Scale the heights
MC Gold Mountain has the gift of the gab. The moment we sit down at Frenzi Music, the North Point studio where he works as a producer, he immediately starts. His voice has a lovely tone - you expect him to be a good singer just from hearing him speak - so perhaps he was always destined to become one of Hong Kong's top rappers.
'I was a terrible student. I was that stupid kid playing Gameboy in the background,' says the man born Kevin Chau Kei-chien in Michigan and raised in New York and Vancouver. Even so, he wound up at the University of British Columbia, initially to study economics.
He turned to English literature,
a subject he had enjoyed in high school. 'I remember in high school having a teacher who really influenced me a lot. She was really open-minded. She had a passion to teach. She was just fair to everybody, like one of those classic Hollywood movie teachers.' He laughs.
'I still talk to her when I have lyrics. I'll send them to her and ask her what she thinks.'
That teacher exposed him to poetry, which remains influential in his rhyming. One of his favourite poems is John Donne's A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, which he thinks about when he's on tour and away from his girlfriend. He also speaks of a book called Songs of Gold Mountain, a collection of Cantonese lyrics from San Francisco's Chinatown.
'Recently I've been thinking a lot more about why I call myself Gold Mountain. I kind of lost track of that name.' He says it was influenced by Chinese emigration to the United States during the gold rush in the 19th century, when the western regions - particularly California - were known as gum shan, or 'gold mountain'. 'That to me is like me jumping ship from a comfy future in law ... into this adventure instead.'
He was set to go to law school when he came to Hong Kong for a visit in 2005 with the intention of staying for a month. 'I didn't know anybody, so I didn't care. I was just here to party. My last vacation, I thought,' he recalls.
Then one night at Kee Club, everything changed. He was drunk, and local jazz-funk collective Ultralounge were on stage. 'I just went up and grabbed the microphone, snatched it. I started freestyling. I had never rapped before, never even had any interest in music. I just played saxophone in the high school band.'
He had also played drums and sang in high school, but had never dreamed of performing.
'I'm sure that rap was terrible,' he says. 'I'm sure it sounded like complete garbage. When I listen to old recordings that I've done, it's very wooden. There was no style to it. I didn't know what I was doing. But the crowd was feeling it.'
At the end of the set, Ultralounge's DJ Kulu asked him to join them for some gigs. At the time, there were not that many MCs performing here. He became Gold Mountain, and stayed in the city. 'Hong Kong is home. I have moved 30-odd times so far in my life,' he says. 'A lot of our parents would move to the West to start a better future for their kids. But then a lot of us end up moving back here. I always found it kind of funny.'
For a few years, he had a whirlwind experience. 'The entertainment industry just seems to be vicious. It's a very hard game to play.' He did guest spots on songs for Canto-pop stars such as Leon Lai Ming and Kelvin Kwan Chor-yiu. 'They would give me three bars in a rap, which is funny because what are you supposed to do with three bars?'
During this period, he also performed supporting slots at the Coliseum for A-list singers. In the beginning he naively believed he could change hip hop in Hong Kong, but this wasn't the case. 'The only thing I've changed recently is my underwear and socks.'
He feels he has missed out on some big opportunities. The Fugees' Wyclef Jean asked him for a demo during a drunken night out in Hong Kong. 'I didn't have a demo so I recorded something instantly.' He passed it on the next morning, but never heard back. 'At the time I ended up getting depressed.' He even considered giving up music.
In 2010, he visited New York for the first time in years, and ended up meeting Buddha Monk, a rapper affiliated with the Wu Tang Clan through the late Ol' Dirty Bastard. 'I walked into a room and it was just hip hop. Being around this element, everyone just writing lyrics, everyone in the background just spitting it. This was what I had been looking for.' His appetite was revived and he made a trip to Legend Studio, where the seminal Wu Tang Clan album 36 Chambers was recorded.
Gold Mountain's latest project is a track called Paper Dominoes, which will be released for free in the coming weeks. At the beginning of February, he saw pictures of people living in cage homes. 'Wow, I thought, this is still around in Hong Kong? I just started getting obsessed with it. So I started ... taking notes, watching documentaries. I felt so emotionally attached to it. It's taken me so long because the beat is hard to do. How I make music, because I have no formal training, is I picture it, imagine it in my mind, visualise it. So every sound has that element in it,' he says.
An album is slowly coming together and he also has a track in the works with Buddha Monk. 'Through music hopefully I can climb this mountain.'