I’ve written a few times about dakou, surplus cassettes and CDs from Western labels marked for destruction and sent to be melted down into their composite materials in Asia, but which snaked their way across Chinese ports for a second life in gray market stalls across the country in the late ’80s and ’90s. An entire generation of Chinese artists came up on a random diet of these smuggled tapes, as did Yan Jun, who began his career in his hometown of Lanzhou as a prominent rock critic before moving to Beijing in 1999 and, over the next few decades, growing into one of China’s best known experimental musicians and music writers.
But before all that, Yan Jun was a music nerd like the rest of us, hungry for new sonic experiences and eager to share them with others via a stint as a radio DJ in Lanzhou in the late ’90s. Actually my first encounter with dakou was at Yan Jun’s house, where the photo below was taken. In an interview I did with him back in 2010, he laid out the importance of dakou to his generation of musicians and fans:
In the mid-90s, the first generation of experimental musicians, without exception, everyone was rocker. So I wanted more rock, more hard or extreme or loud. I needed a more extreme direction, so just discover from dakou. For example, the label Earache, that was a death metal label but they released some really extreme things like John Zorn’s Painkiller and Kevin Sharp’s solo project, and Justin Broadrick from Godflesh, something from the underground scene but a little bit avant garde or experimental. This feeling was very experimental for the rockers. I think they were hungry, looking for everything different, looking for everything extreme.
Recently, while moving studios, Yan Jun took stock of his dakou cassette collection, giving some tapes a final spin before consigning these small pieces of China’s recent material cultural past to the recycling plant of history (again). Before throwing them out, though, he created a two-hour radio show featuring some highlights from his dakou collection and put them online as part of his Radio Enemy broadcast series, which had previously been dormant for almost a year.
Following the release of this streaming time capsule, I asked Yan a few questions about how dakou influenced him early on, how his relationship to music has (or hasn’t) changed in the internet era, and what his next moves are for Radio Enemy:
What was your inspiration to make this episode of Radio Enemy about dakou?
Nothing special. I have just moved into a new studio since last winter. Before throwing away a few hundred dakou, I’d listen back to them and say goodbye. I haven’t touched them for a long time, and I know most of them are out of my current interest and I need space. I have already listened to most of them, and kept some.
Can you choose a few of the songs/tapes that you sampled for the show that are especially meaningful for you, and answer these questions about each? First of all, when did buy them?
Brutal Truth – Perpetual Larceny, 1994.
Deep Jimi And The Zep Creams - Funky Dinosaur, 1993? 1994? 1995?
Why did you buy these?
Perpetual Larceny for its design. I was trying to find things as strange and extreme as possible. This looked like it might be death metal or grindcore. Funky Dinosaur: just by chance. I had a radar in my head.
What was your first reaction after hearing them?
Perpetual Larceny: Shit they have some strange tracks! With drum machine and samples/loops? It’s cold. It’s not rock at all!
Funky Dinosaur: I was not familiar with old rock, so this sounded more “alternative” to me. The voice was so freaky. I love these mad but juicy sounds.
Why did you choose to include these in your Radio Enemy show now?
Perpetual Larceny: I still love this minimal, repeating and mechanical stuff. Sometimes Brutal Truth has more space than groove as well.
Funky Dinosaur: Perhaps I have more experience with its roots now. But still, the dancing madness is the most important part of it.
How do you think musicians’ relationship to “foreign” music is different in the internet era, when so much music and info is immediately available, as opposed to the dakou era, when you were basically discovering music at random? What are the good and bad points of each era?
I don’t know much about others. I was not a musician during the dakou time. I always searched for all kinds of music. I don’t think now music and info is easier to get than before, because what you call music is different from the streaming data where you try one bite then throw it away. Today’s situation is lacking of desire. And music is about how you want the world, and want it now.
I don’t feel anything good or bad anyway. It’s different. For me, I swallow [different kinds of] music and transform them into part of myself. Nothing has changed. It’s not only foreign music, but all different music. For instance, now I enjoy [traditional musical storytelling form] pingtan, which was out of my interest. The limit is mainly myself.
This is your first Radio Enemy episode in almost a year. Do you have plans to bring this platform back? What is your concept for it moving forward?
I have asked Junky [of Shanghai harsh noise band Torturing Nurse] and Zhu Wenbo [of Beijing experimental music label Zoomin’ Night] to contribute episodes. So we will go on. I will also make some mixing to accompany my column, “possibly not music.”
It’s for fun. I was a part-time radio DJ from 1996 to 1997. I like the feeling of talking to like-minded people on the air. And that’s why I insist on keeping the talking part, instead of making it purely music mixing.
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