This article originally appeared on VICE US.
In 2015, I stumbled across an underground hip-hop DJ battle in Taipei, Taiwan. At the battle, over a hundred Taiwanese youth tucked beneath a tall highway ramp nodded to a mix of J Dilla inspired beats and N.W.A tracks. Occasionally, the event’s emcee would hit the stage to hype up the crowd in Mandarin and then enthusiastically yell in English, “DJ drop that shit.” The audience rocked throwback NBA jerseys, Jordans, bucket hats, and the overall semblance of a small, but emerging, hip-hop community.
Four years later, hip-hop in Taipei has emerged from underneath the highway ramp. The music, clothes, and overall culture are now mainstream and prominently featured on the radio, television, and in local clubs. Graffiti parks and hip-hop inspired streetwear shops like AMPM and Waiting Room are popping up left and right, and this year, the buzzing hip-hop scene even received a major nod from Red Bull Music. The company selected the city to host its annual Red Bull 3Style DJ competition, which prominently centered Taiwan’s unique hip-hop culture and included performances by Taiwanese rapper BCW and hip-hop veteran, DJ Ray Ray.
Many fans and media outlets credit the groundbreaking Chinese rap competition show, The Rap of China, for helping catapult Taiwan’s hip-hop scene into the mainstream. The first episode aired in 2017, marking a groundbreaking moment for local rappers looking to grow their audience (accumulating 2.5 billion views online). The show also provided an opportunity for rappers like BCW to show appreciation for a genre many describe as an extremely important part of their lives. "The first time I heard Jay-Z's music I was like yo, I want to be like that, I want to talk like that, I want to style like that," said BCW following his 3Style performance. "Hip-hop is just like my dad. It teaches me a lot, how to talk to girls and how to style. It's special."
Musically, the golden age of hip-hop and trap music reign supreme in Taipei. The J Dilla and N.W.A beats that once defined the city’s underground scene still remain, however, newer trap artists like Migos, Future, and Young Thug have seen a major boost in popularity. While American hip-hop music continues to prosper in Taipei, local hip-hop musicians are attracting a great deal of mainstream notoriety. These artists record in Mandarin and seek to tell a more personal story about their experiences living in Taiwan that other Taiwanese people can relate to. "Hip-hop used to be very American, like mostly only American culture,” said DJ Ray Ray ahead of her 3Style DJ set. “Now we've tried to combine it with our own culture and use our own language to tell people about our society’s issues and also our personal life."
The lyrical content produced by Taiwanese rappers has largely mimicked the themes discussed in American hip-hip. Local rappers reflect on their grind to the top, romantic relationships, and feelings about society. Producers have also adopted a wide range of jazz and trap sounds popularized in America and added traditional, local sounds. In BCW’s hit single “Dong An,” the rapper flows over an upbeat jazz melody, and during the hook, skillfully switches from Mandarin to English to announce “I ain’t worried bout nothing.” The feel-good track resembles the type of playful summer hip-hop anthem one can expect from Chance the Rapper or Anderson .Paak.
Taipei-based music labels like True Color Music, home of Mandarin rap pioneer MC HotDog, is helping groom this new generation of Taiwanese rappers. Local labels Kao Inc., Kung-Fu Entertainment, and Ainoko Entertainment have also been doing their part. International music strongholds Warner Music and Universal Music have even jumped on the opportunity to support Taiwan’s new rap scene. In 2016, Universal Music Taiwan signed rapper Miss Ko, whose videos for singles “Queen of Queens” and “Till Next Time” have racked up over 6 million views each on Youtube.
Taiwan’s willingness to embrace hip-hop music is a radical act considering China’s recent attacks against the genre. Since the release of The Rap of China, Time reported that China’s top media regulator — the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television of the People’s Republic of China — had ordered television networks not to produce programs featuring hip-hop culture or actors with tattoos. Gao Changli, director of the administration’s publicity department also explicitly banned actors whose “heart and morality are not aligned with the party and whose morality is not noble,” and actors who are considered “tasteless, vulgar and obscene.” Actors whose “ideological level is low and have no class” and actors with “stains, scandals, and problematic moral integrity” were also banned.
Unlike China, hip-hop has garnered a lot of support from the Taiwanese government, specifically in Taipei. Last year the mayor of Taipei, 59-year-old former trauma surgeon Ko Wen-je, teamed up with local rapper Chunyan to produce the trap single “Do Things Right.” In the video, the mayor and Chunyan appear under flickering lights to encourage viewers to do right in the community. DJ Ray Ray credits the government’s acceptance of hip-hop to the nation’s liberal culture. "I think we are a liberal country,” said DJ Ray Ray. “The young people don't have any limit to do anything. We have a graffiti park and we have so many nightclubs and events. The young people see hip-hop as a way to express themselves."
Taipei’s hip-hop scene is still rising, but right now, the future looks hopeful. With cooperation from the government and local and international music companies, hip-hop in Taipei is primed to be the next big thing in Taiwan, and possibly all of Asia.
i-D was on the scene last month at Red Bull 3Style in Taipei to capture stylish members of the city’s rising hip-hop community.
DJ Ray Ray / DJ
Olive Kuo / 26 years old / Designer / Taipei
Tipsy / Rapper and Party MC
BCW / Rapper
Yin / 20 years old / Editor / Taipei
Zoe / 24 years old / Rapper / Taichung
9m88 / 28 years old / Singer / Taipei
Aaron / 27 years old / F&B Controller / Taipei
Wu Cheng Yuan / 22 years old / Student / Changhua
Byron / 20 years old / Student
CHENGchingfang / 26 years old / Agent / Taipei
Jhu hueirong / 28 years old / Agent / Taipei
Monte Liong shi Hwa / 33 years old / Designer / Taipei
Tsaiyitung / 28 years old / Model / Taipei