With his skinny arms swinging and bleached tarantula dreadlocks hanging over mildly ludicrous oversized sunglasses, Cheng Jianqiao swaggers into a teahouse in the southwest Chinese city of Chongqing. We’re meeting shortly after one of his appearances on China’s ridiculously popular TV show The Rap of China where, under his stage name Bridge, he’d reached the sharp end of the X Factor-style competition. After performing his trademark song “Boss” the judges, unsubtly seated next to bottles of vitamin drinks they were promoting, quickly waved him through to the next round. Bridge held his microphone aloft like a shotgun, nodding arrogantly and miming gunfire shots.
“Yeah, everyone knows me now!” says Bridge, bouncily plonking himself down at the table as I pour green tea and ask if being on the show has made him famous. “It’s like the judge on the show, MC HotDog, said,” he adds. “Hip-hop music has been hiding underground for too long – now it’s time to take a breath above ground.”
Indeed, The Rap of China wasn’t so much a shove forward for Chinese hip-hop as an afterburner jet being strapped to its back. Debuted on the internet video platform iQiyi on 24 June last year, in its first month the show was viewed over 700 million times. Genre purists slammed it for having pop star judges and ripping off other singing show formats, but by September the viewing total was over 2.5 billion (in the UK The X Factor, incidentally, posted its lowest ever viewing figures recently, with one episode dipping to 4.3 million viewers). Having been largely underground since emerging in the 1990s, and the frequent target of government censors, hip-hop, it seemed, had finally gone mainstream in China.
Bridge, a member of the Chongqing-based GO$H rap crew, made the final eight of the competition. GAI, also a member of the GO$H community, ended up being joint winner with PG One, from Xi’an in the northeast. But the Chongqing pair’s success didn’t come completely out of the blue. Even before The Rap of China hit screens, the city was fast becoming a hotbed of hip-hop talent, largely since trap music started becoming a force there – along with its neighbouring Sichuan province – around 2015. So, what’s so special about this region with regards to rappers? Has The Rap of China given them a proper platform to the future, or is it just a fad? And how exactly can these artists thrive in a system with so many restrictions on free speech and the media?
In the early 1990s, when Bridge was wearing nappies rather than enormously baggy T-shirts and chains, DJs started playing imported US hip-hop records in Beijing and Shanghai clubs. It was another ten years, though, before rap groups started emerging in the country, most notably the Beijing-based, multinational four-piece Yin Ts’ang, of which the originally members included an American and Canadian. In the late 2000s rap trio IN3, also from Beijing, found modest success with their hazy, weed-drenched beats and slightly naughty lyrics about hating teachers and corruption.
“Some sleep in underground passages, some use government money to pay for their banquets”, IN3 rapped on their biggest song, “Beijing Evening News” – hardly a revolutionary call to arms, but a gentle swipe at authorities. The song’s lyric “Some drink, some take drugs and fuck around without a condom” probably didn’t endear them to China’s Ministry of Culture, either.
Acts such as IN3, and other veterans such as Chengdu-based Old Panda, have influenced a whole new wave of Chinese rappers showcased on The Rap of China – but not as much as all the US rappers these acts consume over the internet. Bridge, for instance, says that his hip-hop initiation came from watching NBA games on TV and getting into rappers like Chingy, who are closely associated with the sport. He found like-minded fans online via the Chinese messaging software QQ, swapping links for tracks by the likes of Nas, JAY-Z and 50 Cent. “We didn’t have teachers for this, so the internet was our teacher,” he says.
Many of these hip-hop and basketball-obsessed kids found a sense of community with GO$H as they started working on music in makeshift studios (ie: in their apartments using laptops). The collective emerged in Chongqing in 2013, having morphed from a loose hip-hop crew called Keep Real that formed in 2003. From the off, GO$H had a decidedly US-influenced sound – check “Gang$te” by GAI (watch below) or Bridge and K Eleven’s trappy “Work Every Day”, which quickly earned the collective underground success. GO$H aren’t alone in creating trap-influenced rap either: there’s also the likes of Ty and Higher Brothers in Chengdu, Sichuan’s capital.
Ty’s music is both melodic and flowing, with songs such as “Real Life” often having as much in common with smooth, Auto-Tune-soaked R&B as they do harder-edged trap. Meanwhile Chongqing rappers such as GAI tend to be more aggressive – something Bridge puts down to the city having a harder edge than its neighbour. “Hip-hop can sound aggressive and the mentality of Chongqing people is quite blunt,” he says. “Like a pepper, ready to blow your taste buds.” Despite these differences however, both Chengdu and Chongqing are seen by many as the joint epicentre of the current Chinese hip-hop resurgence. Venues such as Little Bar in Chengdu and Chongqing’s Nuts Live House are regularly packed for hip-hop shows. Higher Brothers, a four-piece, are the breakout Chengdu group – their song “Made In China” has racked up 8 million views on YouTube, which is especially impressive considering that YouTube is blocked in China by the government. The band will tour the US next month and have been signed by American management and production company 88rising.
Beyond getting onto YouTube, it’s impressive that people are even making hip-hop in China at all. President Xi Jinping is currently orchestrating a mass crackdown on freedom of speech in the arts in the country, and since he came to power in 2012 the noose of censorship has tightened. Lyrics seen as vulgar, pornographic or anti-authority are regularly snubbed out, with musicians sometimes forced to make public apologies or, as happened to IN3, suffering more serious consequences.
In 2015 China’s Ministry of Culture published a list of 120 songs “banned” in China for their content, with 17 of them by IN3. The songs were mostly from the previous decade but regardless, members of the group were detained for five days without charge, after having hoods placed over their heads by police and being driven to a jail on the edge of Beijing. Police told them their lyrical content was to blame and they’ve since slipped away from public performances, to stay out of trouble.
Then, last week PG One, joint winner of The Rap in China, was forced to apologise for using the word “bitch” in his 2015 song “Christmas Eve” after he was reported to authorities following his win on the show. “I was deeply influenced by black music in the early days when I was exposed to hip-hop culture, and I didn’t have a correct understanding of core values of hip-hop culture,” he said in his apology, which sounds pretty damn clumsy when translated from Mandarin to say the least.
Hearing stark examples like these, it’s easy to imagine this new generation of rappers living in fear of a police baton rap on the door. However, this doesn’t appear to be the case – Bridge says that working in the genre is about “seeing it as a game, just like the TV show was. The country sets rules against me, but I can always find ways around them. This is the fun part of the game.”
For Bridge, finding a way around rules seems to be writing lyrics about getting money and generally being a player – just check out the brilliantly bouncy “Boss”. “My lyrics are OK because my style is just about everyday life – easy and positive,” he says, letting a gentle billow of smoke escape from his lungs and spread over the table. “I never thought about anti-government lyrics – I love my country! We’re having this popularity right now because the country is promoting hip-hop culture. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t have this attention.
Higher Brothers walk closer to the red line, but with skill and humour. In their song “WeChat,” about China’s enormously popular messaging app, they get away with referencing censorship by flipping any criticism into a funny celebration of the app. “There’s no Skype, no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram… we use WeChat here!” they rap on the song, permeated by WeChat message alert sound effects and a gruff guest spot from cult favourite South Korean rapper Keith Ape.
“When writing songs we try to avoid certain areas,” says Masiwei, one of the four Higher Brothers. “We write what we want to write without touching something untouchable.” Speaking on the phone, he also adds that the “vulgar” lyrics the government is so worried about are even less of a problem than anti-authority lyrics. “Swearing makes sense in English language hip-hop songs,” he says, “but it just doesn’t make much sense in Chinese songs. We have different societies and cultures – our environment is more conservative.”
Any subversive lyrics might be snubbed out before they even get beyond the brains of those dreaming them up, but don’t expect Chongqing, Chengdu or indeed China’s big hip-hop moment to similarly fizzle. Higher Brothers look set for big things internationally, GO$H have been touring China to rapturous audiences, and just a few months ago even the New York Times was compelled to declare that Chinese hip-hop had “stormed the Chinese mainstream”Jiaotong Tea House in Chongqing.
Shortly before I leave Chongqing, yet more indicators of how inescapable hip-hop has become in China comes when I head to Jiaotong Tea House: a hugely atmospheric old room where GO$H have filmed music videos. By chance, another less established rap crew called Allight are filming their own music video when I visit, spitting out lyrics for the cameras as elderly locals sip tea and play mahjong nearby.
“We started listening to hip-hop in 2012 – we thought rapping would be a good trick to get girls,” says Jiang Shihao, 23, in a red headband and taking a break between takes. Jiang raps under the name FUCKSKY, but is far more polite than his moniker suggests. “But my love for hip-hop stayed and it’s become my life,” he adds, smiling and hoisting a retro ghetto blaster onto his shoulder. Jiang is clearly far from alone in China, but where does all this go from here? Zhong.tv founder Yang’s reply is bullet-quick. “Well, I’ve heard that the auditions for the second series of The Rap of China are starting in a month or two…”
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Additional reporting by Paula Jin.