The Rap of China Puts Hip Hop on China's Mainstream Map
Wen Jing | Lu Yufei
DATE:  Aug 11 2017
/ SOURCE:  Yicai
The Rap of China Puts Hip Hop on China's Mainstream Map The Rap of China Puts Hip Hop on China's Mainstream Map

(Yicai Global) Aug. 10 -- Cu, like other hip-hop fans, excitedly shouted the names of each performer to take the stage at One Party held in Beijing in July. Several popular hip-hop groups and artists, including Padma Family, Young Jack, Fcyco and ONO attended the event, but most fans came for just two stars -- PG One and BrAnT.B, Cu said.

PG One and BrAnT.B, members of the most popular hip-hop crew in China -- Padma Family, are competitors on the reality show The Rap of China.

"When Padma Family showed up, the first name everyone shouted was PG One," Cu told CBN Weekly. "Before The Rap of China was broadcast, people would shout Padma Family first, then the names of all members." Now crowds react differently. Singer Young Jack's appearance did not "trigger a spree as PG One's did." Young Jack, who was about as popular as PG One before the reality series, did not participate in the television show.

Cu identifies herself as "a true fan" of hip hop, as she became fond of it four years ago when it was not so prevalent in China. She attended performances of every rapper she knows.

She has witnessed great changes in terms of participation at One Party. More females who were born after 2000 came through, and the reason fans love the artists has "changed essentially." "True hip-hop fans used to spend money for the music of a particular singer, rather than the singers themselves. PG One is quite talented, but his appearance boosted his popularity," Cu said. This made her embarrassed and even sad.

Many at One Party came to know PG One and BrAnT.B from The Rap of China, rather than as members of Padma Family.

The Rap of China is a music network variety show produced by Inc. It claims to be the first hip-hop cultural promotion program in mainland China. More than 100 million viewers streamed the show within four hours of its debut on June 24. Its cumulative view count was up to 1 billion by the 10th minute of its sixth episode on July 29.

The series went viral after Kris Wu, one of the judges on the show, used the phrase "Can you freestyle?" Gradually, the audience began to shift its focus from Kris to the performers and hip hop. Kris, whose part in the show has been controversial as many don't view him as an authentic rapper, has been recognized for his professional reviews and performances. The Rap of China has somewhat unexpectedly become one of iQiyi's hits.

Hip hop has long been a small niche market in China, and its culture is often labeled rebellious, which made mainstream adoption an uphill battle in the country. As it had failed to attract a large following, no platform in China had been willing to try to tap its commercial value.

Chen Wei, vice president of iQiyi and chief producer of The Rap of China, was not surprised by the show's success. He used Pascal's law -- which says as more pressure is applied on a unit area, the pressure's intensity increases -- to describe what happened with the show. As the show targets a small area, putting resources into it produced powerful results, he said.

China has a surplus of variety shows. Chen and his core creative team visited to a small hotel in Beijing's Shunyi suburb in February to hold closed-door talks. For more than a week, the team discussed all kinds of variety shows from different parts of the world and different times. Ready to throw in the towel after eight ideas were shot down, Chen and Che Che, who became head director of The Rap of China, said that the team would do a hip-hop show if no one floated a better idea. Chen and Che love hip-hop. Che's inked arms pay homage to its culture. Chen is a loyal fan of two American television series -- Empire and The Get Down.

Their words got everyone excited -- the idea was fresh and hot and totally hit the spot. Hip hop has been on shows in China before, but has never been the centerpiece on a mainstream Chinese platform. Traditional TV stations aren't likely to pick up a hip-hop themed show, as those aged 40 and over are a large part of their audience and hip hop is favored by more youngsters. Some 60 percent to 70 percent of iQiyi users are under 30.

Although hip hop is a bit too trendy and has a narrow support base, iQiyi Chief Executive Gong Yu approved the program and said the firm would not hold back in pursuing the show.

Over USD30 million (CNY200 million) was reportedly invested in The Rap of China. "Even more than that number if all costs and expenses are included," Chen told CBN Weekly. Production was the most expensive part of the entire process.

The Rap of China combines the two production methods used on big music talent shows and outdoor reality ones, Chen said. Four or five studios were used for the show. The largest covered 3,600 square meters and the smallest was 1,500 square meters. In the first season of 12 episodes, the crew made 14 sets. One hour of the program was made from 2,500 hours of material. "The ratio is approximately 700:1 for the Voice of China and between 1400:1 and 1800:1 for Running Man." Some 96 cameras were used, including remote control and GoPro cameras. Each artist was recorded by cameras in a separate position.

Finding rappers was difficult. After the team decided to do the program in February, iQiyi sent more than 100 directors to various places including concert venues and universities in first-, second- and third-tier cities to find hip-hop enthusiasts. Contestant Tizzy T met the director of iQiyi after a show in Chongqing in April.

Some of the competitors did not trust or warm up to the program, and many of them believed it was a joke when they were invited to participate. They didn't think the public would be able to understand hip hop, a form of music that came from the underground. They questioned whether the production team -- the uninitiated -- could grasp the feeling of hip hop.

Chen was aware of this problem. The production team invited famous rappers to train him. They taught him how to distinguish between old and new flows. They showed him popular beats and which songs are Gfunk and which are old school. Throughout auditions, the directors and screenwriters were learning.

At its core, The Rap of China is a music program -- Chen's specialty. After learning about hip hop, the production team merged the rules of battling with a reality show and formed a new competitive system.

The Rap of China can be understood as a live show with the theme of large-scale hip-hop talent show, Chen said. Each episode does not coincide with a round of competition, and instead ends at a cliffhanger like a TV drama. The first episode finishes before the frontrunner -- Hip Hop Man -- appears on stage. The second comes to a close when Wilber Pan wants to resurrect a competitor. The third ends with Hip Hop Man selecting a mentor. The show's primary objective is entertainment, and appreciation of hip hop is secondary, Chen said. The show's familiar setup is one older generations can understand, said Chen.

The story line captivates audiences and makes the show a hot topic on social media. When the show was trying to get backing, most advertisers turned it down. Before recording, the show only found one sponsor -- Absolut Vodka. When the first episode aired, the show had no title sponsor. Now its title sponsor is Nongfu Spring Vitamin Water, for which 20 animators using Photoshop for more than half a month created related content.

As the show gained a following, it attracted brands such as Douyin and Mi. The show now has 44 partners.

Before producing the show, Chen saw its vast commercial value and its potential for developing music festivals, intellectual property, films and clothes.

iQiyi registered The Rap of China fashion brand R!CH, using the logo on hats, shoes, jewelry and clothes. It products will be produced by iQiyi or in cooperation with other authorized brands. The company will hold the iQiyi All-star Carnival on August 19, where favorites from the show including PG One, VAVA and Tizzy T will perform. 

iQiyi was like a large apple tree before The Rap of China, and the show can link with all the other 'apples,' Gong said. The show can gather resources from other departments, including iQIyi's VIP department, Bubble Circle fan community, music and entertainment channels and webcast, e-commerce and derivative authorization platforms.

The show's repechage system uses these linkages. Fans can vote for contestants they would like to save and advance directly to the finals in the event of a knockout. Weibo and iQiyi users can vote once a day, while iQiyi VIP members can five times per day. Active Bubble Circle users and those making purchases on iQiyi Mall can get more votes.

The top five candidates had received more than 1 million votes by July 30. In the internet industry users bring traffic, which equals money. Fans create traffic and become platform users. The platform can gain money by selling merchandise and getting opportunities to cooperate with advertisers.  

The show is boosting hip hop's commercial value in China, and iQiyi's competitors will try to benefit from the boom and ride the wave, Chen said.

Competitors PG One, Tizzy T, VAVA, BrAnT.B and Obi & M03 were in ads released by McDonald's Corp. [NYSE:MCD] on July 25. PG One released a music video for NetEase Inc.'s [NASDAQ:NTES] mobile game Datang Wushuang, and short video apps such as Qixiu Webcast and Douyin invited him to do webcasts or release videos. Tizzy T shot an ad with MC Jin (also known as Hip Hop Man) for Alipay.

"The largest return of the show is popularity and approval," said PG One. "Before, hip-hop singers developed hip hop by putting up money instead of earning it." 

What about rappers who have not been discovered on the show?

Ma Zheng, the lead singer of Mr. Rock, hit the hip-hop scene in 2008. Before the band, Ma was an independent rapper, but turned to rap/rock. Ma said he cannot make ends meet. Mr. Rock's first album Dong Qi Xi Luo (Rise in the East, Fall in the West) cost CNY60,000 from to record and release. The album brought in less than that, including performances and copyrights. Niche musicians have limited commercial opportunities.

Hip hop was developed by African-American and Puerto Rican communities in the US in the 1970s. Many black city dwellers could not find jobs, and sang, danced and played street ball for entertainment. They gradually formed a unique musical scene that grew into today's hip-hop culture. The hip-hop industry was quite robust by 2003, putting out USD2 billion of clothes alone. The film 8 Mile starring Eminem, a famous hip-hop artist, brought in USD51.2 million at box offices in the first weekend after its release in 2003, breaking a record set by Jurassic Park. Russell Simmons, known as the godfather of hip hop, appeared on the cover of Business Week in 2013. Hip-hop entered Japan in the 1980s, and then Korea, spreading rapidly in both countries.

Hip hop is mainstream in the States, where it cornered a quarter of the music market in the first half, Nielsen SoundScan data show. The industry has witnessed the rise of 2Pac, Eminem, Kanye West and Jay-Z over the years.

Hip-hop culture is financially fueled by duds, kicks, flicks and magazines. Hip hop has become a mature industrial chain with significant commercial value. Hip hop is transforming from a unique culture for African-Americans to a lifestyle representing most of America's youth.

China's hip-hop industry is in its infancy.

Street, gang, community and ethnic minority are hip hop's buzzwords, while criticism and combat are its crucial elements. Hip hop has its circle -- a worldwide hip-hop crew. This does not mean China does not have room to develop hip hop, although it may lack space in the short term. The underground rappers on The Rap of China show one another respect as they are part of a brother and sisterhood that many Chinese audience members may need time to understand.

The broadcast of The Rap of China will not change the world that much in the near future, Ma said. "It is just a show whose follow-up development remains unclear after all," he said. "It might be a short hit, because hip hop does not develop as rapidly as mainstream music or popular music. Once there is no fresh element injected into the market, it will enter a period of stagnation." Hip hop has historically had a smaller presence in China than many other countries.

An electronic music TV show, Heroes of Remix, did not get a massive following the way The Rap of China has, but it did make breakthroughs. The Storm Electronic Music Festival became a partner of the Heroes of Remix, which has a good rep, and Douban gave electronic music a shot.

Hip hop takes longer to popularize than electronic music. Electronic music focuses on technical ability, while hip hop emphasizes its spiritual core, which makes it less accessible. Before The Rap of China was on the air, the only sensational news of hip hop was that Modernsky signed Edison Chen.

Hip hop has advantages. Most performers on The Rap of China have distinct images. Some have dreadlocks, tattoos and oversized and fancy clothes. Many hip-hop stars have unique personalities, and some are so confident that they leave an arrogant impression. These characteristics of hip hop, which may be emphasized by the show, make it marketable.

China's young generation pursues individuality, which has bred an attraction to niche brands. Players in the music market as well as the catering, makeup and clothing industries are scooping up unique brands to win over the young market.

Hip hop's mainstream adoption in China is an eventuality, PG One said. iQiyi's efforts to promote rap awakened the market, but making it mainstream or transforming Chinese music culture will require more than a single push from one platform.

[Both CBNweekly and Yicai Global are owned by Yicai Media Group, the largest financial news group in China. Over the past 13 years, Yicai Media Group has dominated Chinese financial media through radio, television, newspaper, magazine, new media, information services, business research and other mediums. It is the first choice of partner for the world's top financial forums and international economic organizations.]

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Keywords:   Rap of China,Hip Hop,MC Jin