25-year-old Taiwanese rapper Aristophanes (real name: Pan Wei Ju) got the lucky big break that many artists dream of when Grimes reached out to her out of the blue on SoundCloud, asking if she'd like to collaborate on a track. The funny thing is, Aristophanes didn't even know who Grimes was at the time. After checking out Grimes' music— "It blew my mind," she recalls—Aristophanes immediately agree. "Scream," a standout on Grimes' critically-lauded Art Angels LP, was born.
At a recent Grimes show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, it was clear how much the pop star admires Aristophanes, introducing her as a schoolteacher (Aristophanes' day job is teaching English to kids) and repeatedly shouting her out as an "amazing rapper." Backstage, Aristophanes was quiet and demure, giggling over videos of pandas and other animals. But once she got on stage to perform "Scream," she transformed into a punk rock wild child, thrashing around and delivering her lines in Mandarin with electrifying angst.
Aristophanes' own songs are chock full of the syrupy, idiosyncratic productions and poetic lyrics drawn from her deep interest in literature and classic philosophy, made in collaboration with producers she finds on—where else?—SoundCloud. Her off-kilter, bewitching style is perhaps best summed up in her disturbingly cute new video "As You Want," which we're premiering on THUMP. It involves a businessman in a hotel, a bed of stuffed animals, and Aristophanes rapping from a TV screen. On the eve of her debut EP, No Rush to Leave Dreams, we talked to the Taipei-based artist about the Taiwanese music scene, her unique brand of feminism, and why "Scream" is actually a song about orgasms. The below interview has been edited for length, and translated from the artist's native Mandarin.
THUMP: When did you start rapping and how did you start getting interested in it?
I started when I was 21 years old—I'm 25 now. When I was young I listened to Taiwanese rap, and I've always had an interest in literature. To put music and literature together is really interesting for me.
How did you progress to where you are today?
Growing up, I didn't have much music in my house, so I didn't know much. So for the first few years, I just wrote lyrics on my own and tried to record my rapping. After two or three years, I started doing performances. At that time I started working with a really formidable Taiwanese electronic music producer named Sonic Deadhorse. And in August 2014, I did my first Asian tour.
Which MC and rappers are you into?
How would you describe your flow?
It's pretty laidback and wonky, which is rare in Chinese rap. A lot of people can't really accept it. I work with a lot of producers who don't speak Chinese, so they just listen to my sound and my flow. Therefore I try to make my sound like a musical instrument.
What kinds of parties or venues do you play in Taiwan?
I've always been underground. In Taiwan, the dividing line between pop and underground is very interesting. If I was in the Taiwanese pop factory, I wouldn't be here, because my career development would be completely different. I wouldn't be able to develop independently. In Japan and other countries, people might think the way I rap is kinda cool. But in Taiwan, they think it's really weird. They're like, "This isn't hip-hop." Generally speaking, Taiwanese people are more into rock and folk music. When it comes to hip-hop, they're into simpler stuff, and not as able to accept new things.
How did you find producers to work with?
I don't find them! They find me on SoundCloud. First, producers give me beats, and I try to capture the color and feelings the productions give me. Literature is a major source of inspiration for me. Another big influence is sex, gender, and feminism. So a lot of my lyrics have these inclinations in them.
So how did you and Grimes get together?
She sent me a message on SoundCloud saying, "Hi! I have a project called Grimes, would you like to do a collaboration or something?" I didn't know who Grimes was! [Laughs] So I went to her Facebook and bought her last album and it blew my mind. And I was like, "OK, I love your music, let's do a collaboration."
Did she ever explain why she wanted to collaborate with you?
She just said she liked my music. I think musicians reaching out to other musicians for collaborations is really important. It's not about being a fan, or money, or anything like that.
What is the song about?
I was thinking that someone is screaming—not because she's frightened, but because she's frustrated and just can't take a situation anymore. If you don't talk about it and just hold it down, you end up screaming. There are some implications of sex too. I use a lot of metaphors in my lyrics; it's not very straightforward.
So one of those metaphors is an orgasm.
Yeah. I really relate to the Greek philosopher Aristophanes—whose name came to me in a dream—because he writes about comedy and social critique in a very elegant way. I write lyrics ironically, because I don't want to talk shit. Instead of attacking something, I can say something in an ironic way that's also beautiful.
Grimes is really supportive of women doing their own music, producing their own tracks, and writing their own lyrics. Is being that kind of role-model important to you?
Oh yeah, sure! In Taiwan's musical landscape, if you're not going the pop route, you have to be underground. This is really hard. In other places, there are a lot of independent labels, but not really here. So there's not as much support. It's pretty discouraging. But a lot of female DJs and rappers from all kinds of music genres have told me that if I'm able to do it, they feel like they can do it, too.
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