Meet Aristophanes, The MC Taking Mandarin Rap Global

This Grimes-approved Taiwanese artist is blending influences from hip-hop, jazz, and literature to create a sound all her own.

Meet Aristophanes, The MC Taking Mandarin Rap Global Photo by Etang Chen

Aristophanes feels like the embodiment of modernity. The 25 year-old Taiwanese MC, real name Pan Wei Ju, spits in Mandarin, was turned on to rap not directly by American hip-hop but its diaspora, and came to prominence after being discovered on Soundcloud by Grimes. After appearing on the Art Angels track “Scream” last year, Grimes called her “terrifying and beautiful,” referring to her music as, “the new shit.”

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Now on the verge of releasing her debut EP No Rush To Leave Dreams, the Tapei-based artist is enlisting the help of an international cast of producers—who she, naturally, primarily finds through Soundcloud—to craft the woozy pop and floating electronics to buoy her poetic verses. It’s affecting stuff, even if you don’t understand the lyrics, and becomes even more impressive when you do. Not limited to hip-hop—even if you do find the odd boom-bap reference—her music is an example of the borderless, genreless possibilities of our time.

If Western perception of pop music from Asia can sometimes be dominated by the glossiness of K-pop and J-pop, Aristophanes provides a relatable depth and audible emotional authenticity that offers a more nuanced view of the contemporary East. Dig a little deeper—read her explanation for new single “Fly To The Moon,” for instance—and you’ll find an inspired, literary, smart and sensitive artist discovering an audience connected by more than language. Seems like poetic justice for a former creative writing teacher. Over a Skype call that spanned 13 time zones, The FADER spoke to her at home at midnight. In occasionally halting but eloquent English, she revealed both cultural insight and an introspective self-awareness.



How did you get into hip-hop?

Maybe when I was 20 years old, I heard a Mandarin rap, and I thought, "Wow, it's so poetic. I think I can do this." It was from the most famous MC here, Soft Lipa. It had a jazzy, mellow beat that he also produced. That's why I started. I heard English rap before that, but it was Mandarin rap that made me want to make music.

What was it like to perform with Grimes recently in New York, at Terminal 5?

I think it was a really good show, and I was happy to be on stage with Grimes. I have never performed with any girls before, and she wanted to make me feel comfortable on stage. I really appreciated that.

It must have been a huge audience. Was it a very different experience to your performances at home?

I was a dancer before. The first time I was on stage I was maybe five years old. So being on stage and facing a lot of audience is normal to me. The only thing I want to express in my performance is something very abstract, like a space in my mind. I don't think it's much difference between performing to a huge audience or to just ten people. It's always interesting to me.

Meet Aristophanes, The MC Taking Mandarin Rap Global Photo by Etang Chen
Meet Aristophanes, The MC Taking Mandarin Rap Global Photo by Etang Chen

Your Grimes collaboration "Scream" is how a lot of people heard you for the first time. Grimes posted the lyrics in English on her Tumblr. They're amazing—complex, beautiful, deep. It seems to describe a very specific situation, can you tell me what that is?

I think I made the whole song a metaphor. There are so many kinds of screams, but I wanted to describe the scream of someone who has been pushed to the limits and he can't take this anymore, so he screams out. It happens in our relationships, just like when we are with our family. And I think, "I can't talk bad to my mother or my father because I'm their daughter.” But sometimes I can't agree with them. Sometimes, because I care about this relationship, I need to act like what they want. But someday, maybe I can't take this anymore, and I just burst into tears, burst into a scream. It's interesting to me because it happens in sex, it happens to our regular relationships everywhere. It's going and chasing the limits, and in the end we will all scream. They have something very similar to each other. We consider the scream of sex a very happy thing, but we consider the scream of our relationships a bad thing.

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I don't know how familiar you are with American rap music, but it often follows a certain structure. What's interesting with "Scream" is it's almost all verses and there's only one instance of the chorus, the hook. Are all of your songs like that?

No, not really. I don't always write songs in the normal structure because I want to do something new when it comes to the lyrics, when it comes to my delivery, when it comes my flow or my ideas of structure. I don't want to do something normal.

“I’m really inspired by Erykah Badu’s delivery and lyrics. Sometimes she’s the hero, sometimes she’s like a little girl lonely for love.”

You have a lot of very literary references. Even the name that you use is the name of a Greek playwright. And you have a lot of literary imagery, at least judging from "Scream". There's another track on Soundcloud that uses a Gabriel García Márquez book for its artwork. Literature seems important for your work, so who are the writers that you're particularly fond of and influenced by?

Yes, literature is important to me. I was very into literature when I was six or seven years old—really young. I still think literature is one of my favorite things nowadays. Italo Calvino, Milan Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal, Raymond Carver made me know something that couldn't translate into another form of art. Their books can't translate to dance or painting or something. They have many different styles. Italo Calvino, in his work, he always blurs the boundary between reality and imagination and it's really amazing. I was influenced a lot. It's always interesting to me to think about something looks like it's real but maybe it's not. It depends on how you consider the realness. Sometimes it changes. Milan Kundera, he influenced me a lot in the way I consider politics, because he writes about people's ideas of a country in his book.

One of the main tasks of a rapper is to be a writer. What are your concerns as a writer to now reach an audience that can't actually understand your words?

Actually, I don't really care if people don't understand my lyrics. I think misunderstanding happens everywhere. Even though English-speakers can't understand my lyrics, I still send some message via my delivery, the beats I choose, and sometimes there's a translation. I think even in my country, somebody doesn't know what I'm saying, because I always do something very deep and abstract. And I don't think I want everyone to understand it.

Meet Aristophanes, The MC Taking Mandarin Rap Global Photo by Etang Chen

Your new audience is really only able to react to your work on a musical level, and that's actually a big compliment. Tell me about the producers that are helping you deliver that musical message: how do you decide who to work with, and how do you meet them?

I always meet them on Soundcloud. Even Grimes found me there. It's very simple. I listen to others' music, and if I'm interested, I'll send a message. If they are interested, they send a message. And if it's cool with each other, then we start to make it. They come from many countries, but mostly Japan, America and Europe. One of the producers I work with most is from Taiwan. His name is Sonic Deadhorse.

Did you know him before you made music together?

Even though he lives very close to me, I met him on Facebook. And we talked to each other, listened to each other’s work and started our collaboration. Because he lives very close, sometimes we do performances together.

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Your music isn't just straight rap music, obviously. It sounds like there's a lot of jazz influence in what you do, as well as a lot of pop and experimental flair. What's the scene like in Taiwan? Are you part of a rap scene or something broader?

In the beginning, when I started to make music, for maybe one or two years I was part of [the rap scene], but after that I think I just wasn't part of that. I wanted to do my own thing. My style has changed. Now I’m part of the electronic and a broad scene. I don't really like the rap scene here. Because it's very rare to have girls, I don't really feel comfortable being with them. I think their music, mostly, is not my type.

When you say that you don't feel comfortable in that scene, is that a musical thing or a social thing? How do you think they view you?

It’s both. They think my music is weird and no one is going to listen to it [laughs]. Even my friend told me, "You're doing very strange things, you need to change to more hip-hop or nobody will listen to your music."

But you do consider what you do to be rap, right? Do you consider what you do to be anything other than rap?

Yes, I think it’s rap. But it's more like some experimental, jazz, is more my flow. It's more like that sometimes.

It's also very poetic. What kind of stuff was really formative for you musically?

Sainkho, Out of Tuva— it's very free jazz and electronic. I think she makes really great music and she does some improvisations. It changed some of my ideas of recording and performing. I also really like Jean Grae's flow, she influenced my flow very much. I heard her maybe three or four years ago and I was like, "Wow, her flow's sick." I'm really inspired by Erykah Badu’s delivery and lyrics. Sometimes she's the hero, sometimes she's like a little girl lonely for love. And I thought, "Wow, that's very different." As a female MC, at first I wanted myself to do better than male MCs, but [now] I think it's okay for me to be more girly and sexy. She inspired me to think so.

Watch Aristophanes meet Grimes for the first time in Art Angel, a FADER documentary:
January 12, 2016
Meet Aristophanes, The MC Taking Mandarin Rap Global