When it comes down to it, language is the heart of rap. That's why rappers in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, insist their city is the heart of Chinese rap. The language of Chengdu, Sichuanese, is an emotive, drawling dialect of Mandarin — so wildly different from its rigid-sounding mother tongue that visitors from other parts of China have a hard time understanding it. Its twang fits the rhythms of a song like "Leshan Doufu," by rapper TSP, like a glove.
The song conjures an East Coast / West Coast rivalry from 1990s hip-hop, except here, the enemy is a rapper in Leshan, another city in Sichuan province. Twenty-four-year-old TSP says the song wouldn't have sounded right in Mandarin.
"Mandarin's pronunciation is too strict," TSP says. "For instance, 'no' in Mandarin is bu yao, but in Sichuanese it's [pronounced] 'biao,' which becomes one word that suddenly has two different meanings. So our dialect has an advantage."
That's not the only advantage. I'm speaking with TSP and fellow rapper Young13DBaby on an expansive seventh-floor rooftop offering a vista of downtown Chengdu. In one corner is a studio, and in the other, an open-air balcony littered with booze bottles and ashtrays. A musician friend pays the equivalent of just $200 a month to rent the space. The affordability of Chengdu, TSP says, has given birth to a vibrant rap scene.
"All sorts of subcultures are developing here," he says. "Part of it is that the pace of life in Chengdu is slower than China's big cities, so people have time to practice the arts."
The duo's song "Fast Food" takes aim at much of the rest of urban China and its consumer culture; they filmed the video at a McDonald's on a budget equal to a couple of Happy Meals. The social criticism in songs like this can sometimes get artists into trouble: TSP and Young13DBaby are both ethnic Tibetans, and when they've released songs about discrimination against Tibetans, they say authorities have removed them from the Internet.
"I don't care," TSP says. "I write whatever I like. You ban it, I'll write it again."
That's also the attitude of Kafe Hu, a Chengdu rapper who grew up in the countryside. When Hu wasn't sulking away in school, he was listening to Eminem and Jay-Z while bingeing on Hong Kong gangster movies.
"Every morning we stood at attention for the flag-raising ceremony and morning exercises," Hu remembers. "It wasn't until later that I realized how much I despised it. And it wasn't just me. Everyone hated it."
The 30-year-old says music helped him through the mind-numbing routines of Chinese school. "Chinese education creates boring people," Hu insists. "It's anti-human. The best education is putting students in a school where they feel safe to pursue their own interests. Under China's system, when you let students choose, they don't know how to do it because they've always been told what to think."
Sorting through his thoughts is the subject of Kafe Hu's song "Hope and Reality." The track begins with a wishlist for the listener — "I hope you aren't greedy / I hope you can breathe the air / I hope you can speak freely" — before descending into his reality, where corruption is rampant, the air is toxic and free speech can lead to prison.
"The song is about the problems of this country," Hu says. "I wrote it because American culture has had a huge influence over me. The U.S. media sometimes exaggerates how bad China is. China exaggerates how good it is. The song is me looking for balance, for the reality."
Authorities have banned the song from being distributed on the Internet, but Kafe Hu still performs it live.
"If I can't do it the way I want, I'll just not do it," he says. "I'm not afraid of somebody banning my music. The freest thing in my life is to make music."
It's a belief Kafe Hu shares with many of the young rappers of Chengdu and one he wants passed down to the next generation. Six months ago, Kafe Hu became a father. He named his son Feiman, a transliteration of the English name Freeman.
Shanghai bureau assistant Yuhan Xu contributed research to this story.