Last Friday I headed out to the city of Nantong, which is just a bit up the Yangtze River from Shanghai, to play a set as part of a residency Rankadank are doing out there. Zean, Rankadank’s resident beatboxer and also an emerging DJ/producer, and Jado, a Shanghainese MC, came as well. If you’re coming from outside of China, I think it’s pretty much guaranteed that you won’t ever have heard of Nantong, and even if you do live here or have had a lot of exposure to the country, I’d say there’s still a fair chance it’s escaped your attention. And this is a city with a population of just under two million (that’s only the urban area as well). Part of this is probably because Nantong gets overshadowed by all the other massive cities in the neighourhood: not only have you got Shanghai, but there is also Hangzhou, Suzhou and Nanjing. Nantong just can’t compete with these places in terms of culture, history or economic power, and so gets overlooked. On top of that, it can only be reached by train from Shanghai using a highly circuitous route with only such train each day. Nonetheless, Nantong is the latest front to open up as underground, alternative music scenes take root in China.
The club I was playing at is called The Void, and I’d heard about it sometime last year through Weibo and a DJ in the city named a Big Sen, a family man with a love of classic dubstep from FWD’s Hatcha-dominated heyday. I’d figured that the club got its name from the Gaspar Noe film Enter the Void, which has as one of its key locations a bar in Tokyo’s Kabukicho called The Void, and having now been there I doubt I’m wrong: the club was dark and lit mostly by blue, red and UV lights, while up on the walls were a number of weed-related posters (“Good buds stick together”) and the club’s logo, seen on the white tshirts of the staff members, was a pill. It’s kind of funny seeing such overt drug references in a club here in China (it probably is anywhere in the world) as Chinese drug consumption, despite being prodigious, takes place in a more discrete manner. (Make no mistake, The Void is a place for Chinese people; I don’t think you get many laowai in Nantong.) On our way Jado had told me that people in Nantong were way more into smoking weed than people in Shanghai, partly because there wasn’t much else to do.
The Void was highly reminiscent of Arkham, to the point where ‘reminiscent’ simply seems like a kind way of avoiding the word ‘copying’. Located in the basement of building, the walls and ceiling of the staircase down to the club were almost completely covered in splattered paint and there were UV lights the whole way. Remind you of somewhere? Then once you were inside, it was a bit like if Arkham had been squashed, both in terms of length and height: ahead of you was a stage with some familiar-looking metal barriers in front of it and a reasonable-sized dancefloor. There were some tables and seats to the back and sides.
In pretty much all the alternative music venues I’ve been to in China outside of the first-tier cities, they’ve tried to fuse both live music and DJs. I figure this is as much of out necessity as it is a considered choice about programming: any alternative scene in these kinds of places is so small that it’s not big enough to support more than one, or rather it’s not big enough to support a separate live music venue with all its additional overheads. Then there’s the fact you’re expanding your target audience, but you potentially get a strange mix of a crowd: the rock fans and the clubbers. The way I see it, you could try to work that to your advantage and try to build up some kind of interesting cross-pollination between the two, but, and again I think this comes back to the size of the scene and the limited choice it gives, this doesn’t necessarily happen. A case in point: before me there was a band playing – initially I thought this might be the only two laowai in the whole of Nantong plus their Chinese mate, but it turned out they’re from Shanghai. They were playing pretty standard rock stuff – I’m not sure if they were originals or covers, if the latter then I didn’t recognise them. Then for their final song they played the James Bond theme tune. I actually checked with Zean to see if I wasn’t just imagining this. (In case it needed saying, I use the words ‘underground’ and ‘alternative’ slightly loosely in this piece.) Myself, Jado and Zean were on right after this as soon as the equipment had been switched over, during which time a mix CD of generic house was playing. This is the manner in which your night out in a Chinese city might unfold.
Once we’d got set up, Zean did his beatboxing and then I started my set. I’d intended to go in with some heavy grime, but the club wasn’t actually that busy, maybe because it was pissing it down with rain outside, so instead I went with Foam Feathers by Nguzunguzu thinking it might be a way of easing into it. I kept it with grime for just under an hour playing tunes by MssingNo, Sir Pixalot, Bok Bok, Spooky, Flava D and others before gradually moving it into more UK garage territory and other kind 130 bpm-ish stuff we’d play at Push and Pull. It was probably this stuff that got the best response: in particular I remember Naaah’s 2much, Deckstar’s 1 Step Further remix and Deadbeat’s Scottish Notez getting a good reaction (one guy was getting so hype he kept climbing up on the barriers). This probably isn’t that surprising: despite being around for some time now, grime is still a strange, unknown thing to most people, and a regular house beat is always going to win out, but these tunes aren’t polite or tepid like a lot of house you hear in Shanghai and it was nice to see people reacting to that kind of rude energy.
The next day I didn’t hang around for long as Zean was heading back to Shanghai early on. What I did see of Nantong mostly consisted of wide avenues and grey buildings. Basically, if you’ve ever been to a non-tier-one Chinese city or just out into the suburbs then you can probably imagine exactly what it looks like. When we got back to Shanghai South Station, Zean said it was like we hadn’t left Nantong. The reverse would be just as true.
It’s hard to say just how much somewhere like The Void helps club music worm its way into the consciousness of Chinese people compared to, say, EDM festivals parachuting in with spectacle and massive marketing budgets. It’s easier to say which kind of enterprise you can really get behind, and if there is a truly Chinese-centred movement, then it’s primarily taking place in these kinds of spots across the country. I wonder how hard it is to really make these local scenes grow, most of the best talent would probably make the move to Shanghai or Beijing eventually, seduced by the pay and brighter prospects, but you’d like to think it was possible. Just recently I’ve been digging into some of the bleep stuff, an early rave sound in the late-80s from the likes of LFO and Nightmares on Wax that came out of Sheffield and Leeds, cities not exactly on the level of London, Birmingham or Manchester. Could Nantong spawn a Chinese bleep?