The story appears on

Page B1 - B2

March 21, 2011

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature

From the Bronx to the Bund

IT started in a poor New York neighborhood in the 1970s and has become a global music phenomenon. Nie Xin gets the lowdown on the rise of rap music and hip-hop culture in Shanghai.

Eminem's appearance at the 2011 Grammy Awards wowed fans around globe, and Slim Shady's performance proves once again that hip-hop is universal.

Hip-hop, which originated among the African-American community in New York's Bronx borough during the 1970s, is now favored by people of all backgrounds around the world, including China.

Since the end of the 1990s, young Chinese people have been embracing hip-hop culture.

Lionel Chu started writing raps in Mandarin and Shanghainese in 1998.

"I posted them online and the feedback was great," notes Chu, 32. That's when he got a record deal with EMI China and formed Shanghai's first hip-hop band, Hi-Bomb, with fellow rapper Shang Hao.

Their 2004 debut album "Number One" features hip-hop songs in both Mandarin and Shanghainese, and is still regarded as a classic today despite that Hi-Bomb has disbanded.

There are four main elements in hip-hop - DJing, graffiti art, breakdancing and rap music. Today, hip-hop culture's free spirit and influence extends to many aspects of modern popular culture, including fashion, slang and other forms of music.

For many Chinese, their introduction to hip-hop came from the popular energetic moves of breakdancing, or b-boying, although the Chinese term is jie wu, literally translated as "street dance."

"I heard a lot of comments from hip-hop celebrities about how Chinese audience know nothing about hip-hop music or its culture. But I think the reason is because we are not doing it well enough," says Chu.

Misunderstandings also exist in the content of rap songs. Many Western rappers channel emotions of rage through their music, with offensive content making reference to sex, drugs, violence and even anti-government sentiment.

"But this can not represent all. What we are doing in China is relevant to our own life - parents take good care of children; young people can do what they like. So we don't have to make the music so cynical," says Shou Junchao, a rising star in freestyle rap (a form of rap requiring rhymes to be made up and performed ad-lib).

The 25-year-old Shanghainese made his name overnight in last year's "China's Got Talent." He made it into the top 10 with his original "Post-1980s Wake Up." He finally finished with third place.

Shou wrote the rap song only one day before the competition, beginning with a lyric that he says is his favorite: "I don't know if it's lucky or not to be born in this age."

"It (writing the song) was very fast because the idea had been in my mind for a long time - thinking about our happiness and pressure," says Shou. "The post-1980s generation experienced the sharp transformation of society."

Shou says he is using his own way to let people know the life and thoughts of post-1980s, to let more people understand this group which is faced with much expectation and criticism. "It also helps people understand the spirit of rap."

Rapper Chu refuses to use bad language in his raps, preferring to conquer the audience with the high quality of his music.

"Iraq Strain Situation" featured on Hi-Bomb's first album tells the story of love between father and son. Chu broke his father's antique vase; the father changed his attitude from rejecting the son for playing hip-hop to become supportive.

"Hip-hop is difficult to define, very personal and yet you are still going to keep it real about yourself," says Chu, describing his music as chilling, but not peaceful.

"I've never been in a gang war or committed any crimes, but that doesn't stop me from thinking about life, sharing my thoughts and delivering good music to my audience," he adds.

Li Qiuze, a Beijing-based singer, defines hip-hop with only one word - real.

Li, nicknamed Xiaotong, who became involved in hip-hop in 1996, is well-known for his live performances and will release his debut album in May.

Li created a song "I Got Money" for the new album. The ironic lyrics are about showing off wealth to reveal the reality of the society.

"Some of my songs also express inner feelings like the pressures of success or failure, all based on my life experiences," notes Li.

Many mainstream Western rappers are overrated, says Chu, and he does not agree with some of the commercial images and values they promote, such as sexism, gun crime and overt displays of wealth.

"Anyway, according to Jay-Z, it's only entertainment," he adds. "We are living in a different background, so the music is definitely different," says Shou. "To me the definition of rap is all about freedom. I like hip-hop music which can present the thoughts of our generation and cause their resonance."

Hip-hop in Shanghai is more like a subculture. As many people misconstrue it, hip-hoppers have to try even harder to keep it pure.

However, the hip-hop scene in Shanghai is obvious to all. The city boasts some of the best rappers, DJs and breakdancers in China. More youngsters are getting into it and more clubs are playing hip-hop or hosting open-mic competitions.

"I hope my music is not that underground. The way to make it mainstream and carry it forward is to bring it out in the open and let more and more people listen to it and understand it," says Shou.

Many musicians use their position to deal with important social issues, and local rappers are no different.

Wang Hao, a Shanghainese pop singer and producer, wrote a rap song for the victims of last November's deadly high-rise inferno on Jiaozhou Road.

The song "Shanghai One Family" in two versions - Chinese Mandarin and Shanghainese dialect - goes "Mum, why I'm not by your side; Sweetie, I want to have one more look at you; Kids, let me help you avoid this day by my own life; Dear, how can I face the world without you."

Becoming more mature and experimenting with his sound, Chu is trying to incorporate different kinds of music into his works, including electronica, jazz and even folk music.

He has formed a new three-piece group called Quality ControLx3d. They have already released two singles - "Q.C. Anthem" and "Luv Thong." The feedback has been pretty good and Chu's new solo album will be coming out soon.

"If hip-hoppers keep working hard on better music, more people are going to love it instead of misunderstanding it," he says.

"I think every hip-hopper in China has this problem when audiences don't know what he is saying. But if you insist on making good music, you will be accepted one day," says Li.

'No. 87 Avenue Joffre'

The song was one of the most popular works by Hi-Bomb. The first part of the rap is performed in Shanghainese dialect.

Avenue Joffre is the former name of today's Huaihai Road. The song recalls life in the old lanes of Shanghai - detailing games they played and snacks they miss.

"Fight was the game boys like most

And I was always the winner;

The buddy next door always cheated

But still I miss him so much;

Thank you guys, my childhood comrades

The time we spent together was so great;

I wanna go back

To the lovely longtang (lane);

No. 87 Avenue Joffre

It's a long summer night

And I enjoyed the cool in the courtyard;

Peeping at the neighbor sister

Who was dressing and doing make-up;

Her long black hair was so beautiful

That I dreamed one day in the future she would be my bride;

Time flies and I've grown up

She must have been someone else's bride;

My only memory is the sweet candy she gave me

And that sweet dream

I won't forget."


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend