Interview, Mandarin Feature and Graphics by Grace Chen
Translation by Jocelle Koh
Video Editing by Peiling Ngan
BTS Photos by Derek Hao
What is Mandarin hip hop? The term seems self-explanatory; hip hop music performed in Mandarin. Yet there are differences abound between the Mandarin and Western hip hop genres. One such difference is the meaning behind Mandarin hip hop tracks. The meanings behind these songs tend to be more nuanced and deeper; unlike the straightforward nature of Western hip hop songs. As opposed to Western hip hop, Mandarin hip hop has its subtleties and elegance, but also has certain language restrictions due to the rhythmic tendencies of the genre being one word to each beat. Yet such limitations have not hindered the advancements of the scene; but forced mandarin and Asian hip hop artists to be creative and adapt; powering forth at breakneck speed in recent years. From the prominence of 88rising to the push for hip hop’s mainstream surfacing in 2017, there is much to unpack when it comes to Mandarin hip hop in 2019. To start off the discussion, what better place to begin than with an interview with three members of Taiwanese rap label Kungfu Entertainment?
About Kungfu Entertainment
The name Kungfu Entertainment comes from the meaning that everyone has a martial art that they can hone. In the Mandarin rap world, there’s a saying that different hip hop labels specialise in different styles. As for Kungfu Entertainment, through the theme of Kungfu, every person on this earth can create something new. Rapper from Taiwan Dwagie 大支 as the founder of Kungfu Entertainment has taken two of his mentees to America to participate in the inaugural SXSW festival. On top of this, they’ve held three free events while they’re here to interact more intimately with their audiences. As a seminal figure in the Mandarin hip hop scene, Dwagie’s work has taken him across all kinds of societal topics including political commentary and stray animals. In his eventful career he has also worked with global rap greats such as the Dalai Lama, Nas, and Wutang’s Raekwon.
Kungfu’s disciple BR on the other hand, is a rapper known for his argumentative skills on the rap battlefield. Gaining visibility through his performances on Madstreet freestyle battle, he is a reigning battle MC who specialises in the ‘Boombap’ style of rap while recently delving into experimentations with other rap styles. Rapper Gaweed on the other hand raps mostly in the Taiwanese dialect and has been working towards moving into behind-the-scenes work to give the local rap scene even more support. Three rappers with different roles, skills and positions; other than being under the same label, they do have one other thing in common – their aim to contribute uniquely to the Mandarin hip hop scene.
America and Taiwanese hip hop scene’s differences + SXSW
Sharing their experiences taking part in this year’s SXSW festival, Dwagie mentioned that other than promoting Mandarin rap, the other reason they came was to learn. This isn’t Dwagie’s first time performing in America; yet every time he comes he learns something new by taking time out to attend different performances. Previously he attended Lil Baby’s concert in California, and mentioned that American audiences seem more passionate; singing along to the songs and interacting with fervour whereas Taiwanese audiences would instead be shyer, preferring to silently listen to performances. Dwagie felt that no matter whether the artists who performed at SXSW were famous or not, they were all surprisingly amazing.
There was one time where they went to catch a Korean rapper’s performance and were so amazed that they fervently searched for his videos online to analyse his technique. Gaweed in particular shared that local rappers themselves also had something special to bring to the international table. When language becomes a barrier, body language and engagement becomes key. BR too shared that he hoped to learn from American rappers who seem effortlessly confident during their performances. From Dwagie’s point of view, local rappers instead were used to just singing the song from start to finish; sticking as closely to the original as possible, unlike American and European rappers who could become one with the song, injecting more of their emotions into each performance. Such observations were the biggest returns they reaped from this round of performances and retreat.
What is hip hop to you? Why pursue it?
Dwagie - hobby – making impact to the society - dream job – purpose of hiphop
Speaking on his thoughts regarding Hip hop, Dwagie says that the genre has meant various things to him at different points in time. When he first began understanding American hip hop he found that it was part of African American culture, but then also slowly began to understand its deeper meaning (an outlet to express anger towards racism and unfair treatment, etc). After beginning to write songs himself, he then found that hip hop could be used to change certain people and things. From continuing on this path out of interest to being lucky enough to call it his job; being able to influence the world while making money is what Dwagie wishes to do the most.
The veteran rapper also spoke about how many local rappers disappear soon after they’ve debuted; perhaps it’s because at the beginning they thought being a rapper was cool and could bring them money and fangirls; but everything turned out to be a little different than they expected and so they gave up. Dwagie feels that if one can find the meaning of hip hop to their lives, then such scenarios would have turned out differently. For example, his song ‘The Last Dawn’ discusses the issue of stray cats, and when he found that people around him began to adopt stray cats or became vegetarian due to this, he felt like he had saved a few lives and changed a few people. And having the meaning of these songs heard by many people was a sign to Dwagie that he had found his life’s purpose. No matter if it has to do with music or not, finding the meaning behind why you do what you do is the secret to not just sitting around and counting the days till you die.
"To be on the stage for one minute, one must be working behind the scenes for ten years. This ten years of work is not necessarily undergone by oneself; there are those who accompany you to hone your art, those who teach you to hone your art; many different types of people and roles who work together to complete any plan from big to small." - Dwagie
Gaweed – hiphop is… doing what I wanna do
In Gaweed’s eyes, hip hop is “doing what I want to do”. He feels that when doing anything to do with hip hop, he feels happy and relaxed. Especially now that he has to take over the family business and only has time at night to create or listen to music; although he doesn’t have as much time as before; but creating and working is something that makes him very happy.
BR – Hiphop has impacted my life and value system
Like Dwagie, BR expresses that his views on hip hop change with every time period. Now a contestant on the wildly popular Rap of China 中國新說唱, Hip hop has influenced his ideas and value systems, as well as his personal behaviour. He saw a lot of overseas rapper interviews, and began understanding their views as well as being influenced by them: “Just going along with your heart, doing the things you want to do.” Previously, he would listen to a lot of old, underground songs; loving to listen to retro never-heard-of music. But after doing his national service last year, he began listening to lots of new material, and began to analyse American hip hop music’s market and path; something which surprised him greatly.
"I’ve seen many overseas rappers’ interviews; after beginning to understand their value systems, my own concepts begin to be influenced by them： just go with your heart, and do what you want to do." - BR
Thoughts on old school Hiphop vs trap
When speaking about their thoughts on new or old hip hop genres, Dwagie was relatively open-minded. To him, as long as everyone is happy doing what they do, no matter if it’s old school or trying new styles, one does not have to limit themselves to ticking the boxes. But the most important thing is not to blindly follow the crowd; instead to innovate and create things others have never done. In Mandarin Chinese, the word ‘Creation’ can be divided into two characters which separately mean ‘create’ and ‘work’. So other than just creating, you also need to put in the work. A lot of people are doing things that they are familiar with day in and day out, but that also means what they are producing all sounds the same. Dwagie feels that one shouldn’t just go with the flow, but instead lead the trend. The trap genre was also unpopular at first, but after intersecting with the mainstream created a new style that saw an evolving of all parts of what makes a genre whole, from the arrangement to the themes to the flow. Dwagie also mentioned that BR has been doing lots of innovative new things, such as freestyling with rhyming on the double rhyme, something which he was very surprised at when hearing, since it had never been done before.
To Gaweed, when he first started listening to Trap he felt that everything sounded the same and made him quite bothered. Instead, he seems to like the early style of East Coast hip hop more. Only after BR started staying with him more often, and playing lots of new songs for him after getting out of bed, he realised that he liked more melody-driven songs; allowing him to slowly understand mainstream rap music’s various styles. He realised that trap isn’t just a static genre, but is diverse and varied in its styles. To him, trap is just one variation of hip hop music, in the future even more styles will evolve from this.
As for BR who transitioned from Boombap to Trap, he is unendingly finding new hip hop genres and creating some of his own while he’s at it. Whilst some trap songs use 90s arrangements or tones, he attempts to do this while adding new vocal styles on top of it. But when innovating new genres, BR has met with his fair share of doubtful voices. He feels that in terms of rhythm Taiwanese audiences aren’t able to accept more progressive stuff, and that audiences don’t resonate with his creations. BR also added that when he began singing trap he found that it was much different to what he expected, but many audiences are narrow-minded on this matter, thinking that this is what Trap is all about when there are various ways other than the mainstream Atlanta subgenre.
How can Mandarin hip hop works move towards global audiences?
When we got to talking about how to move towards a global standard for Mandarin hip hop, Dwagie shared that the current creative resources we have, the perspectives of our people, and the languages we use are different. As a result, visuals become increasingly important. Using K-pop as an example, he analysed how the genre only used a little bit of English in their lyrics; yet their performances have become a universal language. Audiences are not just purely listening to songs anymore, but are watching a show. You can’t understand what they are saying, but are drawn in nonetheless.
"Body language and rhythm are very important. I think that Taiwanese rappers can bring Taiwan’s uniqueness and body language to initiate exchanges; if not others won’t be able to understand." - Gaweed
Kung Fu New Blood and the future
On top of creating, performance and learning, the Kungfu team are also dedicated to hosting Hip hop related events and cultivating new talent. In the past Kungfu Entertainment hosted a rap competition called ‘Kung Fu New Blood’ in order to find the new generation of rappers to undergo training. Dwagie shared that this competition has seen its fair share of future stars who needed training and shaping; but unfortunately in recent years after finding BR and Kumachan through the competition, he’s not had as much success in unearthing new talent. As for new generations of rappers, Dwagie’s found that many young rappers have high viewcounts and good songs; but have nothing that truly shocks or surprises audiences. As such, he hopes that in the future he can create more of these events and trainings in order to help even more newcomers.
No matter if it’s down to the teams’ brave exploration of new genres, or creation of new events big and small to train newcomers; from this interview we’ve truly unearthed the ambition of Kungfu Entertainment. Using their own methods to continuously make contributions to the Mandarin hip hop scene; they’ve supported so many new generations of rappers, and in doing so found what hip hop music means to them. We look forward to Kungfu Entertainment’s future contributions to the scene, and hope that they can continue to use their own unique style of hustle to bring even more indomitable products to audiences both at home and abroad.
APW's Grace Vs. BR Freestyle Rap Battle: Watch Now!
Note: It's Grace's first time doing a freestyle rap battle and she's facing off with one of the greats! Show her some love <3