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The History of Rap in China, Part 2: Hip Hop Goes Mainstream (2010-2019)

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This is Part 2 of a two-part series on the history of rap in China. Catch up on Part 1 in the link below, and see more of RADII’s in-depth hip hop coverage here.

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

2010-2017: Hip Hop Sweeps the Nation

The current decade kicked off with a memorable Iron Mic finale. The final battle between Beijing rapper Dawei (大卫) and Xinjiang MC Max (马俊) is viewed as a classic, and a turning point where Max won with his freestyle without the use of any curse words.

Over the following years, Iron Mic would continue to bring rappers to broad national audiences, a rarity in the pre-Rap of China days. Champions included Xi’an’s PACT (派克特, 2011-2012);  Young Dragon (小青龙, 2015-2016) from Kunming-based hip hop label Monster Gang (开山怪); Bei Bei (贝贝) and PG One from what would later become HHH (红花会), Xi’an’s biggest rap group; Bridge from Chongqing-based label GO$H; and Sun Bayi (孙八一) from Guizhou. All were widely acknowledged on the national stage, a rarity for underground rappers back then.

But Iron Mic wasn’t the only battle arena. In 2012, Xi’an hosted the first 8 Mile Underground (地下八英里) competition, named after Eminem’s autobiographical film. Participating rap crews and labels included C.H.A.O.S, NOUS, HHH, and STA, while the freestyle contests between Young Dragon and PG One, PG One and GO$H’s Watch Me (aka 山鸡), and Bei Bei and Masiwei (later of Higher Brothers) were instant classics. The new generation demonstrated in these battles that they were ready to take Mandarin rap to the next level.

In 2013, Chengdu jazz rapper Kafe Hu released his first album, The Guy. One year later, fellow Chengdu rapper Fat Shady (谢帝) brought his Sichuanese rap “Not Going to Work Tomorrow” (明天不上班) onto Sing My Song, a music show produced by national network CCTV with a large viewership.

Several years later, in 2015, another group of Sichuan rappers called Higher Brothers put out their first, self-titled demo, starting them on a road that would lead to global recognition behind the 2017 release of their debut album Black Cab. That the same year, yet another Sichuan group called CD REV, got their start, and set out on another path to widespread recognition. Today they’re known as “China’s reddest rap group” due to their baldly pro-State lyrics.

2017-2018: The Rap of China Changes the Game

By 2017, hip hop had been bubbling away on the underground level for about two decades. Yet in the summer of 2017, it went mainstream almost overnight. Previously underground rappers suddenly became major stars, rap battles went viral online, and terms such as “freestyle” entered the mainstream lexicon. With a production budget of over 200 million RMB (29 million USD), Baidu-owned streaming platform iQIYI’s The Rap of China show changed the Chinese hip hop game forever.

First aired on June 24, 2017, the show’s first season has been viewed over 3 billion times. Fronted by celebrity judge and K-pop star Kris Wu, the reality TV extravaganza brought the previously underground  genre to mainstream Chinese audiences for the first time, inadvertently setting off a series of controversies — and making a massive difference in terms of many rappers’ income, and the overall recognition of hip hop in China.

Related:

The Rap of China Exposes Generational Fault Lines Among Chinese Youth

For example, in May 2017, Modern Sky-signed rapper Tizzy T was paid 30,000RMB for a music festival appearance. Just weeks later, he was commanding fees of 300,000 RMB, having made the show’s top seven finalists. Today, he has more than 5 million followers on Weibo — the type of popularity an underground rapper could never imagine to gain through small-scale live concerts or freestyle battles.

In an interview with RADII in June, the producer of the show and iQIYI’s VP, Chen Wei, claimed that improving the financial situation of the artists was an explicit goal of The Rap of China: “They were really poor, because people didn’t know about them, and they didn’t have many performances, which meant they had no money. In 2017, some rappers might have just made 200 RMB [$29 USD] for a concert. No money means low quality. The beats they used maybe were just illegally-obtained parts of other people’s beats. GAI wanted to pay a couple of hundred RMB for a beat several years ago, but he couldn’t even afford it.”

Such dire straits were in stark contrast to the situation in other countries, Chen said. “Hip hop continues to develop pretty well overseas, and merges well with commerce. Before Rap of China, Chinese rappers had no visibility. We hope the production level of their work will increase a lot, so they just need to concentrate on their verses. This is what we want to do for them, to offer them a world class stage, the best production and the best promotion.”

Related:

Xinjiang Rappers are the Break Out Stars of ”The Rap of China” Season 2

Chen adds that his generation grew up with rock ’n’ roll, but that Chinese youth today are exposed more to rap. “We should use the mode of expression that this generation likes to engage them, and let them enjoy higher-quality shows,” he says, admitting he’s been inspired by the likes of Empire and The Get Down. “The content that doesn’t fit mass media should not be present in our show.”

But a TV show airing in the carefully-controlled, carefully sanitized space of China’s pop-cultural mainstream isn’t necessarily compatible with underground rap culture, as The Rap of China’s first season proved. After GAI and PG One were crowned co-champions at the end of season one, they were hit by a series of scandals. Even blatant, cringe-inducing displays of loyalty to the Party’s brand of harmonious patriotism couldn’t stave off an apparent “hip hop ban” being implemented on mainstream media.

Rapper GAI Abruptly Removed from Reality Show Following Reported New Hip-Hop Ban

“Rappers have to take social responsibility as public figures,” Chen told us ahead of the return of Rap of China last summer. “After last year’s show, some kids didn’t do a good job. We were not happy with it, but it was just out of our control. They should have done better, or there should have been someone who told them what to do. They got confused when they suddenly became public figures, rising from their roots as underground rappers. This made the authorities feel that something is wrong with this culture. Every government should keep their teenagers away from bad influences. So the regulations that came out [last year] were necessary.”

There is no doubt that rap — and a few rappers in particular — has become well known in China at a lightning-fast speed over the past year as a direct result of the show. Season one co-champ PG One has been the worst hit by the government’s swift response. He was blocked from Weibo for months, and forced into a pseudonymous return via WeChat, where he continues to release new music (his first few tracks there were timed to coincide with the airing of new episodes from Rap of China’s second season.

“I’m Not an Idol, Call me a Rapper”: PG One Re-Emerges on WeChat

PG One’s plight has also exposed how hip hop has taken on elements of the “fan economy” phenomenon previously limited to pop music. In 2018, his fashion brand DEEVAN sold 2.6 million RMB ($377,000 USD) in its first 30 minutes, surpassing sales figures for Uniqlo and Gap on its first day on e-commerce giant Taobao. This tremendous performances was due mainly to direct fan support. Meanwhile, loyal fans of his and rival rapper Bei Bei have shown open hostility to one another on Weibo and other forums.

“Capital and brainless fans are the two major challenges that the Chinese rap scene is confronted with” – longtime Chinese hip hop head Gao Fang

“Capital and brainless fans are the two major challenges that the Chinese rap scene is confronted with,” says Gao Fang, a 30-year old white collar worker and a hip hop head for nearly two decades. “I give Kris Wu respect for his endeavor to promote rap in China, but look what his fans did against HUPU. Now Chinese rap is like a prostitute sold to brothels by the pimp, capital, and brainless fans are the clients. The pimp gets the workers dressed up for money, and the clients spend a lot of money on… I don’t know what.”

Gao says some of these issues have arisen due to elements of American hip hop culture getting lost in translation. “This culture was imported from overseas, so it has to be decoded then recoded. But the whole process hasn’t gone well. We are always imitating what is popular overseas. With the tones [of spoken Mandarin], Chinese can be a lot more complicated to rhyme than English. Therefore, there is a lot more fun with wordplay, not to mention the unique elements of Chinese classical music and instruments that would be awesome if we used them properly. Now anyone can rap and can be heard online, which is a good thing, [but] if rappers don’t listen to more music or cultivate their own aesthetics then their work will suck.”

Eyedee, a rapper and hip hop lover who has been close to the Chinese scene since 2006, agrees. “It’s important for today’s rappers to cultivate themselves, and to think. In the current environment, mature rappers can take advantage of the developed techniques and the equipment [at their disposal], but [The Rap of China] just wants to promote young rappers who have a clean history with more plasticity, which means most of them don’t have their own attitude. As a rapper, you gotta have your own attitude and principles.”

“Hip hop is growing higher in China, but it’s not growing stronger” – Eyedee 

As a rapper who has featured on songs with the likes of Sbazzo, MC Max and Taiwanese rapper Daddy Chang (脏爸爸), Eyedee feels qualified in calling out the new generation of pop-star rappers, but also lays blame at the feet of labels and other organizations looking to take advantage. “The culture has no roots in China. It is not promoted by people, but by institutions. People don’t know Nas, 2Pac, Fat Joe or Jay-Z. The show is just a commercial cooperation [between] Kris Wu and iQIYI. Hip hop is growing higher in China, but it’s not growing stronger.”

Related:

How Rap Became the Advertising Medium of Choice for China’s Brands – and Government

While old-school rappers and hip hop heads fret over the “corruption” of the genre, Rap of China producer Chen points to Chinese hip hop’s increasing international profile as justification for his company’s actions. “P Diddy heard GAI’s track ‘Parched’ (天干物燥) after someone sent it to him, and said, ‘Wow! This is Chinese rap for sure!'”

For better or for worse, Chinese rap seems at a turning point, and exactly where it’ll go next remains unclear. As Chinese rappers reap the rewards of unprecedented commercial opportunity, countless questions are still left for us to observe, discuss, and reflect on. How can a streaming reality show promote the music and the culture better than just blasting out updates on its official Weibo? Does Kris Wu have anything more insightful to say about Chinese hip hop’s sudden explosion than “skr”?

Maybe we can wait a little longer, let brilliant music from real rappers break out through the filter of time, and give new fans some space to learn and become proper rap aficionados.

In the meantime, RADII will stay laser-focused on the best (and worst) of the future of rap in China.

If you missed part one of our History of Rap in China series, see where it all began here:

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

And here are some choice cuts from the current Chinese hip hop underground:

Bohan Phoenix Injects a Dose of Reality into China’s Hip Hop Boom on New Track “YMF”

Watch: OG Chengdu Rapper Kafe Hu Breaks Down Sichuan Slang

CITY MIX: An Abridged Guide to Shenyang’s Rap Scene

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