The First Chinese Hip-Hop Crew? Hi Bomb (黑棒), “嘻哈第一棒”, 2004
I was going through a pile of Mandopop albums in a tiny Chinese music/video store located in a basement of Los Angeles’ Chinatown when I stumbled upon a dusty album published in 2004 displaying on the cover two guys dressed as 1990s American rappers called Hi Bomb (黑棒). The cover stated that it was “the first Chinese mainland (中国内地) Hip-hop crew”. The cover also promised me “the ten most clean yet harmful songs” and “the hip-hop experience of the new era (新时代)” – Xi Jinping already stole the “Chinese Dream” (中国梦) from the punk band SMZB, now we can say that he stole his “New Era” slogan from a hip-hop crew.
I paid 1$ for the album, not knowing what I will find. The songs (as well as Hi Bomb’s cloths) are heavily influenced by the 1990s old school Philadelphia hip-hop sound – the song “光轮2000” reminds me of Will Smith’s “Summertime” (which is not a bad thing). I must have purchased a limited edition of Hi Bomb album “嘻哈第一棒”, since it contains 9 more songs than the original album. The second song (“哎哟”) is a Mandarin cover of the Korean hip-hop song “A-YO” by Jinusean (지누션) published in their 2001 album, The Reign and the fourth song, “散了” is a cover of “One Love” by another Korean hip-hop band, 1TYM.
2. 哎哟 A-YO
12. 大周末 1
17. Life Of Hip Hop
18. B–Boy Time
In her essential article “History of Rap in China, Part 1” published in RadiiChina, Fan Shuhong lists Hi Bomb as one of the first Chinese hip-hop crew, formed in 1999 in Shanghai, several years after the “real” first hip-hop crew, DD. Rhythm, formed in 1992:
In 1999, another influential group, 黑棒 Hi-Bomb, was founded in Shanghai. The group remains famous to this day for their hit song “霞飞路87号 No.87 on Xiafei Road”.
In their very interesting blog (go read it) on Chinese hip-hop written between 2007 and 2008, Angela Steele and Lila Babb also mention Hi-Bomb as one of the first rap crew to popularize hip-hop into the mainstream, thanks to a record deal with EMI:
This song [“No. 1”] is arguably the most recognized Hip Hop song in China. Shanghai crew Hi-Bomb were the first Hip Hop crew to land a record deal with a multinational label (EMI). Released in 2004, their album was the first to bring Hip Hop to a mainstream audience.
Long before Sichuanese (and Chongqing) contemporary rappers like Fat Shady, Higher Brothers or GAI, Hi Bomb used their local dialect in rap songs, especially in their hit song “霞飞路87号” – 霞飞路 is an old Shanghai street in the French concession, named after the Maréchal Joffre, now renamed 淮海路. Since we’re talking about songs in Shanghai hua, I highly recommend “上海25小时” by the punk band Top Floor Circus 顶楼的马戏团:
Hi Bomb was indeed formed in 1999 by two Shanghai rappers, MC唐 and 之尚皓 . In an interview given to the Beijing Entertainment Journal (北京娱乐信报), Hi Bomb members recalls that they first met in 1999 during a hip-hop gathering organized every Monday in Shanghai, before writing to each other on an internet forum specialized on hip-hop and finally making sounds together. Contrary to other underground artists at the end of the 1990s, Hi Bomb shared their homemade songs on the internet, before getting in touch with music producers, in this case EMI, which produced their first and only album in 2004.
In their first recorded song, “No.1”, the two MCs of Hi Bomb talk about their relation to hip-hop, and their work of translation of rap culture in China. They view themselves as the “Chinese P.Diddy” in search of a “Chinese J.Lo” (“中國p diddy尋找中國j.lo”), trying to import “real” hip-hop in China (“讓我把真的hip-hop帶到這裏來”). In their famous Shanghainese song “霞飞路的87号”, the hip-hop duo recalls their childhood in Shanghai streets, peeking at the neighbor’s daughter.
So now what about the self-proclaimed “first Chinese hip-hop crew” legacy? In the midst of the recent hip-hop popularization, Hi Bomb seems to have been forgotten. Some posts on Baidu ask “Who is MC唐”. But Chinese rappers themselves did not forgot Hi Bomb influence on Chinese hip-hop. In 2018, the Sichuanese and Hunanese rappers CBLOCK, GAI and Gosh covered “霞飞路的87号” during a concert in Shanghai. MC唐, also known as “DopeLyrics” still produces old-school songs, as his Douban page suggests and still makes reference to the “rivers and lakes” (江湖) like the new generation of Chinese hip-hop artists. It seems important to look back at Hi Bomb to better understand contemporary hip-hop, since they started a new trend, singing rap songs in non-Beijing dialects.