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Hip-hop takes centre stage in China

Hip-hop takes centre stage in China
From BBC - September 12, 2017

A hugely successful internet reality show has put hip hop music into the national spotlight for the first time in China.

With more than 2.5 billion views on China's largest online video hosting website, iQiyi, the Rap of China has seen dozens of Chinese rappers shoot to stardom.

Showcasing young and feisty contestants locked in rap battle in front of a panel of celebrity judges, the show sparked debate, memes and catchphrases across the Chinese-speaking web.

"Can you freestyle?" became a buzzword, after one of the celebrity judges, Kris Wu, used it to repeatedly grill contestants as he was questioned over his own hip hop legitimacy. Hip hop terms like "diss" - to put someone down - have crept into everyday conversation.

Tapping a gold mine

The 12-episode show, which wrapped up last weekend, was hugely successful in bringing underground rappers such as HipHopMan, Tizzy T, PG One, Jony J, or VAVA to public attention.

"It's like they ripped open a gap and found it full of gold," Wang Ke, or MC Bigdog, one of the contestants featured in the show, told the BBC.

"Chinese rappers have been underestimated and neglected," Wang said. "Our net worth has grown exponentially after the show, but it should have done so a long time ago."

Rappers like MC Bigdog were around long before Rap of China.

The genre started gaining momentum in the early 2000s, influenced by American rappers like Eminem and Jay-Z.

Rappers who did well might be signed to labels, music festivals and fashion brands. Some got to perform in clubs.

The number of hip hop music venues and clubs has grown over the years, and national competitions like the China Iron Mic helped to spur on the scene in many cities.

Yet in a society that does not encourage self expression, the rebel spirit of hip hop never really managed to take centre stage but stayed in its own ecosystem.

For most rappers it has remained a hobby - some would even pay out of their own pockets to record albums.

All for show?

Rap of China, therefore, was a game changer. It was said to be the most expensive reality show in history with an investment of 200 million yuan ($30m; 23.7m). Some 700 aspiring rappers auditioned.

Al Rocco mainly raps in English. He was eliminated in Rap of China in the first round because he did not rap in Chinese. He then wrote an expletive-laden song, The Rap of China DISS, to show his contempt for the format.

Although the show provided money for hip hop music to grow, "it's not real hip hop that is in the show," Al Rocco complains. He thinks the programme focuses on drama rather than the music itself so people who did not know about hip hop would tune in to see it.

"China is a hard market," says Al Rocco, a Hong Kong-born rapper who lives in Shanghai. "Hip hop is so small in China even though we have been doing it for so many years. You need money to bring that to the world," he says.

'We will make it Chinese'

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