How a Muslim Convert from Detroit Became the Godfather of Chinese Hip-Hop
Fresh out of college, American Dana Burton arrived in China to bring hip-hop to the Middle Kingdom. Now, eight years later, he’s become the godfather of hip-hop in the most populous country in the world. FP talks to the 32-year-old impresario about his unlikely journey from the streets of Detroit to the nightclubs of Shanghai.
Courtesy Dana BurtonWatch two Chinese rappers do battle in a Shanghai nightclub.
FOREIGN POLICY: What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
Dana Burton: Im from Detroit, Michigan. I was born in the 1970s and grew up in the 1980s. We definitely had our own sense of [local] musicsoul, the whole Motown influenceand that produced our generation of hip-hop artists: Slum Village, Eminem, guys like J Dilla.
When hip-hop came out, thats all we listened to. I was what you call a hip-hop head, a super hip-hop nerd. I was the guy who knew all the music, and if people had questions they would ask me. I rhymed and had some battles in school, but I never really tried to pursue it myself.
FP: How did you end up in China?
DB: I studied social science at Michigan State University, and I converted [to Islam] in college. I was into a lot of political and militant movements. There are a lot of connections between black, militant movements and Asia. The first time I left the country was when I went to the hajj in Saudi Arabia. I went in 1999, just before I came to China.
I always had an inclination to reach out to China and see what was going on in the Middle Kingdom. There was this program called Appalachians Abroad that was sending Americans to China to teach. That was my ticket over here to Shanghai. I arrived at night, and we drove around the outskirts. At the time, it was just a long stretch of high-rise apartments. They resembled a typical project building in New York: nondescript, pretty plain. It just looked like endless rows of projects.
FP: What was the music scene like in Shanghai when you first arrived?
DB: Other foreigners coming to Chinamaybe theyre doing business here, they bring knowledge, technology, skills, whatever. But I knew my angle would be hip-hop.
In China, the clubs havent really changed that much. [The Chinese] have this set formatwhy they come to the club, what they want to hear, what they want to do. They play this happy, thumping techno music, they dont know who any of the artists are, they dont really care. They just want to hear this boom-boom-boom-boom.
FP: How did hip-hop first start to catch on in Shanghai?
DB: [A Chinese friend who discovered hip-hop while studying in Japan] was a DJ and had some connections with clubs. They would let [him] play 20 minutes, half an hour at the most. Eventually they let us play more, then they let us have Wednesday nights as hip-hop nights, and we developed this huge following. Later, it developed into several weekly nights and more gigs and finally we got our own club. Now there are several clubs that are playing only hip-hop.
FP: How did Iron Mic, your annual rap battle, get started?
DB: There was such a huge void for rappers in China. No one had really developed the art of Chinese rap. People didnt think it could happen; they didnt think the language was suitable for rap. I was always pushing and trying to get people to do it.
The few rappers that I met were rapping in English. Id say, Let me hear you rap, and theyd just do a karaoke thing, repeating a few lines of Eminem or Naughty by Nature. As an American, that was so odd for me; you cant say anyone elses rhymes, you just dont do that. But its just the culture here. They like karaoke and doing someone elses songs.
In 2001, we put the call out to do this nationwide Chinese [rap] battle. The first time, there were 10 guys who came out from across the country. We banged it out and it was amazing. And weve been doing it ever since. Im really proud of it. In Detroit, were all about freestyle and battle raps. Its a serious culture. And in 2002, Eminems 8 Mile movie dropped. And thats when everyone started getting into it. They started understanding it.
FP: What makes Chinese rap different from elsewhere?
DB: Ive actually come to like these Chinese battles more than the stuff going on at home in America. Its a totally different direction theyre taking it, with the rhyming skills and the wordplay and how they perform. The energy level is much more intense with Chinese rap. There are more theatrics. The flow is faster. Theyre rhyming words at a faster pace. And theyre starting now to use rhythm a bit more.
When you see a freestyle battle back home now, you really see two kinds. One is with punch lines, where they try and say funny concepts with punch lines. Theres not so much emphasis on your flow. The other is where guys are coming with prewritten rhymes. Its kind of like a monologue. Its prescripted and it doesnt matter who your challenger is. But with these Chinese guys, theyre mixing it up more. Overall, theres more rap skill involved.
FP: How does Chinas hierarchical culture jibe with the whole idea of hip-hop being anti-authoritarian?
DB: I really admire these Chinese kids because theyre really going against the grain. A couple times Ive wondered, Are they going too far? Am I getting too conservative? Theyre rapping about being involved with the mafia, or being underground, or doing drugs.
They dont really rap about the government. But they take it to another level. Theyve found another form of expression and taken it to the extreme [for them]. An 18-year-old kid can say whatever he wants, and he lets out his frustration and aggression. Thats how he gets power: on stage. No one has ever given them this opportunity before.
FP: Do you ever run into problems with the authorities?
DB: Hell, yeah. Weve had police shut our parties down, take the turntables out of the clubs. Weve had police arrest our MCs. They say that we dont have a permit, or that the words that we say are offensive. The whole concept of Iron Mic is an illegal event. But I dont see myself leaving China. Until I get deported.
Dana Burton is a hip-hop promoter and marketer who lives in Shanghai, China.