The moment the elevator doors opened, Pema Tenzin found the party that he’d been looking for. He just hadn’t expected to find it here.
From the outside, Poly Center appears to be one of many dull, nondescript office buildings lining the streets of the Chinese city of Chengdu. But inside, on the twenty-first floor that autumn night in 2016, the air was thick with laughter, strobing multicolored light, and the muscular thud thud thud of the bass was booming from the speakers. Young people leaned against the walls of the cramped corridors, taking hits of laughing gas from candy-colored balloons before diving back into one of three clubs in the vicinity. At the end of the hall was his destination, the experience he’d been anticipating since he left Gansu: NASA, Chengdu’s hottest hip-hop club, where an MC that Pema had long admired from afar freestyled for the sweaty crowd.
Then a lanky 18-year-old, Pema had arrived in Chengdu a few months ago from Gannan, a small Tibetan prefecture up north in Gansu Province. He had no friends, no mentors, and no idea how to proceed with the dream he’d been nursing since he was a boy: to become a rap star.
Like many aspiring Chinese rappers, Pema got his first taste of hip-hop from the internet. Sitting in front of his computer listening to his idol, Lil Wayne, he was hooked. Unlike the squeaky-clean, rosy-cheeked male pop stars (referred to in China as “little fresh meats”) whose music his peers played on repeat, the swaggering, foul-mouthed American rapper who strutted around in snapbacks was bold, subversive, and cool. More than anything, Pema wanted to be cool. At 13, as a tribute to Lil Wayne—who also goes by the name Young Mula Baby—he adopted the name Young13DBaby. (The romanization of Pema’s name is Baima Denzing, and 13 resembles his initials “BD.”)
A true rap star must tell his own story and rep his own hometown. Imitation can be sniffed out instantly; coolness requires authenticity. So Pema, who had no thug life to rap about—who hadn’t gotten rich, let alone died trying—spent his teenage years writing lyrics that reflected his own reality. He wrote about life as a high-schooler at a rigid, military-run boarding academy in the smoggy city of Lanzhou, the capital city of Gansu province and center of the Chinese petrochemical industry. His parents, both low-level government workers, dreamed of a more conventional future for Pema: going to college, finding a respectable job, and getting married. Although his songs about skipping class and boyhood dreams had garnered a healthy fan base of a thousand followers on his Xiami social media account, Pema knew that his future as a rapper in Lanzhou was as bleak as the city’s grey skies.
Pema had heard that things were different in Chengdu, a city in the warmer climes of the neighboring Sichuan province. In the last few years, the sprawling, land-locked capital had emerged as the proving ground for a new generation of Chinese hip-hop artists. Their predecessors from the last decade produced cringe-worthy, second-rate imitations of their Western counterparts. But Chengdu-based groups like the Higher Brothers, Fat Shady, and Ty were the face of a playful, provocative style—influenced by genres like trap—that was all their own. In Chengdu, the rent was cheap, the food was good, and people were open to artists like Pema hoping to make a living out of their music.
To convince his parents to allow him to leave Lanzhou and go to Chengdu, Pema devised an excuse: college application season was here, and all of Pema’s picks were in Chengdu. If he wanted in, he would have to ace the gaokao, China’s notoriously grueling college entrance exams. For a year, Pema “quit rap for rap.” He stopped writing songs, closed his social media accounts, hit the books, and applied to Chengdu’s Southwest Minzu University. The results paid off: he rose from second-to-last to second-best in his class, and was admitted. Pema enrolled, but he had no intention of studying. That summer, after graduating from high school, he packed a small suitcase filled with his favorite records and moved to Chengdu.
Now, stepping out of the Poly Center elevator, Pema smiled. This—the throngs of young people and their frantic, creative energy; the feeling that they had something different to say and weren’t afraid to say it—this was cool. This was why Pema had come to Chengdu.
The rest of the world is now discovering what Chengduers have known all along: that Chengdu has always been cool. A city once known for its population of panda bears was now on the map for something else: hip-hop. The Rap of China, a reality show with many Chengduese competitors, accumulated 1.3 billion views in July 2017, taking an underground subculture mainstream. A year earlier, a Chengdu-based four-man rap group called the Higher Brothers had stormed the global stage, appearing in Adidas ads, receiving praise from American stars like Migos, and landing their first North American tour. Suddenly, Chengdu’s artists were on the map.
“Let me break it down for you,” said Guancheng Xiang, a Chengdu native and a friend of a friend of my mother’s. He had invited me and three middle-aged friends for a hot-pot dinner, a messy feast of spicy fondue emblematic of Sichuanese hospitality. After we sat down, a copper vat of deep red liquid brimming with chilies instantly arrived, accompanied by eight jumbo bottles of beer. “The first thing you do when you arrive in Chengdu is get hot pot and get drunk.”
Chengduers are proud of their ability to live in the moment. The city’s history of suffering—from the wars of the Ming Dynasty that wiped out a third of the population, to Mao’s man-made famine, to the devastating Sichuan earthquake in 2008—has only strengthened its residents’ resolve to enjoy the present. Deep in China’s west, Sichuan Province, the second-largest province in China and roughly the size of France, is insulated from the commercial activity and political authority of the nation’s east coasts. Chengdu has a reputation as a city of misfits, sheltering thinkers and radicals in exile or seeking refuge. Two of China’s greatest poets, Li Bai and Du Fu, spent a good chunk of their careers in Chengdu, lamenting the tragedies of human life while getting ridiculously smashed. (Li Bai allegedly died while drunkenly reaching out of his boat to grasp the moon’s reflection in the river.)
A distinct regional identity has flourished in the fertile Sichuanese basin: a laid-back, epicurean approach to life, paired with a stubborn resilience. The phrase that best encapsulates this vibe, according to Chengdu-based rapper Kafe Hu, translates into English as “easily, breezy, flopping around!” In Chinese, “flop,” which refers both to jitters of excitement and to a dead fish flailing on a woodblock, captures the paradox of Chengdu playfulness. It is a phrase rooted in both joy and suffering, yelled by old grandmothers and young rappers alike.
I spent the next day ambling through market stalls, soaking in the pungent blend of durian and mala pepper, and walking through People’s Park in the city center. It seemed like all of the city’s inhabitants had decided to gather in the park at once to drink tea, nap on benches, and sing alfresco karaoke to folk-pop remixes. “You have to let the feeling of Chengdu wash over you,” Jordan Porter, the Canadian-born founder of Chengdu Food Tours, told me when I asked him how to do the Du. He moved to the city eight years ago to study Chinese, and stayed behind because he was so smitten with its laid-back charm. “If you’re in a rush, you’ve already lost.”
Though still enamored of its youthful, easygoing ways, Chengdu is undergoing a growth spurt. Thanks to trillions of dollars of resources pumped into the region by the Chinese government through the “Go West” program—a five-year plan to boost economic development in twelve Western provincial level regions historically less developed than their Eastern, coastal counterparts—the city has transformed into a commercial hub, shopping mecca, and source of two-thirds of the world’s iPads. Now Chengdu is undergoing an awkward adolescence. A former plot of farmland in the city’s south is now a 32-square-mile high-tech development zone, but stoic office buildings still host hip-hop ragers after dark. In one mall, a fight club rumbles at night.
Drawn by the abundance of opportunity, low living costs, and an alternative lifestyle from their buttoned-up peers in Shanghai and Beijing, young people like Pema are flocking to Chengdu from all over China. They want to make money, but also take mid-day siestas. They want success, but on their own terms.
It is no surprise that this combination of financial power, creativity, and free-wheeling youth with something to say—three crucial elements to the rise of hip-hop culture in New York City in the 70s, according to Yale professor Nicholas Conway—would enable hip-hop’s rise in Chengdu. The earliest hip-hop music in China emerged as a niche subculture, concentrated in large cosmopolitan centers like Beijing and Shanghai. Over the past decade, the rise of a generation hyper-connected by social media apps like WeChat, QQ Music and Douyin, and with greater spending power and exposure to Western music, has enabled homegrown hip-hop to spread throughout the country.
Many songs are about money: wanting it, hating it, making a lot of it, throwing it around. The Higher Brothers’ name refers not to drugs but to Haier, China’s largest home appliance manufacturer. A line-up of Higher Brothers song titles reads like a teenage boy’s wishlist: “7/11,” “Black Cab,” “Room Service,” “Chanel,” and “Rich Bitch.” Their breakout track, “Made in China,” is a song about how Western products—chains, gold watches, toothpaste, umbrellas, and now, hip-hop—are made in China.
The song is a bold assertion of Chinese pride, a comic riff on Western stereotypes of the quiet and inscrutable Oriental. “What are they even saying?” a whiny, American voice asks over a mandolin at the beginning. “Sounds like they’re just saying ching chang chong.” These sentiments bear no resemblance to the knee-jerk dismissal of the West that populates state-run media. The rappers are boasting, not about the nation’s large GDP or hefty set of military arms, but about the “mah-jongg set on the table” and the “jar of hot sauce so spicy foreigners start to burn” that define daily life in Chengdu. The lyrics aren’t in Mandarin, the language of classrooms and national television, but in Sichuanese. Many rappers expressed to me that Sichuanese, rich with rising and falling tones, has better “flow” than Mandarin, and that this allows for greater lyrical experimentation.
“I grew up on Chinese hip-hop, and I never messed with it because it never felt authentic,” said Jaeson Ma, co-founder of the American media company 88Rising, which discovered Higher Brothers. According to Ma, rappers in Asia have tried too hard to imitate what they were seeing in Western music videos instead of than embracing and remaking hip-hop culture as their own. But when Ma heard the Higher Brothers for the first time, he was impressed. “They’re reppin’ the city and the dialect. They had their own personalities and their own style.”
Chengdu’s new crop of artists embrace their city and dialect proudly. “We wanted to become city heroes in the same way Drake was for Toronto,” Li Erxin, a member of the newly-formed hip-hop trio ATM, told me. ATM’s breakout song, “Local,” is one of many odes to Chengdu that have been written in the last year, alongside China-born, U.S-educated rapper Bohan Phoenix’s “3 Days in Chengdu,” a 12-minute chronicle of his return to the city.
In hip-hop, the centuries-old Du vibe has been reincarnated as the Du-Cool. As Chengdu modernizes, and the rest of the country chants saccharine pop numbers and bland nationalist harmonies, the city’s young hip-hop artists voice a distinct, regional sound, proudly holding fast to the city’s irreverent spirit and not taking themselves too seriously.
Within months of arriving in Chengdu, Pema had found a group of young rappers just like him. There was TSP, from the outskirts of Sichuan; Rainbow and Skinnyyoyo, from the flat, central grasslands of Xi’an and Shandong; Kong Kong, from the southern coast of Hong Kong; and Fendi Boi, from the northern mountains of Lhasa and Gansu (like Pema himself).
“We’re all misfits and a little bit rebellious,” TSP, the 25-year-old ringleader of the group, explained with a grin. “And all extremely handsome.” His name, short for Teacher’s Pet, was inspired by his first naughty rap, about a high school crush.
We were seated together in the living room of TSP’s apartment, cluttered with cardboard boxes and a new bookcase displaying a collection of Power Rangers figurines and a skateboard. The group had moved in together into one building, and the group’s studio is the apartment one floor below, where Rainbow, Skinnyyoyo, and Kong Kong live. Fendi Boi, who had just moved in from Shanghai, having dropped out from university, sits on the couch holding a bulging suitcase. A week prior, the group had decided to create a record label, tentatively called “Whostar.”
Pema, who commutes from campus every afternoon, waltzes into the living room ten minutes late, dressed entirely in denim—ripped jeans and jacket, with a Louis Vuitton patch sewn into its breast pocket. On any given afternoon, you’ll find all of them gathered together here: Rainbow and Skinnyyoyo bouncing lyrics back in forth in the bedroom, Pema and Fendi Boi recording a track in the living room, and Rainbow and Kong Kong out on a snack break at the noodle joint down the road.
Fendi Boi, who admired Pema’s music, reached out to collaborate after meeting him at a party. TSP stumbled upon Pema’s work online while scoping out fresh talent, leading to the pair’s first collaboration: a track called “Fast Food” that takes jabs at urban Chinese consumer culture. The others found each other in a similar fashion: parties, collaborations, online shout-outs. On the weekends, they perform in live houses and clubs in Chengdu and in neighboring cities, fetching up to RMB 10,000 (around $1300) per gig.
The group is ambitious. This year, they want to release four mixtapes, film a music video, and ramp up their profits. Their parents approve of and prop up their musical careers to varying degrees: Rainbow’s parents are supportive, while TSP’s have all but shunned him. Recognizing the extent to which they have strayed from their parents’ expectations of a conventional life—shuttling from college to an office job to marriage—they recently dropped a song called “Sorry, Mom.”
In the apartment, TSP put on one of the group’s latest collaborations, a track titled “Happy New Year.” They started bopping their heads to the chirpy chorus (“Happy new year, happy new year/make a wish, make a wish”). The track had the quality of an amateur production. The performers present themselves as rebellious outcasts, but they cannot conceal their earnestness. Kong Kong’s still-fresh tattoos, Skinnyyoyo’s Power Ranger bracelet and pants sagging to his lower thighs, all seemed like gawky affectations.
But as the song progressed, I was struck by how smoothly they had woven together lyrics in Tibetan, Cantonese, Sichuanese, and Mandarin. In hip-hop, the cypher refers to the circle of participants that closes around rappers as they freestyle for each other, challenging ideas and flexing language. The cypher is the essence of hip-hop, a meld of community and competition and creativity. Sitting in a messy living room in south Chengdu, watching six boys from six different regions of a nation of more than one billion, nod their heads in unison to the beat of the artwork they had created together, I felt as if I were standing in a microcosm of the entire Chinese cypher, one song yielding a slice of the rich plurality of the Chinese language.
“No one in China is making stuff like this,” Pema said.
It was only a matter of time before hip-hop’s burgeoning popularity piqued the interest of bigger players. Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party has begun to flex its soft power muscles, stepping into the cypher to dictate to young people its own vision of Chinese cool.
The CCP’s history of censorship and stance against both political dissent and the morally impure has long been at odds with contemporary culture. Over the past year, the government has promoted a band called the TFBoys—three fresh-faced, better-behaved Bieber-types who sing pop numbers with titles like “We Are the Heirs of Communism”—and released a rap about anti-corruption with Xi Jinping’s sonorous speeches as backing vocals. The Party propagates the national Voice of China, and has recently debuted a new state-run media outlet with that very title, tasked with “telling good China stories.”
On January 19th of this year, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television—the country’s top media regulator—announced new legislation forbidding TV programs from depicting hip-hop culture and demanding that media outlets remove all traces of the “vulgar, tasteless and obscene.” The songs of Rap of China winner PG One, accused of depicting drug use and misogyny in his music, were removed from every music streaming platform in China. Drugs, actors with tattoos, and profanity were out; patriotism, purity, and filial piety were in.
Foreign news outlets flocked to the scene, many surprised that China had hip-hop in the first place. Two months later, Xi Jinping cemented his authority as the most powerful man in China after lawmakers passed changes to the country’s constitution, abolishing his five-year presidential term limit.
The rappers that I spoke to reacted to the ban in classic Chengdu fashion: they shrugged it off. For them, it was a slap on the wrist. At most, it was a nuisance, and an ineffective one: the ban is for television, which most kids don’t watch. It has also drawn attention to a music scene that the media, both in and outside of China, hadn’t known existed. “In a weird way, the ban happened to be one of the biggest promoters for my music,” Bohan Pheonix told me, chuckling. “All these big magazines and blogs that I wanted to get my music on were trying to interview me. ‘Hip-hop is banned! By the way, my new album is coming out.’”
When I mentioned GAI, who has led chants of “Long Live the Motherland!” on a national entertainment competition, they wrinkled their noses, as if the rapper reeks of the pungent odor of uncool. But they get it: there’s a sense that coolness sometimes has to make way for compromise. “GAI’s smart,” TSP said. “He flipped a switch and decided to be a good boy.” When the record label reminds the Chengdu-based rapper Kafe Hu to remove swear words from his music, he reluctantly agrees. “At my age, with a family to raise and a newborn son to feed, I don’t have much space in my lyrics for anger and profanity anymore.”
“I don’t care. I’ll say what I want to say,” Pema asserted, when I asked him about his reaction to the ban. Pema, whose family is Tibetan, occasionally expressed to me reservations about the Chinese government’s treatment of citizens from that country. But he is wary of broaching sensitive subjects: “It’s not like I really wanted to write about political stuff in the first place.”
There were plenty of things to write about that fell neither into the category of contrarian dissent nor that of commodity capitalism, Kafe Hu told me. Unlike his most popular and now-censored track “Hope and Reality,” which explicitly digs into issues of government corruption and freedom of speech, his next track will address Chinese society’s discrimination against unmarried women, dubbed “leftover.” Some have made the case that the hip-hop ban allows the subculture more time to mature organically without the frenzied pressure of rapid commercialization. “The artists who were never really interested in hip-hop in the first place will move on, and those who really love the art form will stick around,” Kafe said.
Perhaps these artists’ nonchalance is a shrewd survival mechanism in the face of the censor, founded on the belief that things will change with a bit of grit and good humor. “Whenever we’re confronted by difficulties, we always find a way to work around them and in the process, discover something new,” Bohan Phoenix said. The Higher Brothers laugh off their constraints, singing the praises of the highly censored Chinese app WeChat in their eponymous song: There’s no Skype, no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram/We use WeChat, yeah.
In China, Evan Osnos writes, “every enterprise and individual has to dance with shackles on.” The hip-hop artists of Chengdu must do exactly this: test the boundaries of the permissible and challenge the status quo, all while keeping their cool. Be patient, take it slow, play the long game. If you rush, you’ve already lost. Dancing with shackles on is better than not dancing at all.
When the elevator doors opened, I found the twenty-first floor of Poly Center silent and empty. The walls of the corridors were peeling, and the door to the defunct NASA club was off its hinges.
“Don’t know,” the guard at the lobby responded curtly, after I asked him what had happened to the storied clubs. At its peak, one night two Christmases ago, there were more people waiting in line for the elevator than in the clubs themselves. Now, one EDM club stands alone, hosting quiet gigs every now and then, where the remaining smattering of partygoers bop their heads to lyricless techno.
I couldn’t get a straight answer about why the clubs had disappeared. Perhaps it was something to do with drug use. Perhaps they were too rowdy, and the city wanted to clean up the gentrifying district. Perhaps the government was exerting its control, yet again, over a subculture it didn’t understand. When I came back one night, stubbornly hoping to stumble into some sort of Poly Center revival, the guard looked incredulous. I asked him why he thought they shut the parties down. “Who knows?” he asked in a way that sounded more like, “Who cares?”
But I cared. So did Pema. “It’s a shame,” he said, shaking his head. Once, when the clubs were still open, he rented out a cheap Airbnb with a group of friends for an entire week in the basement of the building. Every night, they made the twenty-one-flight pilgrimage to the top floor and danced until dawn. It was the best week of his life.
Pema dreams often of those nights: the smoky air, the disco lights, the giddy laughter. In his dreams, he’s always dancing, hands bopping in the air, long legs strutting to a ceaseless trap beat. All of us—all the young people of the city of Chengdu with something to say—are dancing alongside him, unbridled, ecstatic, free.