February 28, 2008

Hip Hop Hero

Though a vibrant Hip Hop community exists in the underground, few Hip Hop artists enjoy mainstream success. We have met some extremely talented MCs and rap groups who not only create songs with contagious beats and insightful lyrics but also put on energetic and exciting live performances. Unfortunately, these artists receive little national media attention. While the music of popular singers, who define Hip Hop for many Chinese listeners, such as Jay Chou and Wang Li Hom, is regularly heard on the radio and on music television stations such as MTV Mandarin and Channel [V], it is difficult to even find a mixtape of talented underground artists. The success of Hip Hop-inspired pop music has introduced new audiences to Hip Hop music and dance; however, many underground artists do not qualify this music as “real” Hip Hop.

So, why isn't “real” Hip Hop in the mainstream? There are a number of different answers to this question. Some say that until Hip Hop “cleans up its image” it will not find a market in China; others say that the rhythm and feeling of Hip Hop do not “suit” Chinese people. Some say underground artists are still too raw and it will take time for people to develop their skills, while others say that Hip Hop is just a fad that will pass as soon as the next big thing comes along.

The most poignant reason why Hip Hop exists in the underground is that China’s music industry is dominated by pop music from Taiwan and Hong Kong, the majority of which is simple, romantic music. As a result, Chinese Rock, Electronica, Hip Hop, Bossanova (We met a Hip Hop artist who was EXTREMELY enthusiastic about Bossanova) and other music exists, for the most part, out of the public eye. These different styles of music are not played on the radio and major record labels are not willing to invest in their development. It seems as though the goals of major record labels are less about “discovering talent” and more about “creating talent from an existing mold that has been proven to sell.” We are not trying to slam Chinese pop music. There are some quality songs but we know there is more out there!

We asked a number of people in the Chinese Hip Hop community what they think needs to happen in order for Hip Hop to “blow up,” to reach a wider audience, to get to the point where Hip Hop artists can finally support themselves on their music. One solution we frequently heard was, “We need a Hip Hop hero. We need someone to make it big, someone who will pave the way for other Hip Hop artists.” However, the people at www.Hiphop.cn have another opinion. Hiphop.cn is a one-of-a-kind online Chinese Hip Hop magazine. It is a “Hip Hop bible” with bios and album reviews of international Hip Hop stars as well as frequently updated songs and concert footage of China’s own Hip Hop artists. (...yeah, we’re into Hiphop.cn). They feel as though it is important to first foster a sense of community, to create links between Hip Hop artists and fans across the country and provide a forum for them to come together. They believe you must first have a strong Hip Hop community before a Hip Hop hero will be able to have a meaningful impact on the growth of Chinese Hip Hop. These two different opinions are not mutually exclusive and we have met many people who are working behind the scenes and behind the mic.

It is exciting for us to hear from both sides, to talk with an artist who is working hard to find that crossover smash, and then to talk to the people who are working to ensure that building community remains a top priority. Most likely it is the combination of these efforts that will ultimately raise “real” Hip Hop out of the underground. From our vantage point, there is much to look forward to.

See what other Hip Hoppers in China have to say.