The Changing Face of Cantopop: MC Jin

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MC Jin speaks just like you’d expect him to. The American-born Chinese rapper rhythmically spits out words at an impossibly fast pace, punctuated by occasional pauses, like phrases in his rhyme. It’s fluid, almost as if his every conversation is a rap – and at times
it’s unrelenting.

Over a bowl of fried rice, Jin is speaking at length about the most significant change in his life recently – his new-found relationship with God. “[Christianity] has affected my music in every single way possible, without a doubt. But I think that boils down to how God is working in my life, first and foremost,” he says.

For Jin, it seems, God is very much omnipresent. But ironically, for Hongkongers, Jin himself is almost as ubiquitous. You’ve seen his face floating over images of Yoshinoya shabu shabu, sucking down lemon tea on giant billboards, being shocked by outrageous MTR deals across the subway system, and popping up on TV shows galore. He is emblazoned across our entire city which, for someone plying their trade first and foremost as a rapper, is a rather unheard of proposition.

Rap and hip-hop have long had a presence in Hong Kong music. There were the mid-80s raps of George Lam, the early 90s successes of Softhard, the iconic political undercurrent created by LMF and, of course, Edison. But even with the contemporary success of 24Herbs and FAMA, rarely has the genre flirted with crossing over into the mainstream. Of all of these artists, it’s perhaps Jin who has most threatened to make this step – at least in terms of visibility.

Jin’s own success, and indeed his very presence in Hong Kong, is a story of our city’s changing musical attitudes. Wong Chi-chung puts it in perspective. “[In 2004] I was working at EMI, and his record [The Rest is History] was on my desk. We tried to promote his album, but back then, no one cared. It was really hard to sell a couple of hundred albums,” he says.

Even with ABC, Jin’s all-Cantonese album that eventually launched him into the Hong Kong spotlight, the market took some convincing. ABC was written and recorded in the US in 2006 and sent to Hong Kong labels, but it was only in mid-2008 that record execs finally saw its potential, bringing Jin over for its release. So what had changed?

“I don’t want to say that [rap] was officially commercial yet, because even to this moment, you have a lot of rap elements added in songs, in commercials and on radio, and every so often you hear one or two rap records, but by no means would I say that it’s mainstream,” says Jin. “[But] I think with various artists, Cantonese hip-hop was starting to become more and more widespread.”

Jin’s current everywhere-man status testifies to the slowly changing attitude to rap and hip-hop that’s occurred over the past few years. And since his emergence in 2008, he’s played a significant role in expanding its audience. His boyish good looks and optimistic lyrics have helped to change the way many people perceive rap, providing a juxtaposition to a lot of mainstream perceptions of gangster rap and an aggressive hip-hop undercurrent. “I think it’s his personality,” says Re:spect magazine’s Gary Chan. “He’s very outgoing, very easy going. It’s not really about his music, it’s more his personality and his personal charm.”

And beyond his own personality, he’s also bringing a different style of rap – one that’s accessible to almost everyone.

“It doesn’t make sense to compare my [Cantonese] raps with [FAMA, LMF, 24 Herbs], technically. But here’s the thing about music, it’s not always about being technical. Sometimes when people encounter me, they’ll say, ‘Jin, you know why I like your raps? Cause it’s not technical. I can listen to it once and I know exactly what you’re saying. You get straight to the point,” says Jin, flowing, fluid and quick-tongued as ever. “If you tell me you want me to write a song about the MTR, the only way I can do it is like straight on, like, [rapping] ‘喂搭地鐵,去到邊,你行先,我行先’ or whatever. I can’t make it more complex than that because of pure language limitations.” It’s like the equivalent of mono-syllabic rap in English.

Rather than a limitation, Gary Chan of Re:spect sees this as one of Jin’s major selling points. “Jin is bringing out hip-hop, rapping and freestyle, which is not as hard as [people may have] thought. It’s easy. Maybe not always good, but easy to play with. And people have that image. And he is encouraging the audience to come up on stage and battle with him all the time, and that starts some trends there.”
The subjects of Jin’s raps also share this user-friendliness. While he confesses that he used to write more about babes in clubs, a lot of his recent output has been about pop culture, releasing little tunes and videos about 7-Eleven, his catchprase ‘Aiya’ and Charlie Sheen, as well as working on several successful cross-over projects such as last year’s collaboration with singer/producer Hanjin Tan. “The collaboration with Hanjin brought Jin’s music to a new level. And more audience. His fans didn’t leave him because of this project, but only improved him musically,” says Chan.

However, one collaboration that didn’t go down so well was his double team with bow-tied Chief Executive, Donald Tsang, which saw Jin rapping on a Christmas government promotional video called Rap Now 2010. 

“I don’t know why his manager would ever think about that. That 起錨 (hei lau) thing was about the government trying to trick the Hong Kong people about the political changes. And as a hip-hop artist, you endorse that? He didn’t think about the consequences,” says Wong Chi-chung. Jin claims he wasn’t aware of the reforms or that ‘起錨’ was a political slogan. But this didn’t prevent a substantial backlash against MC Jin, particularly online.

It’s not the only criticism that Jin has had to endure, with accusations of being a sell-out, being too commercial, and not producing real hip-hop all levelled at him on occasion. Chan, however, sees real value in what Jin is bringing to the scene. “He is an artist that is broadening the range of the audience. Even [with other genres], many people criticise someone that he’s not really pop, he’s not a real rocker – but that person is still very important.” For the future of Hong Kong hip-hop, Jin is upbeat, and he sees it growing.

“On an independent level, there’s tons of young guys just in their room with the microphone writing raps, recording songs, shooting independent videos, putting them online. There is that community,” says Jin. He’s also recently had two local talents, KT and KZ, sign to Catch Adventures – the label that he’s also on, using that influence to help expand the presence of rap in Hong Kong.

In addition to the TVB dramas, countless billboards and a cameo in the RZA-directed The Man with the Iron Fist, he’s releasing his second Cantonese album, apparently called Wui Hern Jing, on August 8 – an album that he says “is very much reflective of what the experience has been like here in the last two and a half years”. You get the feeling that, while he may be everywhere now, you’ll only be seeing more and more from Jin.

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