Alex Dwyer returned from Sichuan last week, where he battled an Englishman in Chongqingese.
Before the ink could dry on the 26th red stamp in my passport from the People’s Republic of China since first visiting in 2011, rap diplomacy returned to the world stage. Unlike the Jazz Ambassadors of the Cold War Era and the Post-911 American Voices pushback against Islamic Fundamentalism, this time the headlines came from the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China.
CD Rev, a group of four general-issue emcees released the English/Mandarin song “No THAAD” in protest of Korea’s new, U.S.-built missile defense system. Without getting into the politics, governments attempting to create a diplomacy tool out of hip-hop—a culture actively against the political establishment or at least ambivalent of it—is fraught business. It’s made trickier when the artists being retooled aren’t up to the task of good music-making.
If “No THAAD” wasn’t sufficiently cringe-worthy, delve into this incredibly specific CD Rev music/propaganda video aired by CCTV last year that’s less a song and more of a clumsily-translated high school history essay reminiscent of post-backpacker groups like Canada’s Sweatshop Union at their info-dumping worst:
Whatever the musical merit, the propaganda department’s choice to source rappers thousands of miles away from Beijing wasn’t without good reason. Sichuan—stylized as Szechwan by a bad take-out spot near you—has become the country’s richest culture vein for both domestic and international consumption. The famously spicy cuisine that brought Anthony Bourdain and his CNN cameras last year, wasn’t the only reason Eddie Huang set most of his second book in China’s Southwest. There is something palpably different about the region from the coastal cities and it’s seeping into the vernacular of its rappers, not unlike the way the American West Coast and South branched off from what emcees in the Bronx started. Southwestern rappers frequently forego the governmental-standard Mandarin—which already has a longer history of harsher Beijing-accented emcees—opting instead to spit bars in their local dialect.
Oddly enough, another Sichuan rapper, Ty, had already made a superior track discrediting U.S.-culture and its wavering allure among Chinese youth. In “America,” originally recorded in 2015 over Tyga’s track “Ice Cream Man,” Ty implores listeners in his syrupy-Sichuanese about their visits to America and considers his own disillusionment with the beautiful country (the literal translation from the Chinese characters for the U.S.A. 美国). It’s a languid, untethered look in the mirror not just for a landlocked Chengdu-resident, but an entire continent that has mass-consumed and co-opted American rap culture.
Yet the most promising rap act coming out of Sichuan (and perhaps all of China) is Higher Brothers. Like their affiliate Ty, this quartet of Chengdu emcees—Masiwei (马思唯), DZ (丁震), Psy.P (杨俊逸), and Melo (谢宇杰)—rap primarily in Sichuanese. Cycling through their videos for “Black Cab” and “YAHH!,” there’s a nagging visual and instrumental sense that the group is derivative. You feel like you’ve seen this before, even if you haven’t, but then, like any good foreign film, you start to read the subtitles.
On “7-11”—a song that’s one part Steve Lacey and one part Percy Miracles—DZ riffs about his everyday journeys to the world’s most famous convenience store, flipping off the store’s security camera while saying “I love you forever.” Then he swoons his way into a bridge where he gently lays down an Action Bronson-grade-fat-guy-pride-line in a soothing Sichuanese: “I don’t know what time the delivery guy will get here with the food / If eating at night makes you fat, then here’s a confident whistle, 500 pounds of swag.”
While DZ is almost always the standout, each emcee churns out verses distinctly their own on every track. Their flows are dexterous enough to take an obvious topic—like the three most commonly printed words on earth “Made In China”—and offer a self-effacing effort that’s all their own. This is all before their debut release Black Cab hits blocked and non-blocked internets later this summer.
Higher Brothers will visit Los Angeles this Thursday to take part in a Boiler Room set curated by 88Rising, a hub for Asian culture brought to you by the gentleman who started VICE’s THUMP, Sean Miyashiro. Acts associated with 88Rising include Rich Chigga, Keith Ape, and Dumbfoundead. Despite the not-so-great movie about a wall, the Great Firewall itself, and whatever the status of wall-building discussions stateside, Chinese rappers are dangerously close to having their own Berlin Wall Moment.
The central government can rest assured, because if there is any foreign meddling in this Chengdu movement thus far, it seems only bent on making sure the boiling and bubbling stays in Sichuan.