From underground to mainstream: dreams, changes and struggles in Chinese rap scene
But his real day starts after sunset. When his peers go back to the dormitory, he walks towards an opposite direction, to the subway station, catching a train that crosses over the city.
He is heading to a recording studio. Tonight, he plans to finish recording two songs with his producer and publish them on Netease Cloud Music, an online platform for indie music in China.
In addition to being a college student Wang Zeyuan, he is also known as rapper Uji Young in the underground rap scene of southwest China.
Rapping is an expensive pursuit. A single music production software costs 2,000 yuan. Recording studio charges hourly. Post-production costs highly as well, with each song costing around 7,000 to 8,000 yuan.
Uji Young has to look for different ways to feed his rapping dream. In addition to giving commercial shows, he had worked as a live-house DJ and part-time model, and had written advertising songs for an anti-hair loss shampoo. One of his most awkward working experiences was performing for a government propaganda show, with many middle-aged audience watching him with a plain face.
“There is no other choice,” Uji Young said. “I do whatever I get paid.”
“I feel lucky because, at least, nowadays I can find ways to earn money to support my rapping career,” he said, adding that the Chinese underground hip-hop scene was completely different from now before 2017, the year he started his adventure of being a rap singer.
“It was impossible for rappers to feed themselves with music.”
Since hip-hop music was introduced in the country in the 1990s, it stayed mainly underground. For years, with only a niche of audience, the market had not given a fortune for this subculture to prosper. Rappers had to face the reality that rapping could not bring them any money. Hence, they work for one or more jobs in the daytime and produce music with a small salary.
“Everybody was lost and hard up for livelihood. Even those who are famous now needed to borrow money for a bottle of water,” Uji Young said.
This is the real scene for underground rappers in China for decades.
It was not until 2017, the blockbuster reality TVshow The Rap of China propelled underground rap culture to the mainstream.
Produced by China’s largest online streaming platform iQiyi, the first episode of the show launched on Jun 24, drawing over 100 million viewers within the first four hours, according to local media. With more than 200 million average views of each episode, the show has quickly put many rappers, as well as the music genre of hip-hop into the limelight.
Suddenly, rapping became a nation-wide phenomenon.
The Rap of China, the game evolver
Up to the eighth episode (there were 12 in total), according to BlueMc, an online data collecting platform, The Rap of China has broken the record of exceeding 100 million view counts for a single episode in the shortest time, with 1.62 billion views in total. Related topics on Weibo, one of the most popular social media platforms in China, have attracted 2.74 billion views and 9.84 million discussions, ranking the top of the real-time list of Weibo variety shows for 17 days consecutively.
The participating rappers started to gain a large number of fans as the show went rival, and became active in domestic social media for the very first time. The costs of their performances have risen from thousands to tens of thousands of yuan, even hundreds of thousands, according to the White Paper on China's Online Variety Market 2017, published by endata, a domestic entertaining industry research center.
While The Rap of China is leading an evolution in Chinese underground rap scene, the show is also impacting the young generations’ career choices. Bai Chuan, who was previously a film graduate from Hong Kong Baptist University, has decided to be a full-time music producer and rapper because of The Rap of China.
“The Rap of China made rap to be known by everyone,” Bai Chuan said. “It made practitioners gain more income and recognition, offering me confidence to pursue rapping as a formal career.”
“This is when the rap scene in China entered industrialization,” said Fan Shuhong, a writer and a critic of Chinese hip-hop culture from Radii China, an independent media platform for arts and creative stories about China. “Mainstream media platforms benefit the rap music community and generate the concept of the ‘industry’ for this music genre.”
Uji Young said it was The Rap of China that changed how underground rappers live and work. “The show gave us more opportunities to be known by people, so that we have more ways, such as advertising, fashion labels, albums etc., to get paid,” said him.
On the other hand, the industrialization of rap music has changed the way rappers work. Rappers no longer only focus on music productions, instead, they need to take time to run their social media accounts to attract public attention and interact with their fans, just like other celebrities, according to Ms Fan.
“The sudden success brought them such large amounts of attention and money,” said Ms Fan. “It could be hard for them to absorb such returns in a short time, especially for those young rappers. They need more time to think and explore a proper path to develop themselves, as well as the Chinese rap scene.”
Censorship and industrial bubblization, the changes and challenges
As hip-hop culture attracts more and more attention in China, changes and challenges are waiting for the Chinese rap scene.
“It’s obvious to see the freedom of expression in lyrics is declining,” said Ms Fan, adding that regardless of if it's mainstream or not, if individual artists want to share their work with the public, they have to pass the lyrics censorship on music platforms first.
For individual songwriters, sharing their works directly online is one of the ways to spread their music. As mentioned above, Uji Young has his own channel on Netease Cloud Music. He complained that the censorship on the platform is getting tighter and tighter.
“I’m so, so mad about it,” Uji Young repeated many times with his voice rising increasingly.
As the review is run by algorithms, usually there’s no way he could know exactly which word is holding him back. “I often have to modify the wordings again and again until I get approved and it drives me crazy every time!”
He also mentioned that after the popularization of rap music, many previous works on the platforms were deleted because they were “against the mainstream values”.
“I don’t think this is a change that rap is willing to make,” said Uji Young. “I understand that there is no absolute freedom, and I believe that rappers should have a sense of social responsibility, but it doesn’t mean one-size-fits-all is appropriate.”
Ms Fan commented that this is inevitable. “Because many rappers are from the grassroots, their life may involve some gray areas, which, of course, causes their songs being out of line with the mainstream values,” she said.
In addition to the lyrics censorship, Uji Young found that the marketization of rap has brought fandom cultures into the scene.
The term “fandom” is a subculture derived from Korean idol industry, which used to describe fans who are willing to spend a significant portion of time and money on supporting idols, and now are broadly popularized in Japan and China.
Uji Young said it has led some rappers to package themselves as idols, and meanwhile allows some people to take advantage of it.
“It makes you look cool when you tell people that you are a rapper, so some men will brand themselves as rappers to flirt with girls but they don’t really know about rap at all,” he sneered with anger. “It’s disgusting.”
On the other hand, the popularity of fandom in the rap scene exposes a problem, as well as a challenge for the current Chinese rap industry, that is the industrial bubblization.
“After The Rap of China in 2017, the popularity of rap music in the domestic skyrocketed too much in a short time,” said Ms Fan. “Chinese rap scene attracted too much attention before it formed a mature market, so that the community became fickle.”
Bai Chuan commented that such explosive success of the show had misled some outsiders wrongly believing that the rap market is lucrative, which caused the decline in the music quality and professional standard.
“Rappers looked viral on social media because the show made them. Rap culture in China is still in the minority,” he said, adding that if there is no marketing strategy or capital injection, it would be very hard for rappers to succeed.
“The problem is that Chinese rap scene hasn’t developed a complete and mature industrial chain like Korea and the US did, where rap music has realized the marketization successfully,” Bai Chuan said.
To improve the situation, Ms Fan suggested that there should be professional music media to educate the audience about what is real hip-hop.
“At present, the public can only learn about rap music through reality TV shows, which is too partial. Audiences need to be guided to learn it from a professional angle,” said Ms Fan.
Entering the year 2020, as three rap shows are airing simultaneously on different online streaming platforms, the Chinese rap scene seems to be on a steady path to the mainstream.
In addition to the fourth season of The Rap of China, two more new reality shows, Rap Star and Rap for Youth launched on China’s leading streaming media platforms MangoTV and Bilibili respectively this summer, with more Chinese OG rappers stepping out from the underground in Rap Star, and more young and creative rappers emerging in Rap for Youth.
“I am happy to see more hip-hop culture elements are featured by mainstream platforms,” said Uji Young.
This starting hip-hop musician just participated in the first round of competition of the 8 Mile Underground 2020 in Chongqing, the biggest freestyle rap battle in the country. He spent more than a week preparing a roughly two-minute-long video to share his stories and songs for the competition.
“I am a young hip-hop music lover raised in Guiyang. I came to Chongqing with my music and dreams,” he said in the video clip, with a confident smile on his face. “I treasure this opportunity. This time, my aim is to share my music with more hip-hop lovers through this competition, and I’m sure I can make it.”