BY CARLA AMURAO
Made in China—a phrase seen and understood all over the globe. But there was one cultural facet that lacked a Chinese signature until 1999: hip-hop.
With China’s socially repressive government, it is understandable that a global juggernaut can fall behind on something prevalent in United States culture. But with countless documentaries and blog posts resounding the frustration of Chinese youth and college students who cannot express themselves, it was inevitable to prevent the foundations for hip-hop music to take hold.
Hip-hop is a universally unifying outlet. It is a vehicle for self-expression when your voice might not be otherwise heard. Hip-hop offers a chance for youth to break away from social expectations. For many, hip-hop, and its elements—rapping (and beat-boxing), DJing, breakdancing and graffiti—is a way to find success and happiness, especially against criticism and social stigmas associated with the movement.
From its grassroots beginning in the States, the music was faced with much criticism for being different from the disco and pop tunes that dominated the airwaves. For New York native and hip-hop aficionado Andrew Ballen, a Duke University law school drop out-cum-hip-hop mogul, his snap decision to leave a conventional path and travel to the Far Eastern unknown had its obstacles. Along with Ballen came an opportunity for hip-hop to grow in China, where the music also competes head-to-head with impediments that take the form of censorship and pop groups with mass appeal.
All three—hip-hop in the U.S. and China and Ballen—were able to find their niche in their respective environments.
The name “Andrew Ballen” might not ring a bell to most Americans. But in China, Ballen is one of the most recognizable media figures. The Far Eastern prototype of Russell Simmons, he considers hip-hop the most fitting beginning to his economic success. Upon first arrival, without knowing a soul or a lick of Chinese dialects, Ballen found his musical appetite unsatisfied. This had to change, and fast.
The average hip-hop fan will most likely describe the music’s simple, looped beats, samples and the artfully crafted rhymes of Run D.M.C., Grandmaster Flash, Biz Markie, Nas or Tupac Shakur. Even the first beat of Biggie’s “Hypnotize” or Mack 10’s “Foe Life” brings the funky—but what effect does this music, this movement, have on Chinese audiences?
In documentaries that dissect the growth of hip-hop in China, many Chinese students admitted to not fully understanding the lyrics of the American songs they loved. But the love for hip-hop was not solely for the lyrics. It was the music, the emotions conveyed in the lyrics, that made hip-hop such a unifying force that overcame any barrier—linguistic or geographic.
Still, the music did not come so easily. “You can’t rap in Chinese, it’s a tonal language.” “You can’t rap in China, they’ll censor you.” “It’s not Chinese rap if it’s not in Chinese.” “You can’t make money off hip-hop, they only like pop bands in China.” “Difference is discouraged here in China”—all sentiments that kept Chinese hip-hop from taking off with a running start.
But hip-hop could not be stopped. In the words of Public Enemy—fight the power. And that’s exactly what Chinese youth did.
Although hip-hop first came to China in the 1980s, the movement remained stagnant until 1999-2000. It was around this time that Andrew Ballen approached the owner of a Shanghai club, Pegasus, with a moneymaking idea of Thursday hip-hop nights. What was once a bleak Thursday turnout became a Shanghai institution within two years and paved the way for Ballen’s financial success—doing radio shows, becoming the voice of Motorola and beginning his own business ventures to nurture hip-hop music from Chinese youth.
American movies also nurtured the movement in China. Freestyle rapping slowly gained popularity after Eminem’s 8 Mile (2002) and karaoke began to take the back seat. Chinese freestyle rapping initially took the form of repeating lyrics of existing American songs rather than spitting original rhymes.
“…kill the notion of biting and recycling and calling it your own creation,” Wyclef Jean raps in The Fugees’ 1996 album, The Score. (Ironic, since The Score’s most popular tracks draw samples and interpolation from Roberta Flack, The Delfonics and Teena Marie.) Jokes aside, Wyclef’s lyrics summed up hip-hop’s next obstacle in the Far East. The struggle was creating an authentic, Chinese brand of hip-hop, a distinguishable entity from its American cousin.
Enter Ballen, China’s face of hip-hop culture, with a solution: he created BallenWest Media to help Chinese youth redefine the 21st century in media space, to interpret music their own way, change its language or instrumentation—basically, make it their own.
To this day, hip-hop still comes head-to-head with censorship and doubts on the ability to rap in Chinese dialects and creativity. Yet, these obstacles provide listeners with the best form of hip-hop music Chinese youth can offer. Because the music has difficulty gaining financial success against the sugar-sweet pop groups, there is less influx of cursing, misogynistic lyrics and swag-flashing because, quite frankly, these artists are usually lacking in things to brag about, but wealthy in lyrics and emotions of substance.
Almost 30 years later, the country boasts hundreds of hip-hop online communities and podcasts, universities offer hip-hop dance classes and a national college hip-hop dance community. The annual Chinese Hip-Hop Awards Show has been running since 2007. The short lived MTV Chi (2005-2007) featured Chinese and English artists and gave artists and fans mutual exposure to the growing musical movement. The fashion associated with hip-hop is becoming more and more popular with youth. Yin Ts’ang, a hip-hop group from Beijing, blazed the trail by becoming one of the first groups to sign with a record label and receive critical acclaim. Emcees like MC Jin from 106 & Park’s Freestyle Friday Hall of Fame, used his blend of Cantonese and English to create his own style of Chinese hip-hop, landing a deal with the Ruff Ryders, making him the first Asian and Chinese solo rapper to be signed to a major record label in the United States, and his single, “Learn Chinese” was the first music video to air on MTV Chi. Chinese rappers are finally beginning to make their mark.
And the underdog tale has come full circle: American hip-hop took root as a form of expressiveness against oppression and voicing frustrations and has become a lucrative business venture for some. Andrew Ballen broke the mold of expectations by leaving a university and coming to a place where he knew nobody and nothing, found a space for opportunity and filled it with what he knew best. He achieved the American Dream in China. Chinese youth are beginning to express themselves and (break)dance to the beats of their own drums, despite repression and an abundance of pop groups. All three—American hip-hop, Chinese hip-hop and Andrew Ballen—broke away from expectations and rules and found success. So take that, doubters and saccharine pop groups and step aside. Because KRS-One will tell you: “Hip-hop culture is eternal, run and tell all your friends.”