Cover Rapper JB, one of the rising stars of the Hong Kong hip-hop scene (Photo: Affa Chan/Tatler Hong Kong)

Tattooed, pierced and primed to provoke, a new generation of artists is reviving the spirit of Canto-rap

In December 2019, Hong Kong’s original rap band LMF celebrated its 20th anniversary by organising its own music festival, LMF XX Year Fest, in Kowloon Bay, where the group reunited to perform its hit tracks for thousands of loyal fans. Along with the band appeared a group of rising and established artists, including JB, Dough-Boy, Tommy Grooves, Seanie P and Matt Force, a pivotal moment that saw the passing of a torch to a new era of Hong Kong rappers.

“We dreamt of the day when we would finally be able to play a whole night of Cantonese rap music, and now we could finally do that,” says LMF member Chan Wai-hung, also known as Phat. Adds Leung Wing-kit, who goes by Kit, “Some of the kids these days are really good. We have to consistently practise, to keep up and make sure they don’t overtake us.”

Today, many young rappers are following the road that LMF paved for them while performing with pop acts like Sammi Cheng and Josie & the Uni Boys. Phat and Kit have continued their push to popularise the genre, working with their current six-member hip-hop collective, 24Herbs, which they established in 2006, and on their solo acts. Phat and Kit recently released a Cantonese-language track with JB, a fellow acclaimed Hong Kong-born Filipino rapper, that translates to I Want to Play with You.

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As the barriers to entry in the music world have been torn down by social media and streaming sites, several artists are breaking through with just a laptop and a mic purchased from Golden Computer Centre, the tech gadget mall in Sham Shui Po. Bakerie Music Productions, founded by a group of friends including Seanie P, Dough-Boy and Tommy Grooves, have also made a name producing some of Hong Kong’s biggest rap videos and songs. Their 2017 track Li Ka Shing, which speaks about living on a dime and hoping one day to make as much money as the richest man in the city, garnered nearly two million views on YouTube.

“When we started, we were booked by a dingy club in Tsuen Wan run by triads,” says Seanie P (real name Lee Chun Shing) loudly above the banging of busy waitstaff at a café in Tsing Yi Maritime Square. “We were going to be paid HK$9,000. But after the show, the owners told us we weren’t worth the money and didn’t want to pay us. Eventually they gave in, and begrudgingly threw the money on the table and watched me scramble to count it all. But years later, when we got a little more popular, they saw Dough-Boy on the street, and treated him to a meal and apologised to him.”

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Though many Hong Kong rappers say that the industry is still in its infancy, the scene continues to attract diverse talents who perform in a blend of Cantonese, Mandarin and English. Japanese-Canadian rapper Txmiyama (pronounced tomi-yama) is known for his guerilla-style music videos that feature him and his friends partying around the city, and made headlines around the world in 2019 when one of his lyrics became a rallying cry for protestors: “7k for a house like a cell, and you think we’re afraid of jail.”

People can relate to music. I know of nights when you can barely afford food, and all you can afford is lo mein and cheap liquor

Txmiyama (real name Yuri Tomiyama) was raised in Hong Kong and also works in the F&B industry. He writes and produces his own music and videos, which explore issues of struggle, from the cost of living in the city to partying in Lan Kwai Fong. “I write about what I live,” he says. “People can relate to music. I know of nights when you can barely afford food, and all you can afford is lo mein and cheap liquor.”

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JB (real name Wilfredo Jr Alconaba), is easily identifiable by his large neck tattoo, multiple nose piercings and painted black fingernails. After he became notorious for producing a protest anthem in 2019, many of his shows were cancelled and he lost a movie deal starring alongside acclaimed Hong Kong actor Simon Yam. “I don’t regret it, that’s part of me,” he says. “Even after I lost the movie deal, I got a chance to perform in England. Rapping in Cantonese in England.”

This was not the first time JB courted controversy, having written music targeting others in the limelight: “I did a diss song at someone who claimed to be a rapper,” he says about a member of Hong Kong boy group Error. “He tried to diss me first, so I wrote a song and music video diss track back.”

Even after I lost the movie deal, I got a chance to perform in England. Rapping in Cantonese in England

Altercations are common. Last year, Nicholas Cheung, head of hip-hop and R&B at Warner Music Hong Kong and manager to rappers Young Hysan and Dough-Boy, organised a series of city-wide cypher videos of informal jams with online publication Hypebeast that resulted in numerous rivalries among rappers who felt left out. Having spent years as an artist himself, Cheung argues that controversy can be a great marketing tool. “I do think this type of beef is good,” he says. “If people are passionate, it will help the whole scene grow bigger.”

Streetwear brands like Adidas and Vans have already approached many of the artists. Chanel even tapped Dough-Boy to create a song and video for a pop-up store at Festival Walk in Causeway Bay to promote its Rouge Coco Flash lipstick in May 2019.

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Having collaborated with global artists including MC Jin, MC HotDog and Lil Yachty, Dough-Boy (real name Galaxy Ho) is now bridging the gap between the Hong Kong and international rap scenes. When Jackson Wang, rapper and member of the South Korean boy group Got7, returned to Hong Kong to film a documentary, his team reached out to Dough-Boy to shoot at his studio.

“His bodyguards were standing at the door of my studio, and everyone on the floor was like: what’s going on?” Dough-Boy says. “We started talking and then he’s like: ‘Let’s play some of your beats and write a song.’ The next day, he booked a club and said we should perform it.”

Looking to the future, these artists are all still hopeful that the industry will grow. “It’s going to get really big, there’s so many new ideas, concepts, spirits, sounds and production,” says 23-year-old rapper Young Hysan (real name Daniel Wai). “Rap might be the biggest genre in the next decade in Hong Kong. Someone is going to make a talent show out of it.”

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