'A lot of Chinese people call hip-hop 'xi ha
' [嘻哈],' local promoter and MC ATL QianZ explains, 'but it's not correct, it's stupid – people even think that Justin Bieber is xi ha
. In the underground, our rappers respect hip-hop, they never call it xi ha
. Hip-hop is hip-hop.'
Xi ha, the Chinese transliteration of hip-hop, was made a household term by 2017's wildly popular first season of the TV show Rap of China. A country-wide, X Factor-style contest for MCs to compete for fame, fortune and glory, the show took off last summer and completely changed the make-up of popular music in China over a few short months. Besides bringing hip-hop into the mainstream spotlight, it also instigated a massive cash-grab from all sorts of companies who wished to sign MCs for performances and brand promotion.
'It was bullshit,' ATL QianZ recalls. 'The companies were like hunters and their MCs were like dogs. They send out their dogs to get prey and when they bring it back they feed them scraps.'
The powers that be, however, were not completely thrilled with the lyrical themes of hip-hop, the MCs' tattoos and dress, and some of their less-than-pure backgrounds – they pretty much just hated all of it. 'The government found out the lyrics in hip-hop are pussy, money and weed and all that,' ATL QianZ adds.
And thus it was decided to crackdown on xi ha
or hip-hop that represented anything morally untoward in mainstream media: 'There's still hip-hop on TV, but now it's all mainstream artists,' ATL QianZ laments. 'If you've been an underground artist before, if you've got that history they won't bring you up – it has to be really clean. It all has to be stuff like "my mum and dad are awesome, my girlfriend is beautiful and I love her".
'Basically, if you're going to be a mainstream hip-hop artist, your lyrics cannot be true.'
A year on from it all, we wanted to hear what kind of effect Rap of China, and the subsequent corporate cash-grab and political fallout has had on our lively underground hip-hop scene in Beijing. We spoke to Dawei, a veteran alternative MC who now performs with his live band The Social Poets, as well as the active crew Domie (stylised D0MIe), whose members have dominated local hip-hop for half a decade.
What were your reactions to Rap of China? Would you say it has changed anything in the Beijing hip-hop community?
Dawei: In my early days, the whole culture here treated us like dog turds in a corner, but now they think hip-hop and anything connected to it is the best toy, the shiniest jewellery. Hip-hop culture and hip-hop on Chinese media are two different things. Rap of China created market value for hip-hop, but as for the culture no one actually gives a shit.
Obeesheep (Domie): Most of the top guys in the underground hated Rap of China. These second-tier performers all went to compete and tried to change their style but really couldn't manage it. I'm not trying to rag on them but, I mean, maybe you should just try something else. Find another way forward, maybe go get a job. You've always had to pay attention to your lyrics – you know, focus mostly on your own life, avoid politics and controversial public issues. The government has never really supported hip-hop anyway.
RG (Domie): I had a self-produced album online that I took down after last year's competition because I was afraid of it having a negative effect on others in the local community. I recently tried to put it back online but two of the songs were rejected. It was sensitive content I guess.
DS (Domie): When the media picked up hip-hop there wasn't much of an effect on us. Even in the early days, they never promoted hip-hop, they never publicised it, never encouraged it. Now they're trying to gild it in the media, but everything they say is just business – a product. Everybody in the local scene is still doing their own thing. There's no way it’s going to change the true Chinese hip-hop culture. Right now the kids are all talking about it, but give it a couple years they'll be talking about something else. It's never going to influence the original community.
Phidaway (Domie): The media attention hasn't affected our music and we're continuing to work on our craft, but there are some effects on the Beijing community. For example, some really good shows, really legit local shows, were cancelled inexplicably. Just like that. But a lot more people are willing to pick up a mic and try now. Between the new people coming in and the older crowd there's some big differences in style. I get it. These young kids started liking hip-hop as this new thing and don't know the original sound, like hip-hop from the 1990s. They're just starting from this new school, so there's all kinds of different styles now.
Where is the hip-hop community going? What do underground artists aspire to if they can’t achieve wider recognition in China?
DS: It's not that I hope necessarily that more people know about us, but I hope people listen and really start to understand what are we doing, what are we talking about, what we represent and what we are trying to give them. Over the past ten years, Beijing has had a really stable hip-hop community. Western countries, they have their 'hoods, and every 'hood has its own style. We hope that we can produce a profound Chinese culture of hip-hop, and give Western kids something that they can hear to understand us and get on our level.
Phidaway: We want to keep doing what we do, and spit the verses that we should be rapping. Keep putting out good tracks, and get it out there and get it to the people who like our music. If the people who like us are satisfied, then we'll be satisfied. We don't want to look like those pop stars, or get famous that way. We hope that people who really care about and love hip-hop can listen to our stuff. I think we should really all focus on building the community.
Aleeyo (Domie): The community here will always get bigger. More MCs, more opportunities and possibilities. Eventually there'll be guys doing some fresh new styles. There's a lot of strength in our community and a lot of room to move forward.
By Michael Marshall