Howie Lee: 'It's the politics that's f**ked up'

The Beijing producer talks about the impact of Chinese beats across the globe

Howie Lee is now, indisputably, an international name. The Beijing-born producer received his MA in Sound Art from the University of the Arts London in 2013 and pushed that personal milestone into a massive 2015. Last year, Lee toured the US behind an appearance at music industry conference South by Southwest, following that up with a headlining slot at Shambala Festival in the UK. At home, he relaunched Do Hits, the party brand he co-founded in 2011 with Guzz, Billy Starman and Sulumi, into a prolific net-label. The four compilations that Do Hits has released since rebranding last June have introduced a dozen-odd previously unknown Chinese producers, garnering waves of media attention in the process.

On top of all that, Lee quietly released his debut full-length, Mù Chè Shān Chū, on Los Angeles label Alpha Pup Records last December. The album gets its official, offline release this month, with an audio-visual show reflecting Lee’s maturation as an artist in multiple media. Visually, the release event will show off his newly acquired skills as a 3D-video animator, utilising motion-capture Kinect technology to generate retro-futuristic visuals along with Lee’s beats in real time. Sonically, the live presentation of Mù Chè Shān Chū demonstrates a renewed focus on improvisation, with percussionist Zhang Yang performing live alongside Lee.

Lee’s development as an artist has run in parallel with his growing ambition as a figurehead for the underground throng he represents. Do Hits’ rebirth as a label is an attempt to galvanise China’s nascent bedroom production scene into a coherent movement, unifying a stream of virtual unknowns under its banner. ‘They’ve been really active on the internet, on Weibo and on Xiami,’ Lee says of the new class of producers that Do Hits is recruiting, most of whom were born after 1990. ‘They comment on each other’s tracks, start following each other; most don’t meet in person.’

This online community parallels those created by Western music streaming sites like SoundCloud, a platform intermittently blocked inside Mainland China. The growing popularity of Chinese online networks for sharing music and ideas is one reason for the recent explosion in productivity that Do Hits is tapping. Lee also credits easy access to software such as Ableton Live, an industry standard for electronic music production, for the recent spate of homegrown Chinese beats. Producer Jason Hou, a recent Do Hits find himself, has been charged with collecting music from emerging online producers and running quality control as mastering engineer.

Howie Lee

The goal for Do Hits as label is hard to pinpoint geographically. On one hand, it aims to bolster the local production scene; on the other, it wants to propel this scene internationally. ‘It goes hand in hand,’ says Lee. ‘If you grow your local scene enough, outsiders definitely will see it.’ Much of Lee’s time is spent leveraging his international success to shine light on Mainland artists that don’t have the same profile or experience. Thanks partly to his influence, Do Hits artists were recently featured on London music discovery service 22 Track, as well as online music magazine Hypetrak and other Western blogs.

Do Hits also plans to facilitate the flow of international exchange in the other direction through its newly launched Motherland series, which presents Chinese artists living abroad to a domestic audience. They have a seven-city China tour planned for March and April, which sees Lee playing alongside Guiyang-born R&B producer Nehzuil, who’s based in Sydney, Yichang-born rapper Bohan Phoenix, based in New York, and Los Angeles beatmaker Mike Gao.

Of course, China is not a monolithic entity. Do Hits’ recent pivot to label heavily involves the visual identity of Taiwanese artist Wei-Chia Wu, aka Veeeky, who has designed all of the label’s cover art to date. Veeeky, like her husband Howie, spent time expanding her creative toolbox in London. For her, the cultural divide between Taiwan and Mainland China is just as important a target as that between China and the rest of the world. ‘I think, culture-wise, people in Taiwan and China have totally different mindsets. Based on that, they have different electronic music scenes. The scene in Taiwan has developed longer than Beijing’s, but in a different way. Taipei is more capitalised, more Westernised.’ That said, overriding similarities unite these two distinct polities. ‘China and Taiwan are both trying to build up [their] identity in the world, music-wise. That’s a similarity.’

Howie and Veeeky split their time between Beijing and Taipei, and harbour future plans involving cross-Strait exchange. Lee says he wants to bring more Mainland artists to Taiwan, which he thinks is dominated by mainstream tastes and misguided ambitions for overseas recognition. Taiwanese artists, he says, have the advantage of readily available government funding, which can be a double-edged sword. ‘They take government money and go to Europe. It doesn’t make sense to me. Their music isn’t really that good yet, and they want to take over the Western market.’ Veeeky adds that exchange ‘between China and other Asian countries’ is a major goal for Do Hits, despite Beijing’s often tenuous relationship with its neighbours. ‘It’s the politics that’s f**ked up – people mess up everything’, Lee concludes. ‘Music is just music.’

By Josh Feola

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