BOHAN PHOENIX CHATS WITH PEDDLERS
ABOUT LIFE & HIP HOP IN CHENGDU
We caught up with hip hop artists Bohan Phoenix, the Higher Brothers and beat maker HARIKIRI in his Chengdu studio as they recorded a new track over a few Peddlers & tonics.
The next day we met Bohan at one of his favorite Sichuan noodle spots for a chat about life in Chengdu and his journey as an artist bridging the gap between East and West.
Thanks so much for making the time to sit down with us, we discovered your music a few years ago so we’re stoked to be able to dig a bit deeper into your story. First off, tell us about your journey moving from China to the US, and then back to China again. What was that like?
Good to catch you guys here, and love what you’re doing with craft gin in China!
I moved to the states when I was 11 and I came back every year because my family is here. But it wasn’t until 2015 that I started coming back to perform.
Howie Lee from Beijing is a producer in China and he’s super dope, probably the best. We had done a couple of songs over the internet and I came back in 2015 to perform with him and it was like 400 people at Dada in Beijing, and it just blew my mind. I didn’t know that there was so much demand for music out here.
So 2015. And then in 2016 I came back to tour with Vice China. That was seven cities, and I was like, ‘wow’. I was even more convinced then. In 2016 I came back again to tour myself, and in 2017 I came back a bunch of times, and in the second half of 2017 I was like, ‘I’m doing too much back and forth, I need to just come back’.
So I moved back last summer, and since I moved back last July I’ve already been back to the States three times because I also have an interest in keeping my shit going over there too.
So hip hop has been blowing up in China over the last couple of years. How would you describe the scene here and where do you fit in?
This guy from Detroit actually brought the whole underground battle thing over to China around 1999 or 2000, before the movie 8 Mile even came out. So the interest in hip hop has already been in China for a while. The reason it blew up was because these commercial shows got to China. And that’s basically what the vibe is like for hip hop out here right now.
In China it’s more of a commercial, life style type of music. For me, I’m more trying to bring the impetus on the music out here, because that’s how I got raised on hip hop. I like to think I’m occupying a unique space, in the sense that people who get what I’m doing, they really get it. They can appreciate it and know that I’m trying to focus on the quality.
But at the same time, there’s a lot of people who don’t understand what I’m doing. They’re like ‘why is he rapping in English and Chinese, why doesn’t he just rap in Chinese. Why doesn’t he wear Obey?’. A lot of interviews they focus on that.
I look at it as the perfect place for me to be right now. Because I feel like I have a purpose. I do feel the same way in New York too, but with the whole US it’s pretty established, the industry, and out here it’s like the Wild Wild West. I feel like my voice goes a little further out here, for now.
You’ve worked with a lot of talented producers. You mentioned Howie Lee as a top electronic producer, for example. What does your collaborative process look like, and what’s your secret to making those partnerships work?
Howie was so special. When I first met Howie over the internet, it was just when I was starting to add Chinese into my songs.
Because I was rapping at the Apollo Theatre, in Harlem, where James Brown, Michael Jackson, everybody performed there. That’s where I wanted to prove myself. 1600 people, all black and Hispanic. And for some reason it just wasn’t clicking.
Everything begins with imitating, but it wasn’t until I started adding Chinese into my shit that people would come to me after the show being like ‘I don’t know what you said but that shit was tight’.
But all the beats I was working on were still East Coast, New York beats, and then I met Howie and he had mad lyrical gems, like trap style but all the elements were Asian. We just clicked immediately. I already had my part figured out, and he had his part figured out, and it just worked.
Jachary is a super musical dude. He just knows how to do it, he knows how to build the house around the furniture. We were roommates going back six or seven years, before I came to China. To me the magic with me and Jach was the chemistry and friendship, combined with the skill set that he already has.
Ryan Hemsworth, he’s been coming to Asia for a while. He’s always had an interest in Asia. He was doing shows out here before I was. I was making the Overseas EP and he sent over bunch of beats, and two of them were so good.
All the people I’ve worked with, everyone’s narratives just sort of lined up. For me, it has to be beyond the music.
Chengdu Chengdu has been called the hip hop capital of China. Why do you think the scene out here is so vibrant? What do you think it is about Chengdu, about the culture or the city?
Chengdu has always been a leisure city. Across all of China it’s known for drinking tea on the streets, playing Mahjong with old people, so the scene is really relaxed, and I think that helps. Keeping things smooth, not so stressed all the time.
Another thing is the Chengdu dialect is phonetically pleasing, more so than Putonghua. It’s closer to Japanese, almost, more straight.
How would you define your sound or your style?
My style and sound changes all the time. It started out as more trap style hip hop.
I’m now working on my 8th album with Jachary and we’re doing it all live, no computer. I like all types of music and I think today we’re in a comfortable environment with the internet where no one’s really restricted to just do one sound anymore.
I don’t know how to describe my sound, I think I’m constantly evolving, my goal is just to make good music. As far as influences go, I got into hip hop because I was watching 8 Mile.
Tupac, Daddy Kane, I started listening to them. So, in terms of rappers, Eminem and Tupac inspired me to be more than just a rapper, to be a well-rounded person, to use your voice. Don’t be afraid. Whatever the horizon might look like for Asian people in the scene, don’t be afraid to speak up against it if you see something wrong with it.
It really wasn’t until I met Jach years later that he started showing me Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder. When I started listening to other shit, that’s when my music started getting better.
Then in terms of music, D’Angelo changed my life. Listening to D’Angelo’s music made me understand how artists interact with music instead of just being over it.
How did your family react to you going down the artistic route?
My dad, having been a singer who left my mum, left a bad taste for music in the mouth of my family. That was one of the reasons they didn’t want me to do it.
But when I first started rapping in the States my mum would tell my family over here and they were like ‘it’s a phase’.
And then I went to New York University to get closer to music.
Were you studying music there?
Nah. I was undecided for two years and then I had to pick a major and I was a big fan of J Cole at that time, and I saw that he’d studied in Queens, New York.
So I looked up what he studied and he did communications. So I just picked communications. The whole point of taking the loans and going to NYU was to be able to tell my family, I’m at a good college, now let me do what I’m gonna do.
They never understood it enough to support it directly. But them not telling me ‘don’t do it’ was the biggest support I ever got.
So now they can see I can make a living off it, I’m paying my loans back, I’m helping my mum, they have no problem with it.
What sort of music can we be expecting over the next 6 to 12 months?
I’m dropping a bunch of singles, more trap, rap sounding. And between now and the start of 2019 probably four or five singles, and then this 8 song project that’s like straight funk. I’m doing a tour of Asia with a five piece band. Just trying to show motherfuckers out here how it’s done.