CUI JIAN IS used to controversy: the godfather of Chinese rock has courted enough of it since he sprang to fame 20 years ago with his debut single, I Have Nothing. The song, which became the anthem of the student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, catapulted Cui into the political spotlight and marked the start of a turbulent relationship with Beijing (he was banned from performing in any sizeable venue in the capital after two provocative concerts in 1993).
The relationship appeared to have improved slightly last year, when Cui was allowed to stage his first large-scale concert in Beijing in 12 years, playing to an audience of 10,000 at Beijing's Capital Gymnasium.
Then, after years of pressure from Cui and his Live Vocals campaign (which he started in 2002), the government decided to ban lip synching in live music shows across the mainland. 'It was a victory,' says the 44-year-old as he sips Chinese tea at a SoHo hotel, wearing his signature baseball cap emblazoned with a red star.
'Lots of people were angry about performers' lip synching in live shows and thought it was a problem.'
Not that Cui has turned political conformist: he still has the ability to rankle authorities. Only last month he appeared on the cover of the inaugural Chinese edition of Rolling Stone magazine. It was pulled from the shelves after three weeks without explanation from the censor.
The publicity will no doubt help sales of Cui's latest album, Show You Colours, which EMI releases this week in Hong Kong (it was launched on the mainland last year). The album was a long time in the making, with one track dating from 1997. Hongkongers who attended the 2001 music and dance ensemble called Show Your Colours will be familiar with some of the tracks. In the stage show, the performances were divided into colours - red (inner feelings), blue (intelligence) and yellow (love) - to convey different states of being and elements of life. Cui says he's applied those themes to the album. The second track, Blue Bone, for example, depicts the suppression of and struggle for new ideas in modern Chinese society.
The colour-based themes can also be applied to musical genres, Cui says. 'I think everyone has all these three states and factors in their lives,' he says. 'When we put it into music, it's like red represents rock music, yellow represents pop, blue electronic and hip-hop.'
Cui has tried to combine all three music styles in his latest offering, which marks a departure from his early days of old-school rock. He says he's been fascinated by hip-hop since it emerged in the 1980s.
'I've liked hip-hop music for a very long time,' he says, citing Public Enemy, Geto Boys, Beastie Boys and the Roots as his favourites. But he's careful to mould the genre so it's relevant to Chinese. 'I think I should reflect my life and express my feeling and emotions in my music and not imitate the west.'
It's something he says other Asian artists need to do, too - adapt western styles of music and not simply lift someone else's ideas. He began doing this in 1997 when he wrote the lyrics to Get Over That Day, which features on the album. 'The music style originated from the west. But when you read the lyrics, you'll realise it's completely my own idea and heart.'
In Get Over That Day, Cui analyses the relationship between the central government, mainlanders and Hong Kong in a tale of a mother telling her son that he has a sister coming back to live with them. The son, who never knew of his sister's existence, is understandably shocked, excited and worried.
'A lot of people wrote about the colonial issue or things that were too diplomatic. I wanted to write about the complex feelings we had,' he says. 'I thought I was pretty true to my feelings. When I listen to this song now, I have the same feelings and I'm still agitated by it.'
It's his social criticism as well as his experimental approach towards combining western music styles - such as rock - with Chinese instruments that have marked Cui out as a performer since he first began visiting the students in Tiananmen, performing in the square to show his support. It led to his 1990 nationwide tour, Rock'n'Roll on the New Long March, being cancelled midway. It was then that Cui started to appear on stage wearing a red cloth blindfold over his eyes, which became his trademark. 'When you're expressing yourself and criticising things around you, your attitude and work can represent the environment,' he says.
He also hopes the new release will ease concerns among fans that he was 'singing on the run'. Cui says he's been trying to look into problems and point them out through his music since his third album, Balls Under the Red Flag. In that album's opening track, Flying, he sings: 'What I want is not somewhere else/ But here ... I can't fly.'
Cui says he's tried to maintain that direction. 'For my first two albums and songs such as I Have Nothing, Fake Monk, Stepping Out and Bondoir Lady, many people said it was like I was singing on the run,' he says. 'But now, I'm not going anywhere. I want to solve the problems. When I discuss an issue, I won't try to escape [it] like I did in the past.'
Not enough Chinese artists are tackling problems, he says, despite rock being more popular than ever. 'Few are talking about the relationship between 'I' and the big environment in their music,' he says. 'It seems that there's not much progress in the content.'
Despite it being more than a decade since he played a major venue in Beijing, last year's return concert failed to arouse much emotion in him, he says, largely because he's still frustrated by the dearth of opportunities. The mainland is still incapable of putting on a good rock show, he says. 'As an artist, what we want is more performing opportunities and more people to respect the arts. This is what we still can't see on the mainland.'
The lack of authentic live performance hasn't helped matters, he says, and he's planning to bring his Live Vocals campaign to Hong Kong this year, in an attempt to improve the city's struggling cultural scene.
Show You Colour is out Friday
Nothing to My Name