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Is the Higher Brothers-Led “Rap for Youth” China’s “Realest” Rap Show of the Summer?

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Chinese Rap Wrap is a bi-weekly RADII column sharing stories from the Chinese hip hop scene, underground or in the mainstream.

Over the course of summer 2020, three rap-centric variety shows have been airing on three different platforms: underground-leaning show Rap Star on Mango TV, the ever-popular The Rap of China on iQIYI, and new, Generation Z-oriented show Rap for Youth on Bilibili. From the outside, it seems that hip hop has never been so popular or prosperous in China. 

But is that really the case?

A Summer of Rap Variety Shows

When the Mango TV-produced Rap Star wooed hip hop fans with an epic cypher featuring the eight mentors appearing on the show back in May, expectations were raised. While the mentors’ musicality can’t be called into question, with most of them known for working their way up through underground music scenes, the ability of Rap Star to provide entertainment value to a large audience has turned out to be lacking.

One thing that factored into that was how contestants were eliminated, which was largely decided by audience members, therefore not allowing mentors to be dramatic or overly critical. The show was also full of peace and love, but has had difficulty attracting people’s attention. Even when JD, the national championship winner of the 2018 edition of Listen Up (the show’s more alternative predecessor), won the final and put on the champions ring in Rap Star‘s finale, discussion around it online was lukewarm at best.

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At the same time, the latest — and still ongoing — season of iQIYI’s Rap of China has already been on the receiving end of diss tracks from its own contestants. Additionally, internet celebrities who seemingly don’t have anything to do with rap showed up during the audition stages — some of them even managed to secure golden chains, putting them through to the second round of performances — seemingly using the show as a platform for their “hit songs.” This brought them and Rap of China traffic, but also a wave of criticism for the show’s desperate hype.

As for the mentors’ cypher, which was released in the build-up to the show, lines such as, “We created the past, and decide the future,” shocked people who have been listening to Chinese hip hop music for two decades given the show’s four seasons of existence.

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Kris Wu, GAI, Jane Zhang, Will Pan and Jay Park Team Up for “The Rap of China” 2020 Cypher

The final 20 contestants of the show are mostly already on major record labels like Modern Sky, or are mentor GAI’s GO$H crewmates. As independent rapper/musician and the founder of Shanxi-based label Re8el, LilBoo, said on the Twitter-like Weibo platform, “There have long been different layers in Chinese rap, and it’s pretty much impossible for anybody to stand out. Some rely on their big brothers, and some rely on the variety shows, but all of them are being exploited year by year.

“When the bubble bursts, Chinese rap may return to the golden age when it was not so much of an industry.”

A Rap Show for Generation Z

Co-winner of the first season of The Rap of China, GAI, has essentially replaced MC Hotdog, who made the jump to Bilibili’s first original rap program Rap for Youth. That show started airing one week after The Rap of China, and MC Hotdog’s verse in the mentor cypher of the new show speaks to his decision:

New Journey / the train arrives at B Station [B站 — Bilibili’s nickname]/ all I want is something real / I don’t care about anything else / whose verse got substance / who has a real life / who has real respect / don’t force me to egg you.”

Also featuring Higher Brothers’ Masiwei and KnowKnow, their Indonesian label mate at 88rising, Rich Brian, as well as former member of K-Pop group EXO, Huang Zitao, Rap for Youth’s mentor cypher “New Generation” not only flexed about money and power, but called for more Chinese rap artists aged 18 to 35 to express themselves in their own way.

The show’s slogan “You can rap about everything” echoes the cultural environment of Generation Z’s most beloved website Bilibili, where young people have tended to share whatever they are passionate about, especially on a newly-added rap channel.

Moreover, in the build-up to the show’s launch, it seemed quite obvious that Bilibili was determined to make a Chinese rap show in a pretty down-to-earth style, building out some trendy promo videos for Rap for Youth, some of which you can see below:

While the word “real” as a descriptor for rap music has been a bit overused in recent years, it’s certainly becoming more difficult to make variety shows on mainstream platforms that remain “real.” In the first episode of Rap for Youth, however, we saw and heard something exciting, new, and real.

A “Real” Rap Variety Show?

The show’s structure tends more towards a reality show format, rather than a pop idol competition. With 40 contestants, including veterans like Chengdu rapper Ty., as well as Dungeon Beijing’s Spam and MC Sweet, the contestants all eat, sleep, make music, and battle, in a factory-turned-house. They’re tasked with winning currency called “Beat Coins” (geddit?) for food, better recording space and more comfortable living quarters for their team — these are awarded based solely on their music and performances.

Related: 

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Similarly, before the group was split into four teams, the contestants were asked two simple but important questions — “Does rap make your life rich or poor?” and “Which do you want to be more popular, your song or yourself?”

After that, the contestants had to write at least one verse using five irrelevant key words (such as “instant noodles,” “007,” “filter,” “face mask,” “Lolita,” etc) within two hours and make a team cypher to perform in front of the mentors.

So how real are the rappers’ lyrics? Battle MC Lan Duo gave the perfect answer when he stated:

“I’ve never had a good life, so I just cannot write about money or fancy cars. If I do, it’s nothing but fake.”

Other young musicians rapped about school bullying, domestic violence, and an ideal world with a clean environment, peace, and love.

During the show, Hangzhou veteran rapper TangoZ performed his Wu-dialect track “Love Paradise,” expressing his love for his “heaven on earth” hometown as well as his mother tongue. “The rate of Wu dialect erosion is high. It’s not like Sichuan, Chongqing or Guangzhou,” he said. “A lot of people would go learn certain dialects because they love Higher Brothers, so I want to make Wu dialect rap a bit better on this path as well.”

Related: 

Is Chinese TV Biased Against Non-Mandarin Music?

And the Higher Brothers received the message. “You did it. I don’t understand Hangzhou dialect, but I understand music,” Masiwei said on the show. The Chengdu rapper even reflected on his own music further: “I started doubting myself — did I put myself in a blind and narrow alley of one type of rap? There’s not only trap or old school. There are so many possibilities.”

This all sounds promising for music fans.

This Show Changes What I Thought About Rap”

Among the website’s famous bullet comments (user statements that fire across the screen as you watch), the audience has been discussing what “trap” and “funk” music really is and how to make these types of music while watching the diverse styles of contestants’ performance. “This show changes what I thought about rap,” was an oft-repeated comment.

It is absolutely too early to say how much this survival-challenge-like rap show will influence the music scene, but it’s good to see some straightforward and honest conversations taking part on the show.

As an example, when Huang Zitao came back to restart his career in China in 2015, his rap lyric “Any of my rap songs can beat all Chinese rappers” ignited an immediate diss track storm against him, with Ty. among those weighing in. It appears that the two can co-exist now and that the tension between so-called “idol rappers” and “underground rappers” is disappearing. Ty. signed to Warner Music, and Huang doesn’t need to talk tough for traffic anymore — he has his own agency now.

A more important question is — is it necessary to draw a line between the two? After all, all musicians need their music to be heard, and all artists want to be seen. Huang Zitao, who has nearly 59 million followers on Weibo, spoke frankly when being asked about why he was appearing on the show, “Who would come see you if I were not here?”

This seems to be just what the production team wants to do through the variety show, and how they want to present the music and musicians who are appearing on Rap for Youth. As such, Bilibili have managed to find a new access point for young audiences who are forming the future of rap music and hip hop culture.

The show has already proved important in that it has posed the question of whether it is time for Chinese hip hop music to develop into a more diverse category and to inspire Chinese youth to speak out not for money and fame, but for themselves. 

Fan Shuhong
    Shuhong (aka Rita) is a language instructor, English/Chinese translator, writer, and proud bunny owner based in Beijing. She's previously worked in Washington D.C. and IUP at Tsinghua University. She loves Chinese language, Japanese arts, post-rock music and good English TV series. Instagram: rita_van