Not a bad rap

Hip-hop reality show is a surprise summer hit for online streamer iQiyi


Straight outta Canton: rap show has been popular with younger viewers

Rap gets plenty of publicity, especially when it turns offensive. And in China, a song called ‘Stupid Laowai’ (a term referring to foreign expats) has been getting attention thanks to its racist tone. In the rap Xie Di, a performer from Chengdu, says foreigners are losers who couldn’t make it in their own countries before coming to China to be English teachers. The rapper (alter ego ‘Fat Shady’) offers the laowai extra cash for cleaning his car and his Timberland boots. But then he warns that he’d quite like to shoot them (the lyrics echo with gunshots). The video for the song also shows him decapitating a mannequin representing the “stupid foreigners” armed with a baseball bat.

Surprisingly the nation’s censors didn’t initially object to Xie Di’s rant – though they deleted it this week. Xie probably saw it coming: when President Xi Jinping took office in 2013, the Ministry of Culture blacklisted more than 120 songs, including many Chinese hip-hop classics. The members of one band were even taken into custody for five days.

Now the atmosphere seems more relaxed. Hip-hop remains a niche genre in China, but it has been gaining in popularity thanks to a newer generation of rappers.“Their themes are more about partying than politics,” says Stanley Yang, founder of Zhong.tv – a music video platform dedicated to the genre – of the current generation. “These young rappers grew up listening to artists who emerged since about 2010, so hip-hop means very different things to them,” he tells the South China Morning Post.

Hip-hop now has the potential to become a lot bigger in China after the launch of a reality show that wants to transform the genre from a subculture to the mainstream. Called Rap of China, participants compete to win gold chains that spell “R!CH” (which stands for Rising! Chinese Hip-Hop) and the format has proven to be the surprise breakout show of the summer.

Featuring Taiwanese singer Wilber Pan and Chinese actor-rapper Kris Wu as judges, the series has accumulated over 2 billion views on iQiyi, the online video site that owns Rap of China’s broadcasting rights. Since its premiere in mid-June, it is also the most discussed topic on weibo, China’s Twitter-equivalent. One of Wu’s famous lines on the show – “Do you freestyle?” – has also gone viral amongst netizens.

For iQiyi, the show was one of its biggest gambles in the field of original content. It poured more than Rmb200 million ($30.36 million) into the format, which is about five times the expense of series of its type. The majority of the money went to hiring the A-list guest judges and the crew, who produced other reality hit series like Running Man and The Voice of China.

The path to the small screen was not easy. “The sales team called in March saying that no one will watch a show about hip-hop. They suggested that we go a bit more mainstream and add a few other musical genres to the competition. But I insisted that we wouldn’t change the concept. Unsurprisingly, all the advertisers pulled out,” Chen Wei, a senior executive of iQiyi and the producer of the show, told Caijing.

Chen then managed to convince Nongfu Spring to spend advertising dollars. The bottled water brand saw the potential and shelled out Rmb120 million to become the title sponsor, promoting its Victory Vitamin Water. Other advertisers like McDonald’s and Xiaomi followed suit after the first few instalments had aired.

“The success of Rap of China wasn’t because of sheer luck or chance,” Entertainment Unicorn, an entertainment industry blog, comments. “The fact that iQiyi would choose to put so much money on a show about what feels like a niche category suggests that hip-hop already has a strong following among younger audiences. iQiyi understands the youth culture and youth consumer market better than anyone else.” Indeed, a key reason for Rap of China’s success is that it has piqued the interest of younger viewers, a demographic that is shunning broadcast television for content online.

“Whether it is the unequivocally hipster feel to the show or the young hip-hop artists [virtually all the contestants on the show are born in the post-90s generation], it truly appeals to the young individualist audience demographic. Moreover, these young audiences are also active in social media, so it was easy for the show to generate strong word-of-mouth publicity,” claims ikancai.com, a news portal.

As WiC mentioned in last week’s issue, iQiyi has been producing and financing more of its own content. The vertical integration is intended to boost paid subscriptions and those that do subscribe to iQiyi can cast up to five votes every week to keep their favourite artists on the show.

In addition the video site has expanded its revenue streams by launching branded merchandise featuring the R!CH logo. T-shirts, baseball caps, sunglasses and gold chains are all being hawked on its e-commerce platform and on Tmall, says Beijing Business News.

How about the quality of the performances? Hardcore rappers complain that the singers chosen for the series are too commercial and inoffensive, ignoring the rebellious traditions of hip-hop.

Others say the show has nothing to do with discovering talent as most of the contestants that make the cut are already well-known in the hip-hop world.

Still, other rappers around the country say the popularity of the show is bringing them more commercial opportunities. “Hip-hop is where the money is,” one rapper on the show told SCMP. “We used to have only a few dozen fans when we performed a few years ago. But now we can easily pack a club.”

Participants say that their appearance fees have surged in the wake of the show too. VaVa, one contestant, now charges Rmb200,000 for an appearance, compared to Rmb10,000 before the contest aired. Another rapper PG ONE says his fee has surged to Rmb250,000.

Not missing a beat, iQiyi has already announced plans to launch another reality competition show – this one based on street dancing.

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