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Empire Building: How Higher Brothers Took “Made in China” Trap International

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Chengdu rap foursome Higher Brothers have been living the high life ever since their hit 2017 breakout track “Made in China” went viral. Since then, that video has reach 21 million views on YouTube, and the group have released two albums with Asian-focused label 88rising, while each of the four members, Masiwei, KnowKnow, Psy P and Melo, have also put out solo records.

They’re regularly referred to as the most internationally successful Chinese hip hop group of all time, and their global clout rivals that of uber-successful Chinese pop stars like Kris Wu, Jackson Wang and Lay Zhang.

After a year in which we saw each of the group go solo, they’re coming back together to release new track “Empire.”

Below, we take a look at the quartet’s career to date.

Band of Brothers: CDC and the Early Years

The Higher Brothers story begins with CDC (Chengdu Rap House), a rap collective featuring prominent members of the Sichuan capital’s recent hip hop history, such as Ty., Fat Shady and Sleepy Cat. The group are one of the most important collectives in China’s modern hip hop history, effectively putting the city’s music scene on the map.

Higher Brothers was not a ready-made collective, with each of the group’s members joining at different times. Melo was the earliest Higher Brother to fall in with CDC, with his first appearance coming in a CDC cypher video in 2012 alongside the likes of controversial rapper Fat Shady and Rap of China 2020 finalist, Kafe.Hu.

Masiwei, meanwhile, was busy releasing two mixtapes and taking part in hip hop battles around the country, such as 8 Mile Underground in 2014, kicking off his hip hop career in earnest. He also released one of his most iconic tracks that year, “Laoshan Taoist.” His work through 2014 bore a boombap style, but the release of his third mixtape in 2015 saw him move towards trap.

In 2015, Melo linked up with Psy P to form the duo TDC 天地会, releasing a mixtape together that year. The final eventual member of the Higher Brothers, KnowKnow (then DZ Know), is also the only member not from Chengdu. He arrived in the Sichuan city from Nanjing in 2015, and linked up with Masiwei and Psy P to release a track called “Haier Brothers” (海尔兄弟), after the Chinese electronic appliance company and its highly meme-able cartoon mascots.

“Haier Brothers” was well-received and the trio decided to make their collaboration a permanent arrangement, eventually adding Melo to the line-up. While their Chinese name remained 海尔兄弟 for a period of time, they called themselves Higher Brothers in English.

They would go on to star-studded collaborations and global success, but the group have stayed close to their roots, regularly representing their home town and supporting the Chengdu Rap House crew (now known as Chengdu Corporation).

Journey to the West: The “Made in China” Trap Act Goes Global 

Higher Brothers joined 88rising in 2016. At that point the label was still growing, putting together a roster that included Korean rapper Keith Ape and Indonesian YouTube star Rich Brian, while also working on producing viral videos that would help catapult its artists to fame.

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As was documented by former RADII culture editor Josh Feola in a piece for Variety, the early marketing endeavors of the US-based label helped to capitalize on the image of famous rappers such as Migos, Lil Yachty and others reacting to Higher Brothers’ breakout track, “Made in China.”

Since then they’ve become the most popular Chinese hip hop group in the world, and arguably the most recognizable group from China, with everyone from GQ to the BBC, Hypebeast and Billboard profiling the crew.

Their first self-titled mixtape was released in 2016 and was followed up with proper album Black Cab in 2017, featuring appearances from the likes of Keith Ape, Famous Dex and Korean-American rapper Jay Park.

Their next release, the EP Journey to the West in early 2018, saw the group collaborate with Ski Mask the Slump God on a pair of songs and also provided the name for their US tour that same year, a series of concerts that showed they could attract big audiences in the States.

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Following that tour, and waves of multilingual media coverage, the stage was set for Higher Brothers to take Chinese rap to another level. But in order to do so, the group needed to break out from the feeling that some overseas audiences were treating them — and China’s hip hop scene more broadly — as a novelty.

The opportunity to show off some serious rap credentials came in early 2019 with the release of their second album, Five Stars. While they managed to pull together a stellar roster of contributors, including Schoolboy Q and Soulja Boy, and the record was hailed as “a pivotal moment in Asian music history” by 88rising leader Sean Miyashiro, the album received a pretty mediocre critical response and failed to make the kind of waves internationally that “Made in China” had done.

Later that year, as protestors took to the streets of Hong Kong, Masiwei and KnowKnow posted nationalistic messages to their social media accounts, resulting in blowback from some fan groups.

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Undeterred, the group forged ahead with plans to follow Five Stars with a string of individual releases, which began appearing in late 2019.

The Bros Go Solo

After the group’s first North American tour as headliners in 2018, GQ accurately sorted the Higher Brothers into their particular roles, like any good boyband: KnowKnow is the funny one, Melo is the introspective one, Masiwei is the ladies’ man and Psy P is the strong silent type. With these characteristics well-established, it was only a matter of time before the Higher Brothers began to capitalize on their individual appeal and go solo.

Proof of KnowKnow’s bizarre humor can be found in the promo video for his solo album, Mr Enjoy Da Money, which started dripping out at the end of 2019. The hilarious video sees him call Snoop Dogg “Snoopy Uncle” and spending some time explaining the genesis of his tiger tattoo to Miyashiro.

The second Higher Brother to release a solo record, Masiwei, was interestingly typecast as the ladies’ man despite his rap chops, going back to his days performing solo as part of CDC and in underground battles.

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As such, his solo record, Prince Charming, felt somewhat out-of-keeping with his image within China (though perhaps not on the global stage). The record is a mixture of love songs, tracks where he flexes his newfound financial prosperity, early references to his boombap music and his more recent trap stylings.

After Prince Charming came Melo, the introverted Higher Brother, with his album, Old Master. The record was praised for its raw and dirty sound, reminiscent of and seemingly inspired by hip hop greats from the US’s east coast.

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The last Higher Brother solo record, PSYLIFE.25 from strong and (mostly) silent Psy P, was perhaps the most impressive, presenting the rapper’s diversity and musical creativity as he played with RnB, drill music, metal and more.

“Empire” Building: Can the Brothers Get Much Higher?

With their forthcoming EP and plans to record another album in 2021, Higher Brothers show no sign of slowing down any time soon. They’ve been consolidating their huge Chinese fanbase throughout 2020 with shows and TV appearances, while also appealing to their global fanbase through the release of the aforementioned slate of solo records.

Two of the Higher Brothers, Masiwei and KnowKnow, took a dive into Chinese variety show TV, appearing on the first season of Bilibili’s surprise hit Rap for Youth, alongside their labelmate Rich Brian. While that show ended in controversy, it charts a way forward for the group in the age of variety show saturation in China.

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But this year also saw them dragged for failing to speak up on the Black Lives Matter protests, alongside their label 88rising, which has damaged their standing among some of their fans, especially internationally, and demonstrated some of the issues that Chinese stars who go global must grapple with.

So, where to from here? With the world’s two biggest markets, China and the US, by this stage well attuned to China’s most famous hip hop group, it seems the only way for the Higher Brothers is up.

Additional reporting by Markus Sherman

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.