Chengdu Journal: With Dreadlocks, Rhythm and Flow, China Embraces Hip-Hop

A police officer

Demi Zhu, one of the first amateur rappers in Chengdu, recalled hearing DMX and Run DMC in a B-boy video for the first time at the age of 17.

“We had no idea who they were or what they were saying, but we liked the tempo and we liked the feel,” said Mr. Zhu, now 32. “You could feel their passion.”

No one can quite say why hip-hop took hold here so early, compared with other Chinese cities. Local rappers say the Chengdu dialect, with its bouncy rhythm and irregular tones, is versatile in a way that is especially well suited to rap music.

“I use the dialect as a tool when I write verses,” said Masiwei of the Higher Brothers. “If I want to achieve a certain flow, I can use Chengdu dialect in one sentence, then English in the next and then standard Mandarin.”

Higher Brothers + joji – Nomadic (Official music video) Video by 88rising

But when it comes to writing songs, government censorship is the bane of every Chinese rapper. Local rappers say the unofficial list of sensitive topics is long: politics, drugs, sex, violence, gangsters and explicit language — in other words, many of the themes that have come to define modern hip-hop.

As a result, rappers, like most creative workers in China, find themselves constantly testing the boundaries of what is permissible.

“It’s like hip-hop 2.0,” Luo Sang, a local D.J. and a manager at Nasa, one of Chengdu’s first hip-hop nightclubs, said with a wink.

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