Howie Lee is the Sound of China's Cyber Underground
The Beijing producer tackles questions of belonging in an increasingly disorienting world.
Photos by Ash Lin
Late on a weeknight in June, I'm sitting in my Tokyo apartment when a familiar squeak emerges from my laptop. It's a Skype message from Howie Lee letting me know that he's ready for our call.
Suddenly, I realize that iconic notification sound is the first thing you hear on the the Beijing-based artist's latest EP, Homeless, sampled on opening track "四海 Four Seas." As a chat service that connects millions living in different cities, Skype is the perfect metaphor for a record that tackles questions of belonging in an increasingly disorienting world, where identity is not limited to geography.
Once we start our video chat, I see the 31-year old producer relaxed in a T-shirt and glasses, sitting in the living room of his Beijing home, which he shares with his wife, an artist and DJ who goes by the name Veeeky.
Over the past six years, Lee has become one of the most important names in the Chinese electronic music scene. In 2011, the DJ co-founded a party-turned-music-label called Do Hits—a collective credited with pioneering a new club sound that filters Chinese traditional and popular culture through the lens of the digital age.
On his 2016 debut album, Mù Chè Shān Chū, Howie layered Chinese instruments over trap beats, pairing them in his audio-visual show with 3-D video animations he'd generate with motion-capture Kinect technology. But with Homeless, he leaves behind the dancefloor almost entirely, merging playful percussive rolls and shuddering sub bass with disembodied vocals and giddy acoustic trills. The result is an ecstatic collage of sounds of dislocated origin.
At first Lee's tone is soft and reserved, but when I ask him about the genre-hopping nature of his work, he gets visibly excited. "I want to always be changing," he explains. "I never want to be locked in any space, community, or whatever. People close to me know that I'm always breaching different lines."
Lee was born Huadi Li in 1986 in the Chinese coastal town of Beidaihe. At age three, he and his family relocated to Beijing, which he considers his hometown. After he started learning guitar in his early teens, his friends gave him Guitar Pro and FruityLoops to expand his sonic toolbox.
Computer-made music was not something he was familiar with; as a kid, he'd mostly listened to pop music. "I wasn't a DJ," he explains. "I didn't even know what dance music was." But his tastes started to expand thanks to a local practice of importing used CDs and cassettes from America in order to recycle the plastic that holds them—a process called dakou in Chinese.
According to China with a Cut—a book by Jeroen de Kloet about China's dakou generation—dakou CDs were incredibly influential on Chinese rock musicians in the 90s, when music from outside of China was banned or censored by Chinese authorities. Thus, de Kloetwrites, these CDs "opened up a musical space that did not officially exist in China" and "helped herald a new rock era."
It was a formative time for Lee too, exposing him to music like Moby and Nirvana, and the dreamy catalog of esteemed UK label 4AD.
"I just picked up random stuff," Lee says of his youthful experiences swapping dakou CDs with friends. "[All the CDs and cassettes] had holes cut in them and sometimes you'd have one song missing." It was an early experience of the sort of sonic disjunct he'd come to explore in his own work.
After playing bass in a pop-punk band during his university years, Lee's interest shifted to his solo electronic projects.
In 2011, after putting out an electro house record, Howie Lee co-founded the Do Hits collective with fellow Chinese producers Sulumi, Guzz and DJ Billy Starman, hoping their monthly parties would provide a welcome alternative to mainstream club events saturated with generic EDM and trap. The event series continues to be a success according to Lee, who describes them as "so sweaty."
In the same year, Howie left Beijing to do a master's program in Sound Art at the London College of Communication. Though he worked on many different projects ranging from trip hop to ambient during this time, it was bass-driven dance music he produced under the name Howie Lee that got the most attention from international record labels and artists—leading to an official remix of Snoop Lion in 2012, and support for his releases in subsequent years on labels like the UK's Trapdoor Records from the likes of Plastician, Scratcha DVA, and BBC's Gilles Peterson.
"I used to think that if I could do this UK bass music, it would be so cool," Howie tells me. "I wanted to be a part of something. But once you're a part of it, you start thinking, 'what else can I do?'"
When he returned to Beijing in 2013, Howie expanded Do Hits' operations to include a label, and began releasing music by underground Chinese artists [on Western-friendly platforms.] He says this was an attempt to shine a light on China's growing electronic scene, which often goes unnoticed by listeners outside of the country.
Last year, when he uploaded his "四海 Four Seas" track off Homeless on the music website Xiami, for example, Howie was surprised to see the song shoot up to the number-one spot on the website's EDM chart within weeks. However, because it was only available on Xiami, the song was only able to be discovered by Chinese audiences. Howie explains that a lot of this new music is invisible to the West because it's mostly released on China-specific digital platforms.
"It's really interesting to realize how I'm just living in my own bubble," Howie says. "China is just so huge," he continues. "There's so much information hiding."
According to Howie, both his music and visual art are driven by the ever-blurring border between China's physical and digital landscapes. "In China, you're walking on the street and suddenly you're in a digital world," he says, describing the LED screens that cover downtown Beijing. "All these advertisements and propaganda—it's all over the place. I think that's something that really inspires me."
"In China, you're walking on the street and suddenly you're in a digital world. That's something that really inspires me."—Howie Lee
Because virtual reality is marketed as something you have to experience through special headsets and cutting-edge software, it's easy to forget that we are already wholly immersed in virtual worlds, creating digital personas on Facebook, Second Life or Weibo, also known as Chinese Twitter. "People already live in virtual reality, but people are still all talking about virtual reality," Howie declares.
By way of an illustration, he draws my attention to our Skype call. "Me talking to you is like, woah, what a crazy world!" he says, making a mind-blown gesture with his fingers on his temples. "Everywhere it's layers and layers of worlds."
"Layers and layers of worlds" might be the best way to describe his Homeless EP. On "Sha Xiao," vocal samples from a Chinese gangster film blast over what sounds like gunshots, Japanese Taiko drums, and a winding Middle Eastern synth melody. As an assemblage of sounds from all over the world, Homeless embodies a digital Far East that proliferates on the internet, very much in line with Sinofuturism, an aesthetic movement that explores a post-human China in the near future.
Reaching into the shelf behind him, Howie picks out one of the instruments he used on Homeless, a long-necked string instrument made of snake skin and camel bone called a rawap. "This is like 50 years old," he says. "It's a very legendary instrument—in my imagination, anyway. Howie starts strumming his rawap in the direction of the laptop camera. "No matter what you're using, whether it's a machine of a real string instrument, it doesn't matter. Music can be so little or it can be so much. I'm always on the side of doing too much with my music."
As the night goes on and traffic lights flicker outside the window of my Tokyo apartment, my mind wanders to the EP's title track, Homeless, where the sounds of car horns, bicycle wheels and music leaking from headphones all seem to evoke the familiar sensation of walking home. Even though the sounds were recorded in urban China, the track somehow captures a nocturnal ambience that feels universal, transcending geographic boundaries to exist in layers and layers of worlds.