What you need to know
A landmark exhibition shows how far Taiwanese hip-hop has come, but the underground still informs where it is heading.
When you turn on the radio in Taiwan, hip-hop from local artists MC Hot Dog (MC熱狗), Soft Lipa (蛋堡), and a handful of other commercially successful rappers occasionally punctuate the ubiquitous strains of Mando and K-pop.
Their voices represent the lyrical sword tip of an ever deepening scene, one with nearly two decade's worth of heritage that featured in a retrospective showcase at Huashan 1914 Creative Park called "Taiwan Hip Hop Kids" on April 18-22.
Organized by Kao! Inc. and designed by InFormat Design Curating, the multimedia showcase incorporated 16 artists on four labels hailing from all over Taiwan, including Kung Fu Rap, Ainoko, MC Hot Dog's label True Colors, and Kao! Inc. itself.
Surrounding an Akai MPC 2500 beat-making machine placed nonchalantly in the middle of the space, each artist was featured on vertically mounted monitors hung in a grid with a video of themselves gesticulating, posing, or rapping into the camera.
Onscreen, the MCs struck a commanding presence even as two-dimensional and two-thirds-life-size looping video clips. Representing typical hip-hop fashion, most were dressed in baggy name brand clothes, gold chains, one even sporting a somewhat cliched Scarface T-shirt, and a hint of quirky style, like a sleeping mask as an accessory hair band.
All 16 screens in the visual installation were accompanied by headphones playing recorded interviews with each of the artists talking about music and their lives. Meanwhile, plaques offered a stylized portrait, graphic, short one-line quote, and a brief description of the artists behind a glass box displaying personal mementos like notebooks filled with lyrics.
Most of the items were sentimental memorabilia or sources of inspiration, including a towel given to artist Leo Wang (Leo王) by his mother after his first show because she noticed all the other rappers on stage had towels as accessories.
On the back wall, a collection of 100 records, books, and CDs cataloged some significant pieces of Taiwan hip-hop history spanning from 1993 to 2018. Among the collection was a burned CDR copy of MC Hot Dog's first mix tape, a handful of vinyl pressings, a published journal from deceased rapper Shawn, also known as M80, and records from a slew of Taiwan's brightest stars in the world of rap music.
Album artwork varied distinctly from derivative commercial projects to clever marketing constructs, like the inclusion of a pack of rolling papers with an album titled "Rolling Papers" from Dr. Paper, one of the names used by rapper/producer GorDoN (GDN), whose album "GDN Express" was wrapped in a brown postage envelope.
Music critic Ka La Gi (卡拉雞) explained the selected discography in a press release for the exhibition saying, "From MC Hotdog's first mini album, Taiwanese hip-hop has been around for 18 years. This is long enough to build a timeline for the evolution of Taiwan hip-hop music."
The release notes how Taiwan's hip-hop scene is a confluence of international inspiration and influence, with the exhibition's 100 albums showing how each of the featured crews came into being and the place they occupied in the hip-hop constellation.
Beneath the surface
Though entitled "Taiwan Hip-Hop Kids," most of the show's featured artists have been making music for years, and like many of the genre's international elder statesmen, are now entering middle-age.
But the spirit of hip-hop is a youthful one, and for those who embody the lifestyle maintaining their swagger is crucial.
In a short documentary covering some of the artists in the process of putting together the exhibition, Kao! Inc. owner Dela Fat closes with an interview clip of MC Hot Dog talking about how he struggles to stay hungry and edgy as he has gotten older and achieved a certain level of success. The veteran MC proceeds to drop a few lines from his unreleased song "Hip-Hop is No Party."( 嘻哈沒有派對).
Even though the message might evolve with age, the party anthems of mainstream hip-hop remain the sound that sells. Maintaining an online presence and racking up fans with live performances, flashy music videos, and label-sanctioned album releases means catering to a certain kind of hip-hop style that borrows heavily from whatever is popular overseas.
Maintaining an online presence and racking up fans with live performances, flashy music videos, and label-sanctioned album releases means catering to a certain kind of hip-hop style that borrows heavily from whatever is popular overseas.
For Taiwanese rappers influenced by American hip-hop culture from the 1990s to 2000s, the bling bling image blends with hints of manga, martial arts, battle rapping, storytelling, and the creative process itself to become something unique and compelling.
Dialect, slang, and regional language has always been a part of street culture as it relates to hip-hop, and Taiwanese rappers are no different, with songs in Mandarin, Hoklo, Hakka, Atayal, Amis, Bunun, Paiwan, Tao, French and English.
Staying true to the roots of hip-hop lifestyle and culture, Dela thinks the underground still has a major role to play in the future of Taiwan's scene: "It's only been a few years since hip-hop artists made an impact on Taiwanese mainstream music. Though there are some that have signed with big record companies, they mostly came from the underground and still work closely with underground artists. The new generation learns from the experiences of the last generation and the influence from other countries. We evolved our own new generation of hip-hop artists in Taiwan."
When you turn on the internet in Taiwan, there's no need for a VPN to access SoundCloud or Facebook, and a quick keyword search yields a plethora of tunes from local underground DJs, bedroom producers, or unknown beat-makers. If you look hard enough, you will find music from DJ Kool Klone, Conehead 錐頭, taro, or one of the other up and coming producers and DJs from the Taipei-based collective known as "beats and friends."
DJ Kool Klone just played his first show outside of Taiwan this month at Elevator, an underground nightclub in Shanghai, following the release of his EP "Too Much Sidechain."
He agrees with Dela about the underground hip-hop scene in Taiwan compared to the established veteran MCs and labels that started the movement: "I think hip-hop music in Taiwan is still not the mainstream, so artists have closer relationships with each other overall... Though the styles of music they create are different, there is no big gap between mainstream and underground artists. I think if there is more interaction, there won't be a line anymore."
On April 21, "beats and friends" held their sixth edition of a series they host in Taipei at AMPM, a new multi-purpose venue down the street from Huashan 1914 Creative Park that opened only two months ago. As "Taiwan Hip Hop Kids" was overflowing with visitors attending a talk by Soft Lipa about making beats, the most active beat-making collective in Taipei was hard at work playing music behind the bar at AMPM overlooking the indoor skateboard halfpipe and fashion boutique.
The latest installment of the untitled series of events put on by "beats and friends" was a testament to their place in the Taipei underground and their efforts to bring international talent to the city's deprived fans.
Previous shows were held at small venues around the city including Reused再造_藝文聲響實驗室, Hip Apa (6樓黑帕), and Another Brick. The collective's brand of hip-hop is hard to pin down since there are several members with their own tastes. But the main focus is on instrumental beats, classic hip-hop samples, and the noticeable absence of an MC.
Rappers do attend their shows of course, and have been known to make guest appearances on the mic. Previous untitled shows included freestyles from Leo 37, Niski the Free, henneysee, and Rgry, but for the most part it's all about the beats. That attracts a certain audience who primarily likes to chill out and appreciate the music instead of the high energy of mainstream hip-hop shows that have a hype man telling them to put their hands up.
Rather than an over the top visual show, "beats and friends" invites patrons to play video games on the projector and interact with the DJs and other hip-hop heads in attendance. Building a community of artists and fans is something that is still being cultivated in the Taiwan hip-hop landscape among the various circles that are already in motion.
While describing the formation of Taiwan's first commercially marketed hip-hop group, LA Boyz Taiwan Rock Music Producer Ni Chung Hua offered this insight: "Both rock music and hip-hop started from the rebel of the society, this rebellious power what pushes individuals and society to grow, and I see that power spreading everywhere in Taiwan."
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Additional research and translation by Shine Yang
Editor: David Green