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Voices from Inside Shanghai’s DIY Music Scene

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In a nightclub on the west side of Shanghai’s Huangpu river, Gouachi is cutting up the boards. Her signature sound — bright chord stabs, industrial noise, and frantic Jersey footwork beats — pulsates through a smoky room. A sweaty international crowd jumps up and down in time with the music. Gouachi’s energy at the tables is impressive, especially considering she spent the earlier part of her day in class at high school.

When I was about 14, I was exposed to electronic music — I thought it would be so cool to be a famous DJ. I learned about a studio that could teach me how to DJ, and started taking classes. Back then I had to sneak out at night if a DJ I liked was playing. One night I was practicing in the studio after our class, and my teacher Zean came over and asked if I wanted to play a set with him that evening. I’ve been playing shows ever since.

Now 16, Gouachi (aka Shi Jiayuan) has performed at all of Shanghai’s most beloved clubs. When I ask her about her future plans with DJing, she seems to have already thought it all through.

“I want to be a music producer, and have DJing as a hobby. I thought before about DJing full-time, but I realized that’s a hard life.”

Gouachi is just one success story out of CTRL Sound Academy, one of Shanghai’s leading DJ schools. Founded by a group of expats, the studio aims to equip students with the foundation of knowledge, tools, and techniques to help them achieve their goals as electronic musicians. Graduating students from each course receive a certificate, as well as the chance to perform live alongside their classmates. Outside of DJing, the school’s courses cover everything from production to mixing and mastering.

And CTRL Sound Academy isn’t the only option for Shanghai’s aspiring DJs. On the east side of the river in Pudong, SampleSpace is a locally-owned studio and school, teaching lessons and holding live events out of a basement in an apartment complex. Jacky Tan owns the studio, and also works closely with DMC China on projects like the World DJ Championships.

I started DJing in the early ’90s, just out of love for the music. In the blink of an eye, I’ve been working as a DJ for more than 20 years. Now, the DJ industry is booming in China. A lot of these kids are open to trying it out and learning. We have classes for everyone from elementary school to university students, and the results have been good. CASIO sponsors us now, and made us their exclusive electronic music exchange center in China. More and more people want to participate, so our team is constantly growing, and we just started offering a course in DJ technology.

The city’s DJs are obviously well taken care of, but they’re not the only ones caught in the rising boom of homegrown, DIY music production.

Shanghai-based rapper Search poses with friends

Search is an up and coming rapper. I first met him in the immediate mainstream aftershocks following the debut of Rap of China, a period which shall forever be known as “The Great Chinese Hip Hop Awakening,” at a street performance near Jing’an Temple. His set had included some more family-friendly sounds, plus two confused dancers in tight spandex, but I was pleased to see that his greater online discography was distinctly Soundcloud-era, washed out cloud rap — the kind of stuff Yung Lean would be proud of. It’s the same label-less, homemade sound that’s generating a lot of our hits today in the US. I asked him where he gets his inspiration.

About a year and a half ago, I started listening to Eminem when I was in junior high school, and then I started listening to T.I. and some Chinese rappers, and I decided to make my own music. But by ‘inspiration’, do you mean the artists I usually listen to? For Chinese artists, I like Vroskiii, Terminator, and Fanvy; for overseas artists I like Bexey, Omen13, and Scarlxrd. But I would say my inspiration is just the things that happen in my life and the way I feel about them. Being able to express those things in words just gives me a sense of accomplishment.

If Search had been born ten years earlier, would he still have been making music?

“Objectively speaking, I think it’d be a long shot. Ten years ago the circumstances were very different. Of course, making music today isn’t easy either, but back then it was nearly impossible. Maybe some people, down in their basements, making music — but most people’s thinking was just on following a normal path. It would’ve been a tough choice.”

Search’s producer is another self-made millennial artist. YUNG NIKE was born in 1999, and makes wavy, internet-generation trap beats. He shouts out Icytwat, Yung Lean, Digital Nas and Lil Tracy as inspirations for his sound.

“I started making music at 14 — I just loved the feeling I got from 808s. I got FL Studio 11 and an Akai MPK 261, and I still make beats on my home setup. I want to make music that meets my own standard of quality, and communicates my own ideas. I want to do something that speaks across generations.”

For aspiring self-made artists like Search and YUNG NIKE, the newfound accessibility of music production in China is a key development. Fifteen years ago, equipment, knowhow, and studio time all constituted major obstacles. But in the era of Taobao, necessary supplies are just a button click away. You can even buy full-scale, pirated versions of industry-grade production software, effects, and virtual instruments at a fraction of their actual cost. Online video tutorials are all you need to bridge the knowledge gap.

A quick glance on Taobao offers us Ableton Live for 30RMB (about $5) — a huge distance from $749, the cost of legal purchase. The same store also carries electric piano plug-ins and synthesizers from Native Instruments, plus all the microphones, hardware controllers and interfaces a beginner musician would need.

A Taobao store featuring a spread of pirated music production software

And the surge of interest in homemade beats and recordings isn’t limited to the new school. A few week ago, curious beatmakers crowded into a small apartment-turned-studio in Shanghai to watch Guangzhou producer Petechen give a workshop on the SP-404, a piece of analog equipment similar to the classic machines that gave birth to the iconic ’90s boom bap sound. The workshop was followed by a live set of beats and raps from Count Bass D, an OG great who’s been working with hip hop legends from MF DOOM to Snoop Dogg for decades.

The location was Daily Vinyl, a record store, hang out, and Airbnb set in an apartment not far from People’s Square. The address is secret, and you need to ask for it on WeChat before you come by. The walls are lined with crates of records, holding everything from classic funk to Japanese citypop to movie soundtracks. It’s the pet project of two music lovers, Cookie and Endy. Cookie explained to me what makes Daily Vinyl more than a store.

Daily Vinyl is a record store, but we also throw events, host shows, put out blog content, run a WeChat zine, etc…so better to call it a record culture sharing platform. At the beginning, Daily Vinyl was just a small project started by Endy and me. We collected all these records over the years, and wanted a way to sell some of our old ones to buy new ones. So we started an online store called Daily Vinyl. Now it’s way bigger than we could’ve expected — personally, I think we represent the most vibrant vinyl culture in China, and people trust our brand.

The store itself has a relaxed vibe. They brew coffee and serve beers out of the fridge in the kitchen, while folks float around looking through the records. I wondered what kind of people constituted most of Cookie’s customers.

“We have all kinds — some make music, and some are just collectors. I’m more involved in the hip hop and beatmaking scenes, while Endy focuses on importing rare records. I listened to hip hop for more than 12 years, so I know more about it than other music genres. And I know lots of people out here who also love it, and are interested in sampling, and digging for funk, soul, jazz tracks…I don’t listen to as much hip hop these days, but it’s still the style I love, and I want to spread the culture to more people. And for beatmakers, they’ll always need records and good music resources.”

After his workshop, Petechen shared his own thoughts on the rapidly-evolving state of music in the mainland:

“Since around 2010, China’s music scene has been stepping into a different era. Lots of indie labels and releases appeared across different genres. Live houses, clubs, and cafes all started welcoming younger artists for gigs. Colleges started opening courses in electronic music production, plus the cost of equipment just keeps going down. All these things happened at the same time, so independent music has become a lot much more accessible.”

Mainland China’s music scene has long been written off, compared to other east Asian music communities — Japan’s anime-tinged J-pop, Korea’s momentous K-pop movement, and even Taiwan’s Mandarin-language hits all enjoy positions of higher esteem. But in an age where the only difference between a high school kid and a multimillion-view artist is a hastily slapped-together bedroom studio, the new generation of Chinese musicians is coming in hot. We expect big changes over the next few years, and we expect to love every second of it.

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Adan Kohnhorst
Adan Kohnhorst is a Shanghai-based writer, producer, and multimedia artist, and the Associate Editor at RADII. His work has been featured in publications such as Maxim and the Chinese-language StreetVoice, and he’s an active member of the hip-hop and DIY music scenes in Shanghai, NYC, and Dallas. He learned Mandarin in high school so he could train at the Shaolin Temple, but now just uses it to interview rappers.