Remember that glitched out music video from earlier this year where Bohan Phoenix was playing a burning piano? Yeah, me too. That was wild. Well the team behind that — an evolving collective called 18 Uppercut, with no fixed membership but nodes active in New York, China and Singapore — is back with another four minutes of cross-cultural code switching that you’ll probably want to rewatch a couple of times today. Here is their latest, Dukkha, “a restless, iconoclastic take on the art of violence”:
Dukkha features the music of W. Y. Huang, who some RADII readers/listeners might know from his excellent 2016 Do Hits EP Exodus (released under the name Yllis). Huang’s East/West mashup sound is complemented visually by cultural references spanning from kaiju to kung fu, from Hong Kong arthouse cinema to the literary martial arts epics of recently deceased master Jin Yong. This all blends together into what its makers accurately describe as a “synapse-slamming music video.”
I caught up with 18 Uppercut manager Cobra Wang to decode some of this dense pop-cultural iconography, and to learn what it all has to do with the Buddhist concept of suffering referenced in the video’s title.
RADII: First can you give some background to 18 Uppercut? How did you get started and who all is involved? I think the first project from you I saw was Bohan Phoenix’s burning piano video… what else have you worked on?
Cobra Wang: 18 Uppercut is a creative label of artists and directors from China, Singapore and the USA. Through the power of the collective, our passion is bringing new experiences through music, visuals, and other forms of creative expression. The collective thrives off the development of new ideas from their creators and connecting them with the world. Simply put, 18 Uppercut is about music, fresh visuals, and new concepts of creative expression.
The label originated with a small group who wanted to collaborate and work on projects they could get excited about and hopefully inspire others to go out and create. To this day, no one knows the actual member-count of 18 Uppercut. But as a close source to the collective, I can say it is growing by the day.
Production still from Bohan Phoenix “OVERSEAS” music video
Before establishing 18 Uppercut, members had collaborated on some projects, but the first label project was the music video for the title track off Bohan Phoenix’s Overseas EP. Most recently the label has collaborated with Mighty Jaxx to make an art figurine, “FLOW,” Dragonmade 8 for a new merchandise line that will be released next week, and W.Y. Huang for the Dukkha MV.
Dukkha fuses visceral visuals with music that straddles a line between Eastern & Western culture. How did you initially conceive this video and how did you end up drafting W.Y. Huang to provide the sounds?
The idea for Dukkha manifested, like many of our projects, over the course of many late nights of conversations and cups of coffee. As the idea evolved, members of the label started to incorporate more and more elements of their childhood inspirations into the film: kung fu films, Jin Yong novels, Dragon Ball Z, Akira, Ultraman, Chungking Express, and Japanese horror. 18 Uppercut wanted to take all of these elements from their past and present them in a way that hadn’t been done before, and would resonate with a new generation.
When coming up with music collaborators, W.Y. Huang was one the label targeted early on. 18 Uppercut not only respected W.Y. Huang for the music he’s put out over the years, but there was also a thematic connection between what they wanted to accomplish with the visuals and what he did with his music — taking traditional Asian instrumentation, flipping it, and presenting it in a modern way.
Most of the influences you mention — Jin Yong’s martial arts epics, Japanese animated series, etc — have served as conduits between Asian and American popular culture for decades. As a firm split between China/US/Singapore, can you talk about the importance of growing up with these shared reference points? How do they influence your creative or collaborative process today?
In regards to the creative process, all of these influences inspire 18 Uppercut members in different ways. Some inspire the members through storytelling, pushing them to develop strong narratives, while others empower 18 Uppercut to go outside of the boundaries and to trust their creative intuition to do something abnormal.
Having a good understanding of these films, most of which came out of the East, also give the members of the label a more holistic view of how different human “truths” have been told or interpreted. We have all heard the phrase, “there are no more original stories,” but the ways in which those stories can be expressed are endless. Having been influenced by storytellers and creatives from both East and West helps to give the label a more dynamic lens with regard to how they begin to process, interpret, and express the human condition.
These bodies of work are also useful in the collaboration process. Having these as shared references helps to give the creators a common language as they work towards manifesting what is in their head into a reality.
Some of the aforementioned influences — mainly the golden era of Hong Kong kung fu cinema — have famously exerted influence on New York hip hop culture, most obviously on the philosophy and mythos surrounding Wu Tang Clan. Is the connection between Chinese culture & American hip hop something you touch on in Dukkha, and/or something else you wish to explore with future projects?
Touching on American hip-hop culture isn’t something 18 Uppercut set out to do with Dukkha. Wu-Tang and many other hip-hop artists have the same reference points, but in the concept development for the film and the collaboration with W.Y. Huang, this film has always pushed to explore electronic music more than anything.
When it comes to future projects, 18 Uppercut wants to create work that has cultural relevance, resonates with the artists they are collaborating with, and contributes to the landscape of the world. The label aims to tell stories and provide a narrative to culture without boundaries. Given the member’s backgrounds, it is impossible to ignore the East and West connection, but they also don’t want to silo themselves, or force this narrative into every project if it isn’t appropriate or doesn’t make sense.
What is the religious significance of the titular Buddhist concept of dukkha and how does this influence the narrative or visual development of the film?
“Dukkha” is an important Buddhist concept referring to the nature of life that innately includes suffering, pain, dissatisfaction, and displeasure. It is important to acknowledge and understand that this is a part of the journey through life. This concept plays out in multiple ways throughout the film, whether it is the physical pain of the epic kung fu battle, the pain and sacrifice that comes with love and giving of oneself, or the pain of living a mundane life and just going through the motions.
What else are you working on? Anything specifically relating to China?
Now that Dukkha has been released, the creators are going to shift their attention to a couple of projects that have been on the back burner.
In the coming weeks, they will be finishing an edit of another music video for a hip-hop artist from the States. The footage was shot last Spring while the MC was in Shanghai, and the members of 18 Uppercut will get to editing it and releasing it along with a new batch of music from the same artist.
18 Uppercut is also shooting some pilot episodes for a new content series. This project is definitely China-focused, and the goal is to introduce a narrative of youth and creative culture in China that hasn’t been explored yet.
Anything you want to add?
With regard to Dukkha — 18 Uppercut and W.Y. Huang were just a few of the pieces that brought this film to life. Dukkha had an incredible team of collaborators who supported and contributed their time, energy, talents, thoughtfulness, and — maybe most importantly — their belief and encouragement. 18 Uppercut wants to make sure they get proper credit for being incredible collaborators and amazing talents.
Find the full list of talents that collaborated on Dukkha over at its Vimeo page, and hit up 18 Uppercut’s website/Instagram to see more work or get in touch with them. All images courtesy 18 Uppercut.
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