From Atlanta to Chengdu: Here is Your Beginners’ Guide to Chinese Hip Hop


China is more than pandas and sweet and sour sauce. Meet some of the young talents that put their mark on the flourishing Chinese hip hop scene.

Written by: Thøger Christensen
Originally published by:
Translated by: Daniel Ekström and Bohan Qiu


Darkness is falling in Beijing. Retired locals sit in small groups and play mahjong while hundreds of swallows return home to their nests in the colossal Drum Tower.  The street vendors are standing in the flickering lights of their food stands peddling fried noodles and Chinese pancakes while tourists and couples wander around the old city’s narrow alleyways, the hutongs. This may sound like a typical description of the capital found in the Lonely Planet, but just around the corner a less traditional China can be found. Here a steady stream of hip youngsters disappears behind an old battered wooden gate of an anonymously looking grey building. Some 200 years ago it might have belonged to a wealthy merchant or a senior official at the imperial court, but now it houses a completely different enterprise. A crowd counting about a hundred and fifty wearing cutting-edge street wear and Korean fashion gathers in front of a dark scene while sipping from bottles of Tsingtao beer. Then the bass stirs, sending vibrations through old bricks and new concrete as a short, a tonsured and tattooed man appears on stage, jumps up on the monitor, and starts dropping lines.

The old wooden gate with its hovering dragons hides one of the Chinese capital's most popular venues, Yugong Yishan. Last year, the place hosted a number of international indie mainstays including Sun Kil Moon, Destroyer, Kurt Vile and Lambchop. But increasingly, attendance at the international concerts is surpassed when local heroes like Bloodz Boi or Howie Lee are found on stage. This evening's concert, organized under the name “Motherland” by the local booking group Do Hits, clearly shows how the home-grown hip hop scene has found its own legs. The eager twenty-something-year-old on stage is a good example of this. American-Chinese Bohan Phoenix is confidently bilingual as he switches seamlessly from drawling New Yorker-English to Chinese accented by his native province. As Bohan himself stated in an interview with Magnetic Mag: "As a teenager, I always thought my ethnicity would be a lifelong obstacle in the West, but now with grown eyes, I have realized if anything my ethnicity and my identity make me strong and proud. "

If you have spent time in China, you might be forgiven to associate “China” and “music” with the mandarin pop you have to endure on cab rides or Kenny G's musical assaults heralding closing hours in shopping centers. The common trait is a whining sweetness giving even the most forgiving people an urge to jump in the Yangtze River. But as much else in the continent-sized country a sprawling diversity is found right beneath the surface. Chinese youngsters turn away from the plain rock of older generations and are increasingly eager to explore extreme metal, electronic music and hip-hop. In a society characterized by dizzying change and cutthroat competition, these uncompromising genres may play a role as outlets. However, the social merit of hip-hop is not what first comes to mind at Yugong Yishan as the bass wobbles along and the sweat is dripping. The millennials of China's middle class are flashing their iPhones, designer brands and tattoos just as you would see it in any other club on the other side of the world.

Another of the evening’s headliners is Howie Lee, who has been producing a good deal of Bohan Phoenix's music. With both feet firmly planted in the People's Republic and a clear Chinese aesthetic, his global outlook is nonetheless obvious. Dressed in a mix of camouflage and Supreme attire in his own introvert sonic universe, a stream of unorthodox hybrids flows from the DJ pulpit. His music is equally drawing on such different sources as traditional Chinese instruments, children's choir from the Cultural Revolution, dreamy glitch-hop and English-inspired bass lines. He has remixed Snoop Lion, released his outstanding minimalist debut album Mù Chè Shān Chū in 2015, opened Boiler Room Sessions in Beijing last year and has received critical acclaim from a number of established names from Hudson Mohawke to Code9.

Good hip-hop draws its inspiration from the local environment. This applies regardless of whether it evolves in the grime community in East London, among G-funk pioneers in Compton or in different regions of China. One of the cities where hip-hop has taken root is in the province of Sichuan and its main city, Chengdu. Sichuan is best known for the casual lifestyle of the Sichuanese and extremely spicy food allegedly accounting for the many fiery revolutionaries to have emerged from the region. Unlike the smooth, well-produced productions dominating the Shanghai scene, or the old-school vibe ruling in Beijing, Chengdu has embraced trap. Even though there are clear parallels to the genre’s mother scene in Atlanta, the local identity shines through in the music. Sichuan rappers use spades of local slang and could never dream of rapping in standard Chinese. In line with the aesthetic demands of gangster rap plenty of weapons are on show in the music videos. But instead of the usual firearms found on the other side of the Pacific, the weapons of choice are big machetes favored by the local gangs. Additionally, the nasal flow typical of Southern rap seems to translate perfectly when applied to the melodious dialect spoken in Sichuan. Take Higher Brothers, a group backed by the hyped Asian-focused company 88rising also boasting the Indonesian internet phenomenon Rich Chigga, who are often likened to the Georgia trio Migos.

Although the local scenes often split up in different stylistic directions, a solid core of artists is behind the genre’s success in Sichuan. Higher Brothers come partly from the hip-hop collective Chengdu Rap House, who helped break the ground for future younguns with a combination of extremely engaging live shows and notorious lyrics . Their uncouth style has also put them on collision course with the Chinese government and its Confucian-Communist puritan ideals. It's one thing to threaten haters in the West, but if a Chinese MC gets cute with the authorities, it is easy to get into trouble. Melo, one of the collective’s most provocative rappers, did just that in an ode to the car service app, Uber, in which he threatened to decapitate officials. It led to several 'invitations to tea' with the police, but has not seemed to slow down the rapper significantly. He has neither toned down his lyrics nor his live shows.

Despite opposition from the authorities, the government's focus on stunting the genre has ultimately resulted in a backlash. Instead of scaring people away, the controversies have boosted interest. People still flock to the concerts, and although Youtube and Soundcloud are both blocked in China, it does not prevent resourceful fans from getting their hands on the latest singles and mixtapes through various proxy servers.

The thriving hip-hop scene in China is a reminder that globalization can lead to more than controversial free trade agreements and sweatshops. A closer contact with the outside world has the potential to break down the fictional wall between 'our' music and the unbearable concept of ‘world music’. A description that has long reduced non-western music to a large undifferentiated mass seemingly not deserving greater elaboration. If you can overcome not understanding the lyrics, there is indeed much to get from Chinese hip-hop. Here's a quick and far from exhaustive crash course in some of the hottest names right now:

Bloodz Boi has in recent years carved out his own niche in the genre, mostly through Soundcloud. He has a soft spot for auto-tune and neon pop productions and unlike his trap loyal colleagues, he is as much inspired by K pop as the more aggressive sounding beats of Southern hip-hop.

Bohan Phoenix is originally from Sichuan, but moved to the United States at the age of ten. He uses both Chinese and English in his music and is known for his explosive stage performances. His latest mixtape Jala, which roughly translates to 'extra spicy', mainly has Howie Lee at the keys and is featuring a number of Chinese rappers.

Chengdu Rap House consists of some of the most talented rappers from the middle kingdom including Psy.P, Ma$iwei and Melo. The collective was instrumental in launching the scene in Chengdu and rap exclusively in their local dialect. The minimalist production provides plenty of room for each of the individual MCs to shine through.

Chengdu Rap House Members (Credits: CRH)

Chengdu Rap House Members (Credits: CRH)

Higher Brothers enjoy backing from 88rising, which through well-produced videos and beats has made the group one of the biggest names in the genre outside of China. The quartet's name is derived from the Chinese competitor to Electrolux, Haier, the world's largest appliances manufacturer, and is pronounced 'Higher'.

Howie Lee is the godfather of Beijing's electronic underground scene. He has been based in London, Taipei, and released his debut album on the LA-based Alpha Pup Records. Whether he is producing for others or for himself, the result remains a tasteful patchwork of elements from all over the world.

Melo broke through as a gifted freestyle rapper on the fledgling scene in Sichuan, while working as an architect at the Chengdu Zoo. He has made note of himself as a member of Chengdu Rap House, Tiandi Hui and most recently Higher Brothers.


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