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CITY MIX is a RADII series in which we give you a sonic spin through the underground music of a Chinese city outside the Beijing/Shanghai nexus.
Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province (also known as “The Land of Plenty”), is a proud and vibrant city, home to a coexistence of contrasting but harmonious vibes — raw yet refined, relaxed but energetic. Located far from the gigantic metropolises of Beijing and Shanghai, Chengdu has always marched to its own beat, priding itself on its lovable local superstar the Giant Panda, distinctive regional dialect, and famous Sichuan cuisine.
Chengdu has always been the capital of Sichuan, and has never changed its name, a steadfast consistency that lives on through the attitude of the local people today. As the city undertakes an enormous facelift in an effort to modernize and accommodate its increasing population, Chengdu remains proud of its roots and cultural output, including its latest musical exports: beloved indie acts Stolen, Hiperson and The Hormones, and rap heroes Fat Shady and Higher Brothers.
Digging deeper, the city’s underground electronic scene is thriving, with a new wave of producers and a growing number of studios and production meetups around the city spanning a range of styles, from acid techno to soulful RnB. With crack production software and music gear now more accessible than ever, musicians are experimenting with electronic music and creating WeChat groups to troubleshoot, share tracks, and engage with fellow producers in the city and beyond. In response to increasingly strict regulations on live music venues, musicians are turning to electronic music and the club dance floor for liberation.
Rock in Chengdu is not dead, however. Long-established bands continue to chip away, while the Sichuan Music Conservatory attracts hundreds of young musicians to Chengdu every year. The next wave of talented, tech-savvy Chuan Yin (川音, the university’s abbreviation) bands are taking over, self-recording, self-releasing, self-organizing, and performing at bars and livehouses around town before rushing back to the university’s remote suburban campus before curfew.
This mix is a play on the dualities of Chengdu’s current live music climate: mechanical, industrial hammering against warm, floral tones, all doused with a generous amount of chili oil. Feast your ears on this tasty selection of tracks:
Noise Temple – “Rugga-3” [00:00]
HeLing – “Modular Jam” [04:12]
Stolen 秘密行动 – “Why We Chose to Die in Berlin” [08:17]
Cvalda – “Cemetery Walk” [14:13]
Wu Zhuoling 吴卓玲 – “Glimpse of the Future” [19:23]
Angry Navel 愤怒的肚脐儿 – “K.O. Love” [22:28]
Karmasub – “The Frozen Mountains Icy Skin” [25:37]
FEMME – “Xiaobing” [31:46]
DJ Blue – “Riddle of Sphinx (Original Mix)” [36:38]
Kaishandao – “Hidden Bar (上去)” [42:54]
TY (prod. HARIKIRI) – “那么cool那么swag” (demo) [48:43]
Gaiwaer 街娃儿 – “Untitled” [51:10]
JahWahZoo – “Sunshine” [54:00]
Fayzz – “Walk Man” [57:15]
Sound and Fury – “Coming Down” [1:01:51]
Hiperson 海朋森 – “他像我的老师一样” [1:05:01]
Annaki 安娜其的故事 – “开关” [1:06:37]
Long Travel 浪旅 – “拖延症” [1:11:08]
Deep Water – “Wild Thought” [1:14:15]
Eddie Beatz – “二十一世纪灵魂乐” [1:18:06]
Zhang Ruoshui 张若水 – “回归” [1:19:45]
Kicking off this mix is an unreleased track of cold, mechanical rhythms from Noise Temple, an audio-visual duo composed of musician Huang Jin and visual artist Mian, director of Chengdu digital art collective PuZaoSi. Their sound is created with the concepts of Microsound, Glitch, Ambient, Electronica and Noise, while the vision is centered on the Psychedelic, Microcosmic and Zen.
Crank the BPM — here is an exclusive, unreleased jam from Leshan-born modular acid techno producer HeLing (a.k.a. Mao Mao), who has emerged in recent years as one of the most formidable artists on the local techno scene. HeLing supported Stolen on their album release tour last year, and helps bring Chengdu’s hardware community together with like-minded Beijing and Shanghai artists through workshops and meetups at his much-loved, 24/7 bar and venue, Steam Hostel. Aside from his famously ferocious live set, this jam excerpt is the first recording of his music online to date. Stay tuned for a debut album this year.
Hot off the back of their second full-length record, Stolen (秘密行动) are the most dominant band in the Chengdu indie scene right now. “Why We Chose to Die in Berlin” is a pulsating, four-on-the-floor banger extracted from their second album, Fragment, fusing an explosive combination of electro-rock and Berlin-inspired techno.
Long-time organizer, DJ and producer Cvalda (alias of Qi Zhang) has been a central figure in the local electronic scene since co-founding Underground — considered the earliest underground club in Chengdu — in the early ’00s. She later went on to organize countless bass music events with her label MIST during the wildest years of storied Chengdu nightlife spot Poly Centre. With streets haunted by the remains of old buildings, life in Chengdu can often seem like a “Cemetery Walk,” beautifully captured here with eerie layers of texture and tension.
Prolific producer, singer-songwriter, and musician Wu Zhuoling, also known as the founder of downtempo trip-hop band Wednesday’s Trip (星期三旅行), clocks in next with this tranquil electronic dreamscape. An active member of the local scene since the late ‘90s, Wu Zhuoling is constantly developing in new directions: she recently started the hybrid performance series Small Projects, adopting a modular synthesizer setup and launching into a self-organized nationwide tour last month.
Born from the solo project of bedroom producer and vocalist Sugarman, synthwave outfit Angry Navel (愤怒的肚脐儿) are bringing a welcome surge of sass and positivity to the scene. With sultry RnB vocal lines and downtempo, DAW-triggered grooves that arpeggiate between kawaii upbeat tropicana and hair-flipping dance breakdowns, it’s not surprising to know Sugarman hails from Kunming, the hometown of feisty electro-femmes South Acid Mimi. The group signed to music giant Modern Sky last year, and an album is in the works after they graduate from Chuan Yin.
Providing you with the road trip soundtrack to your drive to the mountains surrounding Chengdu is this laid-back, dub techno groove from Karmasub, a long-time local musician and producer who also DJs under the name !ssy. Besides co-running the downtempo/house music imprint Placebo and darker, techno-orientated party label Pure Dark, Karmasub regularly performs live around the city, mainly at Chengdu’s sky-high dance club .TAG.
British electronic pop producer FEMME is in the mix with this unreleased, sassy dance track. It’s composed of bamboo flute samples recorded from a jam with legendary local folk musician Zhang Xiaobing during a month-long, British Council-backed music residency hosted by the crew at Morning (早上好) last winter.
Coming in hot is “Riddle of Sphinx” by DJ Blue. After years of experience as a club manager, resident DJ and promoter, DJ Blue is now one of the leading minimal house DJs in Chengdu. Besides hosting her own party label and podcast, Blue Night, and co-organizing events as Dusk Till Dawn alongside Beijing DJ Yang Bing, she produces tracks full of trippy timbres and micro details, influenced by Romanian minimal labels like [a:rpia:r] as demonstrated in this deep dance-floor groove.
This mutant track is a tribute to the hectic nights and hazy mornings of the “Hidden Bar” on the second floor of Chengdu’s favorite underground club .TAG, where scatty, chopped-up drum lines are smeared over a canvas of gin and tonics and bolstered by an imminent city sunrise. Feel the heavy effects of warped guitar manipulations for added intoxication.
Hailing from Chengdu Rap House (成都说唱会馆), rapper TY has teamed up with producer Harikiri for his next release. This demo wildly deviates from the tried and true trap sub-bass wobbles that have dominated the hip hop scene for the past few years, flaunting bossy four-on-the-floor kicks and a sneering delivery of “you don’t get why we are so cool, so swag” striking the perfect balance of Chengdu arrogance and nonchalance.
Given the breadth of Harikiri’s influence on Chinese beatmaking — which spans from teaching Do Hits co-founder Howie Lee how to make dubstep, to collabs with superstar Chengdu rap crew Higher Brothers — we can expect local hip hop producers to take note once this trendsetting producer unleashes his next record.
Loud and proud, Gaiwaer — Sichuan dialect for “street kids” — are a four-piece hardcore punk band from Chengdu. They’re part of the Big Fight Chengdu (BFCD) collective, which you can learn more about here.
A staple at Chengdu’s long-running reggae haunt Jah Bar and indie music festival Chun You, this mix wouldn’t be complete without a tune from reggae big band JahWahZoo. This track is taken from their debut album Zoo Party, which was recorded with UK dub producer Nick Manasseh and released by Caotai Music last year.
Fayzz started off as the one-man project of musician Fan Bin in 2009, and has slowly evolved into the current lineup of Huang Yu (Bass), Mu Wang (Guitar), and Xiao Bo (Drums). Merging elements of post-rock, math-rock, chill-out and jazz-hop, well-loved instrumental wanderers Fayzz have been quietly teasing at plans for an album this year. Fingers crossed.
Next up is Sound and Fury, a four-piece shoegaze band that has been active on the scene since 2011. “Coming Down” is from a 7” released by Shenzhen bedroom pop label Boring Productions last year, melding thick washes of guitar noise and candy-coated vocal harmonies from husband-and-wife duo Fan Shuai (guitar) and Kuang Ying (keyboard) atop a rock-hard rhythmic foundation from Canadian drummer Andrew Derry.
Gritty, aggressive, and full of loving imperfections, this succinct attack on a former teacher and the rigid Chinese education system is taken from She Came Back from the Square, a self-produced EP recorded in Hiperson’s sweltering old rehearsal space above a dingy row of KTV bars in downtown Chengdu last year. The lo-fi, analog cassette aesthetic will be cast aside for the band’s next record: Hiperson recently laid tracks at the legendary Hansa Studios in Berlin. Excited is an understatement.
From arrogant teachers, back to campus. One of the most exciting groups to emerge from the latest Chuan Yin flock is the retro rock, synth-warbling unit Annaki (安娜其的故事), a young four-piece band with a lot of potential.
Long Travel (浪旅) is a shoegazing post-punk band with a speedy, refreshing sound that already has them fielding invites from local festivals NUART and Chun You. The band are part of the collective behind the newly formed DIY record label H2 Records, which was launched by a group of like-minded university bands from Chuan Yin.
Last year, Sugarman from Angry Navel formed the feel-good indie duo Deep Water with guitarist Wang Bo (The Sad Sack 冒失鬼, Hit the Place, 打飞机). Deep Water produces nostalgic, melancholic love songs seasoned with just the right amount of fuzz.
Chengdu hip hop producer Eddie Beatz (also known by his other alias, 也是福) started making beats at age 15. His laid-back, sample-based approach to beatmaking has seen him collab with some of the biggest names in Chinese rap, release with Shanghai labels Jadecraft and Eating Music, and, most recently, open for LA soul boogie smooth operator MNDSGN.
Born in 1991 in the small town of Dazhou, Sichuan, Zhang Ruoshui taught himself guitar and started a band by hanging around Chengdu’s legendary venue Little Bar as a teen. This 90后 (born after 1990) university dropout is the driving force of the alt-folk scene in Chengdu. His characteristic drawl in the refrain “sing when you’re sad / paint when you’re sad / dance when there’s nothing else to do” (“不开心就唱歌，不开心就画画，没得事就跳舞”) is a charming reflection on life, leisure and boredom.
Cover photo: Angry Navel with VJ Qian, Square Wave, NU SPACE, Chengdu, May 2018 (photo by Kristen Ng)
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