CHINESE ROCK/RAP/ALTERNATIVE MANIFESTO


My classmate from Oberlin actually got a Fulbright to go to China and study
Chinese rock (lucky rascal!), but I’ve lost his contact info. I can recommend the
book “Beijing Doll” by Chun Sue for a description of the scene and concert-going,
and there’s a lengthy chapter in the book “China Urban” about censorship of
songs, Cui Jian (崔建), piracy/intellectual property, and the trials of being a
Chinese musician/band (generally doing a good job of intellectualizing it all). The
American-educated historian/guitarist Kaiser Kuo used to (maybe still does) give
lectures in Beijing on the history of rock in China before rocking with his band.
Various ‘Zines such as “Music Heaven” seem to come and go too fast for me to
keep up with, especially having spent so much time in the West and out of the
loop.

As my classmate explained, it’s hard to find genuine copies of interesting albums,
and they’ll always be more expensive than the pirated versions which also tend
to be more readily available. My impression is that all musicians in China are
struggling, and it’s worth the several extra kuai to support a starving artist, but
given that most independent releases are so darn hard to find, selections in
music stores are generally so similar and bland, I am not above buying the
obviously pirated versions when given the choice of that or never seeing it on
sale again. From 2001-2006, the case-less pirated copies seem to cost between
1-5 yuan (almost never finding anything on the small labels I mention below), and
once there’s a jewel case (still by no means a guarantee of being legitimate) the
price’ll hike up to between 8-18 yuan on average for small labels, and for really
indie labels it’s not unusual for a single cd’s price to be over 20 to as much as 50
yuan…getting annoyingly close to what one’d pay in the States!

Almost all the pop stars seem to have a “rock” song lately with a guitar riff or two
thrown into the usual casio rave mix to fit the mold of S.H.E./Faye Wong (王菲)/
and countless other divas. For finding bands out of the blue that actually make
all their own music, write their own lyrics, and sing, I’ve come to agree with my
classmate that it’s safest to go by the record label…that is, the little logo on the
back (or side) of the cd.

As he explained, and I’ve again come to agree, the “Scream!” Label (whose logo
is Munch’s “The Scream” better known by American horror movie fame) seems
to specialize in hard/loud rock, metal, and some rap-metal. They seem to favor
attitude over musicianship in general, with several hilarious tracks interspersed
with English profanity, and death-metal singing. The band “Cold Blooded Animal
(冷血动物)
“ is the both the best band I’ve heard on the label and the closest any
of Nirvana’s many idolizers have come to sounding like their main influence (7.5).
Others I’ve heard on the label and not cared as much for are “Miserable Faith
(痛苦的信仰)
” This Is a Problem album (4.5) and “Yaksa (夜叉)” (5.5) , though the latter’s flavor of death metal is
genuinely aggressive and tight.

Rock Records” out of Taiwan has a little yellow box w/ a bullseye in it but is so
small as to be easy to miss or imitate. I’m not sure if some of the horrible crap
I’ve bought thinking it was on this label is really within what they consider rock
music over there, or if I just mis-assumed that all cd’s with a yellow logo are from
them. Still, there are enough interesting ones to make it worth the occasional
lemon. These include “出门在外“ (very catchy, kooky synth-pop 6.5), 张宁‘s “大丈夫”
album (classic rock-esqe,3.5 I think I typed his name wrong), “阿牛” (5.5) , ”Shine“,
流浪漢” (3.5) , and probably countless others I just haven‘t found yet. My favorite
artist on the label is A-Yue or 张震岳, who switches between poppy guitar rock to
edgy glam-metal about farting dogs and harassing bosses.

The surest way to find interesting tunes from my western-alternative perspective
is to look for artists on the “Modern Sky” label (whose logo is just a big M).
Apparently a sub-label of this is Badhead, which makes a wide variety of music
(including some more experimental than most would appreciate). I recommend
their “花园村” compilation (6.5), “Mr. Zhou (周先生, synth-rock w/ vocals like a cross
between r.e.m. and TMBG, 6 )”, but am not impressed with “底里“’s “Delirium”
album (4.5). “Muma (木马)”’s first, self-entitled album sounds like a freewheeling or
sometimes sprawling jam band (5), and their (presumably) second album, “Jelly
Empire” brings slicker, darker production (7). On straight-up Modern Sky, look for
synth pop with female vocals from “Editec”, probably my favorite 中国乐队 with a
woman singing in it (and I’ve been unable to find their album…argh! 7). Similar is
Smart Kin (漂亮亲戚)”, whose girlie singer only sings in English--which sounds
unintentionally amusing sometimes but usually refreshing (6.5). “New Pants (新裤子)
brings melodic punk/new wave occasionally sounding like the Ramones, and was
my classmate’s favorite Chinese band. “The Fly (苍蝇乐队)” has a more caustic
approach to punk, and the album art alone on the “>z” album is worth the
purchase price (6.5). The only Chinese band I’ve heard that I could actually call
electronic is “Supermarket (超市乐队)”, and they’re also among my all-time
favorites, though not for everyone.

Other labels to look for are 京文, home to “Flowers (花儿)", seemingly China’s
favorite cute skateboarding punk trio. Split with Jingwen and Scream is “Thin
Man (瘦人)
, inaccurately described by Kaiser Kuo as a cross between RHCP and
Soundgarden…just solid alt-rock with attitude and melody. On the same split
label is “Silver Ash (银色灰烬… just a direct translation…not even my Chinese
colleagues could find the last character of their Chinese name in any dictionary)”,
a rare act that could be described completely as goth rock (and I actually like
their music as much as their make-up!). Also I’ve seen around Chengdu a label
whose logo looks like Thing from the Addams Family which I was never quite
able to afford on a Peace Corps budget (please lemme know if anything on it’s
any good).

Some favorites on major or not worth noting labels are “The Dada (达达)”, Eric
Moo, “山鹰 “ (light rock 4.5), “XTX 谢天笑” (Alt.-rock), and Tyst (experimental and
readily available in Hong Kong bargain bins, 4). After her liner notes proclaimed
herself the “#1 woman in Chinese rock”, I was much disappointed in the
disjointedness between the singing and canned backing band of “罗琦”,but I can
imagine some might find her all right (3).

Of the loud rock/metal bands, I’ve only heard some, my favorites being an epic
hair-metalesque song by “Pangu (characters unknown)”, and everything I’ve
heard by “Tang Dynasty (唐朝乐队)“. “Black Panther” and “Zero” don’t really
interest me, but I guess they’re historically important. I hope no one needs to be
told to listen to Cui Jian (崔建), though you won’t get a guilt trip from me for not
“getting” his more recent, experimental stuff. I wish I knew who did/could find the
metal version of the old revolutionary song “社会主义好 (Socialism Is
Good!)”…that totally rocked! And I don’t remember the name of the Xinjiang rock
artist (also praising Chairman Mao on one song) who was all the rage during my
PC tour of duty, but he shouldn’t be hard to find.

If you’re ever unsure about what I mean by my generalizations, picking up a
compilation the labels put out (and are usually more readily available than
individual bands/artists’ albums) would be a good idea!

A “street dance” troop member stopped me in the hard seats of a train some
years ago (as I was wearing a winter hat) to talk about hip-hop in China. He
claimed that it’s much more popular in the south, with Zhengzhou in Hebei being
a major center of activity. Having passed through there, I didn’t actually see any
evidence of this, though. Besides the ever-popular Jay (周杰伦),A Jordan Chan
(陈小春),and MC Hotdog (哈狗帮…third character is wrong/can’t find it), I’ve
enjoyed some of Taiwan’s “Machi” (3.5) and most of “Kungfoo (功夫)” (5) who raps in the
most clear Mandarin I’ve heard. My favorite remains Hong Kong’s “Lazy
Muthafucka (大懒堂)” (8.5) for their attitude and ability to do almost any musical style
(not just rap!) and make it their own--very original. They’ve got a Wikipedia entry,
and Asia Week wrote an article about them which can still be found online here:
www.asiaweek.com/asiaweek/magazine/nations/0,8782,101788,00.html They’ve
disbanded, unfortunately, and the only solo stuff I’ve heard from them is DBF’s
hit and miss techno album “Unbreakable“ (3.5).

Unfortunately almost without exception, all rap/hip-hop albums (and even most
rock albums) will have at least one song completely pandering to pop-karaoke
teenyboppers (exemplifying everything sappy/vapid/insipid that makes one want
to turn to alternative music) to make sure they can sell an album or have
something for everyone. The more popular or well-known the artist, the more
straight-up Casio pop love songs one should expect (the song one may have
heard and found appealing or edgy will most likely be the exception to the rule of
fluff).

I’m sure I’ve left out some stuff I meant to say, but it can wait until the next
installment manifests itself. I’m sure it was a lot to digest, even for those
currently on the mainland and actually able to find any of the above at all.
Fortunately, there’s become enough variety out there now that anyone looking
hard enough for something “different” and appealing specifically to him/herself
will eventually be successful, so don’t take my brief opinions as “the word” by any
means. Now stop “dancing about architecture” and go listen up already!

Julian Lee
李立安
Oberlin College East Asian Studies Major
Peace Corps China, Group 10
Zhangye, Gansu (甘肃,张掖) 2004-2006
CET Beijing, Fall 2001

Modified Genres 2016: Pop Rock, Experimental, Synth Rock, Folk/Singer-Songwriters, Hard Rock/Metal, Punk & Garage Rock, Hip-Hop, Electronic

This was written shortly after I finished the Peace Corps and shouldn't be taken as current! Each entry is unfortunately subject to when I buy an album, not when something is released or a hot topic in "the scene". Another 2016 edit is to give a numerical RATING for all albums I mention, from 1-10, usually in parentheses near the album description. While part of me wants to cut Chinese artists some slack b/c it's especially hard to make one's living as a band/musician in the PRC's alternative music industry, that'd require even more explanation, and I'm sure your textual tolerance is already stretched thin!

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