The Beat Drops: An Introduction
Chinese hip hop is a beautiful thing. It represents the transnational appeal of art. That a movement brought into existence by the disenfranchised youth of the 1970's Bronx could make its way through time and space and be welcomed and adopted by a drastically different community of artists and minds is distinctly human, and to me, represents what hip hop is all about.
That being said, hip hop in China right now is not where it could be. I'd go so far as to say it's not where it should be. Hip hop scholar Tricia Rose begins her book The Hip Hop Wars with the sentence "Hip hop is not dead, but it is gravely ill," and elements of that quote ring true in my ears in regard to Chinese hip hop. She goes on to define the difference between the original vision of hip hop culture ("a rich alternative space for multicultural, male and female, culturally relevant, anti-racist community-building"), and the more recent manifestation of the genre (its life force having been "squeezed out, wrung nearly dry by the compounding factors of commercialism, distorted racial and sexual fantasy, oppression, and alienation"). In other words, hip hop largely sold out.
This is, of course, in reference to American hip hop. But, in a China that is today modernizing perhaps more quickly than it can sometimes handle, and growing increasingly capitalistic at the same rate, the problem of commercialization becomes a dangerously relevant one. While there are obviously key differences between hip hop culture in America and China, the force of industry co-opting could be argued to be more dangerous in the latter, where cultural capital is at an all time high and record execs are pumping out products as fast as they can to meet the constantly shifting tastes of an audience that has not quite yet decided what it wants.
China's current hip hop, like America's, can generally be divided into the same two categories:
- The authentic representation of the culture
- Commercial hip hop products assembled for listener consumption with the intent of profit
The problem is that as it stands, the forces in play are limiting the growth and development of the genuine hip hop community, who practice the culture out of a sense of self-identity, while allotting huge resources to commercial assembly-line hip hop commodities that detract and take away from the movement's growth in favor of a quick dollar (or rather, a quick Chinese Yuan).
There are a handful of China-specific factors that are impeding the crucial development of a national hip hop identity. I've identified the following that you should be aware of and keep in mind if you are to continue engaging with this piece:
- Internet censorship
- Strict control of media at the hands of the Ministry of Culture
- Policing of individual free speech and criticism of the government
- Ideological gap between current generation and its predecessor
- Dismissal of behavior not in line with classical Chinese and Confucian values of respect and moderation
- National tendency of imitation over innovation
- Lack of historical context for understanding the nature and aims of the culture, or for discriminating between its superior and inferior incarnations
The other thing you should know, if you are to continue exploring this project, is its definition of "Hip Hop". Hip hop here refers not solely to the genre of music (though there is a large focus on it, because it is the most present incarnation of the culture today), but rather to the classical definition of the phrase in relation to the four elements* and their four corresponding aspects of culture, which are:
- DJing - musical
- Breakdancing (referred to throughout as "bboying" or "breaking") - dance
- Rap - written word
- Graffiti - visual art
* Due to the alternate history of urban cultural development in China, skateboarding is sometimes invoked as a fifth element and included in the Chinese definition of hip hop culture.
The methodology of the following chapters is simple:
Setting the Scene - Traces the origin of pop culture in China since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.
Anatomy of a Problem - A case study of the 2003 track "Zai Beijing" and why it should be held as a failure of Chinese hip hop.
Anatomy of a Shift - A case study of the 2015 track "Get After That Paper" and why it should be held as a success of Chinese hip hop.
Conclusion - Some final thoughts on the subject.
Aside from that, the real strength of this project is in its media components, in the Artifacts tab, which are as follows:
The Scene - A series of interviews with various members of the local Shanghai hip hop community.
Film - Diverse video content relevant to the Chinese hip hop condition.
Audio - Music that is referenced to throughout the project.
Images - A collection of photographs, both my own and those sourced from the local community.
With that, you have the knowledge to make your way through this project, and to gain access to a subculture you otherwise might never have engaged with. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.