It’s been a hallmark year for Higher Brothers. After dropping several music videos that culminated in the release of their debut album, Black Cab, in May 2017, the Chengdu-based foursome have gone from relative obscurity to one of the year’s most buzzed-about Chinese music groups.
Articles from major Western publications like NPR and Paper Magazine have popped up almost daily since the album’s debut. All of them express incredulousness that these artists soaked up hip-hop’s influence from overseas and developed their own style, given all the restrictions on music platforms in China.
The group gamely fields these questions, but their music and lyrics reveal where their preoccupations actually lie. Take their breakout track ‘WeChat’ featuring major South Korean rapper Keith Ape, which has an irreverent DIY music video made to look like one continuous WeChat video call. The overall takeaway is that young people’s social media experience in China revolves around WeChat less because they can’t access anything else and more because it’s just the best app ever.
All the songs on Black Cab are appealing in part thanks to this focus on everyday subjects. “This album is about what’s been happening in our recent daily life,” says Higher Brothers group member Psy.P, referring to songs like ‘Franklin,’ a chilled-out, 90s-inflected track featuring Jay Park about Grand Theft Auto, and ‘7/11,’ an ode to the convenience store. “We'll come up with an idea, or one of us will have an idea, and then each of us completes our own verse,” says Psy.P of their songwriting process. “Then we record together and modify each other.”
One of their standout tracks is ‘Made in China,’ a bawdy satire mocking foreigner’s perceptions of the US, which opens with a Valley Girl-accented voice reading actual YouTube comments the group has gotten on their videos. The track has a catchy beat and a hilarious, high-energy video. In June, Asian music platform 88rising released a reaction video for the song, in which several major rappers, including Higher Brothers’ heroes Migos, respond positively to the video and to Dzknow’s ferocious delivery in particular (they dubbed him “Chinese Biggie”).
It garnered over a million views on YouTube in less than a week. We hope that the irony of a bunch of Westerners commenting on a Higher Brothers song that mocks Westerners’ comments on Higher Brothers’ songs wasn’t lost on all those million viewers; in our favorite moment of the video, one rapper says earnestly, “they bring their culture into it, that’s what makes it stick,” while Masiwei is onscreen dressed in head-to-toe red, waving a fan around and joke-rapping about how toothpaste is made in China.
The four MCs all grew up loving hip-hop, and each cites a different defining moment that turned them onto listening: Psy.P’s friend played American rap trio Migos for him in his car; Melo heard someone’s Jay-Z ringtone in junior high; Dzknow heard a snippet of hip-hop in a car commercial.
They found their style of rapping and wrote their first songs while performing locally in Chengdu. “It’s developing well; there’s a higher acceptance than other cities,” says Psy.P of the hip-hop community there. Though much of their media buzz has been overseas, and their music videos have much higher views on YouTube than on Youku or QQ, Higher Brothers has never performed outside of China. This album tour has taken them to almost every major city, including Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen. “Every stop will create history,” Psy.P says.
Higher Brothers’ strategy for making a splash so far has been to enjoy the exposure that comes with being a novelty in the West while still retaining all their playfulness and authenticity, writing verses relevant to their own lives that ring true to anyone living in China. This may well prove a lasting recipe for mainstream fame both at home and abroad.