This article was originally published on THUMP Netherlands.
Photos by Vitaly Tyuk
Making it as an electronic music DJ and producer in China isn't easy, considering that buying foreign music has only been legal in the country for the past ten years and the government still closely monitors the country's music scene. For example, before organizing a formal gig you're actually obligated to send the entire set-list to the Ministry of Culture for approval. 23 year-old Dutch expat Robin Leembruggen understands the complicated process, and thus has made a career out of navigating the turbulent waters of China's music scene in order to help promote some of its emerging local talents.
It all started when his employer, a Dutch promoter called Art of Dance, sent him to Beijing two years ago to help bring over European DJs to China's growing market. He soon learned his task was a difficult one. Since sites used for music sharing and promotion like Soundcloud, Google, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are all blocked in China, even superstars like Martin Garrix were having trouble reaching an audience in the world's most populous country. So instead, he started working with locals.
This soon brought Leembruggen to Shanghai where he met a young aspiring producer by the name of Wang Longwen. Under the DJ/production guise Dexter King, Longwen had already built a humble, but promising, name for himself in the city and was part of an underground collective called Mad Panda, that Leembruggen would later come on to help run. Consisting mostly of young bedroom producers, the group promotes their music through approved Chinese social networks like WeChat, Weibo and Xiami.Since then, things have moved fast for Leembruggen and many of the young Chinese producer/DJs he's linked up with. Last year, in 2015 he took Longwen on tour around many of China's biggest cities, and one of his other collective members, Chace, will be appearing at this year's Tomorrowland in Belgium. To find out more about how this crew of hungry young artists are preparing for their big break, we went to visit them in their bedroom studios back in China to hear about their personal paths to stardom.
Studio photos by Jarry
Dexter King: My girlfriend and I have been living in this apartment in Shanghai for three years, but I was raised in the north of China where I had some friends who ran illegal CD shops. Government officials are instructed to demolish certain CDs by drilling a hole through them, but they made mistakes all the time. Often they'd just drill the inside of the disc, so you're still able to play the music. I've scored a lot of albums that way. Sometimes you need to drill another hole yourself to make it work.
When I was a teenager, I spent all my money at one illegal CD shop. I think the first albums I bought there were The Backstreet Boys and Lionel Richie. But after I heard hip-hop for the first time I was hooked. I don't have room for all my CDs here in Shanghai, but in the bag I brought with me I have stuff like Wu-Tang Clan, Eminem and Tupac. Buying this shit used to be illegal, but it wasn't really that risky. Nobody in the government really gave a damn.
The first time I touched a CDJ-player was in 2008, after one of my friends who had a bar asked me to try it. It was hard to get the hang of it—I was used to using vinyl turntables—so I just imagined there was a needle. I rocked the show and soon enough I was making money DJing. I remember being so happy at that moment. Sometimes I have the same feeling when I'm listening to artists like Don Diablo or Avicii. When I first heard "Wake Me Up" it actually made me cry.
I try to blend all my influences into my music, like the remix that I made of "Baby I Got Your Money" by Old Dirty Bastard and Kelis. There's the hip-hop aspect of what I played when I was younger, Avicii's EDM-stlye, and if you listen really carefully you can even hear a Chinese instrument. What's the name of that thing again? A Chinese lute! I can't play it myself, but with Ableton you can do anything.
Tsunano: I was born in Taiwan, which used to China's enemy when I was growing up, so everyone I knew really hated the mainland. People also didn't offer me a lot of respect during my youth because I sucked at math. All Taiwanese people consider math the most important school subject.
I didn't go to high school because I simply didn't have good enough grades. I remember that [my teacher] had to call my father to tell him I had failed math. He didn't say anything at all, and I thought: what's my personal worth if I failed math?
We moved to Shanghai a few years ago because my parents were going to run the family business from here. They're always working. In fact, they're on a business trip right now. They still expect me to take over the company at some point.
I remember our first fight over music, when my parents didn't want me to buy a turntable so I just borrowed the money for it. They were really mad about it and wouldn't let me put it in my room. So I bought records that I knew I wouldn't ever play, mostly because I just liked the cover art.
I got hooked on reggae after we moved here to China, and played some reggae parties for a while. I still use those influences in my own electronic releases. My music is doing really well lately, but my parents still need more proof. I'm always trying to convince my dad that it's a legitimate career. I can't wait for the day that I can walk into this place and tell him that I "made it." That's why I work so hard. I just sit here producing and don't even get tired. Four days in a row? No problem.
Chace: I started producing when I was 13 years old, when I began making these acapella versions of songs that I liked. Back then I just used my voice to imitate all the sounds I heard. My mother and I moved to Shanghai because I was preparing to study at a conservatory. We left my father behind, and he's still living in our hometown. He's a musician himself and used to play in a band who were one of the first groups to use electronic instruments in China. That was in the middle of the 90s, so you can imagine how far behind China is! I had the chance to get into the conservatory as a drummer, but Shanghai's nightlife started to attract me and I got inspired by that and decided to focus on producing full-time.
So now I spend my days sitting in this room, looking out the window for inspiration. This one time, I saw a little boy playing with a kite. That's why the first line of my new single is: "Every now and then I see a kite up in the sky." I came up with the melody for that song when I was in the shower and my Bluetooth speaker crashed. It made a very funny noise that I tried to reproduce in the track.
I still sing my own lyrics. In the beginning I used a translator, or I just listened to someone else's vocals. I'm not sure if I will sing on stage, but I do really want to work on my live act, which is why I still listen to Michael Jackson a lot. I'm also fascinated by an old Diplo set from Coachella that someone sent me. My absolute musical heroes are Swedish House Mafia though, I have their logo tattooed on my arm.
I'm so lucky to have met Robin [Leembruggen]. It was just such a coincidence that this random guy showed up who knew everybody in the scene. Thanks to him I can now work with Yellow Claw and perform at Tomorrowland later in the summer, which will be my first time leaving China. I know that people use a lot of drugs at these kinds of festivals, but that's not my shit. But I know how those guys feel. I really do, 'cause it's the same level of energy I have when I'm performing. I'm looking forward to it.