The Rise of Underground Hip-Hop in China – The Case of The Rap of China

The Rap of China Season 1

In China, the hip-hop culture has largely been an underground cultural form that is less known by the mainstream public. But since the summer of 2017, AiQi Yi produced a music talent show that called “The Rap of China” that features the hip-hop culture by inviting hundreds of underground rappers to attend the TV competition show. This summer, the program has aired its Season 3 with over billions of views from China and all over the world, being unprecedented in the way that the program received the highest rating among other TV programs. And with the emergence of hip-hop, different types of rappers have brought in their own elements to the stage. In the first section of the paper, the paper will then provide an in-depth analysis on representative rappers from three seasons of the Rap of China by focusing on the differences of three main types of hip-hop performances: Chinese-Style hip-hop, Technique-Focused hip-hop, and R&B hip-hop.

Chinese-Style Hip-Hop中国风: With the recent trends in Chinese-Style hip-hop music, the most recognized type of performance will be Chinese-Style hip-hop AKA “Zhong-Guo-Feng” in Chinese. The so-call “Zhong-Guo-Feng” hip-hop should refer to the style and expressiveness of the song with characteristics of Chinese culture and refer to the lyrics and tunes rather than the simple external form. The “Ascetic Monk” performed by “Chong-Qing” rapper in the semi-final round is one of the most representative performance of “Zhong-Guo-Feng” throughout three seasons of the Rap of China. His aura of lyrics and classical melody strongly resemble the feeling of ancient Chinese. For instance, the phrase “I hide in a troubled world, because I am full of fire, I can’t be brave and hard-working, modest and prudent” (我躲开了乱世, 因为我满身的火, 做人不可好勇斗狠, 谦虚谨慎四平八稳) make people feel like returning back to the Tang Dynasty. Just to add on the content of the song, the sentiment related to Chinese cultural characteristics is exacerbated by the use of Sichuanese dialects and incorporation of traditional Chinese instruments in the background music.

Technique/Flow-focused Hip-Hop: Other than the Chinese-Style hip-hop, another major type of hip-hop performance would be technique-focused hip-hop. And it can refer back to the result of the Rap of China Season 1, where there was dual-championship with Gai as representative for Chinese-Style hip-hop and PG One as representative for technique-focused hip-hop. In the 60s rap session in season 1, PG One used variety of techniques in the flow to create a complicated rhyme scheme. It’s basically putting end rhythm, off-centered rhythm, and internal rhythm to establish a rhythmic pattern that catches the beat. As we can from the video, PG One definitely masters the technique and continuously pleases the audiences to bring the atmosphere to a climax. Furthermore, another typical technique-focused performance would be from the Xinjiang contestant, Nawukere from the Rap of China S2. But instead of creating rhythm scheme as PG One does, Nawu is known more for its rapid-fire raps. In one of the competitions against Blow Fever, Nawu was even recognized by judges as “Chinese Eminem” as he begins rapping at “supersonic speed” in Chinese and Uyghur dialects. Both of these types of technique-focused hip-hop performance create fast and furious atmosphere that can be easily followed by the audiences.

R&B Hip-Hop: Compared to the previous two types of hip-hop performance, the R&B hip-hop is more of a new type with lots of controversy at the beginning. In the Rap of China S2, the female rapper Lexie Liu was basically criticized by other contestants and labeled her music as “pop” instead of rap. And that is because Lexie, as a female, prefers to write less aggressive hip-hop that are more on the melodic side that as a result seem like she is not rapping to many of her audiences. From her performances in the Rap of China such as the MuLan in episode 9 of S2, it’s not hard to see that her songs have slower and smoother vibe of Western R&B with lots of incorporation of English rhythm schemes in it. And through Lexie’s pioneering effort in R&B hip-hop, there have been more and more rappers that started to do more melodic rap that sounds friendlier to the ears. With people being more and more open to it, there were a couple hit songs like “Follow Me by Fox from Walking Dead” that were melodic rap in S3. As a matter of fact, the R&B hip-hop has now started to become the biggest thing in Asia with the most prominent hip-hop group “88 Rising” leading the trend.

88 Rising – The Best Hip Hop Group in Asia 🙂

The Impact Toward the Hip-Hop Culture in China

As an underground cultural form, the central ideology for hip-hop culture has been the idea of “keeping it real”, or “real talk”. The concept of the real, or authenticity, could be viewed as a spread of a particular individualist take on what counts as real. And as hip-hop emerged as a musical form outside of mainstream practices, it has long been associated with oppositional culture and messages of resistance, protest, empowerment and social critique. Though rap as a music style is rooted on rebellion, the Rap of China adopted the form, but not the politics. This ambiguous nexus is what makes this program both challenging yet legible for Chinese audiences. The strategy adopted by Aiqi Yi is also been known as the “Edge Ball” strategy, referring to program content that draws viewers by being at the ‘edges’ of content likely to attract government censorship.

The bold move was a huge market success for a year until the PG One event. After PG One received the championship for the first season of the Rap of China, his personal life as a rapper received much more attention than he could ever afford. Only few months after the end of first season, he was denounced by the Communist Youth League for promoting drug use and insulting women in a song back from 2015. On top of that, he was vilified online after he was accused of having an affair with a married TV star, Li Xiaolu. The entire series of events create an extremely negative image upon the uprising hip-hop culture, causing certain tensions in Chinese societies. Following the PG One event, more than 200 hip-hop songs and artists with tatoos were banned from the market as government regarded them as not aligning with socialist core value

But other than the role of government, most rappers argue that the rappers in China are starting to lose its authenticity “real talk” through the commercialization of this culture. Especially as the intrinsic value of hip-hop was rejected by the government, the iQiYi focused more on the commercial side of it. For instance, the program invited numerous non-underground rappers or simply idols to the TV show in order to make it more of a singing competition rather the promotion of hip-hop culture. Plus, all rappers were forced into a contract at the beginning to perform in the advertisements of iQiYi’s sponsors throughout the competition. Beyond that, the iQiYi was criticized for focusing on the future marketability of the contestants rather than the result of the competition. In order to win the competition, the contestants have to adjust their performance styles for the mainstream audiences rather than conveying their original hip-hop music.

Overall, what is the impact of the Rap of China to hip-hop culture after considering the involvement of government and trend of commercialization? From a broader perspective, it’s actually not hard to argue that the overall impact is still good. From rapper’s side, they are able to have more listeners, more money as well as more opportunities to produce better music going forward. This main controversy won’t even come up if hip-hop culture in China doesn’t receive the attention it has right now. More people started to appreciate the hip-hop as a music style, as a performance style, and as an attitude toward life. But on the other hand, the culture was gradually adjusted toward socialist core value and pop music through the involvement of government and commercialization. With that being said, some might argue that the hip-hop in China is not hip-hop no more. I, however, believe it’s not the music nor the performance styles of hip-hop matters, as a cultural form, hip-hop is evolving constantly. What really matters should be the spirit of hip-hop, the individuality and rebelliousness that are inherent within the lyrics of rap music no matter its Chinese-Style, Technique-Focus or R&B hip-hop. And that spirit of hip-hop is never going to lose since that is what really resonate with the market and next generation of rappers.

More on Lexie — my favorite female rapper in Asia


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