Photography Jake S. Thomas

Meet the young rappers of Hong Kong's underground hip-hop scene

Hong Kong's emerging artists are using music to highlight the city's socioeconomic issues and express feelings that much of society keeps bottled up.

by Emma Russell; photos by Jake S. Thomas
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Apr 7 2021, 7:00am

Photography Jake S. Thomas

In a year defined by the pandemic, which has all but eliminated live performances, and in the wake of a National Security Law that has crushed dissent and creative freedom in Hong Kong, there’s been little to celebrate for artists in the city. But triggered by the increasingly repressive politics, socio-economic issues and a developing mental health epidemic, fueled by a city that values wealth and success above all else — young rappers in Hong Kong have channelled their rage and excess time into creating. They’ve found new ways to approach themes that are officially off limits through their lyrics. While the scene remains relatively underground and their music is not always political — they sing about life, love and loss in their personal lives — it’s completely unique to Hong Kong.

Though the genre first gained mainstream popularity in the mid-90s when LMF (LazyMuthaFuckaz) signed with Warner Music, hip-hop in Hong Kong has long been overshadowed by Cantopop and love ballads, which are churned out by a handful of music labels focusing on quantity and large-scale performance. Instead, LMF highlighted the everyday realities of working-class youth, and integrated Cantonese chou-hau, a taboo and vulgar slang — often associated with the triads — into their lyrics to show their dissatisfaction with society. They were met with widespread criticism in a still very conservative Hong Kong, but LMF’s groundbreaking music paved the way for contemporary artists rapping about the city’s issues today.

Here, i-D speaks to some of the Hong Kong’s most inspiring young hip-hop artists, and asks how their hometown has shaped their sound.

portrait-of-hong-kong-rapper-Matt-Force

Matt Force

Tell me about your sound.
It’s heavily inspired by boom bap and jazz. I love making beats with various types of jazz samples, but now I also enjoy writing songs from scratch because it gives me a lot more freedom and control over the harmony of a song.

What do you rap about?
I’m born and raised in Hong Kong, and I’ve spent my entire life in this city. I always want to tell people about the other side of Hong Kong. I’ve seen changes and I realize this city is going through a setback in many ways both culturally and politically. My music serves no purpose of praising anything, but pointing out problems. Hong Kong was once a free place, which gave me the chance to explore and express myself with very little restriction. Without a certain level of freedom, I will not be able to say what I feel is wrong about this city.

Do changes in the political landscape affect your music?
There are obviously redlines but sometimes they are vague. They are designed to spread fear and create self-censorship.

Is Hong Kong a friendly city for emerging artists?
We’ve been hearing people say that the “golden age” of Hong Kong is gone already. In some ways, it’s true. But I think nowadays people are more welcome to try new things, so in this rebuilding phase I believe there are chances for emerging artists. However, Hong Kong is going through some drastic changes that we cannot control. I cannot see if there is a stable environment for creatives to grow.

What does the hip-hop scene look like in Hong Kong, right now?
It is a seed with the potential of growing into a big tree, but still we need better soil.

rapper-Kalai-poses-in-hong-kong-street

KALAI

Tell me about your sound.
I have a slightly deeper voice than other girls, like a bass voice in a band.

What do you rap about?
My life and what is happening right now around me and my friends. I prefer sharing my experiences in a positive way.

Who inspires you?
My first inspiration is 9m88, a jazz R&B singer from Taiwan. I like the groove she brought into her music which comforts and heals me whenever I feel lost. I wish I could learn from her and people who listen to my music could feel the same to recover from pain.

Do changes in the political landscape in Hong Kong affect your music?
Yes, hip-hop is about realness in life. The situation now in Hong Kong might get us into trouble if [songs] are too straight-forward about politics. But whenever I have a chance, I will still write things about it in a different way.

How do you feel about Hong Kong right now?
Although things are so complicated and people are living in blue, one day we will see the light again in the future.

rapper-BMW-in-the-streets-of-hong-kong

B.M.W

Tell me about your sound.
It’s a combination of old school hip-hop and trap. 

What are the main themes in your lyrics?
My music mainly revolves around my personal experiences and feelings. I rap about emotions like loneliness, love and things that I hate.

Is Hong Kong a friendly city for emerging artists?
Hong Kong is not a city conducive to artistic creation. It does not have enough stages to play, but it’s not just musicians who suffer — painters and actors don’t have spaces to put on shows either. Hong Kong’s formal institutions, such as television stations, are very conservative. They do not allow ‘bad ideas’, such as smoking or alcohol. The mentality of Hong Kong’s people is also very realistic. I have met many people that don’t pay attention to art. Everyday life is to go to work to make money. Such an environment means that local art lacks an audience. Finally, I think the government has never taken art in Hong Kong seriously. They pretend that they are paying for art by building exhibition centres like the new West Kowloon Cultural District, holding exhibitions, but these places don’t benefit local creators. 

Do changes in the political landscape affect your music?
Of course it will be affected. As a rapper, I want to write about what has happened in Hong Kong in my music, but now Hong Kong has passed the National Security Law many themes are off limits. This is definitely political suppression of creative freedom.

What does the hip-hop scene look like in Hong Kong, right now?
I think the hip-hop scene in Hong Kong is becoming more mature: different styles of rappers are beginning to appear and young people have shown an interest in the genre.

What have you been up to this year?
I’m busy making music, hoping to post my music to some official radio stations in Hong Kong. I’m also preparing an EP that I will release soon.

rapper-YounQueenz-shows-off-his-grillz-in-hong-kong

YOUNGQUEENZ

Tell me about your sound.
Mysterious, atmospheric, oriental. Raw but beautiful; energetic but sad. 

Who inspires you?
God, Nas, Mobb Deep, Wu Tang Clan, Dumdue (噔哚), Kanye West and Drake.

How does Hong Kong as a city shape your music?
The city is small, grimey and the people are tricky. I have to stay away from all of these things and keep my family tight. Obviously we don’t carry [guns and knives] like the West, but out here it’s an ideological and mental illness war zone that we are fighting everyday. It’s invisible and I put that spirit into my music.

Do changes in the political landscape affect your music? How do you feel about Hong Kong right now? 
We just gotta play smart and stay low-key. Everyone is looking for instant money and fame, and they praise the ones who have it. Hong Kong people have the world’s highest average IQ ranking, but the irony is that this is exactly what killed this city. It’s better to just be wise and work under the radar. Do what you have to do in silence. I think there should be less fronting on the Internet and just creating.

Is Hong Kong a friendly city for emerging artists?
The HK education system has trained citizens to judge everything in rank and score from level F to A. You will get hated and mocked if you make something that’s out of this ranking. Our city’s been taught to judge and label others since we were kids. 

What have you been doing this year?
I’ve been getting wavy with the crew.

rapper-Novel-Friday-sitting-on-a-bench-in-hong-kong

Novel Friday

Tell me about your sound.
I’m doing melodic rap and I reference some cloud rap elements.

What are the main themes in your lyrics?
I can rap anything into my stories. My lyrics mainly revolve around all aspects of life: love, society, life and death, and how to make choices in the face of reality.

Who inspires you?
All my friends. Tyler, the Creator and A$AP Rocky. They have continuously expanded the expression of music from style to sound processing, their music videos, fashion and attitude, telling listeners nothing is impossible if you only dare to imagine. I also look to Thai hip-hop because I’m half Thai. The scene there is steadily rising right now, they’re crazy for it. Youngohm, he’s a melodic rapper as well. There’s Diamong Mqt and Fiixd too, they’re all from the same record label Already Dead.

How do you feel about Hong Kong right now? Is it a friendly city for emerging artists? 
Covid has been very hard. Hong Kong is a city led by the economy, but artists have found corners of the city where they can express themselves.

What have you been up to this year? 
I signed with the record company Greytone and spent some time in the studio. I’ve almost finished three albums, which will be released soon. I will release an album in collaboration with J1M3, including melodic, city pop and cloud rap. The other is an album in collaboration with Floyd Cheung, the theme is ‘death and after’ to give the feeling of 2019. 

Do you think Hong Kong has become more accepting of hip-hop culture?
A few years ago, hip-hop was not a popular in Hong Kong because people didn’t get it. The city was not supporting any subculture, they just talk about money and business, they’re not thinking about art. Now, people can do it because of social media. It’s changing the whole culture — people spend time on Instagram and Youtube, so I think musicians can make it on their own.

NOLY-hong-kong-rappers

N.O.L.Y

Tell me about your sound.
I’ve been trying to bring something new to the city. I can be either aggressive or laid back; it really just depends on the atmosphere of the beats.

What are the main themes in your lyrics?
[My songs] are mainly about lifestyle. I love clothes, I can't live without designer pieces. I gotta stay dripped out everyday. Sometimes I get emotional about relationships and family, but it depends on what mood I’m in when I’m making a song.

Who inspires you?
Ye and Thug.

How does Hong Kong as a city shape your music?
When I walk through the streets I always have ideas popping up in my mind. Things come and go here in HK and it keeps changing, just like my sound and style.

Is it a friendly city for emerging artists? 
It’s often difficult for the audience to accept new sounds, unless you are doing the mainstream shit. Venues are closing up too because of high rent, so there aren't enough spaces for artists to perform.

Do you have anything in the pipeline?
I’m finishing my debut album and hopefully it will be out mid-2021. I’m also working on a new collection for my clothing brand BOYS’ CHOIR.

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Tagged:
Hip-Hop
Rap
Hong Kong