The origins of Chinese Hip-Hop

The first Chinese rap song was by Harlem Yu (庾澄庆) of Taiwan in the early 80s. In the early 90s L.A. Boyz started a trend that spread into Taiwan the rest of the Chinese speaking world. Early Taiwan youth rap group like The Party and TTM were both underground and mainstream. In the late 90s Hong Kong’s Softhard and LMF were influential though their Cantonese dialect was foreign to Mandarin speaking regions, while Taiwan’s MC HotDog,Da Xi Men,Da Zhi were more widely intelligible in mainland China.

When Eminem’s movie 8 Mile came out in 2002 the art of freestyling was popularized in China. Movies have played a major role in fostering the growth the hip-hop culture in China; from the music itself to dance, the art of graffiti and style of dress. “In the wake of the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989, interest in hip-hop waned as the government attempted to revitalize reverence for traditional Chinese culture and socialism” (Steele, 2006) and “the government still keeps a tight hold on radio licenses” (Trindle, 2007). However, there was considerable uptake of “Dakou CDs” – “surplus CDs created in the West that were supposed to be destroyed but were instead smuggled into China and sold on the black market” (Steele, 2006). The Lab is a “free studio to foster hip-hop culture and teach aspiring young MCs about the types of music that don’t make it onto the radio” (Trindle, 2007).

Beijing born and Toronto raised, Sbazzo , is the award winning, critically acclaimed, leader of the group of MCs known as, Bad Blood. In 2002, as part of the pioneering rap group Yin T’sang, he released his first full length album For The People . For The People was received with open arms by hip hop heads across the nation and led to appearances at The 2003 Pepsi Music Awards, where they were nominated for Best New Rock-Rap Group and the China National Radio Music Awards, where they won Best New Group of 2003. In addition to full length articles by the LA Times, the China Daily and Music Magazine (China) the group also made special appearances on CCTV-1, PBS, CTV and Stir TV (cable). Stemming from his earlier success with Yin T’sang, Sbazzo has performed across China, Canada and the United States. His music has been featured in commercials for Nike, Adidas, Reebok, LiNing, White Rabbit, TaiShan Beverage Company, the Chinese Basketball Association. He has collaborated and performed alongside Cui Jian , Dragon Tongue Squad , Han Hong, Chris Li – winner of the China Super Girl competition, Onyx, Saigon, Mobb Deep, DJ Kid Koala, The Jungle Brothers and Ugly Duckling. Sbazzo is currently in production on a number of projects including a new mixtape, the FAR DVD – showcasing his and Beijing’s top hip-hop artists – and a full length album. He is featured on the Section 6 mixtape double CD and his most recent mixtape, King of Beijing, Fast Lane, is now available in stores nationwide.

Dana Burton, also American, arrived in China in 1999, made connections at a club in Shanghai and in time was allowed to play more and more hip-hop in the club. Hip-hop began to develop a following at the club and eventually a new club was created to play only hip-hop. Since then more clubs playing exclusively hip-hop music have emerged (Foreign Policy, 2007). Burton also started the Iron Mic competition in 2001; an annual rap battle which encouraged more freestyling and less karaoke style performances (Foreign Policy, 2007). Burton recorded:

“The few rappers I met were rapping in English. I’d say, ‘Let me hear you rap’, and they’d just do a karaoke thing, repeating a few lines of Eminem or Naughty by Nature. As an American that was so odd for me; you can’t say anyone else’s rhymes, you just don’t do that. But it’s the culture here. They like karaoke and doing someone else’s songs.” (Foreign Policy, 2007).

In 2003 Mel “Herbie” Kent, British DJ based in China, produced “Serve the people” by China’s rap outfit (“Hidden”). Today there are “more than 300 Chinese rappers, DJs, dancers, and graffiti artists” (Chang, 2007). Kyle Ching, “an American who came from L.A. to China to chase China’s business boom, is working on the debut album of ‘Red Star’, a Shanghai based, multinational hip-hop trio”.

Artists such as THP Family, Vivi (Haidao), D Evil, Hi Bomb (黑棒), Dragon Tongue (龙门阵) and Yin Ts’ang (隐藏) are leading the genre. Yin Ts’ang was the first group to sign with a record label and release a full album on the mainland (2003), produced and co-written by Mel “Herbie” Kent, a . It also contains China’s first Jungle/drum’n’bass track. Other popular artists and groups include Dai Bing,ABD, MP4, Kungfoo Impulsion (功夫冲动), Sha Zhou (沙洲), and the now-disbanded LMF. More recent artists include Sbazzo, Young Kin, MC Koz and Young Cee (Black Box Records) as well as new arrival Xiao Bizzle (Bizzle Productions). A few websites have now appeared as platform promote international hip hop in China such as online urban channel hiphop2china ( Other websites like featured Chinese hip hop media such as videos and photos, including a radio broadcast by Sbazzo and Xiao Bizzle called “Streetjamz”.

Rappers of Chinese heritage have achieved renown success in the United States, the most recent of whom is the Miami-born, NYs 106 and Park hall of famer Jin, who raps in both English and Another Chinese American rap group was Mountain Brothers, based in Philadelphia in the 1990s; the group rapped in English. Florida’s “Smilez and Southstar” under Trans Continental Records and Hong Kong-based hip hopper Edison Chen has also gained some popularity in the US.

Chinese DJ Gary Wang notes: “I would say we don’t have a Chinese style yet. If you really want me to say, what is Chinese style, I would say it’s young, local kids really enjoy Western things right now. Then maybe after 10 or 15 years, maybe they can have their own style.” . Hip-hop is often performed in English and many believe Chinese is not suitable; “people said, straight up, you can’t rap in Chinese, Chinese does not work for rap… Chinese is not suitable for rap music because it’s tonal.” A big part of the localization of Chinese hip-hop “is encouraging Chinese rappers to rap in Chinese”.

One underground Chinese artist Hu Xuan recorded all of the tracks on his album in Kunminghua, the local dialect spoken in the area of Kunming. “One rapper spits out words in a distinctive Beijing accent, scolding the other for not speaking proper Mandarin. His opponent from Hong Kong snaps back to the beat in a trilingual torrent of Cantonese, English, and Mandarin, dissing the Beijing rapper for not representing the people.”.


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