Chinese Rap Wrap is a RADII column that focuses on the Chinese hip hop scene, underground or in the mainstream.
In the summer of 2017, hip hop burst into the mainstream in China, courtesy of reality TV contest The Rap of China. But in early 2018, one of the co-champions of that show’s first season, GAI, was abruptly hauled off of widely-watched pop talent contest Singer after just one appearance amid talk of the country’s so-called “Hip Hop Ban.” Tattoos, “street culture” and rappers in general suddenly seemed out of favor.
That “ban” has lived long in the memory, and rappers have had an uneasy relationship with the mainstream stage ever since. But two years on, a rapper once again appeared on Singer — this time it was Higher Brothers’ heavily-tattooed member Masiwei performing with R&B queen Tia Ray as she competed in the final stages of the variety show’s 2020 season:
It seemed somewhat surreal. Weirder still, “what concealer did Masiwei use” became a trending topic on microblogging site Weibo the next day. Apparently if rappers can figure out how to cover the tattoos on their neck and arms, they’re totally fine to appear on television again.
Another group of performers who went missing from the mainstream around the same time as GAI and co have also been making a surprise comeback of late. While they use “MC” in their stage names, they have always been despised by “real” rappers. Yet although the performance style that this group use emerged a lot later than rap in China, quite a few of them have been able earn more money than your average rapper.
They are Hanmai MCs. Hanmai, which literally means “shouting into a microphone,” was a performance style developed by hosts at night clubs in lower-tier Chinese cities and small towns in the mid-2000s.
Hanmai lyrics usually revolve around simple stories of imaginary martial art heroes and ancient conquerors who are in love with beautiful people, accompanied by rhythm and beats downloaded from the internet.
These MCs have managed to attract a number of fans — sometimes in the tens of millions — on livestreaming platforms, such as yy.com. Many of them have enjoyed rewards and tips from fans on these streaming platforms, as well as gaining work from commercial corporations in the real world. As such, they have been hard to miss in public life in recent years.
Take the uber-successful MC Tianyou as an example (watch above). The 29-year-old Hanmai MC was born and raised in Jinzhou, in China’s northeastern Liaoning province. He dropped out of high school and used to sell second-hand cars and roasted skewers on the street before he became an MC in 2014.
Just two years later, he was making 2 million RMB (around 280,000USD) per month, was being invited to notorious Chinese billionaire Wang Sicong’s private parties, and opened his own MCN (Multi-Channel Network) hoping to cultivate hundreds of internet celebrities.
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Yet money has never bought Hanmai MCs respect from musicians and a middle-class audience. Their cheesy music style and poor content are viewed as vulgar and tasteless. The genre has been compared to “Kuaiban” — a free-rhyming form of musical storytelling which uses bamboo clappers that is popular in Dongbei, northeastern China — rather than as a part of pop culture contributed by left-behind folks at the bottom of society.
While the idea of Hanmai MCs being compared to rap music has tended to cause rappers to feel offended or insulted, both groups have to a certain degree been in the same boat at different times.
In early 2018, for example, just as GAI was getting kicked off Singer and his fellow Rap of China co-champ PG One was being scrubbed from the internet, MC Tianyou made the mistake of talking about his craving for crystal meth during a livestream. Consequently, he and his fellow Hanmai MCs were also banned from Chinese television. The incident closely echoed PG One’s treatment in particular, in which an old song that contained lyrics about drugs, ultimately had an impact on the rise of rap in China.
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A few months earlier, when the first season of Rap of China aired its audition episodes, one of MC Tianyou’s Hanmai apprentices, Nanxi, shocked pop idol judge Kris Wu (and the audience) when she performed a Hanmai classic “Jing Lei” or “Thunder” (watch below). The song caused Hanmai MCs and rappers to mock each other in front of their own fans, and both continued to live parallel lives on the internet.
While “Jing Lei” has been played on TikTok over 6.6 billion times and has been covered by quite a few pop stars, famous singer-songwriter and former judge of The Voice of China Yang Kun publicly criticized the Hanmai classic in his livestream with fans this month (watch below). He said of the song, “Is there something wrong here [the brain]? So bad. It’s not even a song. There’s no melody, no rhythm, no groove… disgusting!”
The writer and the original performer of “Jing Lei,” MC Liudao quickly reacted in his own livestream, saying, “If people are all covering ‘Jing Lei,’ do you mean they all have brain issues? I want to say that there is no hierarchy between different music styles. If so many people feel happiness, it is good music. Look how popular ‘Jing Lei’ is now, hotter than any of your songs.” He also challenged Kris Wu by saying, “Look how popular the song you eliminated in 2017 is now.”
Here’s MC Liudao’s version of the song:
No matter whether they are lovers or haters of Kris Wu, rappers seem to have been infuriated by this statement. Many of them have expressed their opinions on topics like “what is good music” and “whether Hanmai is music/rap” on Weibo.
JD, Rap of China contestant and a member of Beijing label Seven Gurus, shared pictures of veteran rocker Zheng Jun’s thoughts about popular songs: “Although they are popular, I gave a listen then just found they are shit. You keep saying shit is good, well I got nothing to say.”
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Young Chongqing rapper ZesT’s comment was more direct, “We talk about Hanmai as a joke, but these jokes think they are artworks that everyone pursues.”
Shanghai-based producer Yocho saw it from a higher perspective, “Yang Kun dissing ‘Jing Lei,’ is just the challenge that cultural elitism has when confronted within a pan-entertainment market. It always exists, impacts cultural elitism, and forces it to change.”
Another Rap of China contestant After Journey emphasized action by saying, “If the popularity of ‘Jing Lei’ bothers you so much, just move your ass to the recording studio and create now.”
Watch: Chinese Rapper After Journey Explores London’s Grime Scene
At the time of writing, iQIYI’s Rap of China has sent out invitations to a special stadium audition in Wuxi in June to selected contestants; Bilibili’s original show Rap For Youth has also just launched and started online auditions on April 24; underground rap competition Listen Up is now a TV show, going by the name Rap Star, co-produced by Hunan TV, and will air in May.
All of this suggests that another wave of hip hop music surging into the mainstream could be upon us this year. Will the rappers, beatmakers and producers be able to “educate” the market and the audience with better music? Will Hanmai forever remain a frowned-upon subculture? We’ll have to wait and see.
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