Inside Shanghai’s Grime Scene
Far away from the council estates of London, grime is shaking off its geographical feathers and being reinterpreted by Chinese producers and DJs.
Tucked away beneath the French concession of Shanghai is The Shelter, a former Mao-era bunker, now converted into a club. On the Thursday before the United Kingdom brexited, I went there to go and soak up a piece of ol' Britannia – a grime night. As always, I walked through the quiet tree lined streets behind Shanghai library, and as I turned off Fuxing Xi lu and started to get close to the club, the atmosphere changed just a little. A stranger came up to me, and in surprisingly clear English, asked if I wanted weed or pills.
The street was crowded. Food sellers did a brisk trade. Girls of all shapes and sizes spilled out from The Apartment, another local club, which was hosting Shanghai pride's "ladies night". I weaved my way through, dodging a hairy man in a tutu who had finessed his way into that party, and found the small door I was looking for. I had arrived at Push&Pull, a grime night started a few years ago by two British expats, Naaah and Alta.
Alta has moved to Singapore, so Naaah (real name Nathan) holds the monthly night down. Over a coffee the day before he had told me how Push&Pull began. After finishing college, Nathan moved to Chengdu to learn mandarin, and eventually found himself in Hangzhou, working as an English teacher. There he connected with Alta in an online chat room for UK music fans. Soon after, he moved to Shanghai, and the two founded the night, along with another guy called Pip. Now, it's become one of the focal points of Shanghai's burgeoning grime scene.
As I walked down The Shelter's dark staircase, the only light – which was coming from a neon sign – told me I was in the right place. Turning down a low-ceilinged corridor, carved straight from rock, the low thump from the main room echoed down the corridor, the muffled bass dislodging condensation from the ceiling above. At the decks that night was Kilo Vee, a 24 year old Shanghainese DJ. He was dropping a deep, bassy instrumental grime set that would have sounded at home on Radar Radio or a basement rave in E3.
Kilo started DJing at 15 years old, with a local group called Ladidadi Crew, who threw hip hop and funky nights. But, unable to find an audience, the crew disbanded and he started playing grime and footwork. He came across grime in 2014 when he started to come down to Push&Pull. He wasn't convinced at first. "It's noisy, it isn't coherent, and there didn't seem to be a melody," he tells me. But as he spent more time in The Shelter, he gradually became attuned to the sound, which at the very least was "really fierce". In this it fit with his aspirations, because – as he told me – "grime can move people, in all senses of that word".
Kilo is representative of the small but dedicated grime scene that has slowly grown out of this Thursday night movement. Contrary to what you may be thinking, it's wrong to assume the Shanghai scene is just a straight export powered by English expats. In the crowd I meet Tess, a producer. She's 25 and from North East China. Like Kilo, she's never been to the UK, and her exposure to grime has come from domestic nights. "The first time I saw grime was at DADA Beijing, when I saw Blackwax perform. At that time, I didn't know what grime was, I just thought it was really aggressive and dark, but later, after seeing Mumdance and Logos perform, I started to get pulled in by it, and ever since I've been a part of that scene," she said.
Tess moved to Shanghai where she works as a sound engineer, and became a regular in the crowd at The Shelter, playing occasional sets at Basement and for Push&Pull. Her track "leaf" opens with samples from a forest as the melody slowly builds from a series of ethereal pulses, before crashing bass kicks in and the track takes a turn toward east London. "I like nature sounds as a way to put in interesting sounds from life in my music," she said. Ultimately, it sounds like Yoshi Harikawa on a stroll through a rain-soaked council estate. On another track called "4526", a playful alien melody dances over an introspective and deep beat. It's early days, and Tess is yet to sign to a label, but her production is already strong and unique.
Unlike its counterpart in London, a key feature of the Shanghai scene is that it is purely instrumental. As Tess noted when I asked what she felt the future of grime was in China, she noted the lack of MCs. "If we had some local MCs, that would be when the music can really start to be representative of the local culture, and really mix." While the Japanese scene has a few domestic MCs like Pakin and TAKISHI, both of whom Naaah brought over for Push&Pull's third birthday, the Chinese scene doesn't have any MCs of note. Local producers only really gain exposure to MCs when foreign MCs are booked to play domestic nights.
Although it may be seen as a missing component in grime, this lack of MCs helps to push Shanghai's producers in interesting directions. Without witty bars and the iconic two-time British flow, the production has to take the listener on a more involved journey. Grime instrumentals traditionally peter out quickly—they do something interesting in the first minute, then just repeat it for the next five; the interest is sustained by the MCs. The Shanghai scene doesn't have this luxury, so the instrumentals are pushed much further.
The scene differs from London in another way, too. Unlike Britain, China has a restricted internet service, meaning it can be hard to access and explore the sounds that early grime music is based on. "All the people around me, including myself, are living a VPN lifestyle," Tess said, referring to the technology people use to access sites blocked by government restrictions. ZEAN, who came on after Kilo Vee at Push&Pull, agreed, but it's this restricted internet access that has also helped him to develop his own unique take on the classic London grime aesthetic.
When I asked ZEAN to describe his sound he said "simple", although I think that undersells it. His sound is rich and complex. "Second-rate battle", which was released by the Beijing based label Dohits, features a heavy bassline with a cheeky Hong Kong Kung-fu sample in the middle, and the sounds of a zither. In "Yi by Yi", which was put out by the American label Liquid Amber, kung-fu reappears. People have been sampling Hong Kong kung-fu films for years, but ZEAN manages to do so without sounding cheesy or clichéd, in a way that suits the vibe and never takes over. It doesn't smack of appropriation or name-checking, it sounds like a Chinese producer paying homage to the sounds he has grown up with.
"I started out doing grime and trap mixes of Golden Era hip-hop like everyone else," says Naaah, who, like ZEAN, has also reinterpreted grime with a Chinese lilt. "But then I thought fuck it, I'm in China, so I'm going to sample the stuff around me." On the track "我的钢琴被单坏了" he samples Jay Chou's "Silence" looping the hook "你也很难过"（you're also hard done by). In "Swim Air" he samples Lu Han's track "若言"（candid words, creating a track that sounds vaguely like a cross between Mosca and a KTV. While the result might not to be perfect, ("我的钢琴被单坏了" veers slightly too much towards sounding like a Chinese ringtone), it is an interesting sonic counterpoint to the expat experience.
That said, it isn't just Chinese producers pushing the genre in a new direction. Swimful, a British expat currently based in Shanghai, has started to gain traction this year: his production is gaining interest overseas, with plays on Rinsefm, support from artists like Slackkk, and collaborations with rappers like Lil B. He agreed that being in China exposes him to completely different sounds. "I doubt anyone in London has heard a dizi [a small woodwind instrument] at 4am". This is reflected in his tracks. His track "Skitter" bounces along with strings and synths that give the track a distinctly shanghainese flavour. He downloaded a pack of samples last year with loads of "corny 'oriental' sounds and video game sounds" and reworked them into something melodic, a digital response to living in the outskirts of Shanghai. The track retains the local flavour without being a horrible cliche or pastiche. It's reminiscent of Arkist's "fill your coffee", though it's more uptempo and better suited to a club environment.
Swimful's "Skitter" will be released by SVBKLVT, a Shanghai label run by Gaz, another English expat - who is also the guy who runs The Shelter, the venue where tonight's Push&Pull is taking place. The label has only existed for the last two years but it has been gaining steam at a steady clip, supporting local artists and some talent out of Tokyo, with a view to expanding further into Japan next year. Gaz puts on his own nights for his label, and also gives other nights the chance to use the space. The collective Wooozy, which is an online music publication and night, has brought over grime artists like Moslem Priest from Malaysia and Slackkk. These artists bring authentic sounds with them and allow a window for local producers and DJs to see the state of the movement elsewhere and how they can fit within that.
Next year will mark the 10 year anniversary of the Shelter. "I like to give people a space to experiment" Gaz told me over lunch a few days after the show. It's a permissive space, a one of a kind experimental venue among the heavily commercialised Shanghai club scene. It is the only environment that could have housed a night like Push&Pull, and incubated the emerging Shanghai grime scene.
Until recently, grime has been an insular genre with limited reach beyond the UK. But now that artists like Skepta are being name checked by some of the biggest artists in the world, it has started to spread its wings. Push&Pull have been making Shanghai throw up gun fingers long before this new-found interest, but it's also playing a part in this new resurgence and growth in China. In Shanghai, grime is shaking off its geographical feathers and is free to be reinterpreted.
On that Thursday night at Push&Pull, there was a point around 2am where the night was turning down. ZEAN took to the decks and I was stood with Tess, Naaah, Kilo and Swimful - the leading lights of the Shanghai grime scene all huddled together. I asked Kilo what he felt about grime's future in China. He shrugged and said "the good thing is that now there are a couple of us, all working towards the same things, so I guess we just have to wait and see what happens."
Listen to a mix of Shanghai grime from ZEAN, Tess, Kilo Vee, and Naaah below.