Gritty urban tales of white powder, partying all night and sleeping all day, violence, mawkish raps about “cosplay”, braggadocio about sexual prowess – Chinese hip-hop is very much in tune with its cousins in Long Beach and Atlanta.
Hip-hop has struck a chord with the youth in China, especially as it reflects different lifestyles and aspirations during a time of rapid social change.
"I am 18 and since I started to like hip-hop, I feel that I'm fearless. I love Chinese hip-hop, I love Kanye West, songs like Stronger, Power, Gold Digger etc. Hip-hop is a new oasis and it's worth it to slowly taste it and explore," wrote Yizhi on the Baidu Tieba social network.
What young people lack in education, they can make up for in feeling, said another hip-hop fan, Kirswu. Hip-hop is their salvation. “I don’t have any knowledge of music, but rap has made me get out of the dark side,” said Yizhi.
Rapping in regional dialects such as Sichuanese has taken off among millennials. Rap songs celebrate youth culture, with a bit of nationalism thrown in, and the usual themes common to hip-hop everywhere.
Higher Brothers from Chengdu, who rose to fame with their song Made in China, rap about contemporary obsessions such as the WeChat social network – "There's no Skype, no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram, We use WeChat."
Always looking for a way to boost soft power, and improve the image of the Communist Party, authorities have tried to harness the success of hip-hop to instil core socialist values.
In 2016, the People’s Liberation Army ran an advertisement using heavy hip-hop beats with lyrics such as “War can break out any time – are you ready?” and in the run-up to the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s reversion to Chinese rule, propaganda czars used hip-hop songs to help promote the government.
But for the most part, hip-hop was an underground phenomenon. Leading the charge with bringing Chinese hip-hop into the wider consciousness was Rap of China, a 12-episode online talent show that earned a staggering 2.7 billion views and showcased a growing community of young Chinese artists. Underground rappers such as Ty, Bridge, JonyJ, AfterJourney and HipHopMan suddenly had major profiles.
Hip-hop has been banned from the airwaves, along with people with tattoos, as unhealthy moral degeneracy
With hip-hop becoming so popular, and with its strong western lifestyle links, it was only a matter of time before the government started to sniff around – and, sure enough, it has been found to be “vulgar”.
Now, to entrench “socialist core values” in aberrant youth, hip-hop has been banned from the airwaves, along with people with tattoos, as unhealthy moral degeneracy.
For an outspoken rapper, it’s generally considered a better idea to keep your head below the parapet.
PG One, the joint-winner of Rap of China, was forced to apologise for using the word "bitch" in a song from 2015, and was vilified online after he was accused of having an affair with a married TV star, Li Xiaolu.
The order to outlaw hip-hop came down from the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), the country's main censor.
Gao Changli, director of the SAPPRFT, issued a list of "Four Don'ts", banning actors with tattoos and any shows with hip-hop culture, non-mainstream culture or "demotivational culture".
The list of the Four Don’ts: “Don’t use actors who are not loyal to the values of the Communist Party and who lack high morals.
Don’t use actors who are indecent, obscene and vulgar.
Don’t use actors who have a low ideological level and no class.
Don’t use actors who have stains, affairs and moral issues.”
PG One was off the air. Within hours his co-winner, GAI, was also banned.
Shortly thereafter, another TV show called Happy Camp banned China's most popular female hip-hop star, VAVA, who had a "gangsta" style that clearly irritated authorities. She also came up through the ranks of Rap of China.
While dissent is not tolerated in China, hip-hop fans did make their feelings known online. The Communist Party publication Ziguangge was strongly critical of PG One, saying the music was like "using gutter oil to cook food".
This line became the subject of a massive trolling campaign under the hashtag “ZiguanggeGutterOil”. Within days, there were more than 200 million page views defending PG One.
The nationalistic and deeply conservative Global Times described the trolls as "harebrained youngsters" and wrote: "Social responsibility is a prerequisite for a company to thrive and prosper, especially in the internet era."
Hip-hop has now gone back underground and most fans are fine with that.
On the Weibo social network, Wang Deidei wrote: "No one can worship hip-hop in China now. It is a complete mess. It cannot be said to be real hip-hop, only crowd-pleasing claptrap. We are not allowed to let it develop by itself."
Another commentator, Free-D Duan Haoyong, said: “You can’t block it just because you don’t like it. It is not like all hip-hop is dirty stuff. We just like to express ourselves. Is that so wrong?”