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Tuning In: MastaMic on his evolution and finding the sound of Hong Kong hip-hop

“At his age”, MastaMic could have been enjoying his OG status on the pedestal — one of the first freestyle rappers in Hong Kong, he has street cred and flows for days. His passion for hip-hop, and music by extension, wouldn’t allow him to stop there. Check out MastaMic’s evolution in this edition of Tuning In.

MastaMic has been living and breathing hip-hop for a long time. You may also know him as 馬米 or the guy who did Rap Up, a decade-long series of annual rap recaps of happenings in Hong Kong, which did wrap up at the beginning of 2018.

“Your creation cannot stay at square one,” he says. “In the last few years of Rap Up, I realised it’s just the same stuff every year, the variables of the equation were just the names and places.”

Eighteen years in the scene has more than earned MastaMic the medal of “OG” from fans and fellow artists alike, but as he reckons, “You have to keep moving forward. Don’t rely on seniority when you can keep improving and show people your growth.” A master of rap but a student of the ever-changing subject that is music, the 36-year-old stays eager to learn, taking a two-year break between 2019 and 2020 to study trap, an emerging genre that quickly defined the sonic profile of Cantonese rap.

“I feel like Cantonese music is going through a phrase of stagnancy,” he explains, “We don’t have a distinctive sound.” To actively remedy said challenge, MastaMic’s creative process is a chase after new ideas and breakthroughs: “It’s important to think outside the box, I draw inspiration from contemporary artists and the way they interpret existing concepts in a contemporary point of view.”

“From 流行反擊戰 to MASTAPIECE to the upcoming The Contemporary Playlist, I want each album of mine to be a showcase of my growth and elevation.”

Forgoing the songwriting formula that we’ve grown comfortable with, MastaMic presents “思想流浪“, an acoustic, conceptual artwork that strings together elements of modern Chinese poetry and recital. It’s progressive, it’s experimental, “it’s not as popular as I’d like, but it’s a move that I’m proud of”. It takes a good rapper to create new hip-hop hits, but it takes a dedicated artist to keep perfecting his craft.

Tuning In: MastaMic

For those who don’t know, who is MastaMic?

I am a veteran hip-hop fan who’s been doing this for like 18 years. I just love rapping. I feel like some people are into hip-hop because of the swag, but I’m in the game because I love rapping.

How would you describe your style?

There’s a lot of variations in my music. I try a lot of things because I feel like we shouldn’t be limited by just one style. Even in my first mixtape The New Hope Mixtape (2011), I dabbled with many genres — from rewriting MGMT’s “Kids” to paying tribute to Justice’s “D.A.N.C.E.” — to make it diverse while keeping it real.

In my opinion, keeping it real is to be honest with yourself, your audience and your music. That’s why I always write about what I’ve experienced and what I’ve seen. I also prefer my performances to be energetic and powerful.

Some hip-hop musicians don’t like to be called “rappers”. Does this hold true to you?

It doesn’t bother me how people label me, especially at my age. What matters is you know what you’re doing. For me I’m just an artist whose medium is rap instead of paint on canvas.

When I was younger, though, I was really particular about the distinction between a “rapper” and an “MC”. I hoped to be an MC instead of a rapper — anybody who raps is a rapper, but being an MC has its cultural significance.

What would you say is your signature element that sets you apart from others in the industry?

MastaMic is about rap. What I learned from my time in the business is that a good rapper should be able to rap about anything on any kind of beat. I see this as a challenge for myself, that’s why I took a break after 2018 to study trap as a new genre. I didn’t release new music during those few years, because it’s not my style to flood the market with quantity. Trap has its difference than the original rap we’re used to, that’s why I needed time to master it.

In my opinion, we as the hip-hop community need to think about finding the Hong Kong style and voice. You can find the shadow of existing musicians like Travis Scott and Lil Yachty in songs by younger creators. Maybe they’re more influenced by the swag, but it feels like we’re chasing someone’s shadow and are a few steps behind. I have yet to identify a very signature Hong Kong sound — I don’t mean you have to literally feature Chinese instrumentals and play the erhu — that’s why I’ve experimented with new music styles in my latest works.

What’s the first track we should listen to that best defines your sound?

“食色”. It’s a contemporary piece of Chinese opera, a look at the past and the present. I wrote it by the theory of Chinese opera with a modern perception, then threw in a lot of wordplay and puns. In my opinion, clever writing is the essence of rap: it levels up your song.

“破地獄”. If you listen closely to my song “破地獄”, you will find virtually no traditional Chinese elements other than the temple bell sound effect, and that’s not even a Chinese bell. “破地獄” is one of the many short demos I made with a German artist, the concept was always there, but it wasn’t until hearing this demo that I finally started working the song. Even though it’s a diss track, it introduced the religious theme “Breaking the Hell’s Gate” to a new generation of audience. It’s a step from breaking away from imitation towards building the Hong Kong sound.

How and when did you become interested in hip-hop?

I was enthralled by the culture since I was 14 or 15. At that time Eminem was getting really popular — his song “Stan” was playing in every store in Hong Kong. As a youth you always want to stand out from your peers. I went to an English Medium Instruction (EMI) secondary school, so many of my classmates were listening to western music to begin with. I tried to blend in and listen, but didn’t quite feel a connection until I came across hip-hop.

I wasn’t even aware the genre’s called “hip-hop”, to me it was just a cool thing where the musicians talk on a beat with rhythm. That felt very me, and that’s why it really drew me in. But in the beginning I cared more about the surface level — like putting on my XXXL tees and baggy pants, rubbing my hands when walking around, wearing a band-aid on my cheek like Nelly did, and reciting some of Snoop Dogg’s verses.

Then I went to Beijing and started clubbing. It was eye-opening, I felt like I was in a whole new world. During that time self-teaching wasn’t a concept in Hong Kong, partly because of the lack of accessible information — I don’t even remember if Google was a thing back then. I never started rapping since I didn’t have a mentor to guide me, but after seeing my friends wrapping tissue paper around their USB microphones and recording their own tracks, I thought, “It doesn’t seem so difficult?” So, I started writing my rap on my own initiative.

Do you remember writing your first track? What was the creative process like?

It wasn’t anything serious — I don’t have a musical background, so I had no idea what a complete song was supposed to be like. I was a rapper in the sense that I wrote stuff that rhymed. I didn’t even know about rhythm and beat because no one taught me that, so it’s a lot of exploration and playing it by ear.

I didn’t have a song of my own until more than a year into it, because I was mainly writing and freestyling before that. Freestyling earned me attention from like-minded individuals from Hong Kong, since no one was really doing freestyle at that time. The general opinion was that Cantonese is an impossible language to freestyle in, but I didn’t agree: the rappers we listened to were also just rapping in their native language, then why can’t we do the same? So I started freestyling, then writing songs, then understanding what a song is.

I remember my very first song “Rap Killer” — don’t even start, it’s a song about killing it at rap and killing all opponents — but my first meaningful song “幻戰” was created in collaboration with my friend Big Sammy. It was the song we sang at our debut show, and I look back at it very fondly.

What is your creative process like now? Did anything change?

When I started out I was just writing whatever’s on my mind. Later I figured out a systematic way to write my lyrics. But what I try to do is find an interesting topic that no one else has written about. Like in “食色”, food isn’t a common theme you see. What I say to beginners is that there’s no such thing as a new theme, there are only new angles to look at things; but for me, I try to explore uncharted territories.

Do you have anyone you look up to? How do they influence you?

Many. Rap is like MMA, you can learn different techniques from different rappers — Biggie and Rakim’s flow, Scarface’s storytelling, Jay-Z’s melodies, Kanye’s creativity, and Kendrick Lamar is just the best of the best to me. I can learn so much from each and every single one of them.

Do you think hip-hop has become a more accessible art form in Hong Kong?

When the TV show The Rap of China aired in 2018, the hip-hop community in Hong Kong grew rapidly. I think hip-hop has become more accessible because of technological advancement. You can buy a recording bundle — headphone, microphone, speakers and interface included — for less than HK$5000 and make a decent track out of it. Back in my day, such mobility simply didn’t exist. Today I carry with me some handy portable studio equipment, and whenever duty calls I can start recording on the spot. Mobility and simplicity as a result of the internet age has made hip-hop accessible.

What are you working on next?

A new album called The Contemporary Playlist. It’s an experimental album, but don’t worry, it will sound good. The experiment lies in the music, production, ideas, lyrics, creativity and how close it hits home. It’ll be out by the end of 2022 at the latest, and I really hope to show the listeners that I’ve grown and improved. I want it be about Hong Kong in the contemporary age rather than my personal experiences, which was the theme of my last album.

The Contemporary Playlist is about purpose. Rather than focusing only on the lyrics, we focus on the sound — rap is not just about rap, rap is an instrument, just like the piano or the guitar.

What does music, or being a musician, mean to you?

To contribute a bit, however small, to human civilisation. That’s an exaggeration — I want to create things that are interesting.

Follow MastaMic on Instagram and check out his rapping course MastaClass here.

Michelle Chan
A girl who got one (1) nostril piercing and let it dictate her entire style journey. Email me anything interesting!
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