Off the airwaves, Chinese hip-hop grows
By Jimmy Wang
Sunday, January 25, 2009

BEIJING: More than half a billion people in China were expected to watch the annual Lunar New Year gala on Sunday. Organized by the state-owned China Central Television, the marathon event was to showcase the country's musical diversity with an extensive lineup of Chinese pop stars performing hit songs. But one genre audiences were unlikely to see was Chinese hip-hop, despite its growing popularity among the country's urban youth.

Over the last decade, many students and working-class Chinese have been writing rap as a form of self-expression. Rougher and more rebellious than the well-scrubbed pop that floods the airwaves here, this kind of hip-hop is not sanctioned by broadcast media producers or state censors but has managed to attract a grass-roots fan base.

"Hip-hop is free, like rock 'n' roll - we can talk about our lives, what we're thinking about, what we feel," said Wang Liang, 25, a popular hip-hop D.J. in China who is known as Wordy.

"The Chinese education system doesn't encourage you to express your own character. They feed you stale rules developed from books passed down over thousands of years. There's not much opportunity for personal expression or thought; difference is discouraged."

Although American rappers like Eminem and Q-Tip have been popular in China since the 1990s, home-grown rap didn't start gaining momentum until a decade later. The group Yin Ts'ang (its name means "hidden"), one of the pioneers of Chinese rap, is made up of global nomads: a Beijinger, a Chinese-Canadian and two Americans.

"The big change was when rappers started writing verse in Chinese, so people could understand," said Zhong Cheng, 27, a member of the group who was raised in Canada but born in Beijing, to which he returned in 1997. "Before that, kids listened to hip-hop in English, but maybe less than 1 percent could actually begin to understand."

Yin Ts'ang's first hit was "In Beijing," from the band's 2003 debut album, "Serve the People." The title is a twist on an old political slogan. It sets a melody played on the erhu, a traditional Chinese stringed instrument, against a hip-hop beat that brings the American '80s act Run-D.M.C. to mind. The song, an insider's look at Beijing's sights and sounds, took the underground music scene by storm, finding its way into karaoke parlors, the Internet and even the playlist of a Beijing radio station.

"There's a lot of cats that can rap back home," said Jeremy Johnston, a member of the group and the son of a U.S. Air Force captain. "But there's not a lot of cats that can rap in Chinese." Johnston, 33, moved to Beijing in the late '90s because, he said, it was "the thing nobody else was doing."

Since "In Beijing," the Chinese hip-hop scene has grown quickly. Hiphop.cn, a Web site listing events and links to songs, started with just a few hundred members in 2007; in 2008, it received millions of views, according to one of the site's directors.

Dozens of hip-hop clubs have opened up in cities across the country, and thousands of raps and music videos by Chinese M.C.'s are spreading over the Internet. But making Chinese hip-hop is still a relatively profitless - and often subversive - activity. Some Chinese rappers address what they see as the country's most glaring injustices. As Wong Li, a 24-year-old from Dongbei, says in one of his freestyle raps:

If you don't have a nice car or cash

You won't get no honeys

Don't you know China is only a heaven for rich old men

You know this world is full of corruption

Babies die from drinking milk.

He often performs in a downtown Beijing nightclub and uses Chinese proverbs in his lyrics to create social commentary.

Wong, who became interested in hip-hop when he heard the politically oriented U.S. act Public Enemy in the mid-'90s, said rapping helps him deal with bitterness that comes with realizing he is one of the millions left out of China's economic boom.

"All people care about is money," he said. "If you don't have money, you're treated like garbage. And if you're not local to the city you live in, people discriminate against you; they give you the worst jobs to do."

In the recent hit "Hello Teacher," Yin Tsar, one of the hip-hop scene's biggest acts (its name means "The Three Shadows") rails against the authority of unfair teachers: "You're supposed to be a role model, but I've seen you spit in public."

Shuo chang, the Chinese word for hip-hop, translates to "speak sing" and is a loaded term. It also describes a contentious subject for musicians, producers and fans in China. Hong Kong, mainland and Taiwanese pop stars who have their own spin on hip-hop dominate the mainstream here. Many tack high-speed raps onto the end of their songs, even ballads, and consider themselves rappers.

They rap about love "and call it hip-hop when it isn't," said Wang Liang, the D.J.

Jay Chou, a popular pop singer turned rapper from Taiwan who has been featured in advertisements for Pepsi, Panasonic and China Mobile, is the archetype of a mainstream performer here. Clean-cut and handsome, he appeals to a sense of nationalist pride. His hit song "Huo Yuanjia" is based on a patriotic Chinese martial artist glorified in Chinese textbooks for traveling the country to challenge foreigners in physical combat. Fans of Chou vehemently assert that his music is hip-hop, while denigrating groups like Yin Tsar.

"I don't know what groups like Yin Tsar are trying to do," said Hua Lina, 35, an accountant. "They dress like bums, and sometimes they take off their shirts at performances, screaming like animals. Their lyrics are dirty - why would I want to pay to see that?"

While Beijing's underground music scene is generally under the authorities' radar - hip-hop, indie rock and reggae groups perform regularly at nightclubs here - the producers representing broadcast media in China avoid musicians perceived as threatening.

"There are pockets of freedom here," said Wong Miao, 24, the director of Acupuncture Records, which doubles as a collective of D.J.'s. "Anyone can play what they want in clubs, and, as long as you aren't insulting the party, generally you'll be left alone. But if you want to take the next step to becoming mainstream, you hit a wall. If you aren't singing their type of stuff or aren't incredibly rich, they won't sign you."

Wang Yao contributed research.