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How Mintone Records Put Alternative Hip Hop From Chengdu on the Map

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Nowadays, Chengdu is best known for being a hotbed of trap music in China. The city has given rise to the likes of the Higher Brothers, who became a global sensation after signing with 88Rising, and some of the country’s most famous musicians, like Ty., Fat Shady and Vava.

Beyond the popularity of trap music, Chengdu has so much more going on musically, like a thriving electronic music scene and one of China’s best rock bands in Hiperson. The city is also home to one of the best alternative hip hop labels the country has to offer, Mintone Records.

The label was founded by Tiangao Lee back in 2009. Lee grew up moving back and forth between Chengdu and Kunming. His family owned a store in the capital city of Yunnan province and he would go there during the summer, buying records and enjoying the sunshine. His dream at the time was to open a record store in the city, where he could chill and spend his days surrounded by the music that he loved.

While his love of music persisted, Lee had no intention of getting into the music business when he went to college. It felt more like a hobby at the time, even as he got in contact with various record companies, asking for catalogues of their releases and combing the liner notes of different records for information.

Through auspicious circumstances, the label was founded in 2009, though the first release didn’t come out until 2011. In the early days the label went by the name Mintelec Records, and focused on blending electronic music with hip hop. That first release, A Day Trip by Gavintoo, who was based out of Shenzhen at the time, is considered a classic in China of the style of music that the label was trying to promote.

 

The label went on to sign Lu1, who was a young producer at the time, making music that was outside of the norm of what was happening in Chengdu. Things began to snowball from there, with the label linking up with Kafe.Hu and with Lu1 picking up major awards, as he was named Rap Musician of the Year at Douban’s annual Abilu Awards in the mid-2010s.

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Around the same time, trap music was rising in Chengdu, but Mintone Records continued to chart its own course. As Lee tells us about the impact that trap music had on the city, he says, “When trap first came out, it was underground, it was much cooler and independent. I think it was just like a fashion here.”

Over time, Mintone has become synonymous with alternative hip hop coming out of the West of China, representing a different side of the hip hop scene from that side of the country. While labels like Jadecraft and Eating Music, whose focus also rests on jazzy hip hop and nu-jazz, reside in Shanghai, Mintone have held down the fort in Chengdu and West China, maintaining an alternative aesthetic.

Reference for example Dizkar, the Kunming rapper who is signed with Mintone Records at the moment. He got in touch with Lee because he was a fan of Gavintoo’s first release on the label. They’ve also signed funk singer MIA AIM, who has been making waves with her soulful vocals, as well as Zhiyu Xia, both of whom represent Chengdu.

In ways, the label retains its connection to various corners of China, through artists like Lionman, who is based out of Shenzhen, and to other parts of the world, through Lu1, who is currently living in Los Angeles, but they’ve been able to convert themselves into a Chengdu label.

That’s down to the artists that they’ve signed recently, but also down to decisions like opening their own record store in the city, a decision that was somewhat off the cuff from Lee. He explains, “last year, one day I was downstairs from our office having lunch. The weather was very good, so, I decided to take a walk with our workmate. We came across a building that had shut down and that was advertising to be rented. I made a phone call about the space and the price was really good. I walked around the street looking for some other spaces and finally I found the right one, it was perfect. The location was very good, so I just made the decision to rent it.”

The intention for Mintone Records, it seems, is on crafting a lifestyle for themselves and for their listeners, by building up physical cultural institutes and by putting together a back catalogue of excellent music. While the forces around Covid-19 meant that things got tight for them for a while, they’re battling through and keeping their ultimate aim in mind. As Lee says, “I am not the kind of  person that wants to make so much money, I just want enough money to keep things going the way they are.”

Cover image courtesy of Mintone Records

Bryan Grogan
Bryan is RADII's former 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. He also correctly guessed all 100 second generation Pokemon in eight minutes for an online quiz.