Chinese millennials are obsessed with rap and hip hop. Let’s find out how.

Hip hop in China originated in the 90s and stayed mainly underground, captivating a niche of fans. Although a number of groups and rappers found some popularity in the media over the years, it is only recently that this music genre truly became mainstream among Chinese millennials thanks largely to the hit TV show “the Rap of China” since 2017. RADII, a media platform focused on exploring the complexities of contemporary China, covered this theme in depth in a two-part series which we summarize in this article, adding our own view on the topic.

Hip hop’s first steps in China

Hip hop first appeared in China in the 90s. The very first rap group, D.D.Rhythm, was created in 1992. Then, solo rap artist Li Xiaolong started to get some recognition through the soundtrack of the famous series “The happy life of talkative Zhang Damin” in 1998, and groups like H-Bomb, LMF or L.A.Boyz were also formed around the same time. Also, the Korean hip hop group H.O.T gained some popularity in China thanks to their street dance performance. These artists paved the way to what would follow in the next decade when the genre became more widely known.

In the 2000s, Yao Zhongren from Taiwan, also known as MC Hotdog, had a huge influence on hip hop in China, helping to make Chinese rap popular. Group Yin Ts’ang also made an impact during the same era, as well as the American-Chinese rapper MC Jin. In 2002, a nationwide battle called Iron Mic was first organized in Shanghai, helping rappers like MC DE-VI from Taiwan or Big Dog from Wuhan get recognition. Iron Mic and other rap battles largely contributed to maintaining rap’s popularity during the 2000s but the genre was still something underground, albeit less so than in the 90s. It’s only later, with the Rap of China in 2017, that it became a nation-wide phenomenon.

The Rap of China

In 2017, hip hop became a hit practically overnight with the Rap of China, the streaming platform iQIYI’s TV rap competition show. The first episode was viewed more than 100 million times within just 4 hours of its release. The concept of the show is quite simple:  rappers compete against each other to get the first place as they are helped by producers (who are also judges). The first season’s judges-producers were then-big names Canadian-Chinese actor and rapper Kris Wu, Taiwanese-American singer Will Pam, Taiwanese rapper MC HotDog and Taiwanese rock musician Chang Chen Yue. The big finale was disputed between rappers GAI and PG One, who ended up both winning first place, sharing the champion title.

And as the show gained huge popularity, so did the contestants. Many rappers became huge stars, signed with big labels and saw their income increase. But after the first season, controversies emerged over PG One’s old lyrics praising drugs and objectifying women and over rumoured affairs with a married woman. Following that and other controversies, the Chinese government began to tighten control, so the show then changed its name in Chinese for “China New Rap” and decided to incorporate more Chinese elements to avoid any issues. Now, Rap of China gears up for its third season, auditioning new talents in China, and even in Los Angeles, Toronto, Seoul, Malaysia and Australia

Buzz on social media

The show couldn’t be such a success and gain so much attention without social media (if you’re not familiar with social media in China, learn a bit about it in our last article). “Do you freestyle?” (nǐ yǒu freestyle ma?) became a viral meme on Chinese social networks when Canadian-Chinese Kpop-star-turned-rapper Kris Wu asked this question to contestants in the first episode. Created to mock Kris Wu by questioning his credibility as a judge on the rap show, the meme ended up so common that it made its way into the top slangs of 2017, becoming a pop culture phenomenon in the process. The following year, Kris Wu popularized “skr, a term often used in hip hop lyrics that supposedly mimics the sound of a skidding (luxury) car, transforming it into many viral memes on Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent.

International scene and what comes next

Chinese rap is now not only popular in China but is also gaining traction internationally, and the group Higher Brothers is a perfect example. The rap crew began producing music in 2015 in Chengdu, their hometown.  In 2017, they caught Asian-American label 88Rising‘s eye (whose mission is to bring Asians into pop culture) and gained some popularity on YouTube with their famous song Made in China. The hip hop group has now a large enough foreign fanbase that they are for the first time touring the US, Canada and Europe.

As we have seen K-pop creep up its way into global charts with group BTS (number one on Western charts and now performing in stadiums around the world) and with Psy and his “Gangnam Style” before them, we wonder if Chinese hip hop will be able to achieve similar popularity outside China. The real question here, however, is not how much international popularity but how long Chinese hip hop will remain popular in China. Is it here to stay or will it soon fade away? As everything changes so fast in China, the question is not only about music trends but about anything, really.

Regardless, while this trend lasts (and it doesn’t seem to end any time soon), Shake to Win has been working to put it to good use and stir millennials’ interest for culture. Last year, we developed a series of music videos and short clips on Vincent van Gogh’s cultural heritage featuring emerging rapper Mc Han. The goal is to rejuvenate Van Gogh’s art for Chinese millennials and encourage Chinese independent travellers to visit the painter’s life trail, including both popular and lesser-known destinations.