Chengdu City: Where the Beat Goes On
Music in China is like a deep bowl of spicy hotpot: once you start digging your chopsticks in, you’re never sure what you’re going to catch. On the first try, you might get some bites of Cui Jian (崔健), the ancient sacred rocker who defied the regime by playing guitar blindfolded with a piece of red clothe. On the second scoop, you may catch some EDM DJs, the kind of cats who wake up when you go to sleep and spend the night in clubs entertaining the “golden youth”. If you keep digging, you may even find an assortment of special, localized flavors such as traditional folk songs, Beijing opera and reggae from Yunnan. But in the end, when the oil gets low and the last drops of Tsingtao have been drank, you’ll be sure to catch the most flavorful morsel in the entire broth: Chinese hip-hop.
To give honor where honor is due
The metaphor of the hotpot is no coincidence: Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan and home of the spicy dish, is also recognized today for its very influential music scene all over the world. With the recent success of flagships like the Higher Brothers (更高兄弟), ATM or Wang Yitai (王以太), local rappers have become the most notorious figures among the many talented musicians who grew up or found shelter in the city. Ten years ago, no one knew who these musicians were, even if some of them were already kicking rhymes in microphones or being recognized by local crowds on the stage of the Iron Mic. But they had faith in their vision, persisted in their art, and kept on practicing and analyzing pioneers like MC Hotdog or Song Yueting (宋岳庭).
Like young entrepreneurs, the best rappers of the post-90’s generation (90后) gathered in groups to experiment and push each other toward new horizons. Perhaps the first group to form on the Chengdu scene was Listen Family in the wake of the new century. Despite the fact they never met any real success in moving into the mainstream or establishing themselves as a local fixture, important rappers like ShaQ (鲨鱼) and 204 emerged from this formation. Yet, the first big step toward establishing Chengdu as a mecca for homegrown hip-hop occurred in 2005 with the birth of the group Big Zoo and their subsequent mixtape of the same name. Big for the Notorious, wild as Zoo animals, this collective was a collaboration with some of the most emblematic OGs of that time period, including DDG (FreeT at that time), Sleepy Cat, and Lil Bai (小白) among others. With the respected Laoxiong MOW (老熊) as the leader of this new gang, the entirety of the Chengdu music scene began to become more confident, emerging as something concrete and structured.
Following the wave of Big Zoo’s success, a myriad of fresh rappers emerged that any contemporary fan of Chinese hip-hop nowadays would recognize and even worship as rock stars of an entirely new generation. Together, these local pioneers established what was formerly known as CDC Rap House (成都说唱会馆). Yet, it wasn’t until CDC Rap House member Fat Shady (谢蒂) performed the song “明天不下班” (“Tomorrow I’m not Gonna Work”) on Sing my song (CCTV-3) in 2014 that he unlocked what would become one of the major assets of Sichuan hip-hop’s global appeal: the use of the local dialect, sichuanhua (四川话). A few years later, it would be the very same feature that enabled the Higher Brothers to reach fame in China and around the world, thanks to a very opportunist collaboration with the American media company 88 Rising.
Linguistic scholars like Xuan Wang and Jin Liu have conducted meaningful studies on the use of local languages (方言) in hip-hop productions. The normativity surrounding the use of Puntonghua in the Chinese society, emphasized by a political will to strengthen the construction of the nation state, has for long deemed “inauthentic” and “not serious” the artworks performed in local dialects. Despite the common assumption that sichuanhua is “offering phonological possibilities that’d be otherwise restricted by the rigid pronunciation of standardized Mandarin”, Shady’s linguistic hybridization played a fundamental role in the construction of the Sichuanese rap scene. It demonstrated to the younger generation that even in the distant landscapes of Sichuan, rappers can proudly “keep it real” and represent their people.
In the wake of this successful windfall, those artists gave the power to a new wave of rappers who also gained fame very quickly: Wang Yitai (王以太), ATM, and Whostar are names that greatly contributed to the domestic hip-hop scene in today’s China. Meanwhile, local kids expatriated abroad also sharpened their skills in order to prove to the world that Sichuan people are here to stay. With PO8 on the West coast and Bohan Phoenix on the East, the United States is framed by spicy and profoundly talented rappers who proudly represent and expose their capital of Sichuan to the eyes of the Occident. Meanwhile, in recent years, the iQiyi-produced show The Rap of China (中国新说唱) has also opened the doors wide to what used to be a niche genre for Chinese youth, turning rap music into a mass cultural product. With the multiplication of this kind of program this year, here’s one more occasion to observe Chengdu rap in action: through the fire spitting abilities of Lil Shin (李尔新), ANSRJ, and Ty. By 2020, rap music has already come a long way in Chengdu, but as the reborn city franchise, renamed Chengdu corp. (CDC 成都集团), stated in a cypher dropped in the middle of the pandemic: Chengdu rappers won’t stop here. They’re sitting on the throne, but they still want it all. “中国的说唱圈依然是被 CDC 统治”.
Where the hood at
If hip-hop music flourished in Chengdu, it is due to the city itself and the environment it provides for the artists to develop their art. Located in the middle of the mountains, the capital of Sichuan has for a long time been hardly accessible to Westerners while simultaneously serving as an important crossroad for populations from Tibet, Xinjiang and surrounding provinces. The prosperous region of Sichuan also offers a very pleasant frame for its population to reside: the weather is good and the cost of life relatively affordable compared to other developing Chinese cities. Numerous other cultural features like the pandas and spicy food complete the painting of the town where one of the most famous saying is: “少不入蜀，老不离川”. Whereas it is risky to say that Chinese hip-hop is born in the streets like its American counterpart, anyone who ever walked in Chinese cities would acknowledge the impact they can have on anyone’s everyday life: street sellers shouldering food stalls and hurried crowds huddling in some kind of loud and beautiful mess is an everyday occurrence.
In Chengdu, aside from the streets themselves, it would have to be the teahouses that most shaped the “street culture” first. Like Wang Di showed in his studies on the social places that scatter prominently about the city landscape, teahouses are where the whole society gathered at the turn of the 20th century, from noblemen to secret societies, from prostitutes to … the performing artists. Would teahouses then constitute the roots of the buzzing music scene that speaks to the heart of the city’s reputation? It is a debatable theory. But then again, if the city breathes music, it is also undoubtedly thanks to the large number of music venues offering stages for all kind of artists in town.
In the neighborhood of Baoli Zhongxin (保利中心), a huge building adjoining the University of Sichuan, the party used to kick hard before most of the clubs got shut down by police for drug related issues. Despite this abrupt standstill, the underground music morphed and resettled in new places, constantly adding new oil to the flame of the local nightlife. While areas like 339 and Lan Kwai Fong rose from the ground to represent the main artery for heavy-party goers today, there are also more intimate and qualitative music venues that offer a huge diversity of artists which make up the true nervous center of the Chengdu scene, both reflexive and resilient. There is of course, Nu Space and Little Bar, but late-night music also keeps on playing in the corners of Funky town, the high hills of .TAG, the reggae repairs of Jahbar (家吧), and in the hidden halls of 13 Lounge. So, to what extent do cities influence norms, behaviors and creations of their people? What’s to be sure is that, just like Forman pointed it out with the ‘hood of Compton, Chengdu musicians often proudly claim the beauty of their city through constantly mentioning specific locations, underlining the important role the environment plays in their personal and artistic journey.
From the voice to the walls
Just like any modern city and in the filiation of what used to be the East Village in the New York of the 1970’s and 1980/s, the landscape of Chengdu is a mish-mash of tall buildings and constant construction turned into a wonderful playground for visual artists to express their art. And where the spray cans talk, music is never far. The famous frescoes of Fansack, a long time CDC relative, cover the city walls, with no distinction between music areas or chic districts. It’s no surprise then that the artist whose fame in paint is seen as far away as the 13th borough of Paris has also closely collaborated with local rappers, even designing the cover and the outfits for the last album by Wang Yitai (演.说.家). Gas, another street painter who founded the shop Still Writin and who first equipped city artists with the essential paint and gadgets necessary for their creation, also welcomed hip-hop artists to run events in his store.
Just like in Afrika Bambaataa’s Zulu Nation, graffiti artists were naturally present next to DJs, rappers and break dancers. Altogether they were part of a larger movement than just music: their goal was to spread the universal message of respect, wisdom, equality and liberty under the motto “Peace, love, unity and having fun”. This message is still vivid in Chengdu today. I remember one night at Funkytown where, looking for fresh air outside the venue, I bumped into a group of young Chinese eagerly tagging the construction walls outside, bathed in a background of old-school hip-hop. That night the air smelled of marijuana, but what I felt most in their colorful painting gestures was a glimpse of freedom.
Music promoters in Chengdu also tend to master the art of postering, each of them having their own specific style: the square-shaped being the monopoly of TAG, the shiny mirroring effect for Turn Off Tune In Drop Out, and the biggest ones always belonging to NU Space and Morning House. Stickers also feature heavily within the covered walls of music venues such as Hakkabar and Funkytown, engaging in a participatory writing-style of their own that flies just under the radar of the public eye to tell the parallel story of the Chengdu underground scene. After all, any actor that belongs to the nightlife scene, from clubs, tattoo artists, music bands, street artists, and more, undoubtedly has their own sticker with their own style and message, eager to display them on the walls that and spaces that turn public toilets and alleys into battlegrounds for artistic turf.
Although hard to quantify while it is occurring, the strength of rap music in the capital of Sichuan can be boiled down to an essence: the scene embodies the former definition of hip-hop, that is, the alliance of the different disciplines working as a system. While it would not make any sense to try to visually represent music, the latest would not exist without a visual environment that is typical to its practice. In Chengdu, if you observe the city, you’ll find tattoos, you’ll find dancers, DJs, and street artists. Eventually, you’ll find that here too, the beat goes on.
This article has been written as a contribution to the exhibition And the beat goes on (律动不停). Maypark Gallery & Park Image Space 2020.30.09 – 12.30.
 Rob Schmitz, “Chengdu emerges as a new home for Chinese hip-hop”, February 1, 2018, NPR. https://www.npr.org/2018/02/01/576819311/chengdu-emerges-as-a-new-home-for-chinese-hip-hop
 The Iron Mic is a battle series launched in 2002 by Dana “Showtime” Burton, a Detroit native.
 Xuan Wang, “”I am not a qualified dialect rapper”: constructing hip-hop authenticity in China”, Sociolinguistic Studies, 2013 ; Jin Liu, “Alternative voice and local youth identity in Chinese local-language rap music”, East Asia Culture Critique, 22(1), 2014.
 David Zhou, “A Tale of Two Cities — Exploring China’s Hip-Hop Capitals”, February 9, 2018, Maekan. https://maekan.com/article/chengdu-hip-hop-chengdu-hip-hop/
 “Young man don’t go to Chengdu, old man don’t leave.”
 Wang Di, The teahouses: small business, everyday culture, and public politics in Chengdu, 1900-1950, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008.
 Josh Feola, “B-Side China Podcast: Chengdu underground with Kristen Ng”, October 13, 2017, Radii. https://radiichina.com/b-side-china-podcast-chengdu-underground-with-kristen-ng/
 Murray Forman, “”Represent”: Race, Space and Place in Rap Music”, in Murray Forman, Mark Anthony Neal (eds.), That’s the joint! The hip-hop studies reader, Routledge, 2004.