While James Brown may revel in the title of Godfather, it’s a different story altogether with the man known to Chinese music fans by that moniker. It’s not just that he has no ring to kiss or cape to fling from his body into the waiting arms of a loyal courtier (though he does have a white baseball cap with a single red star that he is never seen without). To hear him react to the word godfather, you’d think it was a curse.
People have been calling Cui Jian the “Godfather of Chinese Rock” for almost 20 years now. Yes, he started rock music in China. Yes, he’s the most famous rock musician in the country, 20 years running. But enough already. “The people who use this word are lazy, and they don’t know what I’m doing now,” says the 43-year-old. “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.”
Born in 1961 to an ethnic Korean family, Cui certainly had music in the cards: His father was a professional trumpet player and his mother a member of a dance troupe. In 1981, Cui joined the Beijing Philharmonic, a prestigious gig, not least because of the steady income and benefits of a danwei (a ‘work unit’, which, until recent reforms, provided everything from a place to live to insurance and food). But the cassette collections of foreign tourists and students introduced Cui to Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel and, yes, John Denver. He soon gravitated away from the classical trumpet and toward the guitar.
“The earliest tape I got was one with no name on it,” he recalled, more than two decades later from a comfy couch in the Beijing jazz club run by his long-time sax player, Liu Yuan. “It had a lot of strange bands put together, like AC/DC, Abba and Devo. Maybe it was some kind of Grammy compilation or something.”
By 1984, Cui was playing Western pop songs in Beijing restaurants and hotels in one of the first bands of its kind. Twenty-five years old, dressed in peasant clothing, he stepped onstage at a Beijing concert in 1986 celebrating the Year of World Peace and sang a song called “Nothing to My Name” (“Yi wu suoyou”), and with this performance, Chinese rock and roll began:
How long have I been asking you
When will you come with me?
But you always laugh at me
For I have nothing to my name.
I want to give you my hope
I want to help make you free
But you always laugh at me
For I have nothing to my name.
The song, which was nothing like the sugarcoated pop of the day, resonated with a young generation caught in the changes from a socialist state in which all citizens were taken care of into a more freewheeling, every-man-for-himself rush to modernization for which they were in no way prepared.
His debut recording, Rock and Roll on the New Long March came out in 1987; the following year, he was performing at the Seoul Olympics to a worldwide audience. In 1989 he played shows in London and Paris. Then came the springtime chaos of the Tiananmen Square protests. At this point his official biography falls silent.
Fifteen days before the crackdown, Cui came to the Square. In addition to performing “Nothing to My Name”—which had already become the protestors’ virtual anthem—he donned a red blindfold and sang “A Piece of Red Cloth”, a song about alienation and the Party’s unfulfilled promises:
That day you took a piece of red cloth
Covered my eyes and covered the sky
You asked me what I saw
I said, “I see the happiness”
This feeling made me so tranquil
It made me forget I have no place to live
You asked me where I’m headed
I said, “I’m going your way”
As former protesters were either rounded up or forced into hiding in the provinces and abroad, Cui Jian’s career certainly could have ended with his association with the events in the Square, just as his music, very much a product of 1980s rock (which features multi-referential, politically charged lyrics—think Bob Dylan—atop heavy-on-the-rock-sax licks a la Clarence-era Bruce Springsteen), was taking off. But in 1990, he found a way to put together a tour for the record that had come out three years earlier. This was no ordinary tour, but then, these were not ordinary times: The only way to secure official permission from the Chinese government for the tour was to make the tour official, and so, profits were donated to the Asian Games, hosted that year by Beijing. The tour was cancelled midway, but the enormous and frenzied crowds that attended the shows (which some say is the reason the tour was cancelled) proved that Cui Jian was at the top of his game.
An ostensible ban on concerts in the capital soon thereafter took Cui out of the game in his hometown. There was no written edict preventing him from playing large-scale concerts, but promoters were made aware that they would be unable to secure the proper permission for Cui to play. So rather than waste their time having applications rejected by the Ministry of Culture, promoters didn’t apply, and Cui spent most of the past 15 years confined to tiny clubs in Beijing, while selling out stadiums elsewhere around the country (and the world). The ban didn’t stop the Cui Jian machine: The nineties saw the release of three albums, a host of international tours and a film, Beijing Bastards (1993), about the capital’s underground rock scene, coproduced by sixth-generation director Zhang Yuan (Green Tea; East Palace, West Palace). His film work continued in 2000, when he scored Jiang Wen’s controversial Devils at the Doorstep; in 2001, he appeared in Yu Zhong’s Roots and Branches. There is talk of future movie work, but the focus for now is upon Show You Colour, his first recording in five years.
Never content to rest on his reputation, Cui continues to add new things to his sound. For Show You Colour, this means conquering the challenges of rapping in Chinese. Cui’s not new to rap—the first song he ever wrote was the rock-meets-rap tune “It’s Not That I Don’t Understand” (‘Bu shi wo bu mingbai’)—but no one is going to confuse him with, say, Blackalicious. “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,” he says, adding that “Chinese is too on-the-beat, which is a bit boring.” His strategy for Chinese rap on Show You Colour was to experiment with dialects and accents. “I used the freedom of the accent to try a different rhythm. The [four tones of Mandarin] are a jail, a cage I wanted to liberate myself from it.”
Even back in 1986, when Western rock was first trickling in to China, Cui Jian was exploring the possibilities of hip-hop. “I was listening to Run DMC, you know, “Walk This Way”, and Ice Cube and Public Enemy. I thought hip-hop was on the rise, but people told me not to waste my time on it because it was about to die off.” But Cui knew best: Hip-hop is certainly the fastest-growing musical—and fashion—form in China.
“I’ve listened to some Chinese rapping, and it’s not very good,” Cui says. “But when I listen to rap, I’m focusing on the music. It seems to me that nobody is adding anything new. 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.” He is quick to discount the possibility of his rapping in English, laughing at even the thought of it. “I’d never rap in English,” he chuckles.
More electronic than rock, Show You Colour may not be, as Cui knows well, what his original fan base is looking for. “A lot of people say that I’ve been waiting six years to release this album,” says Cui. “But the songs have been done for a long time. From the time I finished the last record [1999’s The Power of the Powerless], I’d been working on this one. I’d written all the songs a while back. Most of the time I spent on this album was on production.” For two years, the word was that the record—initially titled Village Attacks the City, after the most dance-oriented track—was coming out, and word was that Cui was constantly tweaking. “We thought production would be done two years ago,” he says. “But we were constantly dissatisfied with it.” Factor in remastering in the US, and it’s something of a miracle that the record has been released within two years of its initial date.
“Most reactions have been pretty good so far,” says Cui. “Some people don’t really get it, they think it’s pretty complicated. I think it’s pretty complicated, so they think it’s even more complicated.”
At the time of this interview, only the Chinese media had heard anything beyond the first single, ‘Mr. Red’, (which was released with an online video. And the Chinese media is a constant source of frustration for Chinese rock musicians: “The problem is the media that don’t care about music or lyrics, and only want to write about gossip, about stuff that has nothing to do with music,” Cui explains. “Most of the media just doesn’t get music at all. They ask small questions: Am I old? Am I cute? Am I losing my hair?”
His luck in the West has not been much better: “Westerners don’t really understand China. Most people’s idea of China comes from their understanding of China as a developing country, that Chinese culture is like other Third World countries’. The China that people overseas see is from CNN, BBC. Maybe they’ve had some Chinese food. But they don’t understand Chinese culture. And the Chinese that travel outside of China aren’t really cultured; they go to buy some stuff, but don’t really have any communication with people there.” Over his nearly twenty years in the limelight, Cui has played some gigs in Europe and North America, but his latest US tour was something of a flop: A combination of low ticket sales and postponements shrank the original thirteen-city tour of Canada and the US to four.
“We’ve always been thinking about overseas and think it’s very important,” says Cui, who has taken flack for having a foreigner as part of his management team—currently, Paul Fry manages his overseas business and before him, another American, Matthew Corbin Clark. “I’ve discovered that the market outside of China is the same as inside: The audience is mostly Chinese. It’s mostly curiosity that brings people out: ‘You’re from China? They’ve got rock music there? Ah, you must be opposed to the government.’ In the big American venues, it felt like we hadn’t even left China. There are more foreigners at our shows in smaller Chinese cities than overseas.”
Despite knowing he has a lot of work to do outside of China, Cui is focusing on China for now, where at last he is no longer public enemy number one: Government censors didn’t touch a word of Show You Colour. “That was the biggest surprise,” says Cui. “To me, this is at least progress. I don’t know whether it’s me that changed or them. Probably they’ve developed and are slowly starting to understand what it is that artists do. What used to be forbidden isn’t forbidden anymore.” That isn’t to say he’s taken politics off of the agenda. “The rock spirit in China is very political,” he says. “In the West, rock is sex and drugs. But in China, these things are still pretty far off. The other strength of rock for us is that it is the voice of the people. Rock represents the angry voice of the people.”
Once at the odds with Chinese officials, now they fight on the same side against lip-synching, which Party officials recently sought to ban. And in a country that spent decades avoiding the use of the word rock, official Chinese news sources, have started to refer to Cui Jian as “China’s first rock star” and “China’s most famous rocker”. And yes, they refer to him as the “spiritual godfather,” even though he wishes they wouldn’t.
“That word represents the me of a long time ago,” Cui Jian says.