Comparing the development and future of Asian and Western hip-hop forms

Jay Chou in Seoul

Since its birth in ’70s New York City, Hip-hop/rap has been a divisive art form, alternatively praised for giving a voice to marginalized urban youth, and criticized for homophobia, misogyny, and graphic, glorifying depictions of violence and criminal activity. At the same time, American hip-hop has permeated the popular sphere to the point where today, it often devolves from its roots and appeals instead to a lowest common denominator, dealing with broadly defined themes of materialism, failed love, and badly researched faux-social justice.

Comparatively, Chinese and Asian hip-hop in the popular vein features different origins, but many similar themes. In fact, these themes have arguably been more prevalent through the young history of the Eastern take on the genre; where American rap culture has been molded into its current form by a combination of pop culture pressure and violent tragedy, Chinese and related regional pop music peers have always been molded with two ideas at heart: mass appeal, and very importantly, limited controversy and true political awareness. This hip-hop scene, dominated by R&B/hip-hop crossover acts such as Jay Chou and Leehom Wang, as well as Korean boy band supergroups such as Big Bang, have been meticulously constructed in order to maximize their reach and appeal across numerous pan-Asian markets.

As hip-hop expanded out of New York in the ‘80s, slowly becoming a fixture on the pop charts, artists such as Public Enemy took the opportunity to bring the political ideas of a traditionally disenfranchised portion of the population to the mainstream. In their chart-topping, platinum-certified 1988 album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, the group’s socially and politically charged lyricism denounced the drug dealers of the ghetto and the FBI in the same breath, intercut with samplings of speeches by activists and community organizers such as Malcom X. Poppier acts, such as Run-D.M.C., incorporated more macho braggadocio and block party imagery1, but nevertheless touched upon urban themes, particularly themes of poverty and making ends meet while on welfare.

The ‘90s brought on the advent of gangsta rap, and with it, increasingly visceral and controversial depictions of crime, urban decay, and drug violence. Mobb Deep2, a quintessential example, epitomized this on their 1995 Gold-certified album The Infamous and its Billboard chart-topping lead single, “Shook Ones, Pt. II,” which extoles the virtues of stick-up mentality, glorifying a life of armed robbery alternating between “diamonds and guns” and detailing the “numerous ways you can choose to earn funds.”3 The more universally known Notorious B.I.G., arguably the biggest hip-hop star of the ‘90s, would bring these criminal themes to an even wider audience on his earlier 1997 double album, Life After Death. The diamond-certified record alternated between materialistic radio singles such as “Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems,” a Hot 100 No. 1 hit that interspersed references to drug dealing alongside boasts about jewels, new cars, and B.I.G.’s sex appeal, and more classically “gangsta” tracks such as “Somebody’s Gotta Die,” an almost Scorsese-esque story of revenge allegedly inspired by the death of one of B.I.G.’s drug dealing friends5.

Life After Death, helped popularize the “gangsta rap” image in hip hop culture

On the West Coast, similar themes were emerging in the music of Tupac Shakur, whose 1995 album Me Against the World8 made him the first artist to debut at #1 on the Billboard 200 while serving a prison term. On tracks such as “So Many Tears,” Shakur paints a semi-autobiographical picture of his life growing up, “greedy” and “suicidal” after being “witness to a homicide” and seeing “drivebys take lives.”6 On his 9x platinum 1996 follow-up, All Eyez on Me7, these themes of regret meet the same materialist rhetoric that dotted New York pop as well; on “California Love,” a Billboard Hot 100 #1, Shakur notes the “hoochies screaming” for him, as his diamonds make him look “like [he] robbed Liberace.”9

Much of this ended when 2Pac and Biggie were gunned down within months of each other. The violence and specific references to past crimes, were toned down, particularly in singles released to radio, spurned in favor of shirtless, sexualized rap artists such as Ja Rule, and DMX 10. Ja Rule especially chained together a string of hit quasi-love songs, featuring major female vocalists paying the role of arguably objectified woman smitten with his effortlessly wealthy materialism. In the 2000s “Put it On Me,” for example, Ja brags of the ease at which he “sees Jacobs and frosts [his girl’s] wrist up,” while female rapper Vita fawns over the “80 [grand] on a down payment” that Ja Rule dropped effortlessly12. And on 2001’s “Always on Time,” Ja brags about his “Bentley, valeted,” the many women he sends home “hot and bothered,” and of course, his “sex life” with female companion stand-in Ashanti, who professes her desire to “give [him] her all.” Safe, sexually charged, and materialistic, the post-2Pac era was the beginning of hip-hop’s move to true commercialism, featuring collaborations with more mainstream R&B artists, as well as themes of materialism and a sexually explicit approximation of love and the young party scene, in lieu of the drug/gang violence claimed by past generations10.

This watered down, corporate construction is where mainstream Chinese hip-hop has begun, as a musical form specifically designed for commercial appeal, most directly within the restrictive confines of China, Asia’s largest market, but arguably one of its most culturally restrictive. Since the days of Mao, art has been a form that has been encouraged to have some type of importance to the state, adapting traditional peasant forms into what amounted to Red propaganda and developing pop forms as methods of disseminating the official Party line12. Even in a post-Mao regime, China maintains a tight grip upon what is and is not allowed within the field of Chinese pop performance. Andy Lau, a cantopop singer from Hong Kong looking to emerge onto the Chinese stage for example, was forced to conform to a pan-Chinese image “politically acceptable in China.”13 True hip-hop, as originally defined in America, would thus have been impossible. A country with a tight control on criticism would never have tolerated the open dissidence of Public Enemy or the tales of abject poverty and criminal desperation told by Mobb Deep. In fact, China’s criminal justice system cracks down disproportionately on youth gangs and perceived gang violence, even when controlling for factors such as seriousness of offense14. Any type of attempt at traditional hip-hop would likely land Chinese artists in prison.

Instead of an icon of defiance and unrest then, Jay Chou, arguably the godfather of Chinese hip-hop, must present a different image to be accepted by a government that wishes to keep its people docile. And that he does, projecting an image as a “safe political icon” and emphasizing “a shy, quiet, introverted character” through a “[lowered] head” and cap, implying that the “insolence” in some of his lyrics are repressed, internal struggle not meant to be vented out in unrest13.

In America, hip-hop of this nature would be exposed and attacked as a blatant misrepresentation of a traditional culture being transformed by external actors into an inauthentic perversion of its original experience. A demand for authenticity and an emphasis on “keeping it real” within American hip-hop has forced the ouster of would-be hip-hop artists who stray too far from a flexible definition of authenticity, centered around factors ranging from race, socioeconomic class, and a “gender-sexual dimension” (hard v. soft)15. This is the type of pressure that made artists such as Vanilla Ice and Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch one-hit wonders; white artists in a predominantly black culture with little to say on any of those three specific levels could have temporary success, but were never embraced and often openly mocked and rejected by the rest of the community15.

In China, no such authenticity clash exists between Jay and preexisting culture; for all intents and purposes, he is the culture. And as a result, the American emphasis on authenticity has been replaced with the conformity mandated by the PRC central government, in a move that mirrors its economic policy: adapt our viewpoints and make as few waves as possible, in exchange for unfettered access to our market. Jay has complied in spades: he is Taiwanese for example, but dodges questions on the topic of Taiwanese independence, avoiding political issues, or social issues that would directly challenge the central government’s established position, as often as possible13.

That’s not to say that he doesn’t discuss social or personal issues; he does this often, and often using rap, instead of his more commonly R&B singing delivery, as his medium of choice when discussing social issues. However, his preferred method of discussion favors simplistic, micro-level description that funnels criticism as far from the state as possible; his attacks are “channeled to the social rather than the political.”13

Prime examples of this include “The Youth that Ends War”/“Casualties of Stopping War” (Zhi Zhang Zhi Shang), an altogether generic anti-war message featuring grim, washed out visuals of Jay rapping, as men in camouflage gear ride tanks past the suspicious eyes of disheveled looking children. Yet the lyrics describes the fictional horrors of a war that Jay has never seen and that modern Asia has also, thankfully, never been the site of. “The flames of war defile her tears,” raps Jay, “the farmer whose land and village is burnt down / finally picks up a gun.”16 The verses are the opposite of topical, and hold absolutely no relevance to current events, political moves being considered by the Chinese government, or any conflict that Jay’s core, younger audience could possibly have experience with, a situation that suit the central government just fine13.

That’s not to say that Jay’s material couldn’t be easily adapted to fit China’s growing domestic unrest on a number of social fronts, all of which could theoretically use a political rallying point. In one of his most personal songs, “Father I Have Come Back,” Jay describes his experience growing up in a broken home, full of alcohol-fueled domestic violence. He “has come back,” he raps, to defend his mother from the alcoholic abuse that he is finally old enough to understand and big enough to be capable of stopping, adding a challenge to his father: “don’t hit my mom like that again,”17 a cry that seems regretful, an adult regretting the actions he failed to take as a teenager. He seems almost defiant, a stark departure from the image he constructs to insure his acceptance among the PRC, and less than respectful of his filial authority figure. Ties however, could easily be made between “Father” and China’s current issues with traditional filial piety given a rapidly swelling elderly population. The government recently mandated that adult offspring look after their elders’ needs, after parents have sued their children for emotional support. Why should the young sacrifice so much for the old, cutting into their professional ambitions and their financial savings, regardless of how poor their relationship may be with their children? Should an abusive, alcoholic father who exposed his child to traumatizing violence be awarded mandatory care from the state?18

These are extra steps of analysis that Jay Chou fails to ask in order to maintain his hold upon the Chinese market. And yet, Jay Chou proves that he is capable of using rap as an emotional, visceral tool, when adapting his music to fit deeply held personal experiences, almost as 2Pac did on Me Against the World. In fact, when Jay chooses to rap, he brings out more of his personally held material as opposed to his typical love song standard. And when he chooses to go this route, he becomes less of a conformist pop artist and almost like a more restrained Eminem. The Detroit rapper, a mainstay on the American pop charts since his debut album, has recorded many songs that overlap in subject matter with Jay Chou. In his infamous song “Cleaning out my Closet,” Eminem blasts his mother for some of the same behavior that Jay resents his father for: substance abuse, and irresponsibility. “Just try to envision / witnessing your momma popping prescription pills in the kitchen,” he raps. He similarly airs out repressed issues as a result that he is only now comfortable with facing: “I maybe made some mistakes / But I’m only human / But I’m man enough to face them today.”19

Eminem is an American rapper whose music often touches on similar themes to those found in Jay Chou’s music

The comparisons continue beyond “Father I Have Come Back,” as Eminem has a demonstrated penchant for social commentary as well, and despite his presence in a more tolerant market, and his resulting ability to say whatever he wants about whoever his heart desires, his execution, like Jay’s, is often flawed, here due to personal ignorance rather than self-imposed, economically motivated restraint. His 2004 single “Mosh,” also an anti-war dirge condemning conflict, tried to go a step beyond Jay’s general imagery of the generic horrors of war, emphasizing America’s sacrifices in Iraq: “No more blood for oil!” Eminem demands. “Strap (the President) in an AK-47 / let him go / fight his own war.” 20

Meant as an angry anthem for youth disenchanted with the n President Bush (“Fuck Bush!” yells Eminem, if there was ever any confusion), critics called it “long-winded” and scattershot to the point of “ADD.”21 Increased artistic freedom is nothing if used incorrectly.

So overall, Jay Chou’s brand of popular hip-hop culture is a unique, twisted version of the familiar American ideal, crafted for easy commercialization and a broad-based, offend nobody attitude. Nevertheless, we see flashes of potential, bits and pieces of true meaning from amongst the polite but pointed refusals to answer political questions. Sadly, Jay seems content with where he is, and less inclined to push the envelope and risk his superstardom. What a shame.


Works Cited

  1. Stephen Thomas Erlewin. “Run DMC.” AllMusic. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.
  2. “Mobb Deep.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 12 July 2013. Web. 19 Dec. 2013
  3. “”Shook Ones Pt. II” Lyrics.” MOBB DEEP LYRICS. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.
  4. “Life After Death.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 17 Dec. 2013. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.
  5. “The Notorious B.I.G. – Somebody Gotta Die Lyrics.” Rap Genius. RapGenius, n.d. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.
  6. “So Many Tears” Lyrics.” 2-PAC LYRICS. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.
  7. “Me Against the World.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 16 Dec. 2013. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.
  8. All Eyez on Me.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 18 Dec. 2013. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.
  9. “California Love.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Dec. 2013. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.
  10. “”Put it On Me” Lyrics.” JA RULE LYRICS. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.
  11. “Mao Zedong.” Student presentation. September 9, 2013.
  12. Western Style, Chinese Pop: Jay Chou’s Rap and Hip-Hop in China, Anthony Y. H. Fung Asian Music, Volume 39, Number 1, Winter/Spring 2008, pp. 69-80 (Article)
  13. Lening Zhang, Steven F. Messner, Zhou Lu, Xiaogang Deng, Gang crime and its punishment in China, Journal of Criminal Justice, Volume 25, Issue 4, 1997, Pages 289-302, ISSN 0047-2352, (
  14. McLeod, K. (1999), Authenticity within hip-hop and other cultures threatened with assimilation. Journal of Communication, 49: 134–150. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.1999.tb02821.x
  15. “Casualties Of Stopping War.” Jay Chou Studio. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.
  16. “Dad, I Have Come Back.” Jay Chou Studio. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.
  17. Kuhn, Anthony. “Ethical Tradition Meets Economics In An Aging China.” NPR. NPR, n.d. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.
  18. “”Cleanin Out My Closet” Lyrics.” EMINEM LYRICS. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.
  19. “Mosh” Lyrics.” EMINEM LYRICS. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.
  20. “Mosh (song).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 18 Dec. 2013. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.