Things in China are slowly returning to some form of “normal” after more than three months of lockdown. As such, our favorite rap variety shows have started filming again.
Initially, we thought that the next season of Rap of China, as well as a spate of new rival shows, would drop during the summer holidays as it has done for the past three years. However, according to the latest news, iQIYI’s hip hop-centric reality show will be gone ’til October this year.
While the official online audition for Rap of China took place one month ago, and some of the contestants have already received notice of a stadium audition phase in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, the list of “mentors” for the show has long been a mystery. Rumor has it that hip hop OG MC Hotdog and pop star G.E.M won’t be making a return, but that some rap stars who rocketed to fame during the first season of the show will be joining for 2020. That means the likes of GAI, VaVa, and Jony J, may join Kris Wu, Will Pan, and another newcomer: K-pop singer turned rap superstar, Jay Park.
While we await the return of China’s most famous hip hop variety show, another program, Rap Star (说唱听我的) is ready to fill the Kris Wu-shaped hole. Formerly known as the underground rap contest Listen Up, the show got backed by the biggest entertainment TV station, Hunan TV, the same folks who produced the first modern Chinese talent show Super Girl in 2004. The first episode of Rap Star is set to drop on June 7 on the network’s Mango TV platform and will air every Sunday at noon from then on.
In anticipation of the upcoming premiere of the TV show, hip hop fans were treated to a surprise cypher from the show’s judges. This month has been a good one so far as cyphers go, as the rebranded CDC also dropped their 2020 track at the beginning of May.
The eight judges and producers of Rap Star dropped their own cypher on May 15, and rap fans were even more excited by the results. Why, you ask? Let’s delve into the cypher now and see how Rap of China’s monopoly in the field over the past few years has officially been challenged.
Starting with a sample from US rapper T.I.’s 2006 track “What You Know,” producer Mai is the first person to be shown on camera, before any other rappers or singers — a rare tribute to the music producers behind the screen.
Mai used to be the beatmaker and producer for HHH (“Red Flower Union”), the former Xi’an-based popular crew that went through a long-time contract issue with major label Modern Sky after members PG One and BrAnT.B became public figures thanks to the first season of Rap of China in 2017. In the track, we don’t hear Mai’s famous trademark “Mai, the Red Flower” tag over his beats any more, but he has been active in a host of music-themed TV shows lately, and looks set to bloom in the mainstream.
The cypher itself is split into four parts, featuring two rappers each.
The first pair up are Nanjing-based OG MC Guang and veteran hardcore rapper MC Pharaoh, both of whom started making music in the mid-2000s and gained recognition during a huge beef between rappers from Mainland China and Taiwan in 2007. Guang has been notably critical of the Rap of China format, and his inclusion in Rap Star seems calculated to promote the idea that this show will have more integrity than its iQIYI counterpart.
While MC Guang has long kept a low-profile in the mainstream, focused more on developing his young crew Free-Out, Pharaoh’s Walking Dead collective is one of the most popular rap groups in China now, and one that has been successful partly for their social media hype.
As Pharaoh attests to in his verse, it’s hard work and passion for hip hop music over a decade that put him and MC Guang in the judges’ seats:
“What makes you worried is that there’s no cash and money / Whereas I care that there’s no new voice… If you haven’t been hardcore for ten years, who would want to see you flip out all of a sudden?”
The second pairing received the most love from netizens. In part two, two-time Iron Mic winner and Xi’an hip hop label Nous Underground founder PACT joins forces with 2018 Rap of China champion and Uyghur rapper Air, who represents a “Northwestern Chinese style.”
Both PACT and Air started their careers taking part in freestyle battles before becoming professional musicians. Both excel with word play and also making and arranging melodies.
It’s hard to imagine that when then-underground rappers PACT, Air, BooM and AfterJourney went on tour in 2015, they had a tiny audience — like 7 people at one show. But because of their rough shared past, we can see a stronger rapport between PACT and Air on their verses together. This makes for a brilliant collaborative effort the type of which is rare to see in Chinese hip hop now.
Moreover, Air takes the opportunity to shout out pioneer rappers and crews, classic tracks and culture builders, such as legendary Beijing group Yin Ts’ang, Bu Ke Kang Li (Force Majeure) from Shanghai, In3’s milestone banned album Unknown Artist, Taiwanese rapper MC Hotdog’s 2006 album Wake Up, and Soft Lipa’s famous track “Shi Shi (Epic),” as well as the longest-running hip hop radio program “The Park.”
In the next pairing, ICE, who came third in the 2018 version of Rap of China and is part of Beijing-based label Seven Gurus, announces “welcome to the most hip hop zone” with a heavy 808 drum beat. By his side is Danko/K9999, a mentor for both first Rap of China champion PG One and rap star BrAnT.B.
A graduate of Xi’an Conservatory of Music, Danko was a key figure of HHH. Although the crew has gone through a lot — signing with major music label Modern Sky then struggling with contract issues and battling to get back on music streaming platforms, plus PG One’s scandals and the“hip hop ban” soon after — Danko became a household name after HHH member MC Bei cut off his pinky finger during a livestream. That led to the crew disbanding immediately, but they never stopped making music together (except for PG One).
Unlike the rest of his crew members, Danko has always maintained a low-key presence on social media and mostly shied away from mainstream shows. Alongside this debut on the national stage, an image of him and PACT shaking hands (above) was a bonus for rap lovers, especially those from Xi’an. Nous Underground and HHH had beef after an underground battle in 2015, and the two huge groups based in the same historic city haven’t had any interaction in years, but this seems like the beginnings of some form of peace.
The final pairing on the cypher — idol-turned young rapper Lil G/Imp/Wang Linkai and R&B/soul singer Tia Ray — is the most controversial of the bunch.
21-year-old Fujianese rapper Lil G was actually in the first season of Rap of China in 2017, then went to iQIYI’s hit idol-making talent show Idol Producer, debuting in the K-Pop-style boy band NINE PERCENT, alongside the likes of Cai Xukun. After signing with an iQIYI-owned agent, and earning millions of fans, Lil G went solo last year. His flow and lyrics aren’t the best, but he still has time to hone his skills to be a better rapper, with the support of a huge and patient fanbase.
Some found it strange that the cypher ended with Tia Ray’s singing, but personally, we think it helped the show to check all of the boxes as a hip hop music program. If there’s any Chinese singer with a close relationship with hip hop music, and qualified to be a knowledgeable judge, it is Tia Ray. She has long been active in the Chinese pop, jazz and R&B music scenes, and she just had a collaboration with Higher Brothers’ Masiwei last month during the finale of Singer, Hunan TV’s long-time hit pop idol show.
As the show’s air date approaches, a list of contestants has just been announced, some of whom are from the same labels as the judges. How will the competition structure guarantee a fair contest? Which aspects will the judges emphasize when it comes to different types and sub-genres of rap? We will have a clearer idea when things get underway on June 7.
Regardless, the Rap Star cypher has shown new standards and possibilities for a Chinese hip hop music show, seemingly bridging the mainstream and the underground, as well as tracking back to the roots of the music and the culture in China. Here’s hoping they can meet the high expectations they’ve helped set.
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