If any city can be said to single-handedly embody China’s extraordinary rise, it is Shenzhen. Forty years ago, it was an undistinguished fishing village, one of many scattered along China’s Cantonese coast. Now it's a sprawling cosmopolis, home to 11 million people, strewn with cutting edge AI labs, labyrinthine tech malls, and a Sea World. From the top of Nanshan Park, near the city centre, you can make out the route by which the brave souls seeking to escape the grinding poverty of the Mao era once swam across the bay to Hong Kong, a green peninsula in the distance.
But perhaps nothing is so indicative of China’s transformation as the scene outside a renovated warehouse in Shenzhen’s arts district one Saturday last August.
Clad in snapbacks, sweatbands, fades, and dunks, three hundred-odd Chinese young people were waiting in line in the tropical afternoon heat. They were there to see the country’s first internationally acclaimed home-grown hip-hop act, the Higher Brothers, and one university student summed up the excitement that many of them were feeling: "China REPRESENT!”
A four-man rap crew out of Chengdu in China's southwest, the Higher Brothers – Masiwei, Psy. P, Melo, and DZ Know – started blowing up last year. They were mostly known inside the tiny but robust Chengdu rap scene before 88rising, a New York-based media company and label focused on providing a platform for Asian artists, released the video for their track "Black Cab" in September 2016.
A little over a year later, they’d appeared in ads for Adidas Originals and Beats By Dre and even snagged a deal for an Air Jordans campaign in China with Russell Westbrook. A video produced by 88rising last summer showed Migos, Lil Yachty, and Playboy Carti losing their minds to the group's biggest single, "Made In China." Suddenly, Higher Brothers had America's ear.
They spent last summer performing to sold-out crowds all over China in support of their first studio album, Black Cab – even crossing the strait to the renegade province of Taiwan and the estranged city of Hong Kong, where relations with the mainland are more strained than they have been in years. At the end of last year, they toured Asia alongside 88rising labelmates Rich Brian (fka Rich Chigga) and Joji, with dates in Seoul, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Jakarta. And this spring, they will finally take America hitting 10 American cities (and two in Canada) on their Journey to the West tour. In March, they will travel to Austin for South by Southwest.
I should admit now that, even after spending several days with the Higher Brothers, I'm still plagued by the same questions that flooded me a year ago, when a friend sent me the video for "Black Cab," a trap ode to unlicensed cab drivers of Chengdu, rapped in their Sichuanese dialect. Namely: Where did they come from? And: How did they get here? And, most crucially: Who the hell are they?
In my time in China – first as a high school English teacher, then as a graduate student at Nanjing University, and now as a journalist – I have met hundreds of Chinese young people. Up until very recently, I had never met anyone who expressed more than a passing interest in hip-hop. Chinese children are not saturated in hip-hop like their American counterparts. It is not broadcast in taxis or at the supermarket or in TV commercials, and it certainly wasn’t a decade ago, when the Higher Brothers first fell in love with the genre as young teens.
But in China, things happen fast, and the mainstreaming of hip-hop was no exception. When hip-hop finally blew up in China, it was not because of the Higher Brothers but because of "The Rap of China," a rap-battle reality competition show that premiered on the video site iQiyi in July and has since racked up 2.5 billion views. The success of the show is due in part to the star power of its host, Wu Yifan, aka Kris Wu, a former member of the Chinese-Korean boy band Exo who remains a big name in China (he has an endorsement deal with McDonald’s). Since it debuted, the show has ignited widespread interest in an art form that was once known only to a tiny subculture. When I returned to Beijing this September after a month back in the States, Chinese hip-hop was wafting from restaurants and blaring in coffee shops. Just last week, the Chinese government banned "hip-hop culture and tattoos" from television and, though it's a huge blow to the country's growing scenes, it's also a testament to how far the culture has come. Hip-hop is on the censors' radar.
The Higher Brothers fell in love with hip-hop before it was cool. But even now, Chinese music sounds like a neutered copy of whatever is popular overseas, be it rock, K-pop, or now, hip-hop. The Higher Brothers are different. The first time I saw "Black Cab," I felt I was hearing something original.
88rising founder Sean Miyashiro had a similar reaction when he first encountered the Higher Brothers, via an employee of his who heard one of their tracks at a party. "I had never heard Chinese rap sound remotely good," he told me.
The positive reaction by stateside hip-hop fans and artists is unprecedented among mainland Chinese artists in any genre. In a strange way, the Higher Brothers feel like a fulfilment of what former President Hu Jintao was talking about when, in 2007, he declared that "the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation will definitely be accompanied by the thriving of Chinese culture." And yet, despite tens of billions of dollars per year poured into overseas charm offensives and even attempts to manufacture a homegrown pop star, China has failed to export a piece of culture to endear the country to the world. To put it more bluntly, China has yet to make people think it’s cool. The Higher Brothers, though, may change that.
Ma Siwei, aka Masiwei, 24, is the Higher Brothers' undisputed leader. Average height and dark-skinned, with a wide nose and sunken cheeks, he is not handsome by conventional Chinese standards, which at the moment favour Korean-style, baby faced good looks – or xiao xian rou, which translates to "little fresh meat." But Chinese beauty standards also don’t have much to say about Lil Uzi Vert-style dreads or nose piercings, both of which Masiwei manages to pull off. What he lacks in conventional attractiveness he makes up for in charisma. His signature is his flow, which is always smooth and unhurried, and delivered in a reedy, slightly atonal drawl. His fans, male and female – and he has many, many female fans – call him Ma Shuai ("cool," "handsome").
Ding Zhen, aka DZ Know, 21, is another fan favourite, especially among foreign audiences. As he tells it, his moniker comes from a tendency he had to append "you know?" to his name, which sounds nicely symmetrical in Chinese (Ding Zhen, zhi dao?). He has a wheezy, booming delivery that has earned him comparisons both to Biggie and the Pokémon character Snorlax. Most of the time, he wears a glazed, goofy expression that masks a razor-sharp sense of humour. Once, when I asked him what unique characteristic he brings to the group, he responded, "I am fat."
DZ Know hails from Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province, in eastern China; Masiwei is from Chengdu, the capital of China’s southwestern Sichuan province. The two met in 2015 through the hip hop community on Weibo, the social networking site; in November of that year, DZ, who was selling insurance after having dropped out of vocational school, moved to Chengdu to join Masiwei and pursue music.
Home to 14.5 million people, Chengdu is famous for its giant panda reserve, its mouth-numbingly spicy cuisine, and, increasingly, its underground hip-hop scene, which revolves around a collective called the Chengdu Shuochang Huiguan, or CDC, founded in 2008. (Shuochang – literally, "speak-sing" – is one of the Chinese names for rap; huiguan is an old-fashioned word that refers to the trade-based meeting halls that could be found in Chinese cities up until the end of dynastic times). Masiwei joined the collective when he was a university student, and it was there that he met future Higher Brothers Psy. P and Melo.
Twenty-three-year-olds Psy. P (aka Yang Junyi) and Melo (aka Xie Yujie) have less media-ready personas, but they still have their fans. Psy. P is unusually tall for a Chinese man, with a perennial scowl and long dreads that he likes to put in a ponytail or two buns. He’s a gifted lyricist, but his signature is his voice, which modulates effortlessly between a subterranean murmur and a high crackle. Melo, by contrast, is the most happy-go-lucky of the group. He also bears more than a passing resemblance to the Hong Kong film star Tony Leung, a likeness that is usually noted by a couple dozen female fans on each of his Instagram posts.
Whether the four guys were always destined to become fuckups or whether it was rap that led them astray is unclear. But sometime after they discovered hip-hop in middle school, they deviated from the path to white-collar stability prescribed by Chinese society. In high school, Melo and Psy. P infuriated their parents by slipping out on school-nights to join rap battles at CDC instead of studying. After graduating college, Masiwei, whose father is a school janitor, decided to move back in with his parents and rap rather than get a job. And DZ, of course, is a dropout who quit his job and moved across the country to pursue music.
It was shortly after DZ’s move to Chengdu that the story of the Higher Brothers began. In December 2015, DZ dropped a track featuring Masiwei and Psy. P called "Haier Xiongdi," or "Haier Brothers," that paired a menacing trap beat with nonsense lyrics about appliances (Haier is a large Chinese appliance manufacturing brand). Chinese hip-hop fans and rappers I talked to for this story described the song as a revelation. Trap music was basically unknown in Chinese hip-hop circles up until 2015; before that, everyone in Chengdu was firmly "old school," which in China tends to be a descriptor for all hip-hop that isn’t trap.
After the warm reception that "Haier Xiongdi" received, they decided to form a crew with the same name. With the exception of the recently added Melo, a staple of the Chengdu scene, the group lived together into a single apartment, where they slept in bunk beds and worked on music in a home studio. Over various trap beats, some self-produced and some pilfered from YouTube, they rapped about 7-11 convenience stores and the Chinese messaging app WeChat.
The resulting self-titled mixtape, released in March 2016, was well-received in Chinese hip-hop circles, and especially in Chengdu, where they started to sell out shows. But the Higher Brothers remained unknown outside of China’s then-tiny hip-hop subculture until “Black Cab” appeared on 88rising September 2016. In that month, the prophecy of Worldwide Shit, originally conceived through a collaboration with China-based Sudanese rapper J. Mag, took hold. The concept, which holds that the Higher Brothers will "bring their Worldwide Shit to the entire world," is one of most common refrains among Higher fans, and also among the Higher Brothers. You can find Worldwide Shit everywhere: on the intros and outros to their songs, on their Weibo page, in the zealous comments of fans on YouTube.
"Black Cab" was, in many ways, an unlikely hit. The track is rapped almost entirely in Sichuanese, making the lyrics unintelligible not only to foreigners but also to most Chinese speakers. According to the group, the lyrics were inspired by the words unlicensed Chengdu cab drivers would use while trying to drum up business outside of subway stations, and specifically the phrase "cha yi wei," or "Still short one person!" In the twangy Sichuan dialect, this is pronounced more like "tsaieeway," the sound of which the Higher Brothers liked, and deployed over rolling snares and a plinking synth to form the hook. This intensely local inspiration resonated deeply with young Chinese listeners, who were excited to be listening to hip-hop that was both musically compelling and Chinese to the core. Still, some international listeners were nonplussed.
"After our video was published, people from other countries said that Chinese isn’t really suitable for rap," Masiwei told me.
Thus the Higher Brothers’ most famous track to date, "Made in China," was born. The hook, which Masiwei drawls in English, reads like a challenge to American stereotypes about the country: "My chain, new gold watch, made in China / We play ping-pong ball, made in China." The video for the song, which Masiwei directed himself, shows the guys swagged out in red tracksuits and dicking around a soundstage that looked like something out of the , doing fake kung fu and playing mahjong. On the New York side, 88rising went all in with production by well known Atlanta producer Richie Souf and a guest verse by Famous Dex. "Made in China" was both a play for international audiences and a carefully considered thesis statement. As of this writing, the video for ‘Made in China’ has over 8 million views on Youtube.
"What I wanted to express is all of our stuff is made in China," Masiwei said of the song. "If you say you don’t love me, you’re lying, because everything you have is made in China. The trap music you like is made in China."
It’s a sentiment that resonates with the final line of the song’s hook, which fans scream along to at concerts loudest of all:
She said she didn’t-a love me
She lied, she lied
She ALL made in China
For most of my Chinese friends, life unfolds within the suffocatingly narrow confines of a widely accepted but deeply resented narrative that supposedly guarantees upward mobility in a country with too many people. It begins as early as middle school, when students begin studying for brutally competitive high school entrance exams and, after that, university exams. Admission to a Tier 1 university is key to finding employment in China’s overcrowded white-collar job market, which in turn is essential for finding a spouse within its cutthroat marriage market. Once all of this is accomplished, one must reproduce as quickly as possible – my peers, most of whom were born only children, say they face enormous pressure from their parents to continue the family line – and begin shepherding one’s child through the same process.
It has always seemed obvious to me that it is not censorship, but rather this depressing set of expectations that is responsible for China’s conspicuous inability to produce anything cool. In recent years, though, Chinese young people who have done everything by the book have started to become disillusioned. Salaries for entry-level white-collar jobs are so low that people grumble about it being more profitable to work construction. And as housing prices in the big cities continue to soar, homeownership – long considered a prerequisite for marriage – seems increasingly out of reach. This situation has given rise to a growing sense of gloom among young urbanites, who wonder how bright their prospects really are.
Still, when I ask the Higher Brothers what hopes they have for the future, Melo responds, "Higher and higher!" The other three giggle.
Melo isn’t just talking about weed. The English word “high,” when deployed in a Chinese sentence, has over the past few years come to describe a state of hyped-up excitement: physical, emotional, chemical. Climbing a mountain is high. Getting drunk is high. Making and performing rap music is really high.
On their ascent, the Higher Brothers have presented their fans with a different vision for how life can be. And I can’t help but think that this deviation from expectation is what makes them resonate so much with young people in China: They’ve decided to create. They’ve decided to have fun.
A few weeks after the Shenzhen show, I flew out to Chengdu to catch the Higher Brothers headline the CDC’s second annual blowout show. The event was supposed to take place at an outdoor venue on the edge of the city, complete with a pool, but that locations ended up falling through, so the show moved underground, literally, to a sprawling basement venue two stories underneath one of the retail complexes that line the Fuhe river.
Backstage, I chat with a 19-year-old Tibetan rapper called Young13Dbaby, the latest recruit to CDC, who made his debut the previous night at a smaller show. For 13D, who is from Maqu, in the Tibetan region of southern Gansu province, performing with CDC was literally a dream come true. He told me that he studied for the gaokao and filled in his college applications with the intention of gaining admission to a university in Chengdu, just so he could try to join CDC. A year ago, he attended his first CDC show at exactly the same venue where appeared onstage last night. "I was just a fan then," he said.
The mood backstage was tense. When tickets went on sale, the 600-capacity room sold out in under an hour; it promised to be the collective’s biggest show ever. In fact, the only artists backstage who seemed remotely calm are the Higher Brothers, who throughout the night would drift onstage for featured tracks with their CDC colleagues.
By this point, the Higher Brothers’ stage show was seamless and filled with coolly executed gimmicks, such as the coordinated golf swing they performed during "Young Master." But during the night's headlining set, the most memorable moment by far came during a Black Cab song, "Wudidong," or "Bottomless hole." When the song’s clanking opening bars came on, the audience roared in anticipation. Suddenly, the music stopped. The Higher Brothers assembled in a line at the edge of the stage, and instructed the audience to clear a small space in the middle of the floor. When this was done, the music resumed, and a fog machine flooded the club with smoke. During their respective verses, the guys each descended from the stage into the clearing, shirtless.
The Higher Brothers’ upcoming US tour and appearance at South by Southwest will be their first time in the US (or for that matter, outside Asia). Purely in terms of talent, I’d say they have the chops to hold their own no matter where they go. But I worry that in America, some of their appeal will be lost in translation. Will American audiences be able to sing along to the Chinese part of the "Made in China" hook? How do you tell a crowd of people who don’t speak your language to form a pit in the middle of the dance floor?
Having risen to fame at exactly the moment when their country as a whole was discovering hip-hop, the Higher Brothers have been allowed to essentially define the genre on their own terms. But in America, they will be facing an audience jaded by several decades of rap music. Basically, I worry whether they'll be taken seriously. "Made in China," their most successful track overseas, came within dangerous reach of meme territory by exploiting so pointedly the novelty of being Chinese rappers. Surely they don’t want to become one of those overheated online sensations, only to fizzle when tasked with making a substantial follow-up?
I decided to ask Masiwei if he shared my concerns. Whenever we talked about America, he seemed a little wistful. While the group has a tour planned for early 2018, I got the sense from him that four months was too long to wait. When I asked him if he had any particular worries about going to America, he responded, "I might get beat up while crowdsurfing,” and flashed a grin.
For all of the cultural barriers the Higher Brothers might face, it is also true they are coming to America at a time of unprecedented openness to new sounds in hip-hop. Over the past few years, Soundcloud rappers like Smokepurpp and Lil Pump have leveraged their status as Internet oddities to embark on legitimate careers. While the memeification of rap does have a dark side, it has also provided an entry point for new and exciting acts. If Americans can accept this growing contingent of pink-dreaded teenagers, why not four Chinese guys? Intelligibility also seems like less of an issue when considered in light of the overwhelming success of so-called "mumble rappers" like Young Thug and Lil Uzi Vert.
After the show, I followed Masiwei as he and his entourage sprinted through the adoring swarm into the VIP section. This turned out to be futile, as we ended up in a corner booth that was completely exposed to fans. A boy who looked to be about 14 years old slipped his notebook through the low gate that enclosed the VIP section, prodding Masiwei for his autograph.
At one point, I found myself sitting next to a small, dapper man I'd seen earlier backstage. The CDC guys had several hundred tattoos between them and this man, the owner of a two-floor studio that served as a defacto club house for the CDC crew, had done them all. He told me he grew up with Masiwei in Pixian, an outlying district of Chengdu famous for its production of fermented bean paste. As everyone at the table started bobbing along to O.T. Genesis' "Cut It," I realised he must be reading my mind, because he says, apropos of nothing, "We don’t want to get jobs and get married." Then: "I think we can choose our own life."
Lauren Teixeira is a writer based in Beijing. Follow her on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey US.