Anatomy of a Problem: Zai Beijing
It's hard to find good Chinese rappers. That might sound like a real personal blow to the country, but bear with me. I don't mean to say that China can't produce good rap music; actually, with the size of China's population, it would be impossible for the country to be completely lacking in quality musicians. What I mean is, it literally is hard to find them.
China is at a stage right now that makes it difficult for meaningful, content-driven pop culture products to float their way to the top. How can the Chinese Illmatic be discovered if it’s being drowned out in a sea of radio-friendly voices, all following the same accepted formula and all eager to push their next hit single? In the same way, how can China originate a unique dance icon if all its dancers are preoccupied with mimicking the already iconic moves of Michael Jackson? The problem doesn’t exist on an individual artist’s level as much as on a widespread cultural level. China’s hip hop practitioners hold as much potential as their contemporaries around the world, and could very well be the matchsticks preparing to light the fire of a room-shaking xiha (hip hop) phenomenon – it’s just that their environment isn’t ready to let it happen yet. Instead, China and young Chinese opt for a “safe cool” that lets them rock the latest subcultural accessory without the cumbersome weight of any lifestyle commitment (243 Wang Jing, "Brand New China: Advertising, Media, and Commercial Culture"). To the individual, this could be showing up to school decked out head-to-toe in the Wu-Tang Clan logo despite never having heard an album. To the curators of the country’s media and cultural trends, it’s more likely to be skipping past the mixtape with beats deemed “too aggressive” in favor of the parent-approved boy band hip hop artist who sings vague lyrics about love and dancing. In hip hop terms, it’s just easier to front than it is to keep it real.
It doesn’t take much looking around to find an example. Yin Ts’ang is a rap group widely regarded as an originator of the mainland Chinese hip hop sound, having been founded in Beijing in 2000. They are also, to an American hip hop fan’s eyes, as far from gangster as you can get. The group consists of four members: a local Chinese b-boy, a Chinese-Canadian, and two white guys from the USA. The racial distinction here is an important one. ‘Foreignness’ is an invaluable trait in China even today, where any white man can show up without qualifications and get a job as a fake businessman, fake butler, or fake doctor, lending to his employer an image of “multinational presence.” Fifteen years ago, the value on non-Chinese genes was even higher. To make matters worse, the decade following the turn of the millennium is seen by many as the darkest era in hip hop history, when even America’s musical offerings were meager and lackluster. Following the birth of the genre in the 80’s, the 90’s saw a renaissance of sorts, opening the door for a diverse range of sounds from the streetwise and conscious Nas and Common, to the hardcore gangster appeal of the Wu-Tang Clan and Compton’s NWA. What followed immediately after was a sort of dead space, a period of uncertainty and confusion where the artists didn’t know what listeners wanted, music execs didn’t know which artists to push, and listeners didn’t know which artists to value. There were of course valuable names that appeared in this time, like Atlanta’s dynamic duo Outkast and the Caucasian rap king Eminem, but for the most part music stores were rather dry. The latter might even have contributed to a distorted perception of the culture worldwide. So, it can be said that the modern mainland Chinese hip hop sound has been largely based on the work of a group from the genre’s weakest time period consisting of two ethnic Chinese and two white Americans, the latter of whose greatest contributions to the team were essentially white skin, nasally voices, and a working knowledge of Mandarin.
The group released their debut album in 2003, carried largely by the lead single Zai Beijing (In Beijing). The single reached the #11 spot in China, and secured Yin Ts’ang the award for Best New Group of 2003 at the China National Radio Music Awards. Even a cursory glance at the track’s lyrical content is enough to see some of the problems facing China’s rap community:
In Beijing/We walk on Chang'an Street
In Beijing/There are many beautiful girls
In Beijing/We worship Buddha in the Yonghe Temple
In Beijing/We visit your Hutong
In Beijing/We learn history in the Palace Museum
In Beijing/We bought a T-shirt in Xidan Mall
In Beijing/Tian'anmen Square is very large
In Beijing/There are many things you don't know
In Beijing/The Olympic Games will be held in 2008
In Beijing/The city is becoming more and more beautiful
In Beijing/There are lakes and rivers
In Beijing/Most people ride on bicycles
In Beijing/There is the Chinese Great Wall
In Beijing/It's really cold in winter
In Beijing/There is the Chinese War Heroes' Memorial
In Beijing/Now you know
You don’t need to be a die-hard Hip Hop fan to find these lyrics problematic. Regardless of musical preference, any American could tell you that these lyrics read more like a tourist pamphlet than a rap song. Rather than any kind of emotionally expressive or thought provoking content, the song just takes you step-by-step through a series of trivia related to the capital of China. From specific tourist attractions (“There is the Chinese War Heroes’ Memorial”) to more wide-reaching generalities (“Most people ride on bicycles”), the song manages to fill its nearly five-minute timespan with absolutely nothing. As the song continues, the lyrics devolve into more and more meaningless filler:
Oh my God there are so many hot-pot restaurants along Gui Street
Wangfujing is very clean/The Malls at Oriental Plaza are there
The taxi is charged at 1.2 yuan or 1.6 yuan per kilometer/
The traffic is okay despite occasional congestion
On Chengfu Rd. there is an LRT running towards downtown
There are many foreigners and CD shops in Wudaokou
The immediate question an American listener might ask is, how could something like this become popular? However, anyone who’s familiar with the Chinese government and its usual treatment of the media might instead ask, how could it not? The track is essentially a massage treatment for the egos of the officials at the Ministry of Culture (MoC). They must have been elated upon hearing the demo. Here they had found a hip hop song to satisfy the youth’s thirst for rebellion. Not only did it come prepackaged with associations of multicultural presence, it even praised the social and economic successes of the country’s capital. There’s nothing that could have stopped that song from exploding.
Zai Beijing has every component the MoC could want in a rap hit. Given the central government’s monopoly over media distribution, it was no big feat to push the song to every musical outlet in the country, and to guide Yin Ts’ang to its eventual victory at the China National Radio Music Awards, an award ceremony in which the central government just might play a small (read: large) part.
The only thing at that point that could have stopped the single’s rise to the top would have been the consumers themselves. In hip hop’s country of origin the United States, there’s no way such a song would have even made it past this first preliminary boundary of popularity. Rap fans would have seen through it immediately, and it’s unlikely the track would have even found minor popularity on a musician’s personal MySpace page. It’s difficult to imagine A Tribe Called Quest or Brand Nubian at a show in New York, enthusiastically performing anything similar:
In New York/The Empire State Building is very tall
In New York/Taxi drivers yell at you
Unfortunately for China’s emerging hip hop culture, this front line of informed consumers ready to do battle against the propaganda machine didn’t exist. China had received minor exposure to rap songs since nearly the birth of the genre in America, but one fatal characteristic of that exposure prevented its consumers from developing any kind of understanding of the music during that time: the language barrier. Chinese listeners were able to understand the instrumental of any given rap track, as well as the gist of the vocal cadence, attitude, etc. But when it came to lyrical content, the attribute of rap songs most highly-valued by the original generation of American MCs, China had nothing. The country’s consumers simply had no frame of reference to understand what rap lyrics were “supposed” to sound like, and by the time Zai Beijing arrived, they were excited and ready to listen to whatever form Chinese rap took. The single was further poised for success based on its backing instrumental, which featured a simple beat over a loop of a Chinese erhu stringed instrument. This intersection of Chinese musical identity and the new school sound of American hip hop, further driven home by the similar intersection present in the group’s members, made Zai Beijing an easy-to-swallow hip hop gateway drug for Chinese listeners. On one level, this kind of intersection is necessary to the continued development of the Chinese hip hop identity, and could be praised as such. On another level, it was also simplistic, and capitalized on the audience’s undeveloped rap value criteria, making for an easy ride to the top.
I’m left questioning the group’s motives in making this track. While the mainstream Chinese audience the track catered to might not have had an understanding of authentic hip hop lyrical values, surely the group’s multinational members did. Was this a conscious step in such a direction for China’s rap scene? Were the Americans’ Mandarin skills maybe insufficient to produce anything of greater meaning? Either the track’s overly pro-China rhetoric was a lucky bull’s-eye in the dark, which would be demonstrative of the influential group’s general obliviousness within hip hop culture, or it was a completely intentional act of selling-out in order to achieve surefire mainstream success, which would be indicative of China’s commercial approach to hip hop from the very beginning. The former suggests that success in China’s hip hop world is based on external factors and not on the skill or artistry of the individual, and the latter suggests that China completely lacks the necessary foundation of conscious, content-driven hip hop lyricism that America had built up before the genre was commercialized. Either of these things should be troubling to China’s genuine hip hop fans.