Wei and Chen Haoran were detained, beaten and interrogated by police for four days before being released without charge. They had found themselves on the wrong side of Xi Jinping’s ‘Chinese Dream’, which holds no quarter for rap or cultural dissidence. Talking to the Guardian newspaper in 2015, “We wrote those long ago. We were just like a mirror, reflecting society. It was just because of pressure that we wrote these songs in the first place. Without that pressure, we wouldn’t have composed rebellious music at all. I felt puzzled – if I’m a bad student it’s justified for the teacher to hate me. If I’m a criminal it’s justified for police to hate me. I don’t know why people want revenge on us. We’re not angry teenagers now. Even if we were, we don’t want to cause trouble so we’d approach things in a wiser way. If authorities found something wrong with our lyrics I’d just change them.” Thus, what many would be critics of Chinese hip hop fail to understand is that, in China, one doesn’t have to rap about drug dealing or gang warfare to fall foul of the law, simply suggesting that students should spit in their teachers cups, or that social inequality is rife, is incur a wrathful backlash.
That is not to say, however, that the subversive hip hop has yet been entirely defeated by Xi. At the Section 6 concerts I attended, for example, one performer yelled “Fuck the police” loudly and repeatedly into his microphone, whilst a party-goer outside distributed free Nitrous Oxide balloons to fans as a form of “legal” high.
Aside from suffering oppression from political authorities, several of Beijing’s underground rappers told me that they struggled to cope with financial pressures. As Huang complained to me, “We don’t have any money, we have no money to pay our bills and no money to develop our music”. Indeed of all the rappers I spoke to only MC Webber, by a long way the most successful, were full time musicians, and even he subsidised his income by setting up a record label and running hip hop events.
On top of this, many rappers are aware of the derision in which they are held by mainstream society. In line with President Xi’s ‘Chinese Dream’ it has become more common for middle class Chinese to see subversive or underground artistic movements as un-Chinese. As one fan put it to me, “a lot of people feel that fans of hip hop music just aren’t good people”. This kind of scorn is apparent on Weibo and other online forums where netizens criticise everything from rappers lyrics, to their outlooks and appearances
Interestingly, when I spoke to MC Webber about the future prospects of Beijing and China’s underground hip hop scene, he was optimistic. He pointed to its rise in popularity in Inner Mongolia and in Xinjiang, autonomous regions populated by Mongolians and Uyghurs, regions which are further outside Xi Jinping’s mostly-Han Chinese cultural hegemony. He was, moreover, certain that in three to five years time it would “go overground”. Whether this is case remains to be seen, but it is perhaps testament to the enduring subversive spirit of hip hop that Jia Wei, one of the members of In3 detained in 2015 has returned to the world of hip hop as the front man of Purple Soul – and his lyrics are as subversive as ever. As he puts it in Underpass: “My friends and brothers, of all things don’t you forget just this one, in this strange game it’s us, the last front”.