After the popularity of the music performance platform The Rap of China TV show in 2017, Chinese stars like Kris Wu and Jackson Wang started getting international deals. At the same time, U. S. media company, 88 Rising was hatching new stars like Rich Brian (formerly Rich Chigga) and The Higher Brothers. This all led to a very Sinocentric take on the Asian Hip-Hop landscape. Yet, Hip-Hop culture was already firmly embedded in countries like Thailand, Japan, and Korea. Due to access to American media and pop culture, many countries across the region were already minting rappers and DJs – some of whom even made it to the U.S. – long before it blew up in China. And now that the dust has settled on the Chinese phenomenon, these countries are seeing their own scenes blow up, ironically through homegrown versions of The Rap of China.
This all leads to a vibrant, thriving scene across Asia, where local artists regularly rack up millions of YouTube views on their videos and have chart hits. From India to Indonesia to the Philippines, Hip-Hop is taking over the airwaves, and more importantly pop culture. Much like the explosive growth of Hip-Hop in the late-80s and early 90s American market, everyone from advertisers to government agencies are using rappers to sell products and get their messages across to an excited, energized youth. Clear signs of this trend can be seen by New York’s rap legend Nas and his Mass Appeal label setting up shop in India and immediately signing the pioneering rapper Divine. Similarly, the iconic Def Jam label has launched across Asia as Def Jam SE Asia – signing new artists in multiple countries.
Now comes VIBE’s fourth installment, over as many years, a full assortment project from the Urban Asia series with b2 Music in Hong Kong – an album that boasts tracks from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, India, Singapore, Mongolia, Vietnam, Cambodia…and of course China. It’s telling that the first single from the album is an exclusive track, “M For Tha Money” from Mongolian star MRS M. This time out MRS M sung and rapped in English, and floats over rugged production by New York heavyweight Harry Fraud. With the world becoming smaller due to the internet’s reach, Fraud found MRS M on YouTube and invited her to record at his Brooklyn studio, and it resulted in a newly formed two-song offering.
Another rapper making waves across the region is Singapore’s Yung Raja, an ethnic Tamil Indian raised in the city-state. As part of Def Jam’s expanding Asian roster, he has real crossover appeal since he can flow effortlessly in multiple languages, including English. His track “Mami” is a send-up of Singapore cultural mores, with a funny video featuring Indian, Chinese and Malay hotties. With his dyed green hair and youthful good looks, he raps, “Mami wear a sari, not a skirt/Mami lookin’ like she sweeter than dessert.” He looks like he’s having fun and that’s the point.
Like the world over, the Asian rap game is dominated by males. But it’s also refreshingly eclectic due to the various cultures involved. In a country like India that has 22 official languages, there are Hip Hop scenes popping up in every dialect – ever since the meteoric rise of Divine and subsequent Hindi film Gully Boy. It is mind-blowing to find rappers like TRE ESS from tiny Jharkhand in the country’s northeast, who along with Gravity are making DIY tracks and videos – with a smooth, confident English and Hindi flow over a jazzy beat reminiscent of Digable Planets or A Tribe Called Quest back in the day.
Another queen on the Asian scene is Vietnam’s Suboi, who has been rhyming since she was in her teens. And while that was an uphill battle in a country previously dominated by Pop and Dance music, she got a chance to drop bars for President Obama (who beatboxed!) during a youth forum when he was touring the region in 2016. That put her on the map, but since then she has released a string of quality singles and an EP, making her an OG before turning 30. On her song “Cho Khong” she switches smoothly between rapping and singing about the ironies of life and success, over a four on the floor beat that would work for the likes of Lizzo or Doja Cat.
Hong Kong’s Haysen Cheng has one of the illest voices in the Asian game. His growly baritone flows smoothly on “Restart” as he rhymes about deciding to be a rapper after a promising basketball career with lines like, “used to want a pair Brons til I got ‘em/used to wanna go to college in the autumn/born rich had to start again from the bottom.” Meanwhile, in Shanghai, former Keith Ape collaborator Charity Ssb turns in a dark, druggy Trap banger that feels dirty, but will also make you want some of what he’s having.
At 25, Reezy is already Cambodia’s best-known rapper. Part of the Klap Ya Handz label, which is putting Khmer Hip-Hop on the Asian map, Reezy displays an affinity for old school party Hip-Hop on “Z Back” – complete with funky wordplay and an up-tempo groove that will have you wanting to break out the roller skates. Japan-based Kazuo is even younger and spits rhymes in English and Japanese, having honed his bars at open mic nights in his native New York. On “Watch Out!” he lets you know he’s in a unique and space, being half Black and half Japanese. With tongue firmly in cheek, he proclaims “I’m the new face of J-rap,” and he may well be.
One of the TV shows inspired by The Rap of China was Vietnam’s King of Rap, and its ratings were astronomical during season one. One of the brightest stars to come out of that competition is 22-year-old Hieuthuhai, who is featured on Volume 4 with his simple and catchy “Bat Nhac Len” feat. Harmonie’ has racked up over 16 million YouTube views this past year. Elsewhere on the album, Tarvaethz is a Thai newcomer signed to Def Jam Thailand, and Shuwu is also brand new from Mongolia – and produced by MRS M’s production company. The album also has two instrumentals: The glitchy “Cascades” by India’s Owlist, and the funky India-cinematic “Shaanti” by Koothu.
Finally, the album has a bonus track by Mos Def’s DJ/Producer Preservation from an album he put together purely from old Chinese records he found crate digging in Hong Kong. ‘Dragon Town’ is a dirty piece of Cantonese funk with dusty samples, snatches of spoken word, and scorching bars from Hong Kong rapper Young Queenz. It will transport you back to watching Kung Fu Theater on Saturday afternoons, and It’s the perfect ending for an album that touches so many different styles and sounds.
Check the full project below.