Ever since his debut in 2000, Jay Chou has delivered Mandarin pop listeners with songs that hybridise Western and Chinese music styles. It is not rare to hear Jay Chou rapping over instrumentals composed with Chinese musical instruments. Countering the lack of rap music in the early 2000s, Jay Chou brought a new flavour into the Mandopop/C-pop scene. Chinese instruments and rap seem like things two world apart, but listening to Jay Chou again recently, I have cultivated a new form of appreciation for the singer-songwriter’s brilliance.
Jay Chou has composed a fair collection of rap songs with familiar electronic beats. Yet, I find the beauty of Jay Chou’s rap music lies in his consistent fusing of a Western lyrical delivery with an overwhelmingly Chinese instrumental. His earlier engagement with Chinese culture in “双截棍” (Nunchucks) is less daring with musical exploration, allowing an electric guitar to dominate the melody. There is a short piano, and the sounds of an erhu is only introduced much later in the song. The song would be considerably safe to rap over, referencing Bruce Lee’s movie and the use of nunchucks as distinctive of an unyielding Chinese identity.
Only much later does Jay Chou’s songs become more daring in establishing his signature Sino-Western music style. Personally, “霍元甲” (Fearless) would be the emblematic song to shed light on Jay Chou’s compositional brilliance. For those familiar with Chinese orchestral music, or Chinese musical instruments, the song’s drum intro would be immediately identifiable. The use of Chinese percussions is eventually layered over with a simple beat, but the music is different from what I have mentioned previously. The flute is clear over the beat in the chorus, with the use of pipa surfacing as well. More importantly, Jay Chou mimics a style of Beijing operatic singing, rooting the song’s Chinese musical style, or what Jay Chou himself would term “中国风.”
Of course, the song itself deals with content referencing the similarly titled movie starring Jet Li, 霍元甲 (Fearless). The MV makes this clear, interspersing scene of the movie with Jay Chou’s own performance of the song. But without failing to embody coolness, Jay Chou’s donning of Chinese robes is coupled with sneakers and he breakdances in this outfit. In his live performance, all these are elaborately constructed onstage.
I think it is impossible to make the argument for making culture a spectacle, but this often fails to rise up when I watch observe Jay Chou’s performances and music. Perhaps it is largely due to the depth with which he engages with these themes, be it lyrically or otherwise.
Musically speaking, the mastery of Chinese musical composition – clearly away from popular styles, but a knowledge of classical/traditional forms – makes him someone to applaud and look up to. In the early 2000s where rap was almost non-existent in Mandopop/C-pop, he brought something new into the scene and coloured it without losing a sense of self.
Jay Chou makes history and culture cool; he makes youngsters want to care about such things as a past long forgotten. It is no longer about introducing Chinese elements into a predominantly Western form or genre. Rather, it is making Chinese culture relevant, especially for those away from miles away from these sites of history.
The recent rise of hip hop in China has allowed many underground artists to voice their opinions about Jay Chou’s style of rapping. They criticise it for being unclear, and discredit him for it. Arguably, he has had some form of image built around his unclear enunciation, but his influence in paving a path for hip hop in the Chinese music industry must also be acknowledged.
Jay Chou’s Sino-Western fusion often reminds me of Korean rapper Deepflow’s “작두” (Cut Cut Cut, pronounced jak-du in Korean). The tune begins with Korean instruments, establishing from the very start its genre as Korean hip hop. To offer some context, the metaphor of “jak-du” comes from Korean shamanism, where “jak-du” refers to a straw-cutter used by shamans to prove their authenticity. They walk over it unhurt, whereas fakes would be cut by the blades.
In its own way, the popularity of hip hop in China these days has traces leading back to Korean media, though not without consequences. Early this year, China’s government banned hip hop culture and individuals with tattoos from appearing on television. This might bring to mind the regulations of tattoos in Korean media, as well as the emergence of rap survival competitions in Korean mainstream media (think Show Me The Money, Unpretty Rapstar, High School Rapper). China’s own rap survival programme, Rap of China, is part of this phenomenon of rap entering mainstream entertainment. For many, the ban is seen as a response to a subculture that seems to be growing too fast, but also a form of expression deemed inappropriate for mainstream audiences.
Looking for alternate modes of expression, MIC SWAGGER BEIJING caught my attention with its cross-cultural scope. It is a music platform established by South Korean artist NUOL in collaboration with rappers from China. As part of the MIC SWAGGER series that spotlights rapping (oftentimes freestyle or cyphers), MIC SWAGGER BEIJING is a cross-cultural collaboration. Rappers speak about themselves, rap in their own language, but there should be more than mere lyrical differences!
It is too common to see rappers donned in styles echoing American hip hop trends, leaving the question of how does one then speak about one’s culture with a form that has been adopted? How does one speak in a way that rejects the label of being consumed by Western culture? Is there anything more to hip hop and rap when it exits the boundaries of American culture and travels halfway across the globe?
The tension for art-making, I would argue, lies largely in trying to adopt a western form without losing one’s identity. Jay Chou offers an answer while opening a door for new possibilities of music production – and so does Deepflow. Being trendy is awesome, and I personally love the grooves that come out of Korean hip hop music. Yet, I often wonder, isn’t it so much cooler to be able to stand one’s ground – to aspire towards more than an echo of Western styles! New modes of musical expressions abound, and much too often I realise the need to look back and experiment with culture, with seemingly distant forms of artistic expression – to bring these into relevance; to speak to one’s roots and articulate identity for oneself but also to reintroduce the past for those isolated within the present.