For a country that only started letting outside music in over the last 40 years, China has a surprisingly long relationship with underground German music. Techno of the Berlin variety was among the first genres to gain a foothold in various Mainland club scenes in the early 2000s, storied club Tresor held a high-profile Beijing pop up a decade ago, and just last October, German cultural center Goethe Institute celebrated 30 years of activity in Beijing by flying in dub techno luminary Thomas Köner to perform aside similarly aligned local talents like Shao and Menghan.
Adding more fuel to this cross-cultural fire is Jiesi Chen, the brains behind a new bass music imprint called Ran Rad. Chen was born in a small town in northern Sichuan province, and studied medicine and forensic science in Guangzhou before moving to Germany several years ago. As a youth she was first switched on to alternative music via Guangzhou’s underground club scene, receiving early influence from the region’s Cantonese rap scene and later gravitating to DnB and related, low-end heavy sub-genres of dance music.
Now in her early 30s, Chen has devoted much of her time to facilitating exchange across the lines of her dominating musical passions, connecting with Beijing label Ran Music in November to launch Ran Rad with a compilation featuring like-minded artists from China and Germany:
That release, The Kickoff, will see a vinyl release in March — Chen has already inked a deal with veteran Cologne label/shop Kompakt to distribute this wax into the hands of eager DJs across the scene. Chen is also working on new releases and tours for German and Chinese artists in each other’s homelands to drive home her mission of cultural exchange via shared passion for heavy beats. I caught up with her to get the story of how Ran Rad came about and where she wants it to go.
RADII: How did you get to Leipzig and what are you doing there?
I found out about Leipzig around three years ago when I was invited to play music here by a bass crew. I was very attracted by its art/culture scene. It is unique. Often, music events in Leipzig are Solidarity-based. As a socialist myself, I fell in love with the community here. Fortunately, I was able to find a suitable and interesting research position at Uni-Leipzig, so I could move from Düsseldorf to Leipzig.
How did you first become interested in electronic music? What labels, artists, venues, record stores, etc were most important in exposing you to new music early on?
Guangzhou had China’s earliest electronic parties, dating back to the 1990s. In the early 2000s, [Guangzhou club] Babyface had its weekly breakbeats party, and towards the late 2000s, a number of clubs were playing decent Techno, Minimal, House, stuff like this. These were not really my types of music, but I got to know what electronic parties meant.
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However, my first exposure to the underground music scene was through Cantonese hip hop. There was an amazing group called DumDue (which later developed into CheeProduction), who had a great impact on my music life. Through them, I got into 90s hip hop and, importantly, turntablism. Soon I started playing hip hop out at places like Loft345 and C:Union. Wu-Tang Clan, Hieroglyphics, Living Legends, Little Brother and Zion I are among my favs. I am sure there are more, but it’s been a while. In 2006, everything changed after I heard Tarantula from Pendulum. I was so excited about the rhythm, something I’d never heard before. I got to know that this type of music was drum and bass (DnB), and I decided to collect music from this genre.
Germany has a much longer history of developing underground electronic music — what do you think are the biggest differences between the scene for producers and DJs in Germany as compared to China?
I would here leave out the techno scene, as I am sure someone else knows it better. But when we focus on the bass music scene, it is getting real intriguing with respect to the differences. Production-wise, the earlier German producers are rather into hardware and dubby, old-school sounds, while the new generation seems to dig the American sounds very much. Local producers can be very sophisticated, which I believe has a lot to do with the huge competition here. Basically you are never gonna get your music released or get a gig unless you are that good, particularly in Berlin.
While in China, things started all rather new, so there had not been, say, Detroit influence, UK rave sound influence and so on. Chinese producers can have rather creative ideas as they did not grow up in an environment where a certain genre should contain certain sounds. On the other hand, due to the lack of hardware-owning history, as well as the lack of existing local music production software, skills develop a bit slower, I reckon. But, they are definitely catching up.
Chinese producers can have rather creative ideas as they did not grow up in an environment where a certain genre should contain certain sounds
DJing-wise, the biggest difference to me would be that many DJs here in Germany still play vinyl-only sets, and there are numerous vinyl-only nights. Rather helpful actually, as I myself also became a vinyl-only DJ.
Scene-wise, a big difference would be that I somehow feel that the Chinese bass music scene is much better connected, and bassheads are much more supportive of one another. For example, you definitely know which people are running which events in which city, and you invite each other to play. At least it was like this when I was there. This is a huge plus.
What are the interesting similarities between music scenes from these two countries, if any?
I guess from an audience point of view, I see some similarity. You always get about 10% real-deal fans, 30-50% are their friends, and the rest just checking out. Of course, again, this is very different from the underground techno scene, where you have mostly real ravers.
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Your first release is a compilation featuring a few Chinese artists, including Negative 808 and Radiax, as well as American producer Kai Luen who previously lived in Beijing for many years. Why did you select these artists? What about their music fits the idea you have for the label?
Kai Luen a.k.a. Soulspeak is a very amazing producer, whom I often refer to as someone that can master all types of music. I love how he deals with sounds. He is also Silicone Moons, which released [an album] with Robox Neotech and [Ran Rad parent label] Ran Music in 2017, when I was still working for Robox. So I have been a long-term fan of Kai Luen.
Both Negative 808 and Radiax represent the sound of the brand-new generation of China’s bass music scene. They both have cool ideas, which I respect a lot. They are lovely to work with as well. Their tracks were endorsed by big names according to the feedback on the album promo. Ran Rad’s major aim is to discover new blood and connect bass music scenes in China and outside. Certainly, discovering local producers is a main focus of mine. I am totally lucky to get them on board.
What other Chinese artists do you plan to work with in the future?
I am hoping to work with old, good friends, like ChaCha and Cvalda, as well as new producers including 3ASic and Laughing Ears. There are definitely more to be discovered. Trust me, I am so looking forward to re-visiting the scene!
What is your connection to Ran Music? Why did you decide to launch your label as a sub-label of Ran?
It started with Kai Luen actually, with the above-mentioned co-release. Kai Luen introduced me to Shen Lijia, label boss of Ran Music, when I invited him to do an EP with Robox. I realized how much we have in common with respect to taste in sound, the music industry, and pushing China’s electronic music scene. I’ve never met Shen in person, but for two years I have been appreciating every discussion we’ve had and every idea we’ve put into reality. I completely believe that Ran Rad fits really well in the big Ran family. Nothing would have happened without Shen’s support.
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You’re partnering up with famous Cologne label/shop Kompakt to distribute the 12″ version of the compilation. Why did you decide to work with them for this release?
It’s a great story. When I was living in Düsseldorf (a neighbor city of Cologne), I spent countless Saturdays at Kompakt digging music. It is the most lovely record shop in the world. Geo, who works there, is an extremely friendly guy, and we talked from time to time about new releases and stuff. One day, I brought some Silicone Moons records and asked him if I could put them in Kompakt to sell. He was very amazed to hear that there was a label that is doing vinyl in Beijing with such proper music. He let me sell the records there, and I was told two weeks later that the records were bought out very quickly by several DJs after I left… That made a nice impression. So I told him about our upcoming plans and he put us in contact with Kompakt’s distribution team, and here we go.
It seems that historically there have been some interesting exchanges between German & Chinese underground electronic music scenes. Promoter Ni Bing has been exploring this connection for many years, and the Goethe-Institut in China has organized several large-scale events cross-promoting German and Chinese producers (such as their recent 30th anniversary event in Beijing last October). Also this year Berlin-based producer Mark Reeder made an album for Chengdu electro-rock band Stolen, techno producer Shao released an LP on Tresor, and a few Chinese artists (Hyph11e, Gooooose, 33EMYBW) performed at Berlin’s CTM festival. Do you think there is a special connection between German & Chinese underground music culture? What do you see as the best way to continue to nurture this connection?
It’s been totally great, what has been done regarding the German-Chinese electronic music connection. Especially in the techno scene, there have been loads of interactions. I hope and plan to bring Chinese artists from Ran Rad over to Germany, and the other way around. I would love for both sides to see how things work out at local levels in each place, and I hope to let musicians share ideas and skills through workshops. I will do what is the best for the artists on Ran Rad, when it comes to getting connected.
And, I believe in the old-school way of pooling releases with tours. Nevertheless, it is indeed more effective when different promotors and labels work at different levels to connect the scenes between Germany and China.
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To an outsider it would seem that most of the underground music culture is centered in Berlin… What is the Leipzig scene like?
Most music people here in Leipzig would say Berlin is too commercial. I reckon that says a lot about the Leipzig scene. There are so many wonderful underground venues! It still puzzles me sometimes how exactly they managed to fill in those clubs with loads of people without doing real promotion.
Also, there are two solid bass labels from Leipzig worth mentioning: Alphacut (Jungle and DnB since 2003) and Defrostatica (Footwork, since 2017).
What new releases or events are you working on at the moment?
Ran Rad is working on a release with DRANQ, a German producer who has a track on our Kickoff compilation. Following that, there will be a China tour for him. At the meantime, both in Berlin and Leipzig, I have been playing quite a lot recently, representing Ran Rad.
Stream/download Ran Rad’s inaugural compilation here, and keep an eye for the vinyl version to turn up in a record shop near you sometime in March. In the mean time, keep up with Ran Rad’s future releases via its page on the Ran Music site.
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