May, 2017. A sweaty, underground club is packed out with young twenty-somethings: hip-hop heads, edgy students and locals clinging to smartphones, breathlessly awaiting the mosh pit.
As the lights go down and the 808 bass begins to thud aggressively, the venue explodes into life. A group of young men dressed extravagantly in Bathing Ape and gold jewellery dart around the stage, the crowd hanging on their every word. The night has begun.
Surprisingly, this is not a Migos concert, nor A$AP Mob, nor Flatbush Zombies; nor is it Atlanta, Chicago or London. This is Chengdu, China’s 7th largest city, and best known for its Sichuan cuisine and its Panda Base. The group on stage, Higher Brothers, have rapidly shot to global fame, releasing a stream of trap hits online that have all surpassed a million views on YouTube. Their songs vary from satires of Western stereotypes of Chinese culture (‘Made in China’) to eulogies of the wide range of food available at 7-11 (‘7-11’). Unlike their American counterparts, there are no clouds of weed smoke, or bottles of Promethazine: just intricate wordplay, diverse flows and boundless energy and passion.
The globalisation of hip-hop has indeed seen a growth of some sort of home-grown culture in countries as diverse as Romania, Germany and Japan. Chinese hip-hop experienced a brief flourish with the release of Yin Ts’ang’s ‘Serve The People’ (‘为人民服务’) in 2002, which received national acclaim and international attention. A scene grew, but – as with the majority of international hip-hop- failed to progress beyond derivative, East Coast beats and generic lyricism and style.
It is precisely in these departments that Higher Brothers excel. Their style and charisma obviously borrows from the likes of Quavo or A$AP Rocky, and their beats from Metro Boomin or Zaytoven, but their style remains completely their own. Higher Brothers, unlike Chinese rappers past, rap in their own unique Sichuan dialect. Moreover, their subjects are completely, sincerely Chinese. In ‘WeChat’, they subtly bemoan the lack of facebook, twitter and instagram in China, complaining about the distinctly less cool, less savvy WeChat: a Chinese messaging app with over 938 million users. In ‘Black Cab’, their lyrics make reference to ShuangLiu District in Chengdu, and also the popular anime Initial D. This is the everyday reality for Chengdu and Chinese youth, and it is refreshing, and rare, to watch curious Westerners in the comments section interacting with Asian fans, asking for translations and definitions of cultural references.
At school, I learnt Mandarin Chinese for over six years, and the image of China one gained from textbooks, museum visits and language conferences was an impossibly narrow reduction of a sprawling modern nation. Even on school visits to Beijing and the Higher Brothers’ own Chengdu, our routine only made time for traditional culture and history, while in Penpal correspondences we spoke only of academic ambitions, the Premier League and what it was like to have a Queen. The notion of this vast, hip-hop loving, edgy youth seemed distant, almost impossible. I suppose that, conversely, it seems impossible for a lot of Chinese students to imagine a group of young Brits at a UK Garage night in Peckham, and herein lies the problem with cross-cultural correspondence: we either don’t attempt it, or we push a tourist-brochure image of our countries that faded decades ago.
With both Novelist and Disclosure recently playing in Shanghai, it is clear that the increased availability of Internet in China, and the consequent relaxing of firewalls preventing access to international music, has accelerated cultural globalisation. Recently, a YouTube video surfaced of Migos and Lil Yachty reacting – very enthusiastically- to Higher Brothers’ ‘Made in China’, and perhaps it will not be long until those artists tour China. On the other hand, who knows: hopefully the Higher Brothers will soon be playing in that same sweaty club, to that same mosh pit, but in Atlanta, New York or Manchester, millions of miles from Chengdu.