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Blogging Beijing

The 2008 Summer Olympics will punctuate three decades of development and test China's global legitimacy. They've already transformed the way millions of people think and live. Seattleite and Fulbright researcher Daniel Beekman brings you Beijing.

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June 15, 2008 11:20 AM

Hip hop Olympics

Posted by Daniel Beekman

(A shorter version of this entry appeared as a story in the June 14 print edition of the Seattle Times, and online here at www.seattletimes.com.)

No matter how far you go, Beijing welcomes you back/
One plus one plus one is three/
In Three, In Three, In Three
Bringing the true Beijing style/
Watching the old heads play Chinese chess/
Keep on speak-singing the true Beijing way/
Enough of these brothers with phony spirits/
Stick to speak-singing the true Beijing way/
In Three is dropping a beat

So begins 'Beijing welcomes you back,' as rapped by the soulful Chinese act In Three (Yin San'er). Chen Haoren, Meng Goudong and Jia Wei want the world to remember their city and the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Blast In Three and you'll hear Olympic China - east and west, old and new.

"Maybe a year from now you'll cry when our song comes on," said Chen, 25, who's lived all his life in Beijing.

The Olympics, fast approaching, have inspired all sorts of Beijingers: athletes, scientists, salesmen, dissidents...even rappers struggling to nourish a hip hop scene. This August, 3.1 million potential In Three
fans will visit Beijing.

Sugary pop ballads dominate Chinese music; teenagers here worship superstars from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Most Beijing venues rock to an expatriate beat. In Three are drawing crowds against the odds.

"In China, hip hop is relatively unknown," said Dr. Jin Yuanpu, who heads the Humanistic Olympic Studies Center at People's University. "But if hip hop catches anywhere, it'll catch in Beijing. Beijingers love to talk."

According to Angela Steele, a rap researcher, Beijing spawned China's first hip hop artists between 2000 and 2004 - rappers like Yin Tsang and turntablists like DJ Wordy.

Jia, Meng and Chen share a colorful pad north of Beijing.

The Olympics...everpresent. The 2008 Games could blow the lid off Beijing hip hop.

Rather than imitate American hip hop, In Three have developed a sound based on traditional Beijing shuochang ('speak singing' or rapping). Mule drivers invented shuochang centuries ago. Comedians and salespeople perform the art today.

"We're not about Chinese hip hop, or American hip hop, or English hip hop," explained Meng, 26. "We're about Beijing hip hop.

"We lead different lives than rappers in the United States. We brag less. We're from a socialist society. We're less competitive."

Although Chinese pop stars borrow from rap - Taiwanese heartthrob Jay Chou, for example - record labels here rarely sign raw hip hop acts like In Three.

"We rap about our environment, about Chinese development," Chen said. "We try to make meaningful music. Beijing's hip hop scene is trash - too many pretenders.

"When I see Chinese kids wearing hip hop clothing - kids who are empty inside, I feel uncomfortable."

In Three's 'Beijing welcomes you back' live from Beijing.

Chen, who speaks a slack-jawed Beijing drawl (sanlitun becomes sanlituan'er), has dreaded hair and pierced ears. Meng sports a fitted baseball cap, Jia stylish t-shirts.

Posters of Tupac and Bob Marley hang inside the trio's smoky, two-story apartment - one light-rail stop from outer Beijing.

Chen and Meng have known each other for years.

"For a while we listened to hip hop, danced and drank in the same circles," Meng said.

African friends - from Nigeria and Burundi - turned Chen onto hip hop. He promoted for local nightclubs. That led to freestyle rhyming alongside Meng.

The pair approached Jia, 21, in 2007, at a nightclub in northwest Beijing.

"We heard him flow, and he was...wow," Meng said.

"In Three is the quintessential underground Beijing crew," Steele said. "They rap with Beijing accents, their lyrics represent the lives of Beijingers and they're outspoken, yet humorous.

"I saw In Three live in Guangzhou. Jia is smooth on the microphone," Steele said. "Chen keeps the crowd hyped. And Meng's delivery is fierce. You felt that they loved their music, and the crowd loved it too."

Chen plays a mean clarinet. In fact, he studied music theory at China's Central Conservatory.

"At first we weren't sure about our son and hip hop," Chen's father said. "We were hoping he'd stick to clarinet.

"We encouraged him to go one route and he went another. But we didn't stand in his way. We wanted him to be happy."

Chen got his start as a DJ - here mixing it up at home.

In Three walk a fine line between Beijing's rap underground and pop stardom.

Chen calls his father an 'ex-bad boy.' Chen Shu was 12 years old when China's leaders launched the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). A music-lover like his son, Chen Shu listened to Beethoven and Tchaikovsky behind closed doors.

"Western music wasn't allowed," said Chen Shu. "It was a dangerous time. When my classmates went out to drill with the Red Guards I stayed at home and studied music."

Thousands of fans bounced to In Three's MIDI Music Festival set last year. Now Beijing authorities have postponed MIDI 2008, citing security concerns ahead of the Olympics.

On 'Beijing welcomes you back,' nevertheless, Chen, Meng and Jia wax patriotic.

From track & field to swimming/
From the Bird's Nest (National Stadium) to the Watercube (National
Aquatics Center)/
China's people are realizing an Olympic Dream/
Participating determinedly, achieving victory/
Winning glory for our socialist country/
Our national flag rises above Tian'anmen with the sun

The song fits China's manicured Olympic image - grand and upbeat. In
Three are proud of their city.

Then again, Chen, Meng and Jia speak frankly about the Games.

"The Olympics are a business, you know," Chen said.

"There's so much hype," Jia said. "If you yell OLYMPICS, the guy next to you will pull off his headphones."

Children of the early 1980s, Chen, Meng and Jia remember a different Beijing - grayer and quieter. The city and Communist China opened in 1978, under Mao Zedong's successor Deng Xiaoping.

"Hosting an Olympics is like opening your window," Jia said. "You get a nice breeze coming in. And when the wind picks up, you're covered in dust.

"Some older homes have been knocked down. Some people have been asked to move. So the Games...there's good and bad."

Chen, Meng and Jia listen to American hip hop - Chen wants to see Brooklyn. Beijing's Olympics could lend In Three (and Beijing rap music) global exposure.

"Don't count on it," Chen smiled. "For us, the Games are niubi - of great consequence. But streets will be blocked, nightclubs shut down. There won't be hip hop in the Opening Ceremonies."

Maybe there should be.

Nothing's impossible in 2008, listen to In Three/
Beijing is your home/
Let's cheer together for the Chinese team/
Friendship matters most/
Have fun in Beijing/
We'll welcome you back


In Three music online

'Hei' ('Black')

'Beijing Wanbao' ('Beijing Evening News')

'Laoshi Nihao' ('Hello Teacher')

In Three music video online

'Hei' ('Black')

In Three on YouTube

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SmoEHYof2XE

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uPYonU556X0

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R604d7PQ77I

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZYLf1RYPkg

For more information on Chinese hip hop, visit Angela Steele's research blog - 'Dongting'

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