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Culture

How Hip Hop Star GAI Went From Violent Offender to Mainstream Success

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Chinese Rap Wrap is a RADII column that focuses on the Chinese hip hop scene, underground or in the mainstream.

The fourth season of The Rap of China comes to a close this Friday, with the top four rappers from the show, Gali, Kafe Hu, Li Jialong and Wang Qiming joined by resurrected rapper Li Daben, to see who will be crowned the winner.

While this season of The Rap of China has gotten historically bad reviews (it’s currently at 4.4 out of 10 on user review site Douban), arguably the series’ most interesting story line has revolved around the return of Sichuan-born, Chongqing-based and massively controversial winner of the show’s first season, GAI.

Often recognized as one of the country’s most interesting lyricists, GAI has come a long way since his win on the show back in 2017, in many ways showcasing a number of the key issues that contemporary hip hop grapples with in China — from censorship to tensions between “real” and reality TV rappers.

Below, we dig into the many hues of the rapper’s diverse career.

GAI’s Troubled Roots

GAI’s first real breakout moment was the release of “Gangsta” back in 2015. The song detailed life in a gang in Sichuan province, and was quickly taken off the Chinese internet. While GAI’s past is somewhat murky, tales of his life as a violent youngster are commonplace.

Born in Yibin to the son of an accountant working in a mine, GAI moved with his family to Neijiang, further north in Sichuan, when he was 10 years old. According to an article in GQ, he was bullied as a teenager, and turned to violence as an outlet. After reportedly stabbing the son of a local tax bureau executive at the age of 16, GAI was detained for a month. This incident and GAI’s continuing preoccupation with violence, knives and getting tattoos convinced his parents that another change of scenery was needed.

He moved to the megacity of Chongqing and studied at a local engineering college. But later he found work as a singer in a bar, performing pop songs for about a decade before he made his mark on the underground rap scene with the release of “Gangsta.” According to detailed accounts of his life at this time, GAI was something of an itinerant singer, a troubadour if you like, making his way to a variety of bars and nightclubs around the province to scrape a living, often earning just 200RMB (around 30USD) for a night.

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While his singing and rapping talent grew over time, his temper remained and the story goes that he often got in trouble for fighting with customers at the bars that he played. Even while filming as a contestant in the first series of The Rap of China, on the cusp of huge success, GAI returned to his job as a bar singer in Chongqing.

His rise to become one of the most popular and recognizable musicians in the country can be summed up in these thoughts: “I want to make money. Is this reason enough?” The veracity with which he chased his musical dream saw him suffer through violence and near-poverty and his ascent has seen him move away from gangster rap to another style of hip hop lyricism, known as “Jianghu Flow,” which saw him climb even higher in the world of Chinese rap music — and push up against the forces that dictate the current landscape of hip hop in China.

“Jianghu Flow” and the Rise of Regional Raps

Along with the likes of Bridge and L4WUDU, GAI has put Chongqing music on the map. By establishing a style of hip hop called C-Trap and promoting Chongqing rap collective GO$H across the country, he’s also helped the southwestern municipality become known as the Chinese Atlanta (重特兰大, or “Chong-tlanta”).

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Like many Chinese rappers, GAI’s music has journeyed from bootlegging and appropriating American rap, to finding his own style, in his case rooted in his Chongqing and Chinese identity. Earlier in his career, his lyrics revolved around violence, sex, drugs and the lives led by folks at the bottom of society. 

But after the release of “Gangsta,” he began popularizing a type of nationalist Chinese rap music that has taken the mainstream by storm, borrowing cultural imagery and iconography, blending literary and historical references into his music, and becoming one of a group of rappers and musicians that are aiming to make “hip hop with Chinese characteristics.” He’s thus been credited as an innovator in Chinese hip hop, helping it become more prominent on the national stage.

One of the best-known examples of this is the song “Jianghu Flow” (江湖风),  released in early 2017, which saw GAI collaborate with his friends at Sup Music, a hip hop collective based out of Changsha in Hunan province. In the song, his lyrics includes references to wuxia stories, dialect rapping, traditional Chinese instruments, and Chinese history.

This approach to songwriting, has become massively influential, with historical Chinese musical and cultural references becoming commonplace within the country’s hip hop ecosystem, and GAI himself gaining a reputation as a “deity with four lyrics” (四句封神). It’s also a relatively safe area of content for rappers to explore in China, compared to drugs, sex, or violence — something that GAI knows all too well. 

GAI, The Man, and China’s “Hip Hop Ban”

In the aftermath of GAI’s joint-win with PG One in the first season of The Rap of China, and the sudden, forceful emergence of hip hop into China’s mainstream, the pair were at the forefront of scrutiny from the powers that be of this new cultural phenomenon in the country.

For PG One, his song “Christmas Eve” was called out on Chinese social media by the Communist Youth League for lyrics that spoke about drugs and sex. That was in early January 2018. Later that month, GAI was abruptly pulled from the line-up of variety show Singer, and thus began an ostensible “hip hop ban.”

While PG One has struggled to gain any exposure or access to the mainstream ever since, GAI laid low for a couple of months, made his apologies by leading chants of “long live the motherland” on CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala in early 2018, and then returned for a new track called “Endless Flow”.

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GAI Returns with “Endless Flow” After Being Banned from Chinese TV

 

Later that year, he started dropping singles from a new album, tracks that marked a clear move away from underground gangster rap toward something more commercial and socially acceptable for the Chinese mainstream. His album, Generations of Glory gave rise to a bunch of patriotic songs with Party-pleasing “positive energy” vibes.

From that album, “The Great Wall” included lyrics such as “The moonlit fort of Qin-Han Empire, and the foreboding frontier mountains, have witnessed the heroic blood, spilled in defense of our great civilization.” Meanwhile “Hong Qi Car” was named for the famous “Red Flag” automobile brand established in 1958 and beloved of Party officials. Needless to say, this u-turn caused much distress among fans of hip hop music in China, with many calling him a fake rapper, a socialist rapper and a commercial rapper.

His attitude to his haters is that he has ascended to a higher rung, as he exemplified in a Weibo post back in 2018: “So no matter what mean and sarcastic words they throw out against me […] I just know [where I stand] when I take a look at my bank account.”

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Such a transformation has made him something of a figurehead for the co-option of “real” hip hop by the mainstream in China. Not that he seems particularly bothered by such tags, as his comments above indicate — nor is he a stranger to controversy or dealing with beefs.

Got Beef?

The Sichuan-born rap star has had his fair share of online spats over the years. The most famous and longest-running involved some of China’s best-known rappers, such as Masiwei from Higher Brothers, PG One and MC Guang, and took place before, during and after the screening of The Rap of China, as noted by Fan Shuhong: 

“In 2017, a few months before Rap of China‘s first season began airing, Nanjing-based rapper MC Guang opened fire on ‘gangsta’ GAI via Weibo, spitting:

“Study more, and pretend to be gangsta less. But it doesn’t matter if you make a track for less educated people — after all, a lot of rappers don’t even graduate from middle school.”

“GAI reacted, and the beef began. MC Guang’s former D-Devil crew mate Jony-J — who cracked the Top 4 in season one of Rap of China, and who maintains a personal conflict with GAI to this day — jumped in, as did Xi’an-based crew HHH and Chengdu-based CDC, who both backed MC Guang.

“When Rap of China finally aired that summer — and especially when GAI and PG One from HHH competed for the championship in August, bringing the simmering beef to their widely-viewed performances — the war between GAI and HHH/CDC leveled up. Members of HHH and CDC (Higher Brothers’ crew) posted diss tracks and direct words to GAI on WeChat, Weibo, and even some livestreaming platforms.”

Read the full story here:

3 of China’s Biggest Ever Rap Beefs

To this day, some of these grudges remain. But GAI’s star has continued to rise — and his return to The Rap of China this summer, in the judge’s chair, has confirmed him as a major mainstream celebrity.

So is GAI a Fake Rapper?

Sure, he’s gone commercial, but at the same time GAI has never been shy about his wish to earn money and seek out fame, so we shouldn’t necessarily be surprised. In the past few years, he’s taken to singing more about his money, while also putting out multiple releases alongside variety show regular and former member of K-pop act EXO, Huang Zitao. His appearance on this season of The Rap of China as a mentor wasn’t exactly the best look either when it came to his “real” credentials — especially as the show was almost universally slammed.

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Along with his appearance on The Rap of China, GAI has also been taking part in the Mango TV show New Birth Diary 2 (新生日记2) with his wife Wang Siran. The reality show follows four couples as they prepare for the birth of a child.

And he’s also participating in the show Our Song (我们的歌) alongside the likes of Hong Kong popstar Chen Xiaochun (who is also taking part in New Birth Diary 2) and Coco Lee (who sang the Mandarin version of Christina Aguilera’s song “Reflection” for Disney’s Mulan). In one episode, the rapper sang Chyi Chin’s classic Mandopop track “不让我的眼泪陪我过夜” (which translates to “Don’t Let Tears Accompany Me Through the Night”). While his vocal chops were impeccable, the appearance epitomizes GAI’s transformation from underground rapper to mainstream idol.

Is this the GAI that we saw on the first season of The Rap of China? Certainly not, but at the very least, the former violent offender, bar singer and underground rapper has blazed a trail for hip hop musicians, creating a new path for Chinese rappers to follow in the future — even if that path’s apparent destination is a heavily sanitized version of the hip hop that many of them grew up admiring.

Bryan Grogan
    Bryan is RADII's Culture Editor. He is a Shanghai-based writer and editor with an interest in culture stories with a social bent. He once correctly guessed all 151 original Pokemon in seven minutes for an online quiz.