Jon Campbell

CUI JIAN IS no stranger to controversy. The launch of his career marked the advent of rock'n'roll in China. When he sang Nothing to My Name in 1986 it galvanised a generation grasping for meaning amid the country's white-knuckled rush to modernity.

It served as a heavy counter to the sugar-coated pop of the day, and Cui's music resounded among his fellow twentysomethings who'd grown up during the Cultural Revolution and the fast-paced Deng Xiaoping era that followed.

Three years later, Cui was in Tiananmen Square, singing A Piece of Red Cloth with a red blindfold over his eyes, and Nothing to My Name had become the unofficial anthem of the student protesters. Fifteen days later, the tanks rolled in.

By 1990 Cui was in officialdom's good books. He embarked on a national tour - the proceeds of which were to go to Beijing's Asian Games - but halfway through the schedule the authorities pulled the plug. Some said it was because the crowds were getting too large and unruly.

For most of the past 15 years, Cui has been banned from performing at large venues in the capital. Although there was no written edict, every promoter knew there was no chance of official approval.

Cui's lyrics are political, his fans frenzied, his history scarred. And rock music has always been a scary prospect for the government. The ban has since been lifted. It was supposed to end with an opening slot on The Rolling Stones' China tour two years ago. Instead, Deep Purple's visit last year marked the comeback of the man dubbed the 'godfather of Chinese rock'. He played five songs before Ian Gillan and company took to the stage.

These days, the controversy that plagued Cui's career has dissolved. He's still fighting, but his latest battle is against lip-synching. And it's a fight that's helped get him on the good side of the cadres. One party official recently vowed to create a law banning the practice, and in each news report on the subject Cui's name is mentioned, often with the preface 'China's first rock star' or 'China's most famous rocker'.

Cui was always the darling of the foreign media. They love his rebellious past, the censorship he faced. But the news Cui is making in recent years is in the official Chinese press. One report, on the China Internet Information Centre (china., dubbed Cui the 'spiritual godfather' of the 'angry young men' of the 1980s. In February, he appeared on CCTV International's talk show, Dialogue.

Cui might not be the rebel of old. As an editor at the China Daily told Asiaweek: 'Cui Jian is not regarded as a threat to the government. He's not controversial anymore. He's just another pop musician.'

The final nail in the coffin for Cui's anti-establishment image came when not a single lyric from his latest album, Show You Colour, was censored. 'That was the biggest surprise,' Cui says. 'To me, this is at least progress. A bunch of lyrics on my last album were changed. I don't know whether it's me that's changed or them. Probably, they've developed,' he says of the Ministry of Culture, who must approve all lyrics before release. 'They're slowly starting to understand what it is that artists do. What used to be forbidden isn't forbidden any more. I suppose there could be [self-censorship], but basically, I've been doing things the same way, all along.'

These days he's philosophical about the 'godfather' tag, a word used in virtually every piece written about him. Although he created Chinese rock, he's long outgrown the honorific, and wishes people would follow his lead. 'People who use that word are lazy, and they don't know what I'm doing now,' he says. 'They don't understand who I really am and what I'm doing. It's the easiest way to describe me. They don't need to look into what I'm up to.'

His work has continued to evolve over the 20 years since he chose the guitar over the trumpet. And, to the performer known as Lao Cui (Master Cui), the G-word represents 'the me of a long time ago', he says. 'Beginning with my last record, I've added a lot of new things.'

Cui's white baseball cap with a red star and a small earring through the peak is as much a part of his image as the slightly thinning hair it hides. 'Did he take off his cap?' a friend asks me after the interview. 'I hear it's a good sign if he takes off his cap in front of you.'

Fortunately, Cui did, albeit briefly.

Cui is a regular sight at many of the capital's biggest events, from the experimental electronic festival Mutek to Boston funk band Superhoney's Beijing gig. And he keeps an eye on the local scene.

'If there are new bands, or if I hear a particular band is good, I'll go and see them play,' he says. Cui won't name the bands he likes. He says it would give them the unfair edge of being Cui-approved. 'I'm really eager to go out and see bands,' he says. 'It's my way of life: I get really happy seeing young bands perform. If I have the ability to help [local bands], I'm willing to. But I haven't perfected my own material, so I'm not in a position to help others.'

Cui is modest, perhaps, but modest with the knowledge that he's considered to be at the top of the musical mountain in Beijing. At one moment, Cui can't fathom why the press would be interested in reporting on him like a star. The next, he uses his song names as chronological reference points, assuming - correctly - that most listeners know when and what he's talking about.

Cui describes his collaboration with rocker-cum-dub artist Wang Lei (known as the 'Cui Jian of the South') at Beijing's Cloud Nine club last December. After a hurried practice session, Cui played an effects-heavy trumpet along with Wang's tweaking. 'I was brutal - Wang Lei was awesome,' Cui says of his performance. He's still hounded by autograph seekers, and is still greeted onstage by fans' requests for his earliest hits.

Show You Colour isn't what his fan base might expect. 'I've lost a lot of audience and a lot of the market [by changing my sound],' he says. 'But the best thing to do is maintain a balanced development.'

Then again, devotees will always flock to his unofficial underground concerts in droves, as they did during the ban, when his club shows were packed to the rafters, despite the 100-yuan ticket price.

Concerts are on the horizon after the March 28 mainland release of the new album, Cui's first since Power to the Powerless (1999). Since then, he has co-produced a dance show (Show Your Colours, with director Zhang Yuan, critic Lin Kehuan and choreographer Willy Tsao); scored Jiang Wen's controversial black comedy Devils on the Doorstep (Guizi Lai Le, 2000); and appeared in Yu Zhong's Roots and Branches (Wode Xiongdi Jiemei, 2001). There's talk of more film projects, but Cui is focused on 'co-operating with the media' - his own interpretation of the inevitable round of promotional work.

'Most reactions [to the record] have been pretty good so far,' says Cui. 'Some people don't really get it. They think it's pretty complicated. I mean, I think it's pretty complicated, so they think it's really complicated.'

Cui says it's rare to come across reporters who understand music. 'Most of the [local] media just don't get music at all,' he says. 'They only ask 'small' questions: Am I old? Am I cute? Am I losing my hair? They don't know anything about my previous releases. At least most people can look at my lyrics, and write from that perspective. The problem is that [many writers] don't care about music or lyrics and only want to write about stuff that has nothing to do with music.'

Cui produced the record himself, so he says he's under no pressure from a record company to sell it. 'This isn't like a pop record,' he says. 'I've got no pressure from anyone, since I did this on my own. Other companies only want their artists' photograph in the paper, so they have to deal with all the media.'

His ability to take control of his affairs comes from his work in the studio. He says that the only pressure he felt leading up to the album's release was the discipline he imposed on himself. 'There was definitely a time-related pressure, but it wasn't because there wasn't enough time; it was because there was too much,' he says. 'I'm working in a home studio, so when I'm not satisfied with it, I don't want to release it.'

He counters the impression that he's laboured for six years on this record. 'Most of the time [spent on this album] was in production,' he says. 'But the songs have been completed for a long time. From the time I finished the last record, I'd been working on this one. I'd written all the songs a while back.'

Nevertheless, it's been two years since it was 'soon to be released'. It was initially titled Village Attacks the City after a dance track on the record. The name also referred to Mao Zedong's theory that for the revolution to succeed, the countryside should first be won over, and then the countryside would surround and win over the cities. Cui's take on the song, though, has country folk berating urbanites.

Cui admits he made many changes to the material, which slowed the process considerably. 'We thought production would be done [two years ago],' he says. 'But we were constantly dissatisfied with it.' The release date was further pushed back because of the time needed to remaster the recordings in the US.

After such a long wait, is it everything he hoped it would be? 'It's certainly the record I planned,' Cui says. 'I'm satisfied with it. There are some mistakes that are disappointing. If I did it again now, it'd be better. I'm still learning, after all. But overall, I'm pretty satisfied with it.'

Show You Colour features more rap than previous records, and it seems strange that it took him so long to embrace the genre. 'I've been listening to hip-hop for a long time,' he says. Since 1985, in fact, when a friend made him a tape. Twenty years ago it was rare for a Chinese citizen to have heard The Beatles, let alone underground rap. But the first song he wrote was the rock-rap amalgam It's Not that I Don't Understand.

'Rap is a very comfortable way of singing, but it's hard because it's too comfortable,' he says. 'It's awkward for me to rap, because I'm a Chinese guy using a completely black person's form of music. The groove doesn't quite fit with Chinese because of the tones. Chinese is too on-the-beat, which is a bit boring. I think new school hip-hop is a bit more open. But nobody has been able to use the language in a new school way. I've tried, but haven't been good enough.'

His strategy for making rap work on Show You Colour was to experiment with dialects and accents, which occasionally verge into sounding drunk. 'The accents were fake,' he says. 'But I used the freedom of the accent to try a different rhythm. The [four tones of Putonghua] are a jail, a cage. I wanted to liberate myself from it.'

Despite the recent official acceptance of his music, Cui says politics is no further from his mind. It will always, he says, be central to rock music.

'The rock spirit in China is very political. In the west, rock is sex and drugs. But in China, these things are still pretty far off. In China, rock represents the angry voice of the people, which seems to be political, whether or not your music is political.'

The people don't seem to care, he says. 'Audiences won't accept new music until they start hating current [pop] music. Most people like listening to comfortable music, watching good-looking music. But they don't care about the content. The most important part of making music is insisting on doing things your own way. That's all you need. Whether or not you're rock'n'roll doesn't matter.'