July 31, 2008

Chinese Education and Chinese Hip Hop

When Angela and I go to meet an artist for an interview we sometimes joke, “you’ll know it is us because one of us is an African American woman, and one of us has red hair. Don’t worry, you’ll find us.” But it is usually just as easy to recognize our interviewees. They look different from the people around them, mostly just from what they are wearing. But sometimes there is something else, maybe the way they carry themselves or the way they interact with those around them.

Having this identity as “something different” is at odds with many of the values instilled by the Chinese education system. The Chinese education system is one that relies heavily on rote memorization, where success and intelligence is often measured by how well a student can repeat a text or lesson word for word, rather than how well they can express a unique and well-developed thought or opinion. Many of the Hip Hop artists that we interviewed talked about their dissatisfaction and frustration with this type of education where personal expression is often equated with “acting out” or “showing off.”

Hip Hop, both as an art form and a culture, celebrates personal voice. While success in Hip Hop requires innate talent alongside rigorous practice and dedication, it remains a comparatively accessible art form. If you have sneakers you can dance, if you have a notebook you can write lyrics. It is Hip Hop’s accessibility that forces its artists to make sure their “voice” is heard out of the crowd. The battle, a staple of all of Hip Hop’s elements, requires an artist not only to prove their mastery of technique, but also to showcase their individual flair and style. When we asked Chinese Hip Hoppers what attracted them to Hip Hop culture, they often responded by saying, “Hip Hop is free,” “I can express myself through Hip Hop,” and “Hip Hop is way to vent my feelings about the world around me.”

Clearly, the relationship between Chinese education and Chinese Hip Hop is not as simple as “because of China’s approach to education, Chinese youth turned to Hip Hop culture and now they speak out on all pertinent issues.” I think it is more fitting to see the Chinese education system as one of the variables in the setting of Chinese Hip Hop’s development. It is important to know that many of these artists who now stand in front of a crowd of people rapping about their own life, or walk around their city wearing clothes that set them apart from the rest of the population, were taught in school that it would be better if they were more like everybody else. It is important to know that the Chinese education system is something that these young artists refer to in their music, something that they use Hip Hop to express.

Check out what some of China's Hip Hop artists had to say on the topic.


July 22, 2008

China BOTY 2008 in Shanghai

Shanghai is the place to be for China’s big, summertime Hip Hop competitions. The day after the China DMC DJ Competition, I attended China’s 2008 Battle of the Year (BOTY) Competition, organized by Shanghai’s Caster Dance Studio. Ten different crews from around the country competed. The BOTY is an international breakdancing tournament for B-boy crews, as opposed to individual breakdancers. There are national qualifying rounds, followed by regional qualifying rounds, followed by the Battle of the Year World Finals, held this year on October 18 in Braunschweig, Germany.

Hip Hop dance, or jiewu (“street dance”) as it is commonly called in Chinese, has had considerable success in China compared to the development of the other Hip Hop elements. Jiewu competitions are broadcast on national television, and many advertisements, promotional events, and other forms of pop media will often feature a Hip Hop dance crew. These opportunities come much less frequently for Chinese rappers, graffiti artists and DJs. However, China’s b-boys have yet to succeed on an international level. Common criticisms of Chinese breakdancing are that many b-boys are still in the imitation phase, and that an over-emphasis of power moves combined with a lack of creativity has made Chinese breakdance more acrobatic than artistic. The day before the 2008 China BOTY, we had the chance to talk with the three judges, all of them b-boys themselves (Lamie from France, Amjad from Switzerland, and Drunk from Hong Kong), and each one of them said that they would be looking for personal style, something besides “just copying moves they’ve seen on YouTube.”

In my opinion, the 2008 China BOTY was a success. The venue was packed with a diverse audience including fellow dancers, families, media representatives, and what seemed to be curious onlookers. The shouts and cheers from the audience were persistent throughout the event, reaching their high point whenever the crowd-favored Shanghai crew took the stage. Each of the crews had six minutes to perform a choreographed number, after which the judges decided which four of the ten crews would move on to the semi-final battle round. At least half of the choreographed numbers incorporated elements from Chinese traditional culture, from Tai Chi to fan dancing, all very well received by the crowd. Despite the occasional stumble, most of the crews’ performances were high-energy and included a number of impressive moves.
This year’s semi-finals featured Fujian’s Jingwumen vs. Guangzhou’s Energy, and Beijing’s X-Power vs. Shanghai’s Dust. Energy and Dust made it to the final round, where, after a close battle, Guangzhou’s Energy was pronounced the winner. Energy first place victory at China’s BOTY means that they will be flown to Thailand to compete in the regional BOTY Asia on August 7th. I wish Energy the best of luck.

Take a look at the highlights from the 2008 China BOTY.


DòngTīng Song of the Week

Mason and GEM of Xi'an's X.A.E.R.
This week’s song comes from Xi’an group, X.A.E.R., featuring XIV of Beijing’s Yin Tsang and Shenzhen R&B singer Lacedoll. In “爱够,” or “Enough Love,” X.A.E.R.’s MC Mason and MC Bo Shi rap about the obstacles facing Chinese rappers as they ask themselves: “do we have enough love for Hip Hop to keep doing it?”

本周的哥来自西安的X.A.E.R.团体跟北京隐藏的XIV还有来自深圳的R&B歌手Lacedoll一起合作的. 在“爱够”X.A.E.R.的MC Mason和MC GEM说道中国说唱家面对的问题,还有他们问自己:“我们对Hip Hop有没有足够爱坚持下去?”

X.A.E.R.- "爱够"

July 21, 2008

2008 China DMC Championship

Last Friday Shanghai was host to the 2008 China DMC Championship. The DMC is the Olympics of turntablism and can launch a DJ into international stardom. China's first DMC Champion was DJ VNutz from Shanghai who took the title in 2002. DJ VNutz now organizes the DMC competition and is one of the founders of The Lab, a non-profit organization that promotes music education and DJ training. Previous China DMC Champions include DJ Shorty S (2003-2004) and DJ Wordy (2005-2007). This year's event showcased 15 DJs from across the country, many of whom were competing for the first time. DJing and turntablism have been slow to develop in China for numerous reasons, including lack of funds to purchase equipment, lack of access to vinyls, and lack of practice and performance spaces. But, as attendance at the DMC shows, the DJ community is growing and Chinese DJs are improving their skills. The competition was close this year and the final results were:

3rd Place - DJ Dragon V from Beijing
2nd Place - DJ LJ from Guiyang
1st PLace - DJ Cavia from Anhui

Check out the video for clips of each set and the guest performance from DJ Shortkut and DJ Swift Rock.

~ Angela

July 15, 2008

Chinese Language(s) and Rap Music

Language and Lyricism

The adjective “Chinese” is a highly contested term and, perhaps, no more so than when it comes to language. The term “Chinese language” specifies more of a language family than one specific language. The common language in Mainland China is Standard Mandarin or Putonghua. While 700 million Chinese citizens speak Standard Mandarin and it is also the official language, it is by no means a “native” language. Standard Mandarin is a language that was created in the early 20th century and is based on Beijing and Mandarin dialects. Standard Mandarin is a tool that enables all Chinese people to communicate. But for many, Standard Mandarin is not their native or mother tongue. Chinese language has about twelve regional language groups, the most recognizable abroad being Cantonese. There are also numerous spoken dialects, with people from different provinces, cities, and even towns speaking completely unintelligible languages. This presents a unique challenge for Chinese rappers who must consider how language will impact their style, technique, potential audience and expression.

Since Chinese rappers first picked up the microphone, critics have claimed that Chinese language isn’t suited to rap music. Standard Mandarin is actually quite easy to rhyme but problems arise with tones and syllables. Standard Mandarin is a tonal language and has four strict tones. Changing the tone of a word can completely change its meaning. This is how Chinese rappers engage in really provocative wordplay, with one word taking on double meanings. However it also means that rappers must pay attention to their tones, particularly when determining their cadence and speed. Standard Mandarin is also monosyllabic. Whereas in English, rappers can rhyme multi-syllabic words like “fantastic” and “reality”, Chinese rappers (using Standard Mandarin) must use words like “ban” and “ting”. Consequently, it takes much creativity, patience and a lot of practice to develop a signature flow and interesting rhymes. For rappers whose native language is a dialect, technically speaking, rapping in Standard Mandarin can be a relief or a burden.

For Cantonese speakers, the comparative simplicity of Standard Mandarin might be appealing. Cantonese has about nine tones and that cannot be altered or inflected as much as Standard Mandarin. The enunciation of individual monosyllabic words is also critical to the rhythm of the language. For speakers of Guilin dialect, rapping in Standard Mandarin might be awkward. Guilin dialect is spoken at a faster speed than Standard Mandarin. It also allows speakers to string together syllables. This means that rappers can both rhyme multi-syllabic words and speak more syllables per second. It is not a coincidence that Beijing rapper Brass Face has been compared to Twista. When interviewed he revealed that he did not purposefully rap fast but simply rapped in the speed of Guilin dialect, his native language. Rapping in a dialect or Standard Mandarin reduces or increases a rapper’s technical constraints and potential audience.

Language and Longevity

One of the major complaints about record companies that have approached rap artists in China is that they force rappers to use Standard Mandarin. All of Mainland China’s music celebrities sing in Mandarin and it is the only language that will enable a rapper to create a nation-wide fan base. Rappers primarily concerned with or practically limited to performing and distributing music in their hometowns, using their local dialect makes their music more meaningful and poignant their community. However, it is very difficult for rappers to maintain only working clubs and promotional events in their city. Some joke that the shelf life of the average rap group is two years, two years before they discover they won’t be able to make a lot of money or have legions of fans and give up. Resources, opportunity and language all factor into reaching that conclusion.

Guangzhou MC Along from jazz-rap crew Dumdue basically summed up the language debate when he said, “Standard Mandarin is a tool for communication. Cantonese is the language of my life. If I want to talk about my life, I have to rap in Cantonese.” For crews like Dumdue, the need to use the language that expresses and helps define their life experience trumps all other concerns about language. The Mandarin vocabulary has thousands of characters, but the nature of spoken dialects ensures that not all of the words and phrases used in Chinese dialects can be expressed in Mandarin. Consequently a commitment to only rapping in Mandarin can potentially limit a rapper’s creative expression.

Every musician must negotiate their relationships with their music and their audience. For Chinese rappers, language crucially influences the dynamics of those relationships. Choosing not only what they want to say but also in what language they want to say it in will determine, in large part, their ability to perfect their skills, make their music meaningful to an audience, and establish a lasting career.

See what some rappers in China have to say about language.

~ Angela

July 12, 2008

DòngTīng Song of the Week

This week’s song comes from Urumqi group Jin-Qirah. Jin-Qirah’s group members are Uyghur, one of the ethnic minority groups in China, the majority of whom live in the northwestern province of Xinjiang. Rapped in Uyghur language over beats inspired by traditional Uyghur music, Jin-Qirah’s “Arman” is a song that confirms the often over-looked diversity of “Chinese” music.

本周的哥来自乌鲁木齐的Jin-Qirah团体. Jin-Qirah的团员都是维吾尔族,中国的少数民族之一,大多数在西北的新疆省住. 用维语说唱还有用被传统维族乐器影响的一个伴奏,Jin-Qirah的 “Arman”是一首哥能确定 “中国” 音乐平常忽略的多样性.

Jin-Qirah - "Arman"

July 6, 2008

Kunming's Hip Hop Community

B-boy Baby, leader of Kunming's KGS breakdance crew

Kunming’s Hip Hop community is best described as a collection of parts rather than a cohesive whole. While there are artists from each of Hip Hop’s major elements, there is a lack of commonality amongst Kunming’s Hip Hoppers. There are stylistic differences between rap groups, and competition for students between dance crews. Hip Hop DJ’s are forced to compromise their personal music preference to please the unsupportive club owners they work for, and graffiti artists have to look for ways to commercialize their art in order to make a living. It is not that these struggles are singular to Kunming. Competition and financial pressures are issues faced by Hip Hop artists throughout the country, if not the world. But for Kunming, these struggles come without the different benefits that bigger and smaller cities can each offer. In Beijing and Shanghai, competition can often lead to recognition and already existing clubs, events and networks offer artists reliable opportunities. And in smaller cities like Shantou, the stresses of trying to make it as Hip Hop artist are shared, and thus somewhat assuaged, within the supportive, close-knit Hip Hop community.

However, the city is home a number of talented and unique artists, and these artists continue to stick with it in order to make a name for Hip Hop in Kunming. Recently there have been some positive steps forward. Uprock is a new club that opened up in March of 2008, with the goal of creating a space for good DJs and good music. Kunming-based DJ DSK, a former “battle DJ” in England who has been behind the decks in Asia for the past twelve years, is a manager at Uprock, which means that Hip Hop and Hip Hoppers will be welcomed with open arms. In addition, rap groups Co Op Sol and Green Clan have started to perform together and are testing the waters of a rap collective. As the Hip Hop scene grows, I believe that there will only be more interaction and collaboration between Kunming’s Hip Hoppers.
Click here to take a closer look at Kunming’s Hip Hop Community.


July 5, 2008

DòngTīng Songs of the Week

Over the past three weeks, we have been on the road in Shaanxi and Xinjiang Provinces and have gotten a little behind on the song of week. So this week you get a double dose and a little competition.

Many rappers in China lack the equipment, training and/or knowledge needed to make their own music. Some set up small studios in their homes or offices, but most work from personal computers. Consequently many rappers download beats off of the internet or rap over instrumentals. We have come across several songs that use the same instrumental but to different effect. So who flipped it best?

These two songs use the instrumentals from Tupac "Hit'em Up".

Chen Hao Ran "Hello Teacher" / "老师好"

Six City "6 Dolkun"

These two songs use the instrumentals from Scarface "My Block".

Chen Hao Ran "No Moni, No Friend"

No Fear "What Are You Doing?" / "你在干吗?"

~ Angela