Over the last year, Higher Brothers, a four man rap crew from Chengdu, has gone from strength to strength with multiple music videos (Made in China, WeChat, Black Cab, to name a few) gaining millions of views online and winning praise from some of the hottest rappers in the United States. Building on that success, the quartet recently released their debut album Black Cab, held their first show outside of mainland China, and are due to perform at Hong Kong’s very own Clockenflap festival in November.
Following their sold out debut concert in Hong Kong on Sunday, Coconuts Hong Kong sat down with the face of China’s new hip hop movement to learn more about their inspiration, plans for breaking into international markets, and shopping.
How has your experience been in Hong Kong so far? Any pleasant surprises on this trip?
MaSiWei: One highlight has been the food. We really like char siu rice.
Melo: And the instant noodles!
MaSiWei: The shopping is very convenient too. We’ve been able to get everything we wanted to buy.
What have you guys been shopping for?
MaSiWei: Goyard bags!
HB: And Supreme.
So how was your show yesterday?
MaSiWei: Really good. Lit. [laughs]
Was it your first time performing in Hong Kong? How many people turned up?
MaSiWei: Lots of people.
Melo: 3 million! [laughs]
So how much do you see Hong Kong as a stepping stone to international audiences? We’re based in eight cities across Southeast Asia – including Singapore, Manila, Bangkok, Bali, etc. Is there any plan to tour in those places?
Psy.P: Yeah, we’re going to have an Asian tour.
MaSiWei: Our Asian tour dates aren’t confirmed yet but they will be very soon, and we do see Hong Kong as a gateway to other countries. Over the past few days, we’ve been interviewed by media from many different places, who speak multiple languages. Hong Kong is a very international and cosmopolitan city.
You guys have blown up over the past few months, with multiple music videos going viral. Have your lives changed in any major ways? Do people recognize you on the street now?
Psy.P: Yeah, totally.
MaSiWei: We’re more famous now and we get stopped by fans in the street a lot more. [Fame] has allowed us to perform more shows, make more money, travel to more places, and meet more people. But one thing that hasn’t changed is our music.
What’s your songwriting process like? Does everyone contribute equally?
MaSiWei: We come up with the idea for a song together then we all write our own verses. Later we share our lyrics with each other and discuss what works and what doesn’t. That’s pretty much it.
Walk us through the process of creating the track “Made in China”. Whose idea was it?
MaSiWei: It was my idea, but 88Rising [THB’s management company] sent the beat to us. The day after we got the beat, we all wrote our own lyrics for the Higher Brothers portion. About three months ago later, Famous Dex joined in and added his verse.
You’ve collaborated with a lot of influential artists and producers, most of whom you haven’t met face-to-face. What are the pros and cons of creating music with people via the internet?
MaSiWei: Well one advantage of working like this is that it allows us to collaborate with more people around the world.
DZ: Way more.
MaSiWei: And these international names give our songs more weight, but the downside of recording separately is that the process becomes less cohesive. As Higher Brothers, we write our lyrics really quickly and we can give each other feedback easily. When you’re working with people online, it’s not as collaborative…
DZ: Not cohesive.
MaSiWei: It’s more like a showcase of each side’s abilities and what they want to do. So it’s not as cohesive.
Do you think international audiences have any misconceptions about Chinese music? Do you think you guys are challenging or changing those opinions?
MaSiWei: People think of Chinese music as traditional, conventional. We really love American hip-hop culture, so that’s the music we decided to make. We see the fact that it’s a niche genre in China as a challenge more than anything else.
As you said, the general perception of Chinese music is that it’s conventional. Historically, pop music and ballads have ruled the Chinese charts. Do you think hip hop can reach the same level of importance and influence in China as it has in the United States?
MaSiWei: I think… yes. Yeah, it can. Nowadays, there are more and more pop songs with rap elements. That will lead more people to pay attention to rap and hip hop, and if that continues, then yeah, I think [rap music] can gain the same significance in China as it has in the States.
Whose music have you been influenced by?
MaSiWei: Right now, Migos, Kendrick Lamar, Joey Badass… they’re all really popular right now.
DZ: A$AP Rocky.
Psy.P: Joey Badass.
Melo: J. Cole!
Your management, 88Rising, also represents Rich Chigga and Keith Ape. How much do you see those guys as a template for breaking through internationally?
Psy.P: Keith Ape’s a close friend of ours.
MaSiWei: Rich Chigga raps in fluent English, so it’s not the same as what we do. Keith Ape’s a really good example to bring up though, because he writes his lyrics in Korean. He first got attention because he found [English] songs that were really blowing up and rapped over them in Korean. After that, he began collaborating with rappers from the UK and used that recognition to get festival gigs, which launched his name in the US. It’s a gradual process and a model for crossover success that we can emulate.
Your songs are performed in a language [the Chengdu dialect] that isn’t spoken across China, let alone the world. How did it feel when you first experienced a music video going viral internationally?
MaSiWei: At the beginning, other Chinese people were actually really unhappy that we rapped in the Chengdu dialect, because they didn’t get why we would use a language that’s not spoken across the country. They didn’t understand. But when our song Black Cab hit a million views on YouTube, we felt really good… it confirmed what we already knew, that the language is not important. The music is what’s important.
Your recently released debut album, Black Cab, is pretty heavily influenced by trap music. After this, do you have any plans to go in other directions musically and explore any new genres?
MaSiWei: No, no specific plans. Right now, we’re into trap, so that’s what we’re doing, but maybe that will change in the future. When it does, we’ll look at trying new musical styles, but whatever we do will be under the framework of hip hop.
Last one – who would be each of your dream collaborators?
MaSiWei: A$AP Rocky.
Melo: J. Cole, J. Cole!
DZ: Snoopy Dogg.
DZ: [laughs] Snoopy Dogg.