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Chinese Rap Wrap: The Remarkable Story of a Retro-Feeling Rust Belt Rapper’s Break-Out Success

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Chinese Rap Wrap is a bi-weekly RADII column that focuses on the Chinese hip hop scene, featuring the freshest talents, hottest new tracks, and biggest beefs from the world of Chinese rap.

Chinese Rappers to Watch

In this year’s series of hit hip hop reality show Rap of China, quite a few young rappers received public recognition through performing their polished skills or catchy flows on the show. But if you ask who is popular now, a while after the show ended, Gem, an OG from northeastern China, will definitely make most people’s list.

He made little impact on the show initially, but was voted back by netizens as part of the “resurrection round.” His 2017 vaporwave track “Ye Lang Disco (Wild Wolf Disco)” that he performed didn’t help him get into the Rap of China finale, but has now been played and used on Douyin/Tik Tok 1.38 billion times (as of September 13), and is still among the most-searched songs across all music streaming platforms.

Gem and his high-school friend Ganana started a crew named Zen in 2005, then teamed up with Huan, Nudol, Fly’in Dog as Wu Ren Zu/Quinpal Squad in 2007, and finally built an underground label 吾人文化Quinpal Squad Culture in 2009, dropping their first album in 2011. Since then, however, the label has been through its ups and downs, especially when Gem moved to Chengdu in 2013.

These challenges continued until the summer of 2017, when Gem saw the potential for hip hop music during the first season of Rap of China, as well as the power of social media where his video post imitating 20 rappers attracted tens of thousands of followers. He put all of his life observations from China’s “Rust Belt” as well as his accumulated music experiences into his 2017 EP Your Uncle hoping his music could be heard by a larger audience.

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“Ye Lang Disco” was one of the songs on this album. The track has not only gone viral among Tik Tok users, but also has been discussed by fellow rappers and professionals, including music critics and even the Shanghai Conservatory of Music’s official Weibo account.

The track might sound like an out-of-date disco song to the first-time listener, but when digging into the Cantonese hook and detailed description of a club from ‘90s, it’s sparked waves of nostalgia and touches on a bigger socio-economic picture — when Hong Kong pop music was trendiest and the city defined “modernity” for many on the Chinese mainland. Plus, there are also elements of livestreaming in local dialect which is exceptionally popular in northeastern China.

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Gem previously worked as a manager in a shopping mall and before this summer wasn’t able to make a living from his music. Now with countless dance/song covers throughout the Chinese internet and obviously a lot more performance opportunities and sponsorship, hopefully he will create more vaporwave tracks featuring aspects of the northeastern Chinese lifestyle that have been long forgotten by many in the country.

New Chinese Rap Releases of Note

Miko, the only female rapper to make the final 20 in this year’s Rap of China, recently released a music video for her 2018 track “Black Pearl” featuring her mentor in the show, MC Hotdog. Like she sings in the track, “I’m feeling pretty good, because we only tell the truth” — Miko continues to show off a tough attitude while improving her skills. She will also drop her first album Miko soon and will be going on tour.

VaVa dropped her newest single “Rainbow” with an official music video a couple of days ago. Having now signed to Warner Music, her production values as well as the choreography have improved to pop superstar level.

But for those who prefer VaVa’s hardcore style, you can find it on show in Chinese American rapper Bohan Phoenix’s latest “Money Game,” produced by American DJ MAKJ:

Chinese Rap in the Mainstream

The freestyle-battle-turned online competition 8 Mile Rap Music Game 2019-2020 is going on currently. The advisor group has been selecting the top 8 works among 1,533 groups of rappers from 17 cities who have uploaded songs onto the platform, “8 Mile.”

According to official data, Xi’an, Chengdu and Beijing are the cities where the most contestants are based; only 5.2% of the contestants are female; 749 uploaded tracks are boombap whereas 99 tracks are new school; 57.8% of the contestants were born in ‘90s, and 40.33% were born in 2000s. Apparently, old school is making a comeback among the new blood.

Besides the dozens of established rappers who have showed up in the 8 Mile official videos, MC Hotdog also gave a shout out to the brand-new rap game in a video saying,

“I’m still not used to the swiftly-changing hip hop music environment where you cannot say whatever you want to say as freely as before… What 8 Mile is trying to do could be a good thing. Let’s just try to make some change.”

Chinese Rap on the International Stage

California-founded hip hop festival Rolling Loud is taking place in Hong Kong next month. In the line-up that was officially announced one week ago, we see Changsha label Sup Music (C-Block), female rap quartet S.O/S (Jinx Zhou, Xigga, Gia and Lim), and veteran rapper Pact, 3 Ho/Wang Yitai and Young13dBaby from Chengdu, as well as Hong Kong-local Dough-Boy joining headliners Migos and Wiz Khalifa.

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There was more international cooperation for Chinese rappers recently as NBA star Damian Lillard from the Portland Trail Blazers held a 4BarFriday community event in Shanghai on September 9. The Xi’an Team consisted of NOUS members Pact, Siiviba and Dirty Twinz’s Dirty Vehicle; The Shanghai Team featured KOZAY, Cati2 and GALI. Lillard himself hosted the rap battle between the two teams.

Cover photo: Gem (from Weibo)

Fan Shuhong
    Shuhong (aka Rita) is a language instructor, English/Chinese translator, writer, and proud bunny owner based in Beijing. She's previously worked in Washington D.C. and IUP at Tsinghua University. She loves Chinese language, Japanese arts, post-rock music and good English TV series. Instagram: rita_van