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MC Tingbudong Wants Chinese Hip Hop to Find its Place in the World

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As RADII spends this month diving deep into the history of rap in China, let’s check in with an American who did a deep dive himself, becoming an integral member of the late 2000s “Golden Age” of Beijing hip hop. Digging out the roots of hip hop in China has been a lifelong mission for Washington, DC native Jamel Mims, who drew a blank from his high school Mandarin teacher when asking about the genre’s existence in China, and came to Beijing in 2008 to complete a one-year Fulbright project on the subject.

Mims took the resulting multi-media assemblage — entitled The Misadventures of MC Tingbudong (听不懂; literally “unable to make sense of what one hears”) — back to the US, where he’d spend the next decade developing his own work as a rapper, activist, and visual artist. Mims — who also produces work under the name Jam No Peanut, as well as the MC Tingbudong moniker — returned to China last year as part of the 2018 Found Sound China program, where he got a close look at how Chinese hip hop has evolved in the post-Rap of China era.

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Following that fruitful trip, Mims is doubling down on his lifelong fascination with China, and his drive to use rap as a vital current of cross-cultural exchange. In the last six months, he’s put out an eight-part web series documenting his 2018 travels through China’s hip hop underground, an online mix highlighting artists he encountered along the way, and, most recently, a music video for an original, Mandarin-language track shot in Yunnan.

In fact, Tingbudong has an entire Chinese release up his sleeve, as well as plans to return to China in Spring to continue to preach at the intersection between American and Chinese rap culture. Settle in for a long read to get schooled on his unique perspective, how things have changed from 2008 to now, and where he thinks Chinese hip hop is headed:

RADII: First some background: you’re originally from the DC area right? What were your interests growing up and how did you become interested in China?

Jamel Mims: Yep — I’m originally from Southeast Washington DC, and like many young people coming of age in the dial-up internet days of the early 00’s, my interests in hip hop, comics, anime and video game culture all blended together. At a time when Cash Money had just exploded, gangsta rap had re-surged with Get Rich or Die Trying, and Dem Franchise Boyz began putting snap music in the spotlight, we fashioned ourselves as true-school backpack rap enthusiasts, music nerds, and freestyle aficionados, huge fans of the verbal prowess of Lyricist Lounge and Rawkus Records.

My dad used to show me old-school kung fu movies, I remember watching Enter the Dragon, Master of the Flying Guillotine, and Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon on repeat. We used to play Pokemon cards during lunch and rush home to watch Dragon Ball Z, Samurai Champloo, and Gundam,  obsessing over them and creating our own characters. It puts a smile on my face to know there are young people growing up now that have forged a community called otakus — back then we were just nerds, man! In a summer program during middle school, I started taking Japanese classes and became enamored with the characters.  In high school at Sidwell Friends, they had a Chinese studies program, and because kanji characters are actually Chinese, I figured I could continue my studies there.

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Were there many kids in your school who studied Chinese?

I started taking Mandarin freshman year, but I was actually initially discouraged by my first-year advisor.  Chalk it up to culture shock, but she insisted that in order to ease the transition to my new surroundings, that I take an “easier” language, such as Spanish or French, despite having less of a background or interest in those languages. Chinese was a language many of their top students struggled with, since it was so different from their experience. Most other students in my class were either Chinese-American students, or a handful of white students. I was definitely a “fish out of water” — I went from a middle school in a predominantly black, low-income neighborhood, where I walked through a metal detector before going to class every morning, to going across town to attend one of the nation’s most elite private schools with a rigorous academic workload. Still, things weren’t too different, as I was being stopped and frisked and having to show my school ID as proof to police near campus.

In retrospect, like my interests at the time, the culture shock of being in a new environment — and being a target of the state — were blended together. I didn’t know it then, but it would shape my perspective and connection to the language. Reality is complex like that, all intertwined — it may have actually been that I was better suited to learn the language and deal with the feeling of being a “fish out of water” in Chinese class because it mirrored my daily experience.

Beyond language lessons, how did you initially go about connecting to underground Chinese culture at the time?

In high school, I remember asking my 老师 [laoshi; teacher], where is the rap music in China?  My teacher basically laughed me off. (She wouldn’t have known either way, but even at that time,  there was MC Hotdog, MC Webber, and Society Skateboards all getting their start.)

Culturally, all we were really shown were constructed dialogues about bargaining, and distortions of the Cultural Revolution and Revolutionary China like Zhang Yimou’s To Live. I knew there had to be some kind of music I could listen to, or modern culture I could immerse myself in, in order to improve my speaking. I found CDs of Eason Chan and Jay Chou in Chinatown, and learned the hooks to some pop songs, but still could hardly speak a sentence of my own. I continued studying Chinese at Boston College, and during my junior year I studied abroad. After six years of studying the language like a math problem, I was finally in an immersive environment where I had to use it. This was transformational for me, and my language skills skyrocketed. I went from being unable to order food to jumping on stage and freestyling in Mandarin after two semesters abroad in Beijing, where I first began to connect to underground culture and the hip hop scene.

I went from being unable to order food to jumping on stage and freestyling in Mandarin after two semesters abroad in Beijing

I began to take photography [in Beijing], and our teacher, who was an American living in Beijing himself, would bring in other foreign professionals as guests. One guest was a culture reporter. I asked the same question I’d asked in high school: Where is the hip hop in China? He connected me to his partner at the time, a filmmaker named Anna Sophie Loewenberg, who produced a web series called Sexy Beijing that explored local Beijing culture for Western audiences, and they invited me to be part of filming a “Bling Bling in Beijing” episode at Section 6’s monthly cypher at Yugong Yishan.

Thinking back, this was the connection and night that changed everything — I buzzed around the stage, interviewing artists like DJ Wordy and Nasty Ray, and first met Ijapa, Jiawei + Mengguodong of In3 (阴三儿), Raph Cooper, Webber, and all the homies from Society Skateboards. I jumped on stage in a t-shirt that had the characters 听不懂 (tingbudong; to hear but not understand), and the name stuck from there. That episode went somewhat viral in the early days of YouTube and social media, and became one of the videos that introduced many Westerners to hip hop in China.

You continued to dig into this scene via a year-long Fulbright research project after graduating. Can you give a quick synopsis of what that scene looked like in 2008? Who were the key players, venues, labels etc at that time?

Looking back, and in my discussions with artists in Beijing who were part of those times, they all say the same thing: it was the golden age of Chinese hip hop. We had somewhat of a sense of that — I felt like I was like being offered the chance to participate in the era of hip hop I had so revered during my upbringing. Beijing’s young creative class was struggling for identity. Most days went by playing Winning Eleven and Street Fighter, skateboarding, and writing, while nights were studio sessions or performances at open mics, rap battles and always some kind of group meal.

I felt like I was like being offered the chance to participate in the era of hip hop I had so revered during my upbringing

I was embedded with In3 and the crew from Society Skateboards. Labels weren’t entirely a thing, it was more crews of emcees, artists, graffiti writers, skaters releasing music, films, and hosting events. We lived as a collective, a dozen deep — sharing meals and splitting rent, most without conventional day jobs, all fully engrossed in a commercial industry without much capital.

Seeing hip hop performed on TV wasn’t yet a thing. In an odd twist of fate, I joined the rap group Yin Ts’ang as a guest MC on a televised performance of their song, “Made in China (中国制造)”, for the Chinese Farmers network. You might perform in a venue like Yugong Yishan, Tango, or Mao Livehouse, or catch a foreign act at Workers Stadium at Mix or Vic’s, or go to the student and “expat” (see: immigrant, foreign national) crowd in [Beijing university district] Wudaokou, or link up in Sanlitun bar street, which back then had a pirate vibe, or go to a breakdancing jam at the Forbidden City Rockers studio in the 3+1 building. Gulou Dongdajie and Nanluoguxiang were just beginning to catch a hipster wave, and we would mainly go there for a drink or to play pool and hang.

Section 6 was where you’d see these forces unite, hosted by the session band, the Beijing Live Hip Hop Experience, with front-men MC Webber and Raph, and a number of musicians incidentally also from the hardcore metal band Twisted Machine. In3 had just released their debut album two years before, and Wordy had begun Hotpot, bridging the gap with more electronic music and multimedia projection, but for the most part, these lanes were quite separate. The battle rap scene was huge, with lively battles almost a weekly occasion, and with the Iron Mic national competition being the most revered title — shout out to Dana Turner.

There were the hip hop and lyrical purists like MC Webber, Nasty Ray; young upstarts like Jiezi and J-Fever; and those who were bringing a trill vibe influenced by the “bling bling” era of dominance of the US south in hip hop: Sbazzo and Make of In3, bilingual black rapper ABD, and Twofist. Beijing’s creative class was struggling for identity in the midst of looming government suppression — first by the cultural board and then by forces of the state outright — yet it was a strange and wonderful time of experimentation and underground culture gaining popularity. I shot a music video with South African director Lebogang Rasetheba for In3’s “Beijing Wanbao” with my homie that gives a window into the scene.

How did your personal career or research interests develop after taking that 2008 Fulbright project back to the States? Did you maintain a connection to China in the decade since?

After completing the project and returning to the states, my work focused at the intersection of hip hop, academics, immersive technology, and social justice. I took a year to edit and create The Misadventures of MC Tingbudong, a multimedia exhibition about hip hop in China. I exhibited that at galleries in NYC, and joined the blog-era days as a hip hop photographer. I began to work as a teaching artist and program director, creating programs that use hip hop and original music to teach academic subjects and language. I maintained a connection to the Chinese language through teaching — as a Mandarin teacher to students at China Institute and private schools in NYC, I created original rap songs with greetings and language basics, and had students make karaoke videos as assessments. It was ultimately the classroom that led me back to music, as students would ask after performing songs in class, “…but where’s your music ?”

I began to take chants and agitation from political demonstrations I had been a part of, and adapt them to trap music. I began to experiment with multimedia, augmented and virtual reality, creating AR interfaces and immersive music videos for my projects. In live performances, rapping in Chinese always garnered the most shock, so I started to lean more in that direction and write more in Mandarin, and worked it into my performance.

I also remained connected to China through interactions with the state, which had been a recurring theme in my life. I mean, I almost didn’t get the Fulbright, because I was assaulted and arrested by Boston Police the summer before I was about to leave, and as a result the fellowship was put in jeopardy. After I finished the project and returned stateside, there was a crackdown on Beijing’s hip hop scene, targeting many of the artists I had just befriended. Scores of artists were arrested, jailed, and forced to rat each other out, and the scene began to fracture, with many artists leaving Beijing altogether.

At nearly the same time, here in NYC, I was facing a year in prison for being a part of a nonviolent civil disobedience campaign to end the Stop and Frisk policy, and began to organize with the Stop Mass Incarceration Network, Refuse Fascism and the NYC Revolution Club. As we were going through similar issues in confronting state power, we connected on this level, and grew together as internationalists — leaving comments and voice notes for one another over social media.

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You came back this year to participate in the Found Sound China residency program. What was your goal or mission going in?

With Found Sound China, my main goals were to reconnect with the artists from 2008, and explore the contemporary Chinese hip hop and electronic music scenes as an artist and researcher. I was just coming off of releasing my first EP, Microphone Misdemeanor, which contained two bilingual Mandarin songs and Chinese adlibs throughout, and I wanted to see how these songs resonated with audiences in China.

I was totally floored by the level of musicality of the fellow artists-in-residence — hit makers like [Guangzhou-based producer] sususu, lo-fi producers like eu-iv, spectral music composers like Yao Chunyang, genre-benders and polymaths like Cha Cha and Kayla Briet — and wanted to learn as much as possible from them. In addition to collaborating with the artists on the residency, I also challenged myself to write a Chinese-language EP.

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As a follow up to the original Misadventures of MC Tingbudong, I also wanted to document the residency and profile the hip hop and electronic music scene in China with a web series. This was right around the time Instagram introduced IGTV, and the vertical video format had me hooked. I was also super excited to return to perform in Beijing, and have the residency be a launchpad towards establishing myself as a bilingual rap artist and music producer working in NYC and China.

I was pleasantly surprised by the response from audiences, peers, and mentors in the rap scene who saw beyond the gimmick of a black dude rapping in Mandarin, and resonated with the political message in the music, and held me responsible to the history I have in the scene there.

How did what you encountered in China last year differ from your expectations ahead of the trip? What were some of the most surprising changes that you saw in China 2008 vs 2018?

The most surprising changes can be summed up with one word: WeChat. Social media was just starting out when I was last there, with QQ and Weibo, and now in the AR scanning world of the omni-app WeChat, people no longer carried wallets, and you could order anything to your doorstep at the push of a button. The breakneck speed of social media integration and its almost complete saturation throughout every facet of society was like feeling like you were in Blade Runner, but through a China filter.

Now after a group meal, friends raced to pay for dinner by scanning codes or blocking their opponent from doing the same. I mean, I literally got clowned by an auntie outside of a temple in the boondocks of Yunnan province because I tried to buy her apples with cash, and couldn’t just scan her QR code. What’s Mandarin for troglodyte?

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In terms of hip hop, there was now an industry. Artists like Higher Brothers and PoeTek in Taiwan toured internationally to sold out shows in major venues in the States. Independent labels like 88rising and Do Hits were gaining local resonance and international followings. Rap of China was among the the most popular television shows in China, with Darlie — a toothpaste brand with a problematic name and logo that one might interpret as overtly racist — as a major sponsor.

If when I first came to China was during the golden age of hip hop, we had now moved into the gilded age — analogous to the Bad Boy era of commercial hip hop in the US —  with labels and an industry running to catch up to support managers, agents who were suddenly ballooned with an influx of popularity and capital.

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The question of whether or not to seek approval from China’s  Ministry of Culture was no longer really a question — it had been settled by the forces of the state through targeting underground culture. Sections of underground MC’s and artists were targeted, arrested and subsequently blacklisted, while their contemporaries were offered promises of fame and riches through a national platform as hip hop went mainstream. I walked around feeling like a character in a post-apocalyptic time-travel survivor movie, where the rebellion was crushed before any opposition could be mounted.

Where do you personally think the line between “appropriation” and “appreciation” should be drawn when it comes to Chinese artists adopting the format and aesthetics of hip hop? How would you compare the approach of say, Kris Wu, vs Higher Brothers, vs a more underground rapper like J-Fever?

I would say back in 2008 the line between appropriation and appreciation was more of a black and white issue, and often came down to somewhat reductionist arguments around sound and style, what kinds of records you played during your set, what clothes you chose to wear, what beats you chose to rap over, and, of course, what you chose to rap about. If you only rapped your written songs, but couldn’t hold your own in a battle or freestyle cypher. EDM was a huge no — there was such a thing as “太电子” (“too electronic”). These were some of the criteria.

B-girl Helen Chen at a Section Six party in Beijing, 2009 (photo by Jamel Mims)

Even then, I found the dynamic was much more of a process of intersection rather than imitation, where even conscious imitation of form resulted in the incidental creation of new content. At that time, hip hop practitioners were students of the culture, pouring over YouTube videos for hours, translating and researching lyrics, drawing inspiration and stylistic influence from various eras of hip hop, and informed by their local surroundings and language. This was deeply personal, involved research, and connected young people into a community. There was little to no money to be had in it.

Even in 2008, I found the dynamic was much more of a process of intersection rather than imitation, where even conscious imitation of form resulted in the incidental creation of new content

However, fast forward to 2018, and this reductionist dichotomy seemed to somewhat play out. Mainstream society now suddenly knew what a rapper was, and didn’t have to dig far to find one, but was tragically limited in understanding of what rap is. Wherever I went, when I introduced myself as a rapper, the follow-up question was, “Cool — do you make old school or trap music?” During a [Found Sound China] panel this summer,  an audience member asked: “You said Rap of China isn’t real hip hop — then what is?”

I’m not saying Rap of China and Kris Wu aren’t hip hop — throughout the history of the art form there have been appropriation and appreciation and themes of commercialization, alike. However, it is problematic when the only view of the culture promoted is one that’s explicitly commercial. And it certainly doesn’t help that some of the world’s biggest hip hop artists self-admittedly only enter the genre to make music for this purpose, and to promote these values (see: Post Malone).

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Hip hop has a history and political purpose as on-the-ground street reporting that gives voice to — and inspires agency within — the voiceless. It has a unique ability to adapt to any local context. Higher Brothers are a bit better on this question, giving voice to the youth of Chengdu with undeniable popularity, but with content and a style that supports the commercialization of the genre.

On the other side of the spectrum are artists using the music to experiment with form, like Fishdoll and Howie Lee, and artists like Bohan Phoenix who are using music to question identity and create globally accessible art. Further still are lyrical purists and cultural preservationists like Purple Soul and J-Fever, who are using the music beyond appropriation, for explicit political purposes, and pushing the practice and culture of Chinese rap forward.

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All in all, I think the current landscape demands a more sophisticated analysis to draw the line between appreciation and appropriation, imitation and intersection — adding a third axis of purpose. In addition to form and content being key factors, it fundamentally comes down to for whom and for what an artist is creating the music more than anything.

You’ve just debuted a new music video inspired by by your 2018 spin through the scene, “Qi Lai”. Can you talk about how China is figuring into your creative practice at the moment, and what plans you have for the future?

The Found Sound China music residency was a turning point in my development as an artist, and jump-started reconnecting with MC Tingbudong. We are in a period of the internationalization of hip hop facilitated by the rapid pace of social media and viral trends. In an era of K-pop, Latin trap, and Chinese rap rising as popular, globally consumed music, you no longer have to be rapping in English to “make it.”

With hip hop more popular than ever in China, yet underground culture under siege, I began to recognize my unique position to organize and inspire fellow artists to take up a fight that’s seemingly already won by the powers-that-be. In this context, after the residency, my goals became to focus on my artistic career, develop an international, politically informed audience in China and the US, and help position Mandarin-language hip hop in the echelon of world music.

In an era of K-pop, Latin trap, and Chinese rap, you no longer have to be rapping in English to “make it”

I got a lot of work done during the residency, and made the leap towards becoming a full-time artist. I made a ton of new Chinese songs, videos and content to release over the course of the next year. Once I got back, I released eight episodes of The Misadventures of MC Tingbudong webseries and curated a playlist of songs from artists featured in the series. I’ve been working with Found Sound China on writing proposals to expand programming for the residency and performances in 2019.

To end the year, I debuted the music video for “Qi Lai (起来)” on Vice China. Directed by Kayla Briet, the video is a bilingual call to action against fascism that features the Found Sound China artists riding around scenic Yunnan on the back of a tuk-tuk.  Shoutout to Noisey for the premiere and feature — it’s off to a great start!

In 2019, I’m planning to have a breakout year in the international hip hop arena.  Following up on the momentum of “Qi Lai”, we’re releasing a Found Sound China mixtape, and I’m planning to put out a series of music videos leading up to a Mandarin-language EP and tour in China. I have been invited to return to Chengdu for the Chunyou Alternative Music Festival in April, and I am booking dates in Shanghai and Beijing to follow. With the 10-year anniversary of The Misadventures of MC Tingbudong, I’m planning a retrospective exhibition combining my work on hip hop in China over the past decade with the aim of informing audiences about hip hop’s underground origins, and further giving the scene a sense of history and agency.

I’m out to create an international culture of revolt against this revolting culture, and tracing back on a path I began first as a student, then as a researcher, and now as an artist, defining an answer to the question I asked so long ago: “Where’s the hip hop in China?”

Whew. Keep track of MC Tingbutong’s prolific comings and goings via his website, and dive more into the history of rap in China via RADII’s two-part series on the topic:

The History of Rap in China, Part 1: Early Roots and Iron Mics (1993-2009)

Josh Feola
Josh Feola is a Shanghai-based writer and musician, and RADII's Culture Editor. His coverage of Chinese music and art has appeared in The Wire, Dazed, Artsy, LEAP, Tiny Mix Tapes, and more. He's been active in China's underground music scene since 2010 via his booking platform pangbianr.com, and is a former member of Beijing bands Chui Wan, SUBS, and Vagus Nerve.