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Beijing Rapper Saber on the Hip Hop Wave, and “Rap of China” from the Inside

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Saber is a man of many styles. He’s a founding member of hip hop collective Dungeon Beijing, and his music runs the gamut between sampled boom bap, grimy trap, and everything in the middle. Some fans admire his pretty face; hip hop heads respect his old school roots. His tracks on the Netease music streaming platform even earned him a spot on Rap of China’s new season, although he ultimately turned down the offer.

We caught up with Saber at PlugFest in Shanghai to talk Rap of China, Beijing’s rap roots, and what’s next for the face of the Dungeon.

RADII: Who and what is Dungeon Beijing?

Saber: Dungeon Beijing is a transliteration (editor’s note: the group’s Chinese name is danzhen beijing, pronounced roughly the same as its English name). At the start we were just a group of people that lived in Beijing, in a place that was really “the underground.” Later, like 2012 or 2013, not a lot of people were interested in hip hop. The first generation had stopped performing in the city, and it was really just us who were making and performing songs. At the end of 2016, we finally founded Dungeon Beijing in earnest.

What’s the Beijing scene like?

Beijing is the origin point of Chinese rap. It’s just got a gritty vibe. Lots of hip hop artists would perform or just party in the city. Without them, Chinese rap wouldn’t be what it is today. Like Yin Ts’ang — they’re almost two decades older than us, but they laid a lot of the blueprint. When I was younger, I was obsessed with them. My first reaction was that it was just cool. But my second thought was that it sounded genuine.

I know I’m sounding kind of cheesy, but the music just sounded really genuine to me. Nowadays, the music is less aggressive, since restrictions have increased. But the skill level and style are different from before, and there are shows in the city all the time.

Yin: ’90s Throwback with Yin Ts’ang, China’s Original Rap Group

How did you first get into hip hop? What was that like?

I was watching NBA. It was a halftime show, and some rapper was performing. I thought, “woah, this is cool.” I was drawn to old school rap first, but new school, trap… that also intrigues me. I like both of them. I’m not the type to only do one side and totally hate the other. Both styles are good. As long as the music is good, the genre doesn’t really matter to me.

Are a lot of people doing the boom bap thing in China right now, or is it more trap-oriented?

Definitely trap. I have no problem with that — I won’t say there should be more boom bap, or more of one genre. Just more good music. Trap is probably easier. Making one good trap song is easy, but making consistent good trap is hard. The threshold for entry there has been lowered, but boom bap has its own flaws.

Since Rap of China came out, the country’s entered this unprecedented wave of hip hop growth. How do you feel about that change?

This late ‘90s, early 2000s generation has graduated from school, so they can have some fun now. There are more shows, and people are more open to new things, and to new trends.

I can only say that it’s going to develop faster. There’s no better or worse. Whatever happens, that’s just how it is, and goodness is subjective. But still, for sub-cultures, quick, mainstream development isn’t always a good thing.

On the subject of Rap of China, you won the NetEase Music audience selection vote to compete on the show’s new season. Later though, you ended up pulling out before the show started. What was going on behind the scenes there?

There were contract issues. The whole thing really interferes with my current priorities. I wouldn’t be able to do commercial gigs while I was on the show, and you can’t change the deal. There’s a lot of fine print about things in the contract. I wasn’t happy with them. I think a lot of would-be contestants would face the same problems, plus I’d have to be more careful about the music I have online.

Last question: what are your plans for the future, and what can fans expect from Dungeon Beijing?

Around August or September I’ll be dropping my second album, and going on tour. Everything’s ready, I’m just waiting for the visuals to be finished. Next year, I’ll do a third.

My goal for Dungeon Beijing is to make it into a real company. It’s very hard to be independent in the Chinese music market, since the situation’s really chaotic with labels, contracts, etc. Mostly, the challenges a collective like ours would run into would be internal. A lot of groups have miscommunication, and break up. But that’s not us.

Ride the hip hop wave:

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Photos by Kevin Pham for RADII. On-site interview support by Jessica Zhou and Ma Yuyang.

Adan Kohnhorst
Adan Kohnhorst is a Shanghai-based writer, producer, and multimedia artist, and the Associate Editor at RADII. His work has been featured in publications such as Maxim and the Chinese-language StreetVoice, and he’s an active member of the hip-hop and DIY music scenes in Shanghai, NYC, and Dallas. He learned Mandarin in high school so he could train at the Shaolin Temple, but now just uses it to interview rappers.

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