Q&A: MC Dallas Waldo Talks Rapping in Mandarin, Chinese Hip-Hop Politics

Q&A: MC Dallas Waldo Talks Rapping in Mandarin, Chinese Hip-Hop Politics
Credit: Babe 18
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A Canadian MC talks about rapping in Mandarin and the politics of cross-Strait battling.

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Ahead of Taiwan Hip-Hop Festival – the country's first outdoor event devoted to the genre– this weekend in Kaohsiung, 28-year-old Canadian rapper Dallas Waldo [阿龍] talks to The News Lens International about rapping in Mandarin, hip-hop culture in Taiwan and China, and the harshest disses he's dealt and endured.

TNL: How did you come to be performing as a hip-hop MC in Taiwan?

Dallas Waldo: I always wanted a music career since the age of 17 and bounced around from Ottawa, where I am from in Canada, to Shanghai to Ottawa and then Taipei, building a fan base. After being in Taipei and meeting people in the scene, we organized a free event called DISS RBL. It was the first time anyone in Taipei had seen accapella rap battles.

TNL: What's an acapella rap battle?

DW: From a Taiwanese perspective, it’s kind of like XiangSheng (cross talk), with people on stage who rhyme and kind of tell jokes – with no music. You just use your raps to have a fight with the other guy, a war of words relying entirely on your lyrical ability.

TNL: And you were rapping in Chinese rather than English?

DW: All in Chinese and all contestants were Taiwanese. It really took off and it was exciting to see a video I put online get into the tens of thousands [views] in a week. That was four years ago in 2013. I wrote my first Chinese rap in Canada to help me practice my Chinese. But when I went to Shanghai, the first time I wrote a full song, voices and chorus, was before this song contest, Feichang Manyi. I took the old version down because my pronunciation was too terrible, but my teacher forced me to go into the competition. But it worked out — I got third place.

TNL: How have you gone about building your fan base in Taiwan?

DW: I remember the days in university when I had under 1,000 fans and thinking, “Oh my god, I wish I had 10,000 or even just the first thousand." Now I have 30,000 but it still seems small. You have to know what your fans want — videos have been really important and for me, these tongue twister raps, which the Taiwanese audience get a kick out of. Every time I put one out, my fan base will increase from one to five or six thousand, but at the same time I don’t just want to be a tongue twister rap guy.

TNL: It struck me when I first came to Taiwan that there was big interest in hip-hop dancing, and certainly the fashion, and there were also some well known MCs, but actually the music wasn’t that big. I didn’t really understand what the appeal of the culture was here. What do you think?

DW: I think it’s just how inherently cool hip-hop is. You always hear when you go and do a rap: “oh hen shuai!” The clothing: “hen shuai!” You do a dance move: “hen shuai!” A lot of it is just on how cool it is. And that’s not very cool in my opinion, but that’s what I see. With the dance moves you get your attitude and its provocative, and with rap music, Taiwan had a head start because they had no holds on what they could say. And a couple of decades ago Taiwan was a leader in music in general, but that’s changed due to budgets and the rise of China, Japan and Korea.

TNL: Hip-hop here doesn’t have that element of gritty social protest that it does in the States and originally had, and also has in Europe, that social commentary element. Why do you think that is?

DW: One is language barrier. People listen to English hip-hop, think it’s cool and the music wants to make them bounce, so maybe they don’t understand the depth. It’s just their interpretation and way of expressing it — does there need to be the fighting back element? The base of hip-hop is keeping it real. I don’t think rebelliousness is necessary for good hip-hop. It’s just important that you’re keeping it real and saying what’s actually being felt. The easiest way to see if that is true is to just put it out to the masses.

TNL: Do they ever pair breakdancing with MC performances here?

DW: Very rarely do you see dancing and the music put together. The only time I really see it is with a guy named Leo37. He puts a pretty good event at Legacy in Taipei every once in a while with this dance group called IP Lockers. That’s the only time I ever see them connected. Even at those huge dance battles where 1,000 people come to watch and the government sponsors them for hundreds of thousands of NT dollars, they never invite rappers, just DJs.

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Credit: Enzo 恩佐 / MACH.Lab
Everyone needs a little help to make it in the game.

TNL: What kind of themes come up the most among MCs rapping in Taiwan?

DW: Relationships and love. You see a lot of guys doing videos in temples. I’m also seeing a lot more gangster stuff. I don’t know too much about Taiwanese gangster culture but from the videos it’s a lot of tattoos, gold chains and hanging out in temples and gambling. It’s very different from selling drugs and having guns like in the West.

TNL: You helped organize part of the Iron Mic competition here in Taiwan — can you explain what that’s about?

DW: Iron Mic is the longest running freestyle competition in China. They have been going 15 years. It’s possibly the longest running freestyle competition in the world. I don’t know any rap battle that’s been going on longer than Iron Mic. They have 20-something cities around Greater China that will do an elimination competition — one winner who goes to another place in China and then have a final competition. There’s some amazing freestyle going on in China.

TNL: You’ve been heading over to China a lot recently, what are you up to over there?

DW: When we did Iron Mic for the first time in Taiwan in 2014, I went to Shanghai with the champion for the finals, that’s when I saw the how good the level of freestyle was and I was just blown away. I’d never seen anything that good even in English. From there I met regional champions from around China. A year after, I got in touch with these guys and toured from Xiamen through Shenzhen, Yunnan, Chengdu, Chongqing, Xi'an and Beijing. Everyone was really hospitable and took me in, eating local food and meeting the rappers, going to their studios. Anything they could show me they did. People there are working really hard. They look at Taiwan because it has stars like Hot Dog and Dan Bao but everyone in China has a full house – they don’t want to put it down because they think people in Taiwan have four aces. The average level is better over there – but with a billion people that is liable to happen. In Taiwan people are taking it slow. A lot of MCs put a song out every three months. How do you expect to do anything going at that pace?

TNL: Moving around China on that tour, was everyone rapping in Mandarin?

DW: No, a lot of dialect. The most famous group in China, called the Higher Brothers – a lot of their raps are all in the dialect of Chengdu [capital of Sichuan province in southwest China] but it sounds dope. Nobody knows really what they’re saying, it has subtitles so you can check. But it’s just the way they say it, and their swagger, their style. It makes you feel like this is real — this is them — it has bounce and is authentic. You can see it in the battles as well with kids using dialect.

TNL: Does it have to be Mandarin on Iron Mic?

DW: Yes. And it works out better that way. We’re doing another competition [Underground 8 Mile (地下八英里)] with the final in Xi’an and they’ve asked us to make sure the contestants don’t speak too much taiyu [Taiwanese]it’s better for the contestants.

TNL: How much does it irritate these MCs that they might be censored if they something politically sensitive? Is that a conversation you had?

DW: For sure. Probably the most interesting experience was in Yunnan, staying with a friend who organizes Iron Mic. He said you have to go to Chengdu and see Higher Brothers — they’ve just put out a new video, and it was called “Addicted to Drugs” — it’s the most hardcore thing I have ever heard come out in Chinese. The MC is talking about taking ecstasy, acid, mushrooms, heroin. I was wondering if I should go meet this guy — he seems kind of crazy and I wondered if this was going to be trouble for me — but the thing is he rapped in Chengdu dialect. That’s one way to get around it — the Chinese government won’t go after you if you’re rapping in dialect; if he were to say those things in Mandarin then he might have more of a problem.

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Credit: Triangle Taipei
Mc Dallas Waldo rocks the mic at Underground 8 Mile in Taipei.

TNL: Do you think Taiwanese rappers self censor to avoid alienating China, their major market?

DW: There are guys who have. Look at Dwagie — he has been at the forefront of Taiwan independence but look where [his song "Light Up Taiwan"] got him. He’s now blocked in China and it’s really hindered his career. Look at Hot Dog who did not do that and talked about society. There are so many things you can talk about — why do you have to take it political? I don’t like it when people say “China is this way” There’s so many people and to slap a label on an entire country isn’t fair in the first place. Last time I was in China, I said to my friend, “You guys might have some trouble for saying things like that, right? He said ‘You can say whatever you want, but you have to deal with the consequences.”

TNL: How many other foreigners are there on the circuit rapping in Mandarin?

DW: The organizer of Iron Mic is a foreigner, but he doesn’t speak Chinese and stays behind the scenes. I met a guy called Xiao Ou, he was pretty good — real heavy Beijing accent. He has a nice video but I haven’t heard much of him since. At [China rap competition] Zhongguo You Xi Ha there was myself, two American born Chinese guys and one guy called Piano Man who comes from somewhere in Africa — though he is more of a singer. That competition brings together 1,200 people and if they couldn’t find any other foreigners then that probably means there isn’t anyone else doing it.

TNL: You’ve put out a track called “Promise”, which is quite emotional. What was the motivation to write that song?

DW: Right before I came out to Taiwan my grandfather was really sick. He had leukemia. I went to see him in hospital and I told him I was thinking of staying back because his death was imminent. He told me not to — that the scholarship I had was the opportunity of a lifetime and I had to go — he opened up to me. Sure enough I came over and it wasn’t too long before he did pass. It’s about respecting his wishes and making the most of my time here. There was a time when I was going off track and getting frustrated and moving away from my end goal. When I listen to that track it gets be back focused. I stop worrying about what other people think and being so retaliatory to other people’s attacks and opinion.

TNL: What is that end goal?

DW: I want to bring the two cultures together a bit more, help that understanding and use hip-hop as the platform to do that. My dream is to be a world touring artist but even if I can just be an Asia touring artist using Chinese hip-hop — just doing something new is really what I’m into. In a way I am loving that dream, I’m not touring all the time but I am living as a rapper here in Taiwan.

TNL: You mentioned being resistant to attacks from other people. What have people said?

DW: In the rap competitions there are obviously a lot of contestants and not a lot of money being made from an underground event that relies on ticket sales and we have been accused of not giving enough money back to the contestants. In my experience, I’ve participated in seven acapella battles as well as other freestyle battles and I would get a bus, a hotel and pay for everything just to participate. So for me, I was thinking “I put this battle in your city, that gets you a video and that gets you all these views — that’s me paying you back." We spend a lot of time getting ready with the camera crew and preparing the venue. I was just doing it the way I had seen it work in the West. Over here, it seemed like every time there was a performer they must be paid. I didn’t agree with that so that created some fuss in the beginning. I make it clear and try to get people who should be paid. There are very few MCs who can sell 10 tickets, and if you can’t do that I don’t see what I should pay you.

TNL: What are some of the harshest put downs you have had?

DW: Oh man. I had one battle against a guy named Chun Yen, one of the first times I had battled. He was saying: “When I battle against you it sounds like I’m battling Google translate — [speaks in a computer voice] "Wo zhidao ni xiang shuo shenme”. I knew people would have trouble hearing me so I was trying to speak more slowly — but that had me cracking up.

TNL: And vice versa?

DW: What have I said? I don’t know if I can say it — you can go watch it yourself. At the time of the rush of the lifa yuan [Legislative Yuan] — the Sunflower Movement when all the students rushed in — I compared the kid’s ass to the lifa yuan getting invaded by so many people. Can I think of anything more appropriate…these rap battles are pretty hardcore.

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TNL: Did you find rapping in Chinese helped you develop your Chinese-language speaking persona?

DW: Being in a battle is one of the most intense performances. It’s like being in a fight. When you first get up there, your heart is pounding and the other guy is screaming in your face and saying all this nasty stuff about you. But then you also have to keep your cool and get your stuff out. I put a lot of taiyu in my performance and a lot of slang — not being so straightforward — more the way I would talk that has come from hip-hop. You’re not going to learn how to talk like that in school.

TNL: Finally, what’s the next place people can check out your performance?

The Taiwan Hip Hop Festival in Kaohsiung on Nov. 18. That will happen around 1.30-4 p.m. and then later in the day I’m going to have a 30 minute performance on the main stage.