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You Can't Get a Bad Rap Here

COLUMN ONE

Hip-hop has caught on in China, but censorship has cleaned it up. The watered-down ditties are even used in public service announcements.

November 12, 2004|Ralph Frammolino | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — He's a high-school dropout who wears a bandana pulled tight across his skull. His hutong, or 'hood, is one of the city's poorest precincts where visitors dodge vegetable vendors on bikes and residents must share the public squat toilets.

But when Wang "MC Webber" Bo opens his mouth to rap, what comes out from one of China's hottest young artists would make an original gangsta' cry.

"In Beijing, walk along Chang'An Avenue. In Beijing, there are many exotic, beautiful women. In Beijing, you can burn incense at the Lama Temple. In Beijing "

China has accomplished what millions of disapproving American parents could not: tamed hip-hop music.

Instead of often obscene and violent tales from the inner city, Wang and other leading rappers here are taking to the stage with lyrics that glorify national pride, celebrate tourist attractions and preach against the dangers of adolescent impulsiveness.

One group is so proud of its songs that it has affixed a sticker to its debut album asking fans to share it with their parents.

State-controlled television features public service announcements in rap about caring for the environment and respecting elders, leading one local academic to suggest that hip-hop has become the unofficial music of the Communist government.

Such rah-rah rap is far removed from the screeds made in the U.S. by some artists whose art reflects their criminal records.

Shanghai rapper Blakk Bubble, who cut his teeth on the likes of Naughty by Nature, said he regards American lyrics as "research" into the "low life of some poor black men."

"I never promote new people to rap such things because, in China, there are actually no gangsters," said Bubble, a.k.a. Wang Fan, 25, an assistant communications manager for Ubisoft computers. "In America, you can get a gun license and you can purchase guns and kill people. But in China, such things would not happen."

Rap was born on the sidewalks of New York in the 1970s as a melding of braggadocio and beat-driven music. It found a home on the blocks where incomes were limited -- all that was needed to go pro was a microphone and a turntable.

The genre soon became an outlet for the disaffected. During the 1980s, bands such as Public Enemy and NWA trained their angry cadences on police brutality and the establishment.

By the 1990s, the street-crime imagery and sexually explicit lyrics of "gangsta" rap had hit pay dirt in the U.S. market. It now is ubiquitous in popular American culture.

But Chinese rap has about as much bite as a tiger with false teeth, mainly because of government control.

Before appearing in concert or releasing a record, Chinese artists must submit their lyrics for approval by the Ministry of Culture, which vetoes anything deemed obscene or politically unacceptable. Enforcement has been inconsistent, and the more "radical" elements of Chinese rap still find their way onto the Internet. But the policing of tunes has forced commercial groups and their record companies to give rap a certain wholesomeness.

Rapper "Sketch Krime," of the group Dragon Tongue Squad, explained how censorship works.

Take his big beef, public education.

"I hate school. I hate teachers. I hate my classmates. I hate the Chinese educational system," said Krime, 21, a Beijing resident and high school dropout who was born Junju Lee. "Maybe I think Chinese education would ruin my life, ruin my mind and after graduation, I would be like everybody else, living a boring life."

But try putting that in a flow, as lines of continuous rhymes are called.

He paused. "Can I be honest?" The Chinese government would never tolerate it, he said.

Compliance makes for good business strategy, said Li Hongjie, who runs the Dragon Tongue record label that recruited Krime's band. Li said that the rock genre in China was too political for its own good. As a result, the government limited the number of live concerts and "kept it from developing."

Now rap artists and their managers are trying not to repeat the mistake.

"If you want to spread music, you have to think about the government," Li said.

The tactic has been so successful that the government is all but rapping along, says Teng Jimeng, professor of American culture at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

"Strangely, the Chinese authorities never accepted hard rock, heavy metal and punk," he said. "All that stuff exists on an underground basis. Punk rockers in Beijing are starving. But these rappers are having an easy time."

Rap is now heard on commercials and public service announcements aired over the government-controlled television network.

And talk about a cultural revolution: For the commemoration of Mao Tse-tung's 110th birthday last year, one firm released an album based on the dead leader's writings.

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