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A Look at Higher Brothers’ ‘Journey to the West’

{shortcode-1805ceb4ab2cfa43bada44a7fe98e5ab1f5417a6}The neon stage lights glared and reflected off of the skin fade haircuts on the general admissions floor at the Paradise Rock Club on Feb. 21. The doors had opened at 7 p.m. to an awaiting throng of fans decked out in the latest streetwear chic. They were all there for the undisputed kings of contemporary Chinese rap music, Higher Brothers (海尔兄弟). Hailing from China, The Higher Brothers roster lists four members: Melo, Psy.P, Masiwei, and DZ Know. The group initially met through the Sichuan based hip-hop collective known as Chengdu Rap House (CDC). Now backed by East Asian music aggregator 88rising, Higher Brothers have turned their attention toward the world, with Boston just one stop on their “Journey to the West” tour. At the Paradise Rock Club, Higher Brothers proved that their version of Chinese rap has the potential to become a commercially and culturally viable form of modern hip-hop.

Higher Brothers brought out several openers to wet the crowd’s palate. First was Matthew Law, a DJ who was there mostly to kill time and keep the crowd hyped up. Although some of his remixes were certifiably “banging,” it looked as if they were played from a pre-made playlist, with very little live-mixing going on: he was playing tracks from his computer but not improvising musically. After about 45 minutes of Law, the crowd welcomed Higher Brothers collaborator and 88rising label-mate Niki to the stage. Niki’s bubblegum trap-pop had a way of transfixing the crowd. Her lighting setup was nearly all pink neon, and her vocal performance had a similar feel. While she may have been unknown to some in the audience, she was certainly a hit.

After Niki’s half hour set, the crowd cheered next for another Higher Brothers collaborator and member of the 88rising family, Bohan Phoenix. Bohan Phoenix brought the energy in a way that Matthew Law and Niki had been unable to as non-rap acts. It became, at long last, a rap concert. During his set, Bohan Phoenix shared his connection to Boston, a city where he had lived for years, and passionately commented on the struggles of moving from China to America through an a capella intro to his song “Overseas 海外.” As Bohan finished his set, there was a distinct aura of anticipation throughout the audience. After 15 minutes of Matthew Law returning to stall, Higher Brothers finally made their entrance.

Higher Brothers took the stage by storm. All four came out to their 2018 release, “Room Service.” The foursome deftly moved about the stage, constantly engaging with fans from all angles. The group was incredibly animated, with DZ Know splashing water onto fans throughout the show. Fans responded well to this provocation, and it was clear that everyone in the room was digging the vibe. Higher Brothers performed pieces both from their debut album, “Black Cab,” as well as their latest EP, “Journey to the West.” They started out each song by a capella rapping the most well-known line, before dropping the beat and going in on the track. This got the audience excited for the upcoming song and ready to rap and sing along with the group. This was particularly effective on their big songs such as “WeChat,” “Made in China,” and “Wudidong (无底洞).” They got audiences singing along to Chinese lyrics, which is a feat in and of itself in the U.S., but especially impressive given Higher Brothers’ level of lyrical complexity. Perhaps more impressive is the fact that Higher Brothers sold out the Paradise Rock Club, proving to themselves and any doubters that their brand of Chinese trap music is commercially feasible.

After rounding off ending their set with “WeChat,” Higher Brothers left the stage to thunderous applause from the crowd. After several rousing chants from the masses for an encore, Bohan Phoenix took to the stage with Higher Brothers in an epic collaborative finale of Bohan’s song “No Hook” featuring Higher Brothers. It was here that Higher Brothers cemented themselves as true performers and artists. With their encore performance, they elicited a response from the crowd comparable to any mainstream US rapper. It is abundantly clear that Higher Brothers’ unique form of Chinese trap music is both culturally relevant and powerful.

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