The 7 Rappers Turning Chengdu into China's Unlikely Hip-Hop Hotspot
Beyond the Higher Brothers, these artists are helping shape the future of rap music in China.
Chengdu, China is famous for its giant pandas, spicy hotpot, and teahouses packed with locals playing mahjong. For rap fans, however, the capital of the southwestern Sichuan province is becoming increasingly synonymous with Chinese trap music. The most well-known act from this scene is undoubtedly the Higher Brothers, the charismatic, genre-bending quartet whose tongue-in-cheek lyrics and playful production style have made them mainland China’s first hip-hop group to successfully crossover abroad. But the Higher Brothers are just one of many exciting Chengdu hip-hop acts, united by their musical risk-taking and signature cool.
No one seems to know exactly why trap took off in Chengdu; Beijing or Shanghai have nurtured underground hip-hop scenes for much longer. But one element everyone points to is Sichuanese, a twangy local dialect that rappers say lends itself more naturally to the musical style than Mandarin, the country’s official language. There’s still quite a lot of stigma around regional dialects in China; freshmen at Beijing universities or young people aspiring to become Party officials will often try to scrub the provinces from their accent. But thanks to the Higher Brothers and other well known Chengdu rappers, the Sichuan accent now enjoys a certain degree of cachet.
The Chengdu Rap House, or CDC, is the scene’s beating heart. Started in 2008 by a group of young rappers who would get together to hone their technique in freestyle battles, it’s never been an actual place, although it’s become strongly associated with several venues over the years. Many in the scene still mourn the decline of Poly Center, a 21-floor office building in downtown Chengdu that was home to three or four underground clubs at its height; most of them were shut down two years ago, when authorities became aware of the large quantities of whippets being huffed by teen partiers in the building’s grimy halls. Still, Chengdu is a pretty good place to be an up-and-coming rapper: The twenty-plus-year-old venue Little Bar is so popular that it recently opened up two more locations, while Nuspace, a tiny underground DIY venue, has moved into a larger and more attractive building down the street. Artists from the scene also have a local champion in an independently wealthy entrepreneur and hip-hop fan known as Simon, who operates a subterranean complex of venues and clubs beneath the 339 Center in downtown Chengdu, including a suite of free-to-use recording studios.
The threat of censorship is omnipresent in China, but Chengdu rappers still don’t face the same level of repression as their counterparts in Beijing and Shanghai, who have grown accustomed to having their shows shut down by authorities at the last minute. Most rappers I spoke with in Chengdu nonetheless expressed anxiety about the future for hip-hop musicians in the country: Last year, a wildly popular reality show called The Rap of China resulted in a windfall for many of China’s struggling underground rappers. But its popularity was a double-edged sword: Seemingly disturbed by the genre’s hold over the nation’s youth, the state broadcast administration issued regulations this January prohibiting depictions of so-called “hip-hop culture,” including tattoos and obscene lyrics, from television. Making rap about sex, drugs, and violence—and certainly about politics—is now out of the question.
So far, Chengdu rappers have largely been able to fly under the radar, though some have noticed their songs mysteriously disappearing from the internet. The future of hip hop in China is unclear—but to the extent it has a future there, there’s no doubt it will revolve around Chengdu. Below we’ve compiled a guide to some of the artists shaping the Chengdu scene.
Although the Higher Brothers put Chengdu on the map for foreign audiences this year, the city started making waves domestically in 2014, when local rapper Boss Shady performed a defiant track called “Daddy Ain’t Going to Work Tomorrow” ( Laozi mingtian bu shangban) on the popular singing competition show The Voice of China. Though the song enjoyed a brief burst of popularity, hip-hop wouldn’t enter the mainstream for another three years. A fierce teller of truths, Shady has retained this penchant for bad timing, dropping a dialect-heavy track called “Fuck Off Foreigners” ( Gua Laowai) last August, just as hip-hop was blowing up in China.
The fallout over the song—which included lyrics like, “You were a loser in your own country / You come to China to be taken seriously”—resulted in his being banned from performing in China for an entire year. But Shady isn’t letting the haters get him down. In March, he announced on Weibo that he and fellow Chengdu rapper Ty. are starting a record label called, appropriately enough, DISS.
Tall and deadpan, CDC veteran Ty. is notable for his stone-faced delivery and soaring, Auto-Tuned hooks. His breakout track, the 2014 trap banger “Hooked on drugs” ( Hai yao shang le yin), included tongue-in-cheek lyrics like “Get up and get high, take 5 pounds of ketamine”; unsurprisingly, it has since disappeared from the Chinese internet. Since appearing on Rap of China, he has dabbled in more commercially friendly material like “20,” a catchy duet with Taiwanese pop star Cyndi Wang, and the bouncy “Tigress,” featuring Boss Shady. A longtime friend and collaborator of the Higher Brothers, he joined up with the quartet to release the swaggering three-song EP, Gong Cheng Ming Jiu (“successful and famous”), last month. Already signed to Warner Brothers China, Ty. is probably Chengdu’s most successful solo rapper domestically.
Anyone who’s been following the Higher Brothers is probably curious about the mysterious Harikiri, who is co-credited on the Brothers’ recent EP, Type-3. Harikiri is the alias of Andre Alexander, a producer from London who moved to Chengdu two years ago, after an earlier stint studying in China. When I met him last summer in Chengdu while reporting a story on the Higher Brothers, he told me that he had moved to escape London’s ossified producer hierarchy. “You don’t have to kiss-ass,” he said of the local scene. “If you’re good, people fuck with you. And I’m good.”
He is pretty good. Harikiri’s production style is witty and eclectic, sometimes bordering on virtuosic, all the while maintaining a strong pop sensibility. Standouts from the Type-3 include the soul-influenced “Nothing Wrong,” featuring DZ Know, and the contemplative “Storm,” featuring Masiwei. Other excellent Higher Brothers collabs include “No Hook,” with Chinese-American rapper Bohan Phoenix, and “Workin,” with J. Mag (see below).
A close collaborator of the Brothers, rapper J. Mag was born in Sudan and grew up in Oman, where his family relocated for work. In 2015 he came to China to study engineering at Xi’an University. But rap, not engineering, was in his heart—and shortly after arriving in the country, he linked up with Masiwei and the CDC guys ON the Internet. J. Mag’s Chinese is limited, but he told me the language barrier has never been a problem: “We just communicate in music.”
Having grown up listening to hip-hop in conservative Oman, he says he feels like he has more in common with the Higher Brothers than American rappers. Unlike the often-manic Higher Brothers, though, J. Mag stands out for his chill sensibility and unhurried flow. Look out for his newly released EP, Light Work, which features production by Harikiri and guest verses from a variety of CDC rappers.
A.T.M., also known as 顶级玩家 (“First Rate Players”), is a trio of young CDC rappers who make extremely solid Chengdu-flavored trap music. Their confident-sounding first album, First Rate Players, came out earlier this year to widespread acclaim in Chinese underground rap. Standouts include “Local,” an ode to their hometown layering tight, dialect-laden verses over a signature looping beat. While the members of A.T.M.—AnsrJ, Lil Shin and Mengzi—could still use a little more differentiation, they are definitely a group to watch. For a slice of Chengdu streetlife, check out the music video for “Local,” which features the rappers playing mahjong with a group of extremely down Sichuanese uncles.
A relatively recent recruit to CDC, TSP is an Chengdu-born ethnic Tibetan who says that he decided to get into the rap game after a bar he opened went under. Since then, he’s dabbled in everything from trap, to dancehall, to R&B, with highly varied results. His best tracks are wry, Auto-Tune-heavy R&B jams that seem like they were designed to make China’s prudish internet censors blush. His breakout track, “Wo de Laoshi” (“My Teacher”), where he mulls over the prospect of having relations with each one of his teachers, has been scrubbed from the internet, but the Drake-reminiscent jam “Zhege Huai Nanhai” (“This Bad Boy”) is definitely worth checking out.
YOUNG13DBABY & Fendiboi
T$P protégés Young13DBaby and Fendiboi are a couple of new CDC recruits and frequent collaborators who hail from the Tibetan Plateau—from the southern Gansu province and Lhasa, respectively. They told me that, as ethnic minorities in China, they feel a certain kinship with American rappers—and that the Tibetan penchant for gold teeth and braided hair reminds them of groups like Migos. Through CDC, they said, they hope to usher in the new wave of Tibetan rap. For a taste of Himalayan hip-hop, check out the music video for “Yeti Bandz,” which sees them flexing in front of the Potala Palace in Lhasa.
Lauren Teixeira is a writer based in Chengdu. Follow her on Twitter.