Shanghai’s Mr. Trouble, making music for his people
Shanghai – Friday night – rapper Trouble invited me to the release party of his new mixtape “MDOTY”. Rapper and producer Trouble has a nerdy and low profile style. He is a keen thinker with profound and meaningful lyrics. This is his third work, after “I made an album!”(Wo chu zhuanji le!), released in 2010, with original beats, lyrics and production, all made by him, and EP “The sound of future”(Weilai zhi sheng), with beats by Beijing crew T-Crash, released in 2011. Tonight’s is a little concert for his friends and closest fans, set in a little cozy pub on the edge of the city center, the Mistbar. Trouble sits on a stool, holding the microphone stand. The atmosphere is relaxed, everybody is chilling drinking beer or smoking shisha. It looks more like a jazz or folk music concert than a hip hop concert! In the place we have also other guests like PJ, member of Shuangdan Wasi, Trouble’s crew, KOZ, from Buzy Kidz, old school Shanghai crew, and Boss and Alien, formerly the two of Boss Music crew, then “inglobated” in Shuangdan Wasi, “fresh blood” as Trouble call them: “they are pretty good new Shanghaiese artists. Well, maybe nowadays we can’t call them new artists anymore! But in fact, there aren’t many good artists coming out lately, so is like if the whole scene is still in that particular moment of Shanghai hip hop history… Sometimes they even call ME “new artist”…
Hinting at something different and interesting about hip hop in Shanghai, trouble breaks it down for us.
Trouble: The best period for hip hop in Shanghai was around 2004, at that time there were freestyle battles every week, and also hip hop parties. That was the best period for hip hop in Shanghai, and also for Chinese hip hop crews. There were a lot of hip hop crews coming out, like Yin T’sang and Long Men Jing in Beijing, and Hi Bomb crew in Shanghai, which are considered now old school crews. At that time they got suddenly very famous, the scene of that time was really good. And then due to different problems, it slowly vanished until now.
WHHM: How did you first get in touch with hip hop?
Trouble: I first got in touch with hip hop at the age of 14, when I was in middle school, and I started to write my own lyrics around 16, and since then I incredibly kept doing it until now. At first I was writing lyrics and then I started to make beats.
WHHM: Which rapper gave you the inspiration?
Trouble: Eminem. A lot of Chinese rappers started after listening to Eminem. In TV we have music programs, and I remember at that time the first position in the chart was held by Lose Yourself. I heard that track and I felt really amazing, it was so different from the other music genres I listen before, including also the mode of expression and the attitude, amazing! And after that I started listening to Tupac, Biggie, J Dilla… So I was studying the classics, but nowadays you know, young guys they listen to Eminem and then they just switch to Drake and so on. And among Chinese music, the musician who influenced me the most is Blow, member of Busy Kidz with KOZ, they represent the past generation of Shanghai rappers. No matter if we talk about my music or my personal growth, Blow gave me a lot of influence.
WHHM: Tell us about your crew, Shuang Dan Wasi.
It’s a group we founded when we were at the university, me and other friends who love making music, so we decided to put this group together, everyone still remaining a single singer, but sometimes working together to some tracks. At university we also organized our live concert and released our mixtape. But after university, many members needed to leave the group due to personal reasons. But this group is different from the others for the fact that, first of all, we are friends, and this is a point in which I’m pretty clear on. So if there is someone who leaves I think it’s ok, whatever, we are still friends. The philosophy of this group is that, members who left they don’t really leave, still stay on the back helping us a lot. But there may still be some little issues, like for example PJ is the head of the group, and I’m like a vice head. PJ can decide a lot of things but he still needs to go through my approval. Now he’s main idea is trying to make a group with a certain popularity and then organize some shows. We are a professional studio, so we can also produce videos and related stuff. And then PJ has his own work, so the activity of this group would be like a secondary income for him. But for me, I would like the music to become my main profession. There are a lot of risk, I know, but, whatever, like I said, friends will still be friends, if he has a good idea I can join him, if not I’ll keep on making my mixtapes and this kind of stuff.
WHHM: When listening to your songs we can guess that you got in touch also with other musical genres…
Yeah, first of all is because I usually listen to many genres, not only rap. And I can make beats by myself, so also for this reason I want my music to be of many different kinds.
For me, rap has two main distinctions: one kind is “ghetto”, coming out from the ghetto; the other maybe has enjoyed a good education, so it’s like the difference between 50 Cent and Kanye West. The only rapper who I consider as an idol is Kanye West, rappers like Tupac or Biggie, they give me a lot of feelings, but only Kanye West is the one I really do worship! 50 cent came out from the ghetto, like in China also there are a lot of rappers who were little hustlers, who didn’t study that much and were going around, and so hip hop for him because a kind of savior, and it became a reason to keep on this kind life. But regarding the rappers who enjoyed a good education, they had a quite easy road to walk, a quiet life, a good job. Like in my case, mine is a family of teachers, so is a family with solid bases, in the elementary, medium schools and at the high school I always had good grades, but hip hop for me is … is another way to live. When I was 16teen, in the adolescence, period in which people may reflect upon a lot of things, at that time I have already seen the way I’ll may be walking in, like working, getting married and have children. I cannot really understand the life of black people in the American ghettos, but hip hop gave me the opportunity to see another way to live, which conclusion is unknown. And that’s what I like of it. A life in which fun is bigger than responsibilities. I really like music, since I was a child I got in touch with a lot of American music, listening both hip hop and The Sound of Silence!
What hip hop gave me the most is showing me my future. And also making me understand my character, I’m not so good in communicating with others, a kinda like nerd. So because of my character, hip hop became a way to express myself better. So I think I’m better in writing lyrics, my lyrics are better than my flow, lyrics are my strong point. Usually, apart from making music and working, I don’t have a rich social life, I don’t go out often. And I don’t play games, only listening to and making music. Without music I may just be a simpleton, or a loser.
I’m not really a massive music maker, but I try to keep releasing at least one mixtape per year. When I write lyrics I do need time to experience a lot of things. When I made my first album, that year I took a break off school, because I was wondering that in China attending the university is something pretty meaningless, you cannot learn anything from this system. So I wanted to stop my studies, but my parents didn’t allowed me to, they want me to have at least a diploma. So I just took a break off, and I went traveling everywhere, also to Europe.
And I did reflect a lot. Then when I came back I released my first album. The following year my second work was a mixtape, recorded with Boss. I knew him that year and I very liked him. After my first album I reached suddenly a good popularity, so I decided to make something together with Boss, to bring his music to a wider public. The following year I came out with a solo EP, “The Sound of Future”, with 3 tracks, which I made with the help of T-Crash, a crew of producers from Beijing. Since that time I haven’t release new work until now, and that was the longest period of time without releasing any work in my career, almost one year and eight months. My aim is to reach a certain uniformity in my works, but there are also some bad aspects. Because the update process is very fast, every time I make a new work there may be a lot of people who was already following me, so knows my previous works. But because in the late few years there were a lot of new rappers coming out on the net, is very easy, and it doesn’t brings any costs, anybody can make music, so this updating process is very quick. So every time there is somebody who needs to come and get to know my music again, but actually all my works are linked together, so if you listen my works from the start of my career until know you can see my growth. But every time fans needs to understand me again, understanding my many changes, so that is a kind of … trouble!
WHHM: Are the albums available in download?
The track of the new mixtape MDOTY are all available for free on internet, but for downloading you have to go on the specific page and pay. The previous mixtape and the Ep were available for free, and regarding the first album I was selling the hard copy, made by myself. And the sells went over my expectations. At that time I was completely a young gun, and I didn’t have so much self-confidence, I only made one hundred and few CDs, and I wasn’t sure I would be able to sell all of them, and thinking maybe I’ll give the left ones as gift. But surprisingly I run out of them at the very first time. And at that time there wasn’t the trend of making the music video of the tracks, it only need to put there the link of the track and everybody go to click on it. So I kept on printing some more CDs, until printing more than 200 CDs, all sold out! That was really surprising! But nowadays, everybody has a definite self-imagine mentality, my releases have a too long interval between each one, and my ability and experience are limited, so I cannot plan a proper way to promote myself better. But I think my present condition is ok, if fans want to listen to my stuff they will go and listen anytime they want. Also MDOTY, initially it was supposed to be put available entirely for free, I think that a mixtape should be for free. Because after all that’s not entirely yours, you’ve downloaded the beats, even if those beats are for free, but I think that’s not the proper way to do it. But in the paying website they come to search for me by themselves, and they ask me to use it, so I put it online. But it’s really surprising, because actually on the track listening website there are some lacks so that you can still download the track for free. But right there I wrote “I firmly believe that those friends who really like my music will download the song from the paying website”. And the sell are good, over my expectations.
WHHM: In MDOTY mixtape, every track has its own story, that you also wrote in the booklet. Which is the track you like the most?
Actually I like all the tracks, but if I have to express a preference the tracks I like the most are two, one is Gei ni yi ge shuofa (I give you a wording), and the other one is Yo Go Ya. The first one, the lyrics are more imaginary, and it embrace all my experiences of last year and my feelings, and my condition so far. The story of that song has origin in the time I was incarcerated. The reason was quite ridiculous, and I don’t want to talk about it, but for me is very good memory. Before no matter where I went I always felt freedom, when I went in Tibet I felt so free, when I went in Europe for travelling I felt so free, but after I experienced that moment, that is for me a freedom that I will never forget, far more profound than the freedom you can get by travelling in far distances. And also because in the second part of last year a lot of things have been going badly for me, and only recently everything is getting better, and then I wrote this song. At the very beginning of the song I sing:
“Bowing to the magnificent stage, I look back”,
It means, we went to popular shows, and people thought we have fame and success,
“leaving the dazzling lights, I look back,
going back to the place where I belong, no matter how the world turns” ,
leaving the show, leaving the stage, I went back home, facing the four walls of my little bedroom, this contrast is very big.
And the other one, Yo Go Ya, the lyrics are written in a more poetical way, and again I wanted to express some of my condition but in a more general way. I wrote also for example about the fact that some friends wanted me to go to Beijing to make my career grow faster, in the song I wrote “Is better going to Beijing, even if you cannot hold the world in your hands at least you can manage to sustain yourself”, because in Beijing even if you are not able to make big things but there is a good music environment so you won’t have problem to full your stomach every day. But I’m a Shanghaiese who has a stubborn love for his city, and even if my character is docile but at the same time I’m very obstinate. Since I was a child until now, there are only two thing which I never changed, and maybe it’s what makes me a little bit childish: one is, every time they ask me what my interests are, my reply always is “My interest is … me!”, because I think that I’m a really interesting person. And I want to dig into me to let other people see who I really am. And I also want to discover it, because actually I still don’t know who I really am, and I still don’t know where this research is gonna lead me, what I will find out at the end. And the other is when they ask me “What’s your dream?”, and my reply to this answer is “I want to change the world!”. Maybe this is very childish, but since I was a child I always had this aim, to change the world! So I pretty like these two track of my new mixtape, they got a mature attitude to analyze my those two childish approaches, and tell it to the listeners.
WHHM: Very poetic…!
Maybe I usually think in a kind of strange way, I usually think a lot.
Sometime I hear a lot of words, words said by rappers but not only, also other Chinese people making music or working in the field. They say, “we just care about ourselves, we don’t need to think about our compatriots, Chinese people are too backward, we are so “western style”, we got in touch with this culture and we are update, so we don’t have to care about those backward Chinese compatriots, what we do is for making Western people say “Ok!”, ”Cool”, because they have this knowledge. But I think instead that the stuff that I do first of all is aimed to making my compatriots understand it, let the people near to me feeling it. And second of all I think that folk music is international. That’s not saying that, I have to dig on the Chinese old music and songs, and I get folk music, and that’s it, is not like this. On the contrary, the things you create first of all has to please your own compatriots, and only after that maybe can go worldwide. Look at PSY with his Gangnam Style, why he has become famous? I really like him, before I was already listening to his previous works. The reason behind his success is that he did not come out in an instant and then become famous, he kept doing his thing, for more than ten years. And then the opportunity came. But is the world who helped him, not the contrary.
And this problem is very serious especially here in Shanghai, Shanghai is the most westernized city in China, always receiving a lot of Western elements, also because Shanghai in the place with the biggest number of citizens of other countries. One interesting anecdote is, I went to JZ Club two times with my friends, every week they have the Rehearsal time, that means that people for the audience can get the stage and sing or play music. The first time I went my friend were said “why you don’t go up on the stage and make a freestyle?”, because they are B-boxers so I went to freestyle, and they were B-boxing in front of the stage. The boss of JZ Club, who is Chinese, he came to me and ask “Can you freestyle in English?”. Obviously I knew what he meant, in JZ Club there is always a big of foreign audience, and the music is soul, funky etc. So in that occasion I decided to freestyle half in Chinese and half in English, but as I left I thought, actually there are a lot of places in Shanghai are like this, including the clubs. They justify by saying that in this way foreigner can understand, and so can enjoy it. So I think, why you don’t do something for your own compatriots? But actually is difficult to answer to this question. In my concern, I would not say that the reason why the underground scene in China is not good is because of our government controls too much. Maybe there are rappers who think “I so dope, but this system is bounding me down, we cannot say too much, we cannot do too much…”. I look it in a simplest way, I say “Relax, if you cannot do it like this way don’t you try other ways? There is always another way. I always think that if I cannot make it is because I’m not doing it good enough. But if I’m really strong, sure I can release a good work, foreigner will like it, compatriots will like it, people who love hip hop will like it and people who don’t listen to hip hop will like it too, and I will feel very satisfied of my work. I always looked in this way.
WHHM: Why you choose to shot the music video of the track “Full House”, from your last mixtape?
“Full House” is a quite easy track. And the shooting of the video, including also the post production and the cutting, I made it all by myself. But it was a very quick work because the track is very short. And the mood is easygoing, casual, and so perfect for shooting a leisurely mood video. Moreover, he song talk about those pretty girls, who like going around in the bars. And as a friend of mine runs a bar, The Mistbar, we have easily found the place for shooting the video. If the shooting skills are limited, it the people in the video to act more lively, and so I thought about my friends of Shuangdan Wasi crew. So like I told you, even if this is not a work of theirs, but they are always will to come and help, for example PJ has no problem in wearing female clothes! So making a video is also an occasion to get all together again, and every time we finish a video everybody feel a great sense of achievement.
Video of Full House: http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XNTc2ODk2NzI4.html
WHHM: In the mixtape there is also a song, “The Most Shanghai”, which is sung in Shanghaiese dialect. Is it the first time or you used to sing in dialect before.
With Shangdan Wasi we made a lot of songs in Shanghaiese dialect. I really like the Shanghai dialect, as I like also the sound of Cantonese, Japanese and Korean, because in these languages usually use the rhyme, so are good for rapping. Not like the dialects of the North, which sound is more harsh and rigid, the Shanghaiese flow is instead more fluid and smooth, so also the rhyming comes out better. And at the same time there are a lot of words which you can rhyme with, is very funny. So I always considered that, did you heard Beijing rap? Well, all the words they use they don’t need to worry about the rhyme, because they put the –er suffix in most of words (typical usage of Beijing dialect) and so every word will naturally rhyme with the previous line. But if eliminate that suffix, then the two words as not any rhyme anymore. No matter where I go, I will always remember that I’m Shanghaiese, I feel proud about it, I’m proud of being “Made in Shanghai”! So that song tells about the stories of our childhood as Shanghaiese, at that time there were not so many foreign people, not so many migrants from other places of China, it belonged to Shanghai people. There are a lot of song which express the love for Shanghai, but they all describe it with grandiosity, like “We have the Oriental Pearl Tower, we have the Jin Mao Tower and etcetera, and our economy is developed”. But in my song I didn’t write about these things, I only wrote about our conditions when we were children. In the first verse I count the numbers from 2 to 9, every number refers to an hour, so I sing “2 o’clock I finish school, got home, throw down the schoolbag and then I go out, 3 o’clock I play with my friends in the lane” and so on. And then at 6 in the afternoon I used to see “the old mamas in the lane who light the coal stoves” which are the old little stoves use to cook meals, and “7 o’clock the mamas as already ate dinner and go to have a walk along the lane”, dressed in pyjamas, because old Shanghai people like to go out in their pyjamas! And 8 o’clock those who were working overtime finally get home… those are our memories of the time we were children, maybe I didn’t write with grandiosity but that’s the life which I did experience, the life in the lane of the Shanghai of the past, the life of the “Most Shanghaiese” is like that.
Video of Most Shanghai: http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XNTgzMzU2ODg4.html
Trouble’s page (Chinese): http://site.douban.com/mrtrouble/
written by Fabio Nalin (for World Hip Hop Market)