The very first Hong Kong hip hop band to reach a minor mainstream success is arguably the duo Softhard (Chinese name: 軟硬天師). Originally DJs at the CR2 radio, they released in 1991 their first album, Softhard, which received attention and critical success for its well-written and funny lyrics. However, most of the codes of what was becoming ‘hip-hop’, in the form of writing, the patterns of rhymes, the flow, etc. was absent from their music.
In 1993, the band LMF (standing for Lazy MuthaFucka) was founded when musicians from a couple of different rock bands got together to play metal. Although it was not the band’s original project, they grew hip hop influences, particularly through the impulses of members MC Yan and DJ Tommy. They reached a mainstream success with that style of music, a fusion of rock, hip hop, and pop rap. They eventually released fully hip hop music, notably the album Lazy Family (released in 2000). They are today unanimously recognized as the OGs of Hong Kong rap scene, and parts of the pioneers of hip hop music within the whole Chinese world.
LMF attracted attention for many reasons. They were the first local popular band to publicly make use of Cantonese ‘chou-hau’ in their music (粗口 – ‘vulgar speech’, literally ‘dirty mouth’). This rebellious attitude, which had been one important factor of their success, will eventually be one of the arguments put up by conservative media to publish negative coverage of the band and of their message. Also, LMF was quickly identified as ‘the voice of the working class’, and many Hong Kongers proved sensitive to their direct, explicit lyrics which often addressed social issues and ‘street lifestyle’. Their figure came to symbolize an ‘angry young Cantonese working-class male identity’, in the terms of Dr. Angel Lin, who dedicated several publications to linguistic studies of Hong Kong rap. Artistically, the band paved the way to much of the underground scene that followed, putting up an example of a style and attitude hitherto unseen in Hong Kong. They disbanded in 2003, having lost the feeling of novelty and innovation that they owned for years, and from the will of the members to experiment some new things.
At the time that LMF split, there were no successors to take over the spotlights and attract attention onto the hip hop scene. The movement dove underground for the next 10 years. This is not to say that the scene was dead, in fact it grew and changed a lot during that period of time, but the artists and the events were for the most part solely known by a restricted number of rap lovers. However, as SIR JBS from 24Herbs puts it, ‘LMF had planted the seeds, they inspired many young artists who did something themselves down the line’.
24Herbs was the first group after LMF to get a sort of mainstream success with hip hop music. Founded in 2006 from the impulse of several hip hop diggers who felt frustrated about the lack of scene in Hong Kong, it today is a 6 members crew who is actively producing music and put efforts into promoting younger artists, notably through their multi-style series of interviews ‘24/7TALK’.
For Kit from 24Herbs, former member of LMF, the lack of follow-up to LMF’s opening is largely explained through trends. ‘We were a trend, after some years the people got tired of us, and as at that time we were representing hip hop they got tired of hip hop alongside. The fire was lost’. JBS adds, ‘Hong Kong’s culture is a lot about trends, people don’t have the guts to invest in something new. It is slightly changing, but major labels use not to sign any underground artist; people are not interested in culture as long as it is not on TV. In that context, it is hard for young artists to start something. I believe that we opened the door to many of them’.
Another important name to break through during the first decade of the 2000s is MC Jin. Born from Chinese parents, he grew up and lived in the USA most of his life. He reached fame as a freestyle battle MC in the US, and eventually made himself a name in Hong Kong through his Cantonese tracks. However, MC Jin does not live and is not active in Hong Kong rap scene anymore – he did for a few years. If his participation to the popularisation of the Hong Kong scene both locally and internationally is important, he could hardly be defined as being himself part of that scene.
But it really is at the turn of the 2010s that the seeds started to grow out-of-earth, in the open air. Most of today major artists began their projects by that time, some were already active. The two major crews today in visibility and activity, Bakerie and WildStyle, were both founded in 2012 while their members already had gained experience from different projects. Similarly, artists who were active for some times already, like KZ, MastaMic or Heyo, started attracting a larger audience by these times.
Today scene is at the most vibrant point that it has ever been. If no group has yet reached the scale that LMF had, never before has there been such a profusion of musician actively producing hip hop. But how can we explain this apparently sudden upsurge? Well firstly, it has not been that sudden. As explained above, the first decade of the 2000s has been the frame for hip hop to make its print amongst a certain crowd. It is this crowd who is today under the spotlights as the new generation of rappers. Secondly, the recent technological advancements have drastically transformed the modus operandi of rappers. The relation records – concert has notably been inverted. Back in the late 80s/ early 90s, as hip hop was taking its first steps, artists usually had to make a name for themselves through performances, battle, open mics, etc. before to get access to a studio. With Hong Kong’s real estate prices, where studio time is often way out of young artists’ budget and where venues can’t afford not to get their tickets sold out, it greatly affected the number of artists willing or able to dedicate themselves to creating hip hop. But with the popularisation of computers, the accessibility of software, and the relatively cheap recording gears that can be found on the internet, playing around with samples and recording verses is 100 steps closer to the neophyte than it was before. ‘Today kids compose beats doper than mines on their IPhone, it’s great!’ says Dough-Boy from Bakerie. Enriching one’s musical culture got much easier too. Hong Kong in the 1990s was not the best place to find the freshest hip hop hits to feed on, when all of it had to go through CDs and tapes. Those issues are evidently obsolete. ‘It is not only references, but also know-how’ says Matt Force from WildStyle, ‘I picked up the basics of how to make beats on YouTube’.
So the music production changed, and one kid can today have released two EPs from his room while never having held a mic in public. But what about the audience? ‘I think that people in Hong Kong tend to follow trends’ says Dor Yuk from 24Herbs, ‘hip hop has today a trendy dynamic therefore it attracts more attention. Honestly, I would never have thought that trap was going to become the new pop, but it happened! People here easily get fed by the pop-machine, and if the local radios still spit a lot of cheesy Cantopop, more and more people go through platforms like Spotify, which are very trap-oriented’. For the rapper TXMIYAMA, Hong Kong’s uprising rap trend cannot be separated from the Asian trap movement. ‘Although Hong Kong is far behind Japan, South Korea or Taiwan, the huge movement which took off there is driving Hong Kong scene forward. Few artists do Pan-Asian collaborations yet, but Hong Kong rappers definitely have their eyes and ears turned towards the outside; Hong Kong is too small for rap to grow only within its borders.’
The scene is now at its highest point ever. But what does the future hold? Is hip-hop here to stay, or is it doomed to dive back into the underground after its trendy dynamic runs off? I asked the question to several artists. ‘It is hard to tell’ says Grimeman from WildStyle, ‘I don’t think that it will die, but I would not be too confident that it will boom either. I hope that the dynamic that we currently have continues and keeps on growing, we are just starting to have the basis for a scene. But anyways, this scene has to be international. Hong Kong is too small and too hostile for a real scene. The government does not support the youth’ initiatives, quite the opposite; the big companies don’t understand that there is a potential in hip-hop, and I doubt that they will anytime soon. If we want to do something, we have to reach out to the outside’. ‘But there are some positive things which are here to stay’ adds Matt Force, ‘notably, people stopped thinking that hip hop is a dirty, rough and vulgar music. Hong Kong people have a conservative mindset, and the world changes faster than their ideas. These prejudices have been an obstacle to hip-hop growth, but it won’t anymore’.
For SIR JBS, it is definitely going to get bigger. ‘It is just starting’, he said, ‘the Chinese world has still a lot to do with hip-hop. It is becoming huge in China and Taiwan, and they are ill as fuck; Hong Kong will follow somewhat.’ ‘It will follow, but it won’t be easy’ Kit adds, moderating JBS comment, ‘Cantonese is a much harder language than Mandarin to use for rap. Every rhyme is an obstacle. The youths today have improved a bit compared to back in the days, but their growth is still way slower than in the other Asian countries’.
Dough-Boy is less optimistic. ‘Honestly, I think it might just be dead in 10 years’, he said. ‘We don’t see the young talents that could foster the movement, the quality is poor’ says Tommy Grooves. ‘It will probably still be somewhat happening’, adds Dough-Boy, ‘but not any better than today. American sound, but two years late, with whatever topics that the cool kids will have in mind at that moment. It is the HK mindset that we told you about. People don’t care about fostering a movement, or representing Hong Kong, they are too cool for that. I sincerely include myself in that. As much as we would like to care about the community… we just don’t, as no one does. Or rather, we are too disillusioned about it to give it a thought: we mind our business and that’s all. Every 10 years you will have a rapper that break through more than the others, like LMF, MC Jin, or us today, but there won’t be any movement. I don’t believe so, at least.’
Finally, Kemikal Kris from Xabitat brings up the challenges ahead, and the possibilities. ‘I won’t claim whether they will or won’t be a scene’ he said, ‘but there can be a scene. It would not have been so certain a few years ago. Firstly, there is a demand. I go out every night and hear people complaining about how little the rap scene is, and that there are no big shots playing in Hong Kong. Well, obviously, you won’t have Kendrick Lamar taking the risk to come and play in front of an empty concert hall; if the big shots don’t see a local scene, they won’t come. Secondly, there are the artistic resources. I’m sure that many people are hitting a MPC and writing rhymes in their rooms, but the education system is turning every arty kid away from their dreams. They are being told that they will never make money with music, that they should be bankers instead. It is probably true, I don’t think that you can live as a rapper in Hong Kong for the moment, but it is always for the same issue: the scene is too small. If the current dynamic is used wisely, that artists realize that they need to cooperate more and to invest money FIRST in events, featuring, and etc. to ripe the benefits of success LATER, and that DJs stop playing 3-years old tracks in their ‘freshest trap showcases’, hip-hop will definitely get a consequent crowd. The venues would tap the market, and the scene surely takes off’.
Only the future will tell us what it holds for hip-hop.