“Hip-hop’s guns, crews of husslers, grills, and garages full of Bugattis don’t match with Asian culture. From day one, hip-hop’s main themes, like apology of gangster life, or sharp critics of authority, or emancipated voices of Afro-american’s struggle, or again, depiction of urban violence, did not match. Neither did it on day two, from the early 2000s on and their wave of ultra-capitalist rappers, leaving social and political topics aside to the benefit of diamonds and cars, and ‘I don’t give a fuck’ individualism. All these themes just don’t match with the so-called Asian values of balance, modesty, and dedication to the community.”
If that was a common argument a couple of years ago, this argument is today dead and buried. Asian hip-hop has never been so big and popular, and is affirming several new identities, bringing up genuine concepts and ideas that were nowhere else to be found. But if the cultural argument is obviously obsolete, it nonetheless has a certain pertinence. Quite a few cultural codes of hip-hop culture as it grew in the US throughout the 90s onwards are hardly exportable to Asia, notably the focus on Blackness and the life in segregated ghettos of American metropoles. How do Hong Kong rappers deal with that alien heritage? I have asked this question to several of them.
‘The codes of hip-hop are quite loose,” said SIR JBS from 24Herbs, “the hip-hop that I like the most, personally, is the one that tells story. When the rapper just raps what he lives, instead of trying to stick to a rulebook. That is what we do in 24Herbs. My rap talks about my life: coming from Jakarta, skateboarding… etc. Kit, here by my side, often writes about his childhood in the project. We all have our own life stories and rapping is a way to express that.’ Even if the group’s music is largely inspired by American hip-hop and its codes, it is not an issue for member Dor Yuk who doesn’t see 24Herb’s musical choices as being driven by anything else but its members’ ideas. ‘We have attracted attention partly because we did not watch our tongue and used slangs as much as we felt like. Other artists would not speak like that. Some people were shocked, some impressed; but regardless we did not do it to impress or offend anybody, we just did it because we could.”
‘To me,” said GrymeMan from WildStyle, “what I hear when I listen to a guy like Nas or Common is the ‘struggle’. That is universal. Of course, we are not facing the same issues, we don’t have the same life, but we all struggle in some ways. What matters is to be true to yourself and to talk about what is important for you. 10 years ago, rappers in Hong Kong would tend to mimic the codes, the golden chains or whatever… But today, we have our own approach to hip-hop, filtered through our lives and our culture; at least with WildStyle…”
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, SIR JBS, Dor Yuk, and GrymeMan all claim to undoubtedly prefer old-school rap over the new wave of trap. The concerns about identity and message are often associated with the former genre, whereas the latter is seen as largely unconcerned about the content and solely focused on the sound and the style. Regardless whether this distinction actually applies in music, we can find it in the ‘new-school’ artists’ perception of hip-hop. “It is 2018, man! What you are asking applied 20 years ago. Hip-hop today is, since long, club music. It is still a means of expression, but not definitely about social topics or how ghetto you are”, said Kemikal Kris from Xabitat.
“Music today is just entertainment,” said Dough-Boy, “being real doesn’t matter. It matters to us, because we grew up with hip-hop, but the youths don’t care. They just want to have fun, watch colourful clips, hear catchy beats…”
It seems indeed that ‘being real’, or more accurately, being in line with the traditional codes of hip-hop, is not a major concern amongst Hong Kong rappers. If that might be a worldwide phenomenon, Hong Kong has one specificity when compared with most American and European countries: it does not have an old-school vanguard which bothered about being ‘real’. Without that background, the current generation of artists is building on its own foundations, therefore the 1990s ‘codes of hip hop’ do not necessarily have to take part of the new wave’s music.
It appears then that hip-hop in Hong Kong is indeed ‘entertainment’, and that its codes are aesthetics. As an indicator, 3 out of the 5 crews I met were doing both rap and fashion. “We do what we do for the music,” said Dough-Boy, “we don’t live gangster lives. If we talk about beating up people or robbing a jewellery it is just for the show, not because we actually do it or pretend to do it. To me a whack MC is not especially someone who talks shit, it is someone who can’t rhyme, who can’t flow…”
Understanding the entertaining dimension of hip-hop is important to make sense of certain aspects of the scene that might at first glance be puzzling to an outsider. The lack of underground events, notably, is obviously due to the enormous cost of the rent, but not only. It is not simply that underground events don’t survive because of the way they monetarize/do not monetarize their project, it is also that people are not going to underground events regardless. “From time to time, there are some really enthusiastic people that put up events together, like underground gigs, open mics… After one month they all give up, because not only do they lose money but because no one is going! You’ll find the same three people every week.” said Dough-Boy.
Hip-hop in Hong Kong does not have that underground vibe, and that reflects in the themes chosen by the artists. “Back then,” said Dough-Boy, “Hong Kong rap was very socially engaged. Everyone was shouting ‘fuck the police’, ‘fuck the government’, ‘fuck capitalism’, ‘fuck whatever’… I don’t know why they all say ‘fuck’ to everything, they all live good, nobody is dying… But today, people are mostly about how good they are, or how emo their love life is… There is almost no one who talks about social or political topics.”
SIR JBS follows the same line. “24Herbs music is made to party! Drink, dance, boogie! Have fun! Hong Kong is such a stressful city already, we want people to have a good time with our sound. We are not here to touch politics, and I would not know what to say anyway.”
The nearly-consensual opinion about the entertaining aspect of hip-hop amongst Hong Kong rappers is also a reflection of the new wave’s hegemony. Hong Kong rap scene boomed along the whole Asian trap movement, and that style dominates the local scene. The only conscious rapper I met is Matt Force, from WildStyle. According to him, rap is the way he found to make his voice heard directly, as raw as it can be. “Being hip-hop implies to keep a critical mind, in my opinion” Matt Force said, “because rap is such a direct way of expression, I think that one should think deeply before to drop bars. You can say whatever you want, but I think that being conscious that you are being heard is important.” He and his acolyte GrymeMan both identify as ‘old-school lovers’. “We studied this music”, said GrymeMan.
Together, Matt and Gryme had a show scheduled in Beijing over the summer, but it got cancelled. “Some of Matt’s lyrics are too sensitive for China”, said GrymeMan. With the blending of Hong Kong and China, censorships will take a larger role in artists’ music production, but none of the ones I interviewed seemed too bothered. “We don’t do drugs and we don’t talk about politics, so we are pretty clean” said Dough-Boy. Then he added, “all the artists that used to say sensitive stuffs either quitted or are trying to feature Chinese rappers today. The future is in China, not in Hong Kong. From there on it is your choice: do you want to make a living out of hip-hop or do you want to be broke in Hong Kong and criticize the government?”
Dough-Boy is probably right: making a living as a rapper in Hong Kong certainly demands a certain sensitivity to what is tolerated and what is not, and a certain sense of the showbiz. For Matt Force these conditions are unacceptable. “I am not scared, and I would definitely not censor myself” he said, “otherwise, why would I rap if I do it with a muzzle on?”. Rather than a political disagreement, it really is the clash between two very different visions of what ‘hip-hop’ means. Where some see it as a mean of expression, other might see a music genre. Both visions have their places and their traditions over the world, but as far as Hong Kong is concerned, between the culture and the music, the city knows where it stands and that tends to be overground.