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Yin: Beijing Duo 工工工 Channels Spartan Groove on “Phantom Rhythm”

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Yin (音, “music”) is a weekly RADII column that looks at Chinese songs spanning hip hop to folk to modern experimental, and everything in between. Drop us a line if you have a suggestion.

Beijing (via Hong Kong, Canada, other places) duo 工工工 (Gong Gong Gong) have been plying their trade in the nooks and crannies of the Chinese capital’s underground  since 2015. Often literally underground. After playing their first show on the final night of experimental music venue XP in summer 2015, they played their second at a subterranean tunnel near the Sanyuan bridge in northeastern Beijing, and many more after that at Fruityspace, a cozy noise dungeon distinguished by owner Zhai Ruixin‘s penchant for silk-screened, handmade merch and eclectic bookings of muddy garage rock, cerebral experimental music and the occasional hip hop night.

Over the intervening years, 工工工 has hashed out the spare, barely-there rhythmic propulsion that percolates through their austere guitar & bass jams in a former air raid shelter on the north side of Beijing’s 2nd ring road referred to colloquially by the bands who practice there as ji di (基地; “under the KFC”).

The name 工工工 came from a sign outside that rehearsal space, and serves as a forceful, almost onomatopoetic reference to the band’s lowkey obsession with meter. Says guitarist Joshua Frank:

“The sign said 木工瓦工电工, or ‘carpenter, bricklayer, electrician’ — in this context, the 工 character means ‘work.’ Even though I speak Chinese fluently, I often poke fun at myself for getting things wrong, and I deliberately read the sign top to bottom rather than left to right. We were taking a break from practicing, and all of a sudden, I just said, ‘what if we’re called 工工工?’ It felt perfect: the repetition, the percussive sound, the geometry and graphic nature of the characters, the fact that they look like I-beams or a railroad track, and also the fact that it’s a Chinese name that works well in English too. “

Following a string of site-specific, self-released demos and live recordings — President Piano Co. Tape, recorded in an antique rehearsal studio in guitarist/vocalist Tom Ng’s hometown of Hong Kong; WǓHÒU SHANGHAI, recorded in now-defunct arts space Basement6; DÌXIÀ BEIJING, recorded in the aforementioned Sanyuanqiao underpass — 工工工 has just put out their debut album, Phantom Rhythm, via New York label Wharf Cat Records. And it has won some influential fans.

While industry standard-bearer Pitchfork usually ignores music made in China (in the last 13 years they’ve only covered the original Buddha Machine, one Hanggai album, and a Higher Brothers cameo on middling 88rising comp Head in the Clouds), 工工工, perhaps due to their identity as internationally mobile transplants, or perhaps thanks to a string of successful North American showings alongside Parquet Courts and Beat Happening’s Calvin Johnson, have broken through the media noise and garnered a highly respectable 7.6 rating for their debut effort. Pitchfork‘s Linnie Greene writes:

“The album reaches its zenith midway through, where standouts ‘Wei Wei Wei’ and ‘Some Kind of Demon’ follow in succession. These songs follow a similar structure as most others — an insistent, galloping rhythm overlaid with guttural cries and a sinuous riff. ‘Wei Wei Wei’’s opening fuzz leads into a faux-casual plod, charting a steady ascent into rhythmic abandon, order teasing at chaos. It’s music that engages one’s entire body.”

 

Buy/stream Phantom Rhythm at 工工工’s Bandcamp, and follow the links below for a deeper dive into the nomadic creative dynamic shared by Joshua Frank (and his brother Simon), Tom Ng, and kindred bicultural rapper Bohan Phoenix:

Yin: 工工工, Bohan Phoenix & Simon Frank on Growing Up Between Cultures

B-Side China Podcast: Sinking Beijing w/ Tom Ng, Josh and Simon Frank

Cover photo by Hailu Ren

Josh Feola
Josh Feola is a Shanghai-based writer and musician, and RADII's Culture Editor. His coverage of Chinese music and art has appeared in The Wire, Dazed, Artsy, LEAP, Tiny Mix Tapes, and more. He's been active in China's underground music scene since 2010 via his booking platform pangbianr.com, and is a former member of Beijing bands Chui Wan, SUBS, and Vagus Nerve.