Rock the boat: The new breed of Hong Kong's hip hop hipsters

A new breed of hip hop hipsters is bringing a raft of big beats to the city, writes Ben Sin

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 May, 2013, 8:56am



IT'S A RAINY AND HUMID night in early May and Elizabeth Choi, senior editor of US music blog is sweating away inside a stuffy warehouse in Sai Ying Pun. She's not alone - the gritty space is packed wall-to-wall with a stylish crowd.

Being a native Californian new to Hong Kong, the humidity is hard to bear. But also being a lifelong fan of hip hop, she couldn't leave for the warehouse was hosting The Do-Over, an all-day hip hop party that began in Los Angeles in 2005 and has gone global.

The party had arrived in Hong Kong and every hip hop-lover in the city was in attendance - stifling heat be damned.

"The Do-Over has a huge following in the US," says Choi, who attended the 2010 Do-Over in Los Angeles. "I didn't think I'd see it in Asia, so when I heard about it, I got really excited."

Tedman Lee Pui-ming, a local music do-it-all who's a member of the indie band Ni Ne Mo, a promoter for underground hip hop group Justice League, and part of the DJ collective Living Discoheads, agrees. "It's been a while since we've had a proper hip hop party in Hong Kong," he says. "There's smaller-scale stuff, like The GetUp, but large scale events [like The Do-Over] are sorely lacking in this city."

Somewhere inside the warehouse, sandwiched between hundreds of people and buried in thumping hip hop beats, is Zaran Vachha, the man who helped bring this party to town. He's happy to see the scene grow, and even happier to hear the praise from hip hop lovers.

Vachha, a 27-year-old Hong Kong native, had spent the past six years in the UK organising shows, such as London's Rivington Street Festival, for his events management company, The Little Black Book. He returned home at the start of this year to grow his business in Asia. While organising big tours is still the main gig - Little Black Book is working with Gladys Knight on her upcoming Australian tour - Vachha wanted to start a side project that appealed to a younger, hip hop-influenced audience, a demographic of which he is a part.

"I love good, proper hip hop," Vachha says. "Unfortunately, there isn't a lot of that in Hong Kong. Most places play top 40 hits or really donkey hip hop."

And so Vachha started Fresh off the Boat Asia in March. The first gig brought over London DJ collective Livin' Proof, who's worked with some of the best up-and-coming hip hop artists such as A$AP Rocky and Frank Ocean. The second gig was The Do-Over, with DJ Neil Armstrong - a New Yorker who's performed alongside hip hop's biggest names, from current alpha dog Jay-Z to pioneering legends De La Soul and Biz Markie - and local stars including DJ Yao and DJ Enso, among others.

The bar's been set high, and Vachha's going to keep pushing. FOB's next gig will bring over Rock the Belles, a London-based female-themed hip hop night organised by Emily Rawson, a pioneering UK DJ, who has performed with Kanye West and DJ Jazzy Jeff.

"I visited Hong Kong when I was 10, and I remember loving the bright lights and the blend of Eastern and Western influences," she says.

Performing with Rawson will be British DJ and singer-songwriter Yasmin, and Hong Kong's Eve Speciall. Uniting top female DJs from UK and Hong Kong was important for Rawson, whose goal with Rock the Belles is to promote female talent and push back against the male-dominated hip hop industry.

"I grew up listening to female rap groups such as Salt-n-Pepa and Lisa 'Left Eye' Lopes, and I knew since I was a teenager that I wanted to be in the hip hop industry," Rawson says. "When I started out, male DJs would dismiss me or even try to intimidate me - I took that and used it as fuel. Close to 90 per cent of club and festival bills in the UK are male-dominated, we need more female-driven shows."

Choi agrees. "Females are underrepresented in hip hop, particularly emcees and DJs," she says. "I'm looking forward to seeing three female DJs behind the turntables. The greater presence women have [in the industry], the sooner the landscape of gender politics will change."

Rawson says she uses Rock the Belles to showcase her skills, as well as push younger talent. When the project first started in the early 2000s, Rawson gave a slot to a young, soulful singer named Estelle, who went on to record the hit song American Boy with Kanye West.

Eve Speciall, real name Eve Smith moved to Hong Kong to work as a model two years ago, and later scored a full-time slot at Central club Fly. "The gig will be a great chance for me to learn from the two DJs," she says. "And it's going to be a great party."

Vachha hopes so, but as many party-organisers in Hong Kong would attest, there's a constant worry of police interference. "The Do-Over was almost shut down at least half a dozen times," he says, referring to noise complaints from nearby buildings. "I was basically on the phone with the police all night."

Vachha also runs into the usual red tape hassles that other indie concert promoters are accustomed to. "The Hong Kong government is tough to work with when it comes to things like getting licences for public spaces," he says. "I feel like that's the only thing holding Hong Kong back, because we have the fans and talent here, people have passion for all types of music."

Rather than a money-making venture, his goal with FOB is to grow Hong Kong's hip hop scene, with an aim for one event a month.

"If you look at Singapore, 10 years ago it had nothing, and now it might be the epicentre of music festivals and good shows in the region," Vachha says. "Hong Kong could be that place - if the government would allow it."

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Fresh off the Boat Asia presents Rock the Belles, May 31, 10pm, Fly, G/F 24-30 Ice House St, Central, HK$150. Inquiries: 2810 9902