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  Beijing Scene

Boyz 'N the Hutong: Hip-Hop in Beijing

Lucy Su, 24, is a staff nurse at a Beijing hospital. At night she trades in her white uniform for khaki combat pants and a baggy sweater, lets her long African-braided hair fall all around her delicate features, and heads for hip-hop music enclave Left Bank (on Workers Stadium North Road next to Club Vogue). Su says she and other regulars are drawn together by their love for hip-hop's soulful, rhythmic sound and its hip, urban image.

"While most of my classmates were listening to Chinese popular music, I was falling in love with music from the States," says Su. "I just love everything about it, from the rhythm and rhymes to the way we can express ourselves in terms of fashion."

While the mechanical, pumping beats of House music continue to pack next-door-neighbor Club Vogue each weekend, Left Bank has been quietly nurturing the city's new hip-hop scene. Situated just a few hundred meters north of City Hotel, this unassuming bar displays all the traits of being 'underground.' Dim lights lend it an air of mystery and secrecy and veiled faces gaze out from dark corners. Behind a makeshift booth, two DJs spin tunes on a CD player. Almost everyone here is in their late-teens and early-twenties, high school and college students, and young professionals from the far corners of the globe. Clustered around the bar, they all share one thing in common: passion for a musical phenomenon whose roots lie in inner-city American rap.

Rap music - with its blend of reggae and blues, and improvised word rhyming (later known as MCing) - originated in American cities in the 1970s and went on to transform the Stateside music scene. This revolutionary style and sound was first honed by young African Americans and Latinos who mixed records and practiced 'breakdance' moves on make-shift platforms in parks, playgrounds, and nightclubs, predominantly in New York City. It was then captured on vinyl and commercialized over the next 20 years to become one of the most influential and popular world-wide musical genres since rock-and-roll.

Despite Beijing's paltry exposure to the 20-year development of U.S. rap music and the culture stemming from it, Left Bank is still able to evoke part of the playground essence of early hip-hop and is home to some of the music's most avid fans in Beijing. Most of these kids stumbled randomly across a CD by luck or word-of-mouth and are attracted as much by its blend of syncopated beats and rhymes as they are by the image and attitude of celebrity rap artists.

Sensing the demand, Left Bank owner Xiu Tin opened the bar three months ago with a chill den for hip-hop in mind.

"I wanted to create somewhere different for people to relax and meet friends in an environment where they feel at home," Xiu says.

Wu Yi, a college student and part-time DJ, is part of a clique of Beijing skateboarders who spend their free time between skating and keeping up with the latest hip-hop tunes. Left Bank owner Xiu does more than give Wu and his buddies a place to listen and hang out. They get to choose whatever music they want.

"We come here because this is an integral part of this culture. In the summer we're all out skateboarding, but in winter we hang out here and play our music," Wu says.

Softly spoken, sporting a blue baseball cap, the only betrayal of Wu's passion for rap music is a case-full of CDs, which he clutches tightly at his side. Throughout conversations, he opens the case excitedly, and constantly makes reference to a seemingly endless list of rap artists. Despite his lack of spoken English, Wu can quote any number of rap masters, from Wu-Tang Clan to Mos Def, with an uncanny sense of fluency and rhythm.

"Most of the rap I can't understand, but I have friends who tell me what the lyrics mean. The words become very personal to me," Wu says.

Hip-hop culture in Beijing doesn't end at Left Bank and a few other clubs, such as Haidan's Solutions, that offer hip-hop nights through the week. Wu and fellow DJ Song Fei are part of a growing alternative music consumer group in Beijing that feeds an underground compact disc market. Many music fans first heard the infectious beats of R&B while hunting through CD shops in university areas such as Wudaokou in Haidian district. These 'da kou' CDs - a term to describe discs which are partially destroyed and resold - are quickly becoming the only affordable way to purchase a wide variety of contemporary, alternative music, especially music from overseas.

The latest hip-hop trend echoes the discovery of a musical genre that speaks to the ordinary lives of Beijing's youth as it did 20 years ago to urban kids in the States. It also signifies how young Chinese are making a conscious choice against more commercial, less soulful tunes, like techno, pumped out in nightclubs across China. Against overcrowded, overpriced clubs playing faceless house music to expressionless crowds, hip-hop gives young people a fresh opportunity to listen to music that they feel speaks from the heart and a lifestyle through which they can express their independence.

Xiao Long, 16, an unemployed high school dropout, started listening to hip-hop two years ago and has been MCing ever since.

"People used to listen to house but they found it too hard and fast. People are looking for something that offers them real meaning," says Xiao Long. "For me, rap music is special. It comes from the heart, talks about issues of everyday life, about the problems of being young in the city. It is utterly unique."

This isn't the first time hip-hop has gained popularity in Beijing. As such, some are pessimistic about its future and the scene's ability to sustain itself over time. Some, like Xiao Weng, one of Beijing's few DJs to record his own hip-hop mixes, has seen events like those at Left Bank held on-and-off at bars since the early 1990s. In all cases, the trend never fully developed into a permanent music scene, he says. One crucial factor is the inaccessibility of vinyl records, a major component in hip-hop culture. Many DJs in Beijing must rely on mixing compact discs, making it harder to compete with the demands of the city's constantly changing music trends.

"What's fashionable in Beijing is such a transient concept," Xiao Weng says with a sigh. "One minute it's rock, then it's house, then techno. Unless the DJs here can have access to proper turntables and records to play with, hip-hop will never fully develop."

Left Bank holds hip-hop nights on Tuesdays and Saturdays.


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