MC Shitou, an internet-based DJ, is the major proponent of an online MC subculture called hanmai (literally, “yell mic,” or shouting into a microphone). Hanmai is often denigrated as a “malformed” rural DJ practice in China. Han — “yelling,” instead of singing, rapping, or even growling — implies a supposedly “distasteful” approach to what it means to DJ; Mai, or mic, also happens to be a homophone of 麦, or wheat, an agricultural product associated with the countryside.
The scholarly and journalistic consensus on hanmai (less so on MC Shitou individually) is often filtered through the perspectives of subculture, or the subaltern. However, both perspectives, when applied to hanmai, are problematic and potentially misleading.
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Contemporary hanmai is not a subculture in a definitive sense. Hanmai does not rely on subcultural capital like the underground rave scene in Shenzhen, or underground hip hop in Chengdu, or the experimental music scene in Shanghai. In those cases, being underground is not just a matter of legality, but a part of maintaining esotericism and exclusivity against the general accessibility of mainstream television shows such as The Rap of China. Hanmai does not mind being under the spotlight, or even the scrutinizing gaze of the mainstream. In fact, it desires to be under the spotlight in its proclamation that it’s the “actual” voice of the bottom of society.
Hanmai is also not subaltern in its intellectual sense. Musically speaking, it is an imaginative and interpretive attempt at electronic music/hip hop (i.e. the envisioned quality music of the futurism-obsessed and wealth-exhibiting urban middle class). Lyrically speaking, it fantasizes about transcending the wretched life of being the subaltern. It is not in a similar vein of intellectual fantasies of workers’ poetry on their horrendous working conditions, but rather projects fantasies of being the warmongering emperor, fighting gods (or fate), encountering beguiling women, melancholic and protracted love stories, and so on. The interpretive vulgarity was possibly unconscious and oblivious at the beginning, but has grown into a conscious performativity that’s captured millions of fans.
MC Shitou is often considered to be one of early proponents of hanmai. His initial DJ set Qinzhai (The Debt of Love) was an immense success on video sites AcFun and Bilibili, where he quickly ascended to the rank of “All-Star” in the late 2000s and early 2010s. To be among the rank of “All-Stars” on AcFun and Bilibili is a special honor for “meme-fied” internet personalities, protagonists in viral videos, and fictional characters in TV shows.
MC Shitou was one of the first internet sensations to emerge from the rise of online videos in 2008. (The previous generation of internet celebrities, such as Sister Furong 芙蓉姐姐, were primarily associated with blogs and forums.) MC Shitou is representative of the absurdity of how the much-stigmatized aesthetics of shamate and chenxiangjiehebu (contact zones between the urban and rural) end up in celebrated fame.
After seeing a live show by MC Shitou in a prominent Beijing livehouse, a communications scholar who goes by the pseudonym “mlln” summarized the “MC Shitou phenomenon” in a post on Zhihu (link in Chinese), a forum similar to Quora or Reddit:
The fans are not consuming the music per se, but the experience. What’s cool about this experience is that, they present the lives we are often unfamiliar with (if you belong to the urban middle class), or familiar with (if you are the urban underclass or rural migrants), juxtapose the often-idealized form of urban life and ridiculed lives of ‘rural’ life, all on the same stage… the organizers even added extra symbolisms to further reinforce the [presupposed] contrast between the urban and rural: desktop computers, dancers radiating a rural aura, even, the audience themselves… If MC Shitou spoke proper English, and the music was of high quality, no one would invite him to perform [at the live house]… To make the audience willing to pay for a different kind [of music], there are two ways: it has to be either ‘so fucking cool’ or ‘so fucking shit’.
In probing hanmai culture, GQ journalist He Tao tried to interview four Chinese music critics for their opinions on hanmai, but they all rejected him. One even said, “Sorry, I am a serious and established music critic, please respect my profession, thank you.”
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The cultural war between hanmai and more institutionalized Chinese hip hop is real. Additionally, China’s underground hip hop scene is only obliquely participating in this cultural war, even though it is still affected.
There are also discernible differences between the contemporary iteration of hanmai on livestreaming platforms and its earlier iteration in MC Shitou’s online videos. MC Tianyou, for example, emerged within the ecology of livestreaming platforms, and is indigenous — or at least far more accustomed — to the practices of livestreaming.
By contrast, MC Shitou originally became known through viral videos on Acfun, and his fame and notoriety were not only due to his own hard work at self-promotion or propagating and maintaining his image of “rural-ness,” but was also a byproduct of his viewers’ collective contributions on Acfun. This must go back to MC Shitou’s initial rise to fame, and how it was intricately connected to danmu (“bullet comments” — fast-streaming comments that move from right to left across the screen on video platforms like Bilibili and AcFun) netiquette in its subcultural stage.
MC Shitou’s enshrined video on AcFun is the epitome of danmu carnivals, and the living example of the subcultural principle that “danmu is the actual main body [of the video].” Apart from his unique approach to glorifying a rural style, the core identifying feature of MC Shitou’s video aesthetic is danmu, rather than the inherent quality of his music.
In an act of accommodating the stigmatized aesthetic of the rural and the grotesque, AcFun viewers utilized danmu comments to simulate the sticker and graffiti advertisements that are omnipresent on poles, stairs, and brick walls in suburban and rural China. Comments in this vein include entries such as “massive sale of sanitary pads, please contact 5564878”, “assassin for hire, contact 84523”, “coffin sale, contact 484854”, “change your fate, contact 741165”. A textual analysis of these comments does not really help, since these words are not there for their literal meaning (even though the absurdity is obvious), but for their visual, flowing effect and their simulation of the illegal posting of handbills and graffiti ads.
The irony is that when MC Shitou attempted to capitalize on his fame in the thriving livestreaming business, the transition largely failed: his viewership on livestreaming platform Douyu went from the welcoming huge crowd of his former fans to total obscurity in a matter of months.
The pivotal point is that MC Shitou was born in an ocean of danmu spam, shitposts, and the quirky post-digital aesthetics of handbills found in dilapidated buildings in soon-to-be-demolished urban villages, and dodgy back-alley staircases, poles, and walls. His lousy, rural-sounding mixtape and his contrived hanmai voice are all important factors, but more crucial is how people remember him. He is not an idol like the rappers featured on The Rap of China, nor a grassroots livestreaming celebrity like MC Tianyou. He is a meme icon from a fading internet subculture.
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