Last June, I spent two weeks road-tripping around Iceland in a rental car with my anthropology professor and a small group of peers, as part of a college course in cultural research. On my last night in Reykjavík, sad to part ways with the beautiful and disorienting weirdness of a place where the sky never goes completely dark, a friend and I decided to go to a show. We were following the word-of-mouth directions a waiter had given us earlier that day: travel all the way out to the edge of the colorful maze that is Iceland's tiny capital, then walk past Valdís, a popular ice cream joint, until you happen upon a non-descript, three-story white building. By day, the building is the unofficial HQ of an Icelandic street art collective called the RWS Crew, and that night it was the meeting grounds for a concert featuring some local musicians and their friends.
Around 3 AM, outside the venue, the sky had taken on a woozy pinkish orange color. “We don’t really sleep here because it’s always light out,” a man with a ponytail named Bjartur explained to us outside. The suite of performances, collectively dubbed “The Happy Festival,” was taking place on the main floor. Upon entering, we were given white cloth wristbands that featured eighth note couplets being Sharpied on in real-time by someone named Adrian. The floors inside were sticky and covered in thick layers of spray paint. On a bookshelf that took up an entire wall, a hardcover volume on Basquiat sat next to a vinyl copy of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. Through the partially open door to the closet, I saw two guys squatting on crates and fiddling with their iPhones, monitoring large barrels of colorful moonshine. One of those barrels was sitting on a table outside, and a performer for that night was enthusiastically pushing a cup of the bright yellow concoction on everyone who walked by him.
It was here—miles away from home, nursing a sample of this strong, alien liquid—that I heard twinkling steel drums and a pitch-warped Janet Jackson sample drift out of the main speakers. Several people were huddled around a MacBook, pointing to songs they wanted to hear as the owner scrolled through his “likes” list on YouTube, and what we were listening to was Jamie xx’s “Far Nearer,” a song I’d fallen in love with after it came out in 2011. The two moonshine guardians had emerged from their confinement and were singing along to Janet’s artificially deepened voice, making exaggerated faces as the beat spliced up her voice. And then the steel drums gave way to “Danny Glover.” I’m not sure why it felt so amazing to hear Jamie xx and Young Thug back-to-back inside that dingy building, because, well, the internet exists in Iceland, too. But it was still a moment I’ll always remember—a reminder that this world is tiny, and that the music you’re excited about can sneak its way into the crevices of nocturnal Reykjavík, and probably several other places you’d never expect.
The people I met in Reykjavík were looking beyond their immediate purview in Iceland, and I wondered why I didn’t spend more time looking for music from all over the place, too. Even though crate-digging at its most literal is somewhat a relic of the past, digging around on the internet can be just as surprising, satisfying, and sentimental. One of my first ventures was into the world of Chinese music. My parents grew up in China and came to the States to attend grad school before I was born. I’ve never called China home, but after frequent summer visits, I’ve developed a sort of familiarity and fondness, at a distance, with China and its capital, Beijing. Still, until recently, my knowledge of anything resembling a music scene over there was limited to the nameless Chinese power ballads contained in jewel cases in our car’s glove compartment growing up. After the Jamie xx and Thugger incident, I decided to change that.
Until recently, my knowledge of anything resembling a music scene in China was limited to the nameless Chinese power ballads contained in jewel cases in our car’s glove compartment growing up.
Through a combination of combing through Tumblrs devoted to Asian and Asian-American music, lurking my Chinese cousin’s likes on Facebook, and trying to flex two years of learning Mandarin by reading local Beijing blogs, I found Dead J. Dead J is a recording alias of Shao Yanpeng, a Beijing-based electronic musician who also releases music under his last name, Shao. For more than a decade, Shao’s been a central figure of Beijing's burgeoning electronic music scene. He performs frequently around the city, often in collaboration with Wang Meng, aka Dora.S, a graphic designer and VJ. He was invited by Germany’s Goethe Institut in 2011 to re-work the soundtrack to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. In an interview with The Creators Project, Shao cites The Smashing Pumpkins (his Mandarin translation of their name is literally “crushed gourd” in English) and Radiohead as early obsessions and influences. He mentions that the nascent scene in China draws a lot from Western styles and history, out of a sort of latecomer’s necessity.
Indeed, China's musical underground is a relatively new development, less the product of advancements in technology than that of a confluence of political and economic events. In a detailed primer on the history of Bejing’s underground, punk, and DIY scenes, Josh Feola—founder of online culture publication pangbianr and local concert promoter—explains that in the 1990s, China was buzzing with the effects of Deng Xiaoping’s radical economic reform that opened China to the West. Dubbed the “da kou” (wide mouth) generation, the 1990s was a period of rapid consumption of Western music: the floodgates had opened. CDs and cassettes found their way to a quickly-coalescing black market, whose base was young university students. Western labels looking to save money by destroying their surpluses would make small cuts into extra cassettes; those tapes would be "destroyed" in the eyes of the law, but still very much listenable by the eager Chinese youth sorting through basement bins and impromptu record shops. Bands like Nirvana, Joy Division, and Shao’s beloved Smashing Pumpkins exploded onto the scene through those scrappy reject piles, which squeezed past import laws because they were allegedly broken and not for resale. These bands sated and sparked the curiosity of many young artists and consumers living in the cultural fringes of Beijing.
Dubbed the “da kou” (wide mouth) generation, the 1990s was a period of rapid consumption of Western music in China.
Today, the DIY scene in Beijing shares many of the same problems as other scenes trying to stay afloat—cherished venues shuttering their windows with little notice, strong whiffs of outside businesses trying to capitalize on the homespun ethos of the scene—in addition to obstacles of its own, of which censorship and limited internet access being two of the most frustrating. That doesn’t mean all the music coming out of Beijing’s underground is explicitly reacting to those challenges, though. As Feola puts it, there are plenty of artists in China who “make music born of psychedelic introspection and personal experimentation, music that aims to jar the deep folds of the gray matter rather than exert a bludgeoning force on the structures of the outside world.”
Tíng Tái Lóu Gé, the name of Dead J’s 2011 LP, which translates to “Pavilion” in English. It’s a reference to traditional Chinese pavilions, which stand in stark contrast to the Legoland of utilitarian office buildings popping up around present-day Beijing. To my ears, the album feels like a meditation on the collision of old and new Beijing, influenced equally by the classic alt acts that broke into China via the cassette tape underground in the '90s and the state of Beijing’s club music today. The music strikes a balance between immersive power and seductive restraint. It’s two-toned the way riding a train is; on one hand, there's the maximalism of a city whizzing past outside, and on the other, there’s the subtle tranquility of sitting inside that hollowed-out metal car, daydreaming with headphones in.
Digging through the internet allows me to feel the reverb of China’s underground from my bedroom in New York—it’s as if I’m there.
Whether you’re in Beijing, New York, or Reykjavík, the struggle of DIY scenes to sustain their independent existence is another thing keeping our world small. Becoming privy to the Chinese underground and Shao Yanpeng’s music felt like my own version of digging through a cassette box in 1990s Beijing and finding a tape that would change my life forever. Soon after finding Dead J, I started reading pangbianr, the blog and zine Jingweir, and other infinitely scrollable sites with lots of room to get lost in. Digging through the internet and these blogs allows me to feel the reverb of China’s underground from my bedroom in New York—it's as if I'm there.
In 2015, when a lot of digital ink is spent talking in circles about which streaming service you should be using to listen to a rotation of the same albums being tweeted about en masse, the feeling of finding a song—whether it’s a Lionel Richie deep cut you remember from falling asleep in the backseat of your family car, or an introduction to a world of sound erupting in China that you were previously unaware of—is still the same fluttering, punch-in-the-gut kind of feeling that it always was. Sometimes you’re lucky and hear your favorite song play at 3 AM in Iceland, surrounded by strangers who don't sleep. Other times you unearth a world of sound from a far away corner of the earth, and after hitting yourself for being so late, you just think: “How many insomniacs in Beijing are dancing to this right now?”