The Rap of China — which begins its second season later this month — brought hip-hop to the cultural mainstream as the first variety show focusing on hip-hop music to air in China, but it was definitely not the first rap battle in the country.
Back when I started college in 2006, underground rap battles frequently took place in Chengdu, organized by influential local crews such as CDC. And before Rap of China’s breakout success last year, another hip-hop focused TV show called Listen Up had already kicked off the phenomenon of providing Chinese rappers a bigger stage, having launched in 2016.
As a rap contest produced by hip-hop industry insiders and professionals who have said (link in Chinese) that they “don’t want to over-commercialize and be limited by the sponsors” and wish to “let music be the No.1,” Listen Up doesn’t have a big budget for production and promotion, and has less than 2,700 followers on Weibo.
Look at its contestant and judge lists for the past two seasons, however, and you will find that there is some justification for their claim in a recent interview: “We have everything you want here.”
VAVA wins the first Listen Up championship
Winners of Listen Up‘s first season in 2016 include VAVA — who appeared on last year’s Rap of China contest and did so well that she now ranks as a superstar and fashion icon — as well as Sun Xu from Beijing-based rap crew Dragon Well, Mansuk from Modern Sky hip-hop label M_DSK, and PACT, who all just made it onto the new Rap of China Top 70 list this year.
IQIYI have released headshots of some of the rappers due to compete on the new “Rap of China” season. Drink them in below and check out our primer here: https://t.co/jZVijh4UAb pic.twitter.com/635yWE8Y6o— RADII (@RadiiChina) June 29, 2018
IQIYI have released headshots of some of the rappers due to compete on the new “Rap of China” season. Drink them in below and check out our primer here: https://t.co/jZVijh4UAb pic.twitter.com/635yWE8Y6o
— RADII (@RadiiChina) June 29, 2018
Other Rap of China competitors such as After Journey and BooM (who were recently featured in the closing credits of HBO’s Silicon Valley), SIIVIBA, MC Pharaoh, and JD all first appeared on Listen Up.
After Journey on Listen Up in 2016
Contestants on stage for Listen Up 2017
The judges of Listen Up are Chinese rap OGs, whose names have been known by hip-hop heads in the country for over a decade. They include Vincent Fang (方文山), a songwriter who has partnered with Jay Chou for almost twenty years; Mow, the founder of Chengdu hip-hop label CDC and a member of rap group Big Zoo, which started in 2005; Canadian-born Chinese rapper Sbazzo from Beijing-based hip-hop group Yin Cang, founded in 2000; Manchuker, who created hip-hop label Asian Power in Queens in 1998; Big Dog, a veteran rapper who won the underground Iron Mic rap battle from 2007 to 2009; and the HipHopMan himself, MC Jin.
MC Jin on Listen Up
The first round of Listen Up‘s third season — which is still airing — took place in Chengdu, Beijing, Shanghai, Taipei, and Shenzhen. Half of the twenty contestants in each section got eliminated, and the top 20 overall gathered in Shenzhen for a five-day “Creative Training Camp” before a final contest that was filmed on April 22. The show has been airing on Tencent Video and Ku Ran Video since June 15.
Top 3 contestants from Chengdu for Listen Up 2018
From what I’ve seen of this season so far, Listen Up still looks quite underground, and the judges and the contestants all “keep it real”:
“You gotta keep up with the beat. If not, you sound stupid.” — Listen Up judge Mow
Chengdu rapper White, who raps in his wheelchair, has also really impressed me.
Listen Up deserves more attention from the newly-cultivated hip-hop music fans drawn to the genre by the seemingly overnight success of Rap of China. Providing a more diverse and inclusive stage for Chinese rappers, it’s a reminder that there is far more to Chinese hip-hop than just the hit iQIYI show.
Check out the first part of 2017’s Listen Up finale here:
Cover photo: Shanghai section of Listen Up 2018
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