Chinese hip-hop finally hits the big time in 2017

Hip-hop culture has gone mainstream, but what now for Beijing artists?

Selfie-taking teenage girls wearing light-up headgear haven’t traditionally been the core demographic of hip-hop gig front rows, but something pretty seismic happened to China’s musical landscape earlier this year.

In the short time since the first episode of streaming platform iQiyi’s The Rap of China hit screens – June 24 to be exact – hip-hop, rap and all their derivatives have gone from the reserve of long-term loyals and discerning underground sorts, to the mainstream flavours du jour.

The show’s successful artists are storming the charts, it’s raining cash for streetwear brands, and the words 'freestyle', 'diss', 'flow' and more have all entered the youthful Chinglish vernacular. In short, it’s been a revelation for the genre. Maybe even a revolution.

For the uninitiated, The Rap of China is essentially a super blinged-out version of The Voice, in which 'aspiring' rappers vie to become the top dog under the 'expert' guidance of one of four celebrity producers, among them Chinese-Canadian popstar, teen idol and advertising goldmine, Kris Wu (pictured, below).

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The show has courted controversy for accusations of plagiarism of a similarly formatted South Korean series, and has been ridiculed by many netizens who have justifiably questioned the hip-hop authority of figures such as Wu over the show’s best rappers, who were largely already well-established in China’s underground scene.

Whatever the debate, the show has objectively been an unprecedented success; the series was iQiyi’s most expensive to date, reportedly racking up 200 million RMB in production costs, but over 12 episodes it attracted close to 3 billion views, making it China’s most watched series of summer 2017.

For its contestants, it’s been a rollercoaster couple of months, and a ride that’s only gone upwards. The glitzy, heavily backed platform of the TV talent show has propelled artists such as Gai (pictured, below) and PG One – the joint winners – Vava, Tizzy T and Brant.B to nationwide superstardom, and into the scope of the international radar.

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In just a blink, they’ve gone from playing small underground clubs to signing beefed-up record deals and starring in ad campaigns for all sorts. (Endorsements so far include Motorola phones, video games and Nivea creams – cos nuthin’ says ‘hip-hop’ like a well-moisturised complexion, right?).

Their style is inevitably indebted to US hip-hop culture, while arrangements largely go down the à la mode, hissing trap path, but there’s certainly something uniquely Chinese about it. Regional identity plays a big part in much of their work, instrumentally, lyrically and in the use of dialects and accents, notably those of southwestern cities Chongqing and Chengdu – widely regarded as the epicentre of Chinese hip-hop’s boom.

But what of Beijing? For many, including Stanley Yang, founder of online hip-hop platform Zhong.TV, the city 'is the birthplace of Chinese hip-hop', yet of the 15 artists who made it to The Rap of China’s final stages, only two cut their teeth on the capital circuit – Xinjiang-born AfterJourney and Boom. In any case, the recent spike in popularity is providing new opportunities for up-and-coming Beijing rappers, and a new lease of life for
some of its old guard.

'The show has shone the light on all the other rappers that have been holding down for the movement,' Yang tells us. 'A lot of rappers even came out of retirement just because of the newfound interest.' Indeed, a well-attended weeknight showcase at Yue Space in October saw a cast of younger upstarts such as Saber (pictured, below) line up alongside old-schooler Sun Xu, of the hip-hop ballading collective Longjing, active on the scene since the mid-2000s.

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At the real grassroots level, an increase in the number of young Chinese inspired to get involved themselves seems likely to follow the fashions and fads; recent open mics and freestyle battles have seen markedly increased interest and jam-packed audiences at venues as varied as School, the now-shuttered Modernsky Lab and even E&A Livehouse, the identity-unsure purgatory between Temple and Dada.

As their talent show counterparts storm the homepages, local rappers’ Douban and Xiami accounts are also gaining more traction, with local labels such as Modern Sky sure to be on the lookout for the next big thing. Having launched a standalone hip-hop branch, MDSK, back in late 2016, the group ramped things up this September by holding the nation’s first large-scale hip-hop festival; a roaring success down in Chengdu, it’s a showcase they plan to take on tour in 2018. The label’s strong contacts and partnerships in the US also mean that, if local artists can make it into the radar of such powerful allies, opportunities beckon.

It’s a tough, even intimidating game to get into, but in a changing landscape with ever-more participants and attention, who knows what fruit this boom may bear for the city? As far as Yang is concerned, the chances of Beijing – traditionally home to a grittier style of hip-hop – seizing the throne and becoming China’s next hotbed of talent may hinge largely on genre trends, but it’s not entirely out of the question: 'I feel Sichuan culture just fits to what’s cool right now in hip-hop, that laidback chill, "whatever" attitude,' he says. 'But it’s all up for grabs, from every province, every city, every dialect.'

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Sichuanese rapper and Fir$t Lady of Chinese hip-hop, Vava

Every rapper, MC, producer and in the Chinese hip-hop game now has a platform under the spotlight, and under the watchful eyes of a mainstream audience, the underground faithful and an ever-more intrigued international crowd. 'Knowing all the hard work and dedication these rappers put in, I think they deserve every last bit of the limelight,' Yang concludes.

For talent show alumni, veterans and upstarts alike, there’s potential for artists, from Beijing and beyond, to make it big – and make some big bucks, too. In any case, the capital scene looks to be finally coming out from the underground.

Zhong.TV: Chinese hip-hopedia

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Shanghai-based Zhong.TV claims to be the OG behind the DIY digital music video wave in the Chinese hip-hop scene that broke out in 2010. In any case, it's been doing a stellar job spreading and 'representing China’s urban youth culture' to the wider world ever since, racking up millions of views and thousands of subscribers across a range of bilingual platforms. You’ll struggle to find a better resource for getting into the Chinese scene.

Zhong.TV’s content – most of which is given English subtitling – ranges from artist video drops, live shows and interviews to tour announcements and short docs, updated daily on its website, Instagram, Facebook, Weibo, Youku and YouTube channels.

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