The way you say ‘Sanlitun’ gives away how much you’ve been ‘blending in’ with this city: if you say ‘tun’, you are a new kid on da block, while adding an ‘r’ sound to say ‘turrr’ shows you’re a true Beijinger. Or possibly an English-teacher wasting his life on binge-drinking and meaningless sex. The point being, where the almighty ‘r’ fits shows your relationship with the city.
That kind of localisation defines In3’er (pronounced – and sometimes spelled – ‘Yin Tsar’, with a Beijing ‘rrr’ at the end), Beijing’s home-grown hip-hop trio. Bitching about everything from high-school teachers to wannabe rappers, and singing songs of praise to videogames and getting drunk, each song tells a story of their own lives. In ‘Beijing Evening News’, a popular track from their 2008 debut album Unknown Artists, they spend five minutes thrashing on the grim side of the city, then sigh: ‘…as the sunset glows, you hear the newspaper lady shouting “Beijing Evening News!” At last, you feel the love in Beijing.’ Such words invoke an engaging sentiment, whether you know how to play the ‘r’ game or not.
The sunset does indeed glow as I meet Chen Haoran, a founding member of In3’er, outside his studio, but those blessed words are absent in this neighbourhood. ‘It was something I used to hear in the military compounds where I grew up,’ he explains. ‘Our newspaper lady used to shout it every day as if she was singing. At the time, Beijing was exactly how I imagined Jamaica to be: the buses were insanely red and rounded at the front, vendors were selling vegetables on horse carts, and everywhere you went there was mud and joy.’
Sporting basketball shorts and baggy T-shirt, and talking with classic hip-hop gestures, Chen seems to be everything you would expect from a rapper. The shock comes when we step into his studio, which, frankly, looks more like a reptile zoo. Rows of fish tanks run across the room, with turtles and lizards crawling inside. We squeeze into a tiny corner where his recording equipment is. ‘Cold-blooded animals are easier to breed than dogs and cats,’ he explains, lighting up a cigarette. ‘And I love to watch them.’
In China, Beijingers are known for talking big – they know a bit of everything and always want to share it. It’s a nature Chen believes benefits him creatively. ‘I think Beijing kids are born to be rappers,’ he explains. ‘Especially boys. Once they learn to speak, they start to joke about everything.’ Born into a family in love with classical music, Chen studied clarinet at the Central Conservatory of Music while letting his dark side out to the sounds of Wu-Tang Clan, Snoop Dogg and Dr Dre. ‘I was a bit of a rebel,’ he smiles. ‘But my parents were quite open-minded though. After they learned I couldn’t get any use out of school, they sent me to learn an instrument.’
Chen formed In3’er with Jia Wei and Meng Guodong in 2003, when Sars had made nearly all out-of-towners flee the capital, leaving only locals behind. ‘You don’t have to be confronted by a gun to feel danger, because some dangers are invisible, and that’s particularly true in Beijing,’ he says, lighting up another cigarette. ‘Also, no matter what you try to do, there’s always someone telling you not to. Every city has its grim side.’
So he wouldn’t want to live in a more, well, challenging city? ‘If In3’er were left alone in New York, we would probably have to start rapping in English and make an ass of ourselves. But hey – we could call ourselves Chinese hip-hop ambassadors and impress a few US journalists by saying we’re the victims of political oppression. Isn’t that what some Chinese artists do? It’s all about survival of the fittest really, so it doesn’t matter if you live in New York or Beijing.’
Like many musicians, Chen was too cool for school, but that doesn’t mean he spent his time pulling frogs apart or setting the classroom on fire. Instead, he claims to have been a ‘multi-faced boy’. ‘I was quite a smart ass. I behaved well for teachers I respected, and only showed my nasty nature to those dickheads who blame their own mid-life crises on the students.’ Cue ‘Hello Teacher’, another track from Unknown Artists: ‘Every time I embarrass you, you hypocritical c**t, you call my father/ You sad little creature, is that all you can do?’ But there’s a romantic side too: ‘So what if I drew a dick on my exam paper? A young boy has needs/ I only feel sunshine when I see the beautiful sisters.’
After our talk, Chen plays some new demos that should make it into In3’er’s next album. Unlike the slave-to-the-beat samples in Unknown Artists, the new tracks are paved with orchestral arrangements, and dialogue and theme tunes from ’90s Chinese TV dramas, Saint Seiya (a Japanese anime series that gained enormous popularity in Mainland China in the early ’90s), and the original 1985 Transformers series. The lyrics, if anything, also prove to be more anthemic and aggressive than ever. Have In3’er become more ambitious as they’ve gotten older?
‘Every man wants to rule the world, but you need to know where your power can be best utilised. In3’er are like The Saiyans [a fighting race in Japanese manga series Dragon Ball Z] – we are a team, we delegate our power equally, and we are always prepared to fight whenever the enemies attack.’