It’s pretty common for non-Chinese speaking ex-pats and visitors to describe Shenzhen’s music scene as blasé. Forty years in the making is a lot different from China’s thousand-year-old cities proudly displaying its distinct cultures. And unless you’re Anthony Bourdain, fluent with the language, or really in with the party scene you might never see anything past the commercial places and heavily promoted international music festivals.
After stumbling upon South China’s rapper JR Fog and getting in touch with him through a random online encounter with a mutual acquaintance, I was excited to hear a local’s perspective about Shenzhen’s hip-hop scene over the years so we met up at Hawa, a grungy Western bar down the street from the famous hip-hop club, Public.
Huo “JR Fog” Jia Sun, 27, has been rapping for a decade. He’s won Most Potential Rapper at China’s First Annual Hip Hop Awards in 2008 and in 2009 received Best Rap Song of the Year for “Talk Time”. JR Fog was born in the Canton city of Xiaogun but was raised in Shenzhen. According to Huo, from an American way of thinking he’s Cantonese but in the Chinese mind he’s from the North where his grandfather was born: “your old folks home.”
Huo’s first introduction to the musical side of hip-hop was through a music shop in his neighborhood that sold a more liberal assortment of music. Like most urban youths he was listening to a lot of random things, but a Hong Kong rap group by the name of Lazy Mutha Fucka (LMF) piqued his interest with their “dirty Cantonese rap” and inspired him to use rap for his own artistic expression.
“School at the time was very [stressful]. I didn’t like the teachers,” he said. “Some teachers I liked and some teachers … they’re just fucked up. When I got pissed off I’d listen to LMF.”
“It’s got lots of curses in it – make the flavors!”
Prior to buying his first rap album, Huo said he’d spotted hip hop’s legendary dance component on the streets of Dongmen, where he grew up. He recalled a well-known B-boy crew called Trip Blind who would practice in one of the malls every day.
“That was the first time I knew Shenzhen got hip-hop. Shenzhen got B-boys! Shenzhen got poppin’! Shenzhen got graffiti! We know all the biggest graffiti motherfuckers in Shenzhen.”
If you ever find yourself in Luohu district near Honghu neighborhood, there’s one of the longest graffiti walls along the river.
“Like L.A.. … The government may not do anything about it because it’s a sewer.”
Despite all the different forms of hip-hop dispersed around the city, JR Fog stuck with rap because he could understand it and use it for his own expression.
“Hip-hop never lied and the rappers don’t lie,” he said. “Except for fake motherfuckers, fake motherfuckers always talk about that bullshit.”
“All the real rappers can make success in the Western world,” Huo continued.
“That’s one thing I want to complain about [about]. All the true speaking rappers can make success in the Western country. If you speak the truth in here your way is going to be a little bit hard. A lot of things are unspeakable.”
“If you speak something like LMF – you can’t even search their song.”
The Shenzhen rapper almost met a similar fate for a song he was featured on with a rapper from Guangzhou by the name of VYAN. The two men didn’t receive any punishment, but their song was banned and blacklisted by the government within hours of the song’s release.
“They give you a warning like you are in my eye – I’m watching you,” he said. A few days later the guys put out a cleaner version.
“Do you know why Chinese go to the moon. They got people dissing China on the moon. We got a rocket to go find them and bring them back.”
The “true speaking” rappers Huo was referring to were American rappers Fat Joe, Eminem, Lil’ Wayne, Missy Elliot and Lil’Kim.
“If I meet Fat Joe or Lil’ Wayne – I know their story. … If I meet Eminem – I know his personality.”
All the artist names he dropped are from that glorious period of the mid-to-late 90’s and the start of the new millennium. My ears perked at the mention of that era of hip-hop because the few Chinese rappers I’ve spoken to have yet to drop the name of an artist from before that time. It could be the age or it could be a lack of research.
Twenty-three-year-old Xu “Korn” Kun (a mentee of JR Fog) who’s been rapping for the past five years and modestly denies JR Fog’s claims that he’s the Drake of Shenzhen, admitted he doesn’t understand Trap. Even though the sound isn’t brand new and it is an actual craze in China’s hip-hop scene, Korn doesn’t get why trap is what it is. That answer could easily be answered through a more historical exploration of the genre along with a map of the United States to assist the journey. I guess that is a part of Huo’s mentorship because Huo put Korn on blast for a moment to add that his mentee just recently discovered the music of rapper Talib Kweli.
“He was like wow… that’s like 1998!” said Huo.
After dabbling in a few other subjects like the difference between Northerners and Southerners in China, Hong Kongers, and whether American teenagers really stopped smoking, we concluded the interview with JR Fog and Korn’s future plans as rappers.
“People say you should work your way up to your dreams (write songs every day…). That’s for suckers. You have to work smart. We do what we can do,” stated Huo. The two rappers aren’t full-time and they don’t plan on leaving their day jobs until fame and fortune make them a great offer.
“If you tell me right now that I’m signed to DefJam … If we got the chance to go big in China, we’ll do it. We’ll quit our jobs, anytime.”
Until that day comes, JR Fog wants you to know there’s an “O.G.” in Shenzhen.