You Can't Get a Bad Rap Here

Times Staff Writer

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.

China's fascination with rap is a relatively new phenomenon. Detroit-area native Dana Burton recalled that when he came to Shanghai five years ago to teach English, the closest thing to hip-hop music he could find was a hotel lounge act with a Michael Jackson impersonator.

Burton set out to change all that by holding hip-hop parties in the backroom of a Shanghai nightclub, playing the same kind of industrial-strength gangster flows that were popular in the States.

Although Chinese rock star Cui Jian wowed critics with the first rap song on his mid-1980s debut album, few wannabe MCs tried it because they stumbled over the Mandarin language's need for four distinct tones.

Once they conquered that, a new generation of Chinese rappers copied the hard-edged attitude of their American counterparts -- but only to a point, said Burton, who created a nationwide freestyle rap contest three years ago.

"The attitude comes out. The battle is vicious. It gets really dirty," Burton said. "But people know those limits. This is China.... Glorifying street culture doesn't translate.

"Here, it's cut and dried. If you have a gun and you shoot someone, you're going to be executed. You sell drugs, you're gone," he said.

With three national freestyle titles and a debut album, Wang's story is about as ghetto as China gets. After watching an MC Hammer video when he was 15, Wang quit school and set out to make it big as a rapper.

Like Eminem's character in the hit movie "8 Mile," Wang practiced his flows for hours each day in his bedroom. He painted graffiti on the wall of his family's compound. He later formed the group Yin Ts'ang.

The group signed a record deal for $6,000 and its debut album features a tongue-in-cheek song about the SARS epidemic, as well as the popular cut "Welcome to Beijing," a long list of the Chinese capital's tourist attractions.

But Wang, who recently moved out of his parents' home to an apartment uptown, complained about the order from his record label to change the lyrics for a song about two men sent to perdition because they had grown rich by cheating people.

The company's counter-suggestion, according to Wang: "You should do something positive about the economic development in China."

Another group called Kung Fu flaunts the wholesomeness of what its lead singer, 24-year-old Yang Fan, calls "reformed" rap.

The title cut of the group's debut CD, "Impulsion," warns against acting on teenage impulse like a distraught student who commits suicide. To underscore its family-friendly theme, a label on the group's debut album pleads: "Please recommend this record to your parents."

One person who won't be playing such tunes is Beijing-area disk jockey Chen "MC Allan" Shen.

On a recent Friday night, Chen presided over dual turn tables on a raised stage at Club Look, where he pumped a gyrating dance crowd with deafening cuts from Jay-Z, DMX and other American artists.

A few in the crowd walked around in hip-hop regalia: a Chinese man sporting an Afro, another one with an oversized Miami Dolphins jersey, a woman in a white fedora and little else.

Chen was unimpressed.

"Nobody who comes here understands hip-hop," Chen said, admitting that even he didn't fully grasp the genre. "It's just popular in China at the moment."

He refused to play any Chinese rap artists during his hourlong set.

"They can't curse, they basically have to say life is great, life is beautiful, nothing's wrong," he said. "It's not hip-hop."

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