The Story of How China's Second City Became a Hotbed for Soundsystem Culture
Reggae and dub music has taken a long time to find a place in Shanghai—but thanks to a handful of leading lights, it's beginning to make itself at home.
This article appeared originally on THUMP UK.
It was pretty obvious to anyone arriving at the club who Biggaton was. Standing outside in the smoking area was a Rastafarian guy, dreadlocks tied into a massive red green and yellow hat, dressed entirely in white. Later that evening, he jumped down from the DJ booth, strode into the middle of the dancefloor and grabbed a small Chinese girl from the audience. "Baby, tell me where you're from," he said, in his thick Jamaican accent. "Hangzhou," she responded.
"I don't know Hangzhou, but me, I'm from Jamaica, and there, the galdem see me and they say, 'oh Biggaton! Why you all in white, are you an angel?' and I say 'no baby, I'm no angel, but I can take you to heaven!'"
Biggaton—a dancehall star from Mandeville, Jamaica—put on a great show, but in reality I'd come that night to see Skinny Brown, the DJ who'd brought him over from the Caribbean. For the last five years Skinny has been running a night called Popasuda. It's the kind of night where you'll hear songs made in a basement in India played back to back with tracks from Ethiopia, with afrobeats from Nigeria, Azonto from Ghana, and Brazillian baille funk all thrown into the mix. Oh, and it takes place in a sweaty warehouse in Shanghai.
Dada, Popasuda's home, is tucked away between nondescript buildings at the intersection of Xing Fu Lu—which translates from Mandarin as the "road of happiness." Situated down an alley, Dada is a graffiti-covered space, with a small chain link fence hanging down from one wall upon which a revolving Popasuda logo is projected. It sways every time someone dances into it.
"What I love about Popasuda," said Skinny Brown when we sat down to talk a few days before his show with Biggaton, "is that I have the Cameroonians in one corner, the Senegalese and the Jamaicans in another, the South Africans, the Brazilians, the Germans and the British all scattered around. Then when you play a track and they know it they come running up to the decks."
Shanghai, despite being fundamentally international, is a city in which stratification can take place incredibly quickly. On any given night you might stumble into a club that feels wholly the preserve of French expats, or others playing Mando-pop where the only foreign faces are the Russian "models" paid 300 RMB to dance on the tables with high rollers. Popasuda, on the other hand, brings as mixed a crowd as you're likely to see anywhere in the world. I've seen the head of one of Shanghai's trendiest art spaces—Shanghainese through and through—his button-down shirt wrapped around his waist, his vest soaked through with sweat clinging to his paunch, swaying, while behind him a group of Indian exchange students lose their shit over a piece of Urdu ephemera.
Skinny Brown is the embodiment of this audience. Raised in Toronto, he speaks six languages—Japanese, Hindi, Portuguese, Mandarin, English and Urdu. He drifted through college and ended up DJing in Tokyo and living in Yokohama. Having left Japan after his visa expired, Skinny found himself soaking up the sound of baille funk in Rio. From Brazil it was on to Pakistan where he spent time with a cousin in Karachi. His excursion to Shanghai came about by accident. "I had one of those 72 hour visas, for transit," he told me "but I guess that was ten years ago..."
A decade on and he's trying something different. "I want to build a soundsystem here, with dubplates, and clashes. The real thing." When I asked him if he felt that Shanghai was a reggae city, he shook his head. "No, not really, but it's coming up." His current method is beginning with a dubplate intro to his set, and then throwing dancehall in later. "It's easy to cross over into dancehall, future dancehall and trappy stuff at 160bpm. A lot of it is driven by that, that BPM and the need to find something that is slightly different."
Back in 2008, Skinny started a roots and reggae night at Logo, another club in the city. The nights were successful, and the club was packed, but Logo still wound up closed. Finding a dedicated space—both physically and in a broader cultural sense—for reggae proved challenging. One possible replacement, Shelter, a converted Mao-era air raid unit that's played host to nights specializing in grime in the past, will be closing in early 2017.
Still, Skinny has Dada. "Running Popasuda, it's been consistent and the city is very supportive," he explained. As such, he is using the platform to build up a more comprehensive reggae soundsystem. "It's about bringing dub culture to China and cultivating a unique sound for the city." At present, it should be noted, China doesn't have much of a dub culture to speak of. "A lot of people will hear Popasuda shouted out on the track and they're like, what is this? Why do they keep saying the name?"
Shanghai—if not quite the whole of China just yet—seems to be warming to it. Skinny has been collecting and playing out dubs for the past few years and now reckons he could put together a two or three hour set of exclusive dubs. He's cut dubs from the likes of Sizzla, Eek-a-Mouse, Max Romeo, Toots & Maytals, Caperton, and a whole raft of newer, less well-known artists, like those on the mixtape he's shared with THUMP exclusively.
He sources his dubs over the internet, reaching out over Soundcloud or through Facebook for younger, more accessible artists. For the bigger fish—the Max Romeo's of the dubplate world—he goes through a guy called Rob Sensei.
Rob is another Toronto native who's found himself in Shanghai. He also happens to run dubplate website Dub Shottas, with his partner Culcha Gideon, helping people from around the world connect with reggae artists to cut dubs. That a natural bridge to this world exists in Shanghai has obviously been a massive, and fortuitous, boon to what Skinny and others in the city are trying to achieve.
"Being based in China has its trials and tribulations, because reggae still isn't that big. But there is huge potential for it to grow," Rob added when we spoke about what it was like to run a dubplate site from the middle kingdom.
There are signs that reggae is starting to experience real growth. Skinny just reached out for dubs from UBC Beijing, which is China's only reggae label. "I want to support local acts, because ultimately half my audience is Chinese. I'm in China, I wanna play Chinese music."
The burgeoning scene isn't entirely dominated by international DJs, and homegrown talent is emerging. I reached out to Kimyoung Soo, a Korean guy raised in Japan who came over to Shanghai as a student in 2002. Now he DJs reggae and dancehall under the name DJ Laobang, and is working with Far East Lions, a reggae crew in town. He also just set up his own soundsystem in Ken's Bar, alongside Missy from Twerk Queens, in the adroitly named Obama Plaza in Gubei. "I carried vinyl and turntables to my first show in 2003," he said, "a lot's changed since then."
Far East Lions' MC, Jado, is a local—I clocked this when I dropped him a message over Wechat, a local messaging app, and he started writing to me in Shanghainese. He first heard reggae music back in 2004. At the time hip-hop was starting to get some traction in Shanghai, and a few DJs would even risk playing "Boombastic" by Shaggy. Jado sought out places playing similar records, and the odd bar playing reggae through rudimental soundsystems. A few years later he hooked up with DJ Shohei, from Okinawa, and started Far East Lions. They've played most of the festivals going in Shanghai and around China, and have supported international acts like Top Cat, Tippa Irie, Ranking Joe and Ras Demo when they've passed through.
As more and more local and international artists propagate the scene, audiences begin to crowd. Once he is back in Jamaica, I speak to Biggaton over the phone, after his morning exercises in the park, and ask him how he enjoyed the tour. "You know, I used to say it was all about America, all about the UK, but now, it's all about China man," he tells me. "I loved it." Biggaton is the first reggae and dancehall artist to do a full tour in China, playing fourteen shows in twelve cities. In Chengdu, the line for jahbar was out the door, "I didn't think the space could fit so many man" laughs Biggaton. When I asked if he thought he'd be back, he said he didn't think he would—he knew it.
His mission seemed almost evangelical to me. He said he met a lot of people while traveling China who only knew of Bob Marley––he was going to change that. I spoke to Christal from the Caribbean Association in China and she spun this as a positive "one thing's for sure," she said, "everyone knows and loves songs by Bob Marley, so it's a start." She also noted that the crowds, in her experience, were open to reggae and crucially were unfazed by the language barrier; the beat and rhythm carries them regardless.
As with everything in China, it is only a matter of time until reggae and dub-culture carves a space for itself within the wider sonic landscape. As Rob put it, "I believe with the perseverance from the reggae massive in China we all can make it happen."
You could see that at the Biggaton show. The crowd was a good balance of expats and locals; young Chinese kids danced up alongside a bunch of mid-30s Caribbeans from the CAC. The next day Skinny brought Biggaton over to Le Baron, a popular club that has a roof terrace and does day parties in the summer. The building only has 7 floors so it's dwarfed by the surrounding skyscrapers—as a result the towers create a natural echo chamber. Walking down donghu lu to get to the club, you can hear the bass vibrating and can just make out Biggaton's unmistakable voice. A cigarette seller stands, a wooden box of neatly lined packs in front of him, craning his neck to see where the sound is coming from. Orange light refracts from the office blocks—the sun setting at the other end of the street. The night is just beginning.
Barclay Bram-Shoemaker is a writer based in Shanghai.