Underground Hip-hop in China is a historical feature length documentary interspersed with off the cuff freestyles. The documentary follows MC Weber and the trajectory of Yin Tsang (pronounced IN-SONG), China’s first Underground Hip-hop group to successfully break into the mainstream music industry in China.
Even while MC Weber’s musical wizardry electrifies the scene and gains in popularity, Weber and musicians like him are challenged by state censors, on the one hand, and armies of state-backed pop stars seeking to steal the name of Hip-hop, on the other. Will Hip-hop in China survive?
Underground Hip-hop in China received the Best Documentary Award at the Gotham International Screen Film Festival, and has screened at a variety of other film festivals, including The Miami International Film Festival and the South by Southwest Film Festival. It is being represented by Synergetic Distribution.
The film hasn’t really been distributed or seen in America outside of film festivals—the reception at Miami International Film Festival and South by Southwest were wonderful; the music lovers in the crowds that watched the film really appreciated it despite the fact that the meaning of some of the raps is definitely lost in translation.
For me, the film stands as a historical document that captures an important moment in time when many of China’s youth are struggling to define themselves.
The biggest tragedy is MC Weber himself. He went from being a Chinese Busta Rhymes to someone who worries too much about the authorities coming down on him for saying something overly sensitive. It’s gotten to the point where he intentionally makes his lyrics so abstract that they aren’t accessible to the majority of Chinese people anymore.
It’s not necessarily opposition that makes a song good, but the ability to write rough drafts and rewrite without internalizing a culture department official smacking you down for writing truth –which sometimes does include oppositional statements—is important.
In that sense, it is artists like Jia Wei and Crazy Man (In Three) whose music continues to garner more of a grassroots following. In three had two concerts shut down in Beijing for rhetoric considered “subversive” to the state, and were subsequently forced to leave Beijing and go into hiding in other cities. The members of In Three live the rebellious lifestyles they championed in their own lyrics to their own physical detriment. I try not to make this the focus of my film, because I think there are too many films and news reports made by lazy reporters and directors who try to cash in on “China bashing”—intentionally representing China-of-the-past in order to reinforce simplistic, agenda-based notions of China-of-the-present that do nothing more than provide employment for security pimps and NSA types who make a living off of generating fear in people and feeding off of it.
The struggle many underground musicians are going through in terms of censorship and self-censorship is a microcosm of the larger struggle going on in entertainment-related industries—music, film and the visual arts, in particular, in China during this historic moment of transition.
China has poured billions of dollars into soft power projects which includes financing films and cultural works. But their investments in such projects have failed to return dividends, and that’s largely because they are trying to use the same joint venture model they’ve used for every other industry—from heavy industries such as metal and chemical manufacturing to cars, trains, and renewable energy.
The difference is that whereas turning out copies is the objective in manufacturing, turning out a film copy or a copy of a song is the definition of creative failure in the arts. As far as film and music are concerned, the Chinese are following the lead of the new generation of Hollywood MBA execs who continue to give us 5th generation recycled pop icons in an effort to build profit maximizing franchises. I even met a Chinese film executive who showed me a miniature of the latest Zhejiang theme park, named “Chinawood.” I can’t think of a better name for a flop project, but it is fairly representative of how industry people think on the mainland right now.
I chose to end the film with DJ Wordy. Not because he is the GAP poster child of China’s youth generation and not because he has been called the “Qbert of China,” but because, of all the artists I know, he knows that Chinese Hip-hop still has a long way to go, and that building a community of artists that can create culture takes generations; it doesn’t happen overnight, no matter how much money you pour into it. He collaborates with foreign musicians in an effort to expose himself to the international music scene and educate himself and improve his own music. He lets the media tag him with hyperbolic labels that market him as the China DJ, but he is a person and musician first and shuns that label with close friends: “Music is like food; if the food tastes good, people will come and eat. If your concert doesn’t have enough people, there can only be one reason; so don’t blame it on anything else.”