Selling Out or Buying In?

China's urban scene today is a place where baggy jeans, sideways baseball caps and flashing neon lights increasingly advertise the word “hip-hop,” the popular American-born art that is slowly taking on a Chinese identity.

“Hip-hop is life. I am hip-hop,” says Tan King, a Shanghainese MC and a pioneer in China’s growing hip-hop community.

Forpeople like Tan, hip-hop is not merely a dance or a clothing style or even just a genre of music. It is a culture and a way of life.

“Hip-hopis a way to express yourself in a very free way,” says Morgan Jones, or MoJo,an American-born MC who, with his group RedStar, is another integral piece ofChina’s developing hip-hop scene.

American hip-hop began as a platform to express political and social dissidence in poorurban communities in the U.S. and then entered the mainstream. In contrast, hip-hop came to China in the form of popular music and clothing styles and is only now beginning to develop more depth.

MoJo says some people see hip-hop as just a fashion trend while others look to the music for more of their personal identity. He thinks it can be both, but the local music will need credibility if it is ever to fully take off in China.

Even in China’s urban centers, the majority of people both old and young remain unaware of what hip-hop really is.

“I have never heard of hip-hop,” says Zhang Fuhai, a 68-year-old retired factory worker from Shanghai.

“I think maybe hip [means] our back and hop is just moving,” says Lin Xinlu, a 21-year-old International Economics major in at the Textile Engineering University in Shanghai.

Beijingbreak-dancer Helen Melon recalls her apprehension when she first entered the boastful and individualistic hip-hop scene, with its tendency to raise political and sexual issues. “It was scary because in traditional Chinese culture you are always supposed to be modest and it’s a little aggressive,” she says. “Especially Chinese women aren’t supposed to be out there in the spotlight. It was breaking the rules a little.”

“To be bombastic and to be out there is looked down upon,” says MoJo “but I think that if you’re really good and you’re really talented, then people are not gonna look down upon you. As long as you’re able to carry yourself and maintain yourself, then I think Chinese people are going to look up to it.”

While American hip-hop has long prized its underground scene, MoJo says Chinese hip-hop artists today are looking to commercialization to boost their credibility.

“Right now, it can be seen as a negative thing and just a bunch of young kids goofing off, but I think that as soon as hip-hop starts making money in China—and a lot of money—a lot of people are going to start taking it seriously,” MoJo says. “Money talks here.”

Yet MoJo concedes that, like in the US, there may be a backlash against the commercial growth of Chinese hip-hop in the belief that it will leave artists at the mercy of record labels. In the US, there is a fear that once an artists signs with a major record label he or she will no longer have creative control over the music and will be out of touch with the street culture that originally produced hip-hop.

Even so, MoJo says that Chinese hip-hop artists hope landing record contracts and jobs with corporate night club chains will open the door to mainstream credibility, and a larger audience among China’s growing middle-class.

“Hip-hop isn’t just for people who are looking for a way out, but it’s also for people who got the money to spend, and who want to feel different and to feel cool,” MoJo says. “They have the money to… put into this music and to give back in a certain way.”

“Trying to get Chinese people to understand the music—that’s the hard part,” Mojo says.“There are clubs playing strictly hip-hop, but a lot of people can’t take it. It’s gonna take time for it to really build up.”

In clubs run by the devout hip-hoppers, the commitment of the people who really identify with the music is clear. In clubs like The Shelter in Shanghai and at jam sessions held throughout Beijing, the DJs usually don’t play popular songs like 50 Cent’s “In Da Club,” but rather, they play songs with slower beats in hopes of introducing people to the music’s lyrical depth.

“I think it’s gonna take 10 years for hip-hop to really blow up in China,” says Tan King."

Chinese hip-hop is “a baby right now,” agrees MoJo, who believes the key is for China to develop its own style. “I think you’ll see other artists who are doing their own thing and [who] are committed to their own style, and I think it is just gonna keep getting better.”