For much of hip-hop’s three-plus decades of history in Taiwan, rappers have worked tirelessly to convince music industry gatekeepers that their craft is both artistically valuable and commercially viable. It hasn’t always been easy. Despite the notoriety of early dance-oriented groups like the LA Boyz and The Party in the 1990s, MC Hotdog’s rumble up from the underground in the early 2000s, and Nine One One and MJ116’s arena-filling acts in the aughts, mainstream success has evaded the majority of aspiring MCs. Fortunately, the difficulty of making it big in hip-hop hasn’t dampened enthusiasm among the island’s up-and-comers. As Taiwan’s first hip-hop competition reality show The Rappers demonstrates, the relatively small numbers who have so far broken through to the masses are just the tip of the iceberg—a great many talented others sit just below the surface, and they’re ready to show that they’ve got what it takes.
The six episodes of The Rappers that have aired to date run for two hours each. This is a significant chunk of time, to be sure, but somehow just enough to acquaint viewers with the sizeable cohort of 66 contestants. More than twelve hundred showed up to preliminary auditions held in Taipei and Kaohsiung earlier this year, and those that made the cut represent a diverse cross-section of musical styles, regional identities, and personal backgrounds. Each has their own story to tell, shaped by their experiences in an array of professions, from dance (7ling, notably one of just a handful of women in the competition), to night market donut-selling (YoungLee), to teaching (PunkB), to policing (Popo J). They also vary widely in their levels of experience in hip-hop. A few—like BR, Sowut, Black MIC, BG8LOCC, and Professor H—are fixtures of the underground scene. Others are newer to the rap game, eager to try out skills honed in university hip-hop culture clubs and rap classes. Hip-hop is a global youth culture, but several contestants have crested middle-age, while the youngest in the group is 15-year-old Frog, a precocious high school student from Tainan.
Hosted by hip-hop/R&B artist J. Sheon, with support from world-renowned DJ RayRay, The Rappers is guided by a panel of four expert judges. Dwagie, whose 2002 Lotus from the Tongue made waves as the first full-length rap album entirely in Mandarin and Taiwanese Hokkien, has long mentored young artists as head of the Tainan-based label and creative collective Kung Fu Entertainment. Kumachan is a Kung Fu Entertainment affiliate, a graduate of the illustrious National Taiwan University, and a prominent representative of Taiwan’s so-called school of “academic rap”. Leo Wang garnered critical acclaim for his work as a solo rapper after serving as lead singer for multi-genre indie band Gigantic Roar (巨大的轟鳴) and one half of hip-hop duo Yeemao with MC Chunyan. And, finally, RAZOR is an in-demand producer who has worked not only with some of Taiwan’s most cutting edge rappers, but also with Mandopop luminaries like Jolin Tsai and aMEI.
The criteria set by the judges sound straightforward enough, but will prove difficult for most to achieve. To succeed, contestants must show originality, tell compelling stories, and achieve that elusive quality known in hip-hop circles simply as “Realness.” Like in most entertaining televised music competitions, the first episodes of The Rappers include their fair share of cringey moments as artists find their sea legs on stage. A few lean slightly too hard on autotune for the judges’ tastes, while others struggle to rhyme in time. Some are eliminated because they seem to be working in other genres entirely. (See Kumachan’s droll response to contestant HK’s punk and electronica-inflected performance: “That’s rap… but it’s not hip-hop.”) As the competition heats up, however, the strongest are bringing their A-game. Through solo performances, cyphers, and battles, they endeavor to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that their skills match their passion. It’s not enough to be a one-trick pony on The Rappers. Competitors are tasked with demonstrating competence in multiple styles, from boom bap to trap. Their flow must be dynamic, their punchlines must hit hard. Whatever the language of their performance, their lyrics (which are, ideally, intelligible by ear) must grip the listener.
At stake on The Rappers is more than just the NTD1,000,000 prize, but also the opportunity to represent on behalf of Taiwan’s vibrant hip-hop scene for a broad audience of viewers, many of whom have likely never listened closely to local rap music. The show’s theme song, “Give Me a Reason”, performed by the judges, offers artists “squeezed out by the mainstream” a tantalizing chance to “stand on the international stage”. The greatest reward, it would seem, is just getting heard.
The Rappers is currently available on YouTube.