LONE Hong Kong Canto-rapper MC Yan was declared persona non grata at his last two concerts. The Kowloon Convention Centre banished the 28-year-old last June after catching him spray-painting graffiti on the walls of his dressing room. A few months later the Urban Council blacklisted him after a performance at the Coliseum. Heated that security guards ordered dancing fans back to their seats, MC Yan struck up a new ditty, cursing the Hong Kong Coliseum, and inciting 6,000 fans to sing along. Sporting four tattoos, two earrings, a goatee, and hair halfway down his back, MC Yan (otherwise known as Chan Kwong-yan) sits back in the recording studio of his band, LMF and says he wants to come out of his shell but the people here just aren't ready. 'For the moment, I can't be hardcore,' he spits. As a form of music or culture, hip-hop hasn't exactly taken off in Hong Kong, though MC Yan's approach might not be the best way to further LMF's cause. Pity their manager. 'Of course I'm angry,' says Kenny Wong Chun-kiu, who, as creative and post-production executive with Warner Music HK, signed the band seven months ago to the company's independent label, DNA. 'It's one of the problems, but don't talk about it [publicly],' the 36-year-old chides. Wong is focused on a more daunting dilemma: how to promote and market the band's second album, due out the week of May 22. 'There's no hip-hop history in Hong Kong,' he says. 'I'm trying to establish one.' For the past three months Wong has been chanting his mantra - 'I need hard cash' - and combing the streets trying to find a corporate sponsor to foot the estimated $40,000-plus needed for LMF's planned June concert at a yet-to-be-decided venue. A frontman's impish antics aside, whither hip-hop in Hong Kong? The flavour of black America has informed pop culture in the United States for more than a decade. Last year the music accounted for nearly 10 per cent of all US record sales, grossing US$14 billion (HK$109 million). Japan has more than 30 rap artists signed to local record labels, and in South Korea, Seoul's Itaewon district is rife with hip-hop clubs. The 18-month-old LMF, meanwhile, is the first local hip-hop act to be signed to a major label and Wong is frantically mobilising his promotions machine. 'There are so many things to do,' he laments, having just herded the band into local radio station CR2, 90.3 fm for a live interview. The band plugged the first single off the album, whose Chinese-only title translates roughly as 'LMF in the House'. 'It's the only station that will play LMF,' says Davy Chan Hong-wing, 29, producer of the album, and manager of a.room production studio. Commercial markets aren't interested in rap's 'downtrodden themes', explains Ruuben van den Heuel, director of music and artistic relations of Chanel V (HK), a 24-hour cable music channel broadcast across Asia. There are many reasons for hip-hop's cool reception in Hong Kong. LMF members say the Confucian upbringing of Hong Kongers is largely to blame for stifling creativity. Also, the most marketable pathology in the world 'doesn't jibe with most Asian kids because they just don't rebel like their Western counterparts', says trend spotter Matthew Dodds, director of regional client services with advertising agency FCB Worldwide HK. Dodds, whose company informs MTV, Nike and Sega as to teens' tastes du jour, believes identity is another clue as to why hip-hop remains insignificant in the SAR. When Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule, he says, youngsters preferred to identify with the glamour of Canto-pop in order to distinguish themselves through material possessions from their mainland cousins. Then there's the obvious - there simply aren't enough African-Americans living here to exert an influence. Still, local converts live in hope. Chan chats while he works the desk, faithfully recording demos of the LMF album in a.room's cubicle-sized production booth. His finger-length hair stands on end, sans mousse, perhaps a consequence of sitting long hours in close proximity to more than HK$200,000 of electronic equipment. Funded almost entirely by the production work it does for local commercial artists such as Sandy Lam Yik-lin and Kelly Chen Wai-lam, the private studio is otherwise for the sole use of LMF and the band's heavy-metal friends, Anodize. THIS urban tree house in Shamshuipo feels like ground zero for Hong Kong's counterculture. Pellet guns are scattered about the studio, a chrome skateboard-meets-scooter contraption leans against a wall, eight guitars adorn the recording studio, beside a drumkit and dual Technics turntables with hundreds of albums waiting to be scratched. Most overwhelming are the dolls and figurines, most still in their original boxes. There are 46 Spawn figures, 30 versions of Batman, 22 Kiss dolls, 17 Marvel Super Heroes, Resident Evil, Monster Foo and Ozzy Ozborne's Madman Van. There are more than 200 pieces hanging from nearly all available wall and ceiling space. Surrounded by it all, MC Yan chats while his eyes dart back and forth to a TV screen filled by Biggie Smalls, aka Notorious BIG, the 127-kilogram rapper from New York City who dropped out of school at 17 to sell crack and was gunned down at 24, an apparent victim of an East vs West Coast rap feud. MC Yan leans forward from the couch and sets his juice down on the snare drum-cum-coffee table. 'Through hip-hop,' he says, 'we are trying to find out who we are, what we are. That's what black people in America did.' It all seems a little incongruous but MC Yan seems to have applied America's black angst to local issues, like the blind following of trends such as Canto-pop, economic racism, and materialism. 'The goal in life [in Hong Kong] is to have an apartment, instead of finding yourself. How meaningless,' he says. Another foe: lip-synching, like Andy Lau Tak-wah performances. MC Yan's emotive tirades makes him sound like a crusader leading a pop culture inquisition. 'I want to help my people,' he bombastically proclaims, railing against what he sees as Hong Kong's lack of true artists. Unlike Canto-pop, writing a rap in Cantonese is a linguistic Rubic's Cube. According to MC Yan, who spent two years in France studying French and a further five years in the country gaining a master's degree in fine arts, making a tonal language rhyme and mating it with a hip-hop beat is a struggle. The end result is not always appreciated. 'There's no point [in doing it],' says Mark Lui Chun-tak, a local music producer and composer. 'Canto-rap sounds funny, even to us [Cantonese].' The 30-year-old produced Canto-pop crooner Leon Lai Ming's last seven albums, including Lai's rap-lite millennial mega hit, Happy 2000. In Cantonese the pitch continuously changes, Lui explains. So Lai raps in Mandarin, which has only four tones, in comparison to the estimated nine for Cantonese. Back at the studio it's time to sample some homegrown. MC Yan mutes the TV and throws on the forthcoming 11-track album. The beats per minute count is much higher than America's dope-addled grooves. His rapping is off-rhythm, the lyrics floating above and beyond the beat, in order to 'show my technique'. MC Yan is a first generation rapper in Hong Kong, but already he's more Ghostface Killah than Grandmaster Flash. If only because of pure conviction, MC Yan's aggro rap takes off. Subsequent songs incorporate other singers/rappers in the band, samples from Bruce Lee movie soundtracks, an array of beats, some more settled, like loops of 70s Canto-pop. Wong said he'd consider the album a success if he could shift the initial pressing of about 20,000 CDs. Pundits had already predicted hip-hop's ascendancy in Hong Kong when the band's first self-titled release came out in February last year. Although 14,000 copies of the album were snatched up, LMF still labour in near obscurity, sleeping eight to a room in a small, converted retail store in a Tsuen Wan mall. MC Yan hasn't held a full-time job in 1.5 years, pinning his hopes on the band's success and doing the odd job to stay afloat. But if Wong gets his way, LMF will not have to continue living hand to mouth. He hopes to introduce an LMF song to karaoke play lists, promising to choose something 'melodic'. He is hoping to give the new album an American release, talking to Warner representatives and to their counterparts at hip-hop's venerable label, Ruffhouse Records, in Philadelphia. All the while he continues his quest to discover 'underground' bands. 'There are no quality bands in Hong Kong,' he gripes, having only signed Anodize and LMF in four years. Lest one become maudlin pondering the genre's dubious future in Hong Kong, being part of an opaque subculture can have its perks, as MC Yan learned recently. 'I'd just finished spray-painting a building in Central,' he says. Upon removing the surgical mask that prevents his nostrils from turning the colour of murals, he turned around to find himself being eyeballed by a policeman. But rather than handcuffing and carting him off, 'the officer didn't quite understand what I was doing. He just stood there staring'. Long enough for him to run.