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October 28, 2009

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A fresh rap for hip-hop

AMERICAN-BORN Tim Wu has brushed up on Chinese and is about to launch a very different hip-hop album speaking to young Chinese in the language of their streets. Sam Riley raps.

Most foreigners learning Chinese find it hard enough to wrap their tongues around its confounding variety of tones and new sounds - rarely does anyone aspire to use their burgeoning linguistic skills to write poetry, let alone rap.

American hip-hop artist Tim Wu's American-born Chinese friends used to poke fun at his Chinese skills, but he is now about to launch his first album, which is entirely in Chinese.

Since arriving in Shanghai in 2004, the Ivy League-educated computer scientist has reached the finals of an American Idol-style reality TV show, hosted Chinese television shows and built a profile in the local music industry.

His work for International Channel Shanghai (ICS) takes him around China. He is part of a team of hosts on the channel's Getaway program.

Wu's gigs are noted for his sidekick, a hip-hop-looking crowd hyper who wears a large baby doll's head.

Wu plans to launch a national tour early next year to promote his album, "The Principles of the Hustle."

Not content to mimic the slang and attitudes of American hip-hop, Wu says his new album speaks to young Chinese in the language of their streets and uses Chinese pop culture as its central references.

Inspired by 1980s John Woo films, the new album will be released next month. Wu hopes it will be an artistic high-water mark in China's emerging hip-hop scene.

"Thematically the album is about a hero's struggles in a fast world of vice and the inner conflict in his heart," he says.

It took three years for Wu to record the album - he says it takes him three times longer to write rhymes in Chinese than in English. He also did all the engineering and production himself.

More than money

"Fortunately hip-hop is more vernacular than it is formally written in Chinese, so I can get away with writing lyrics the way I would speak to my friends," he says.

Wu, who comes from New Jersey, arrived in China after quitting a one-year stint at Microsoft.

"I don't see the financial bottom line as the be-all and end-all of all human interactions," he says.

"There are things I find in my life a lot more worthwhile pursuing like arts or social change, and in my mind these things are far more significant than just trying to make a buck," he adds.

Wu's grandparents came from Anhui and Sichuan provinces and both parents were born in Taiwan.

His search for his linguistic and cultural roots took him to Fudan University, before he launched himself into the music industry.

A friend at Fudan introduced him to a director at a local music channel where he was a guest host. A spot soon followed on "Wo Xing Wo Xiu" ("My Show"), an American Idol-like talent search. He made it to the final five contestants out of 50,000 entrants.

Wu says the show exposed him to Chinese youth culture and also gave him insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the local music industry.

"Through the show I realized that nobody in the mainstream music industry here knows hip-hop at all - what they knew were love ballads and cheese pop," he says. "That was when I decided to make beats on my own and take care of the production myself."

Wu's technology know-how comes from a computer science degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a one-year stint at Microsoft, and that has given him a good idea of where the troubled music industry is headed.

"If you look at the music industry now, it has effectively been annexed by the tech industry and if you look at the most powerful man in music at the moment, it is not the head of any record label, it is Steve Jobs," he says.

"So, even though it sounds like computer science has nothing to do with music, it does help a lot in terms of the business side of things," he says.

Wu aims to build his own record label in China; his idea is to provide innovative ways of using both technology and the profile of the artist to generate new revenue streams.

Part of his strategy is building a stable of Chinese music artists who have a strong brand image and can provide value to brands looking to tap into China's fast-changing youth market. Few domestic music artists have cultivated a strong brand name as yet, he observes.

Some street brands sponsor Wu and he regularly appears in photo shoots for a variety of magazines.

"Instead of knowing where things are now in the music industry I know where they are going to be," Wu says, "or at least I think I do."Tim Wu

Nationality: USA

Age: 25

Profession: TV host, producer, rapper



Pisces, guava, dust.

Favorite place: House of Flour (Holla Steve and Brian).

Worst experience:

Any time a friend leaves for good is pretty crummy.

Strangest sight:

Dwight Howard doing the Electric Slide during a show taping.

Perfect weekend:

Sleep late and eat brunch on a sunny day, and then explore the city by bike.

Motto for life:

Grow like a fetus with no hands and feet to complete us, return like Jesus when the whole world needs us.

How to improve Shanghai:We could all get over ourselves.

Advice to newcomers:

Try the pork. Cop my album.


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