Electronic Music with Chinese Characteristics: Interview with Howie Lee

It’s 1.23pm and Howie Lee has just woken up. He’s in Taipei right now working on his debut album, following a mega productive few years for this Beijing beat producer, producing a swag of EPs, party starting with his collective Do Hits and receiving sub woofing kudos from the likes of Gilles Peterson and Brainfeeder for his unique brand of guzheng, 808, bong-infused Chinese bass. Jah!

Kiwese spoke to Howie through the magic of WeChat voice messages ahead of his show with MIST in Chengdu. image

KIWESE: Hey Howie, you’ve decided to work on the album in Taipei instead of at your studio in Beijing?  

HOWIE: Yeah, basically when I’m in Beijing the smog makes me feel so dizzy. I haven’t been feeling very well, so I’ve come to Taipei to work on the album. I think fresh air is very important for my production. In Taipei you can find a lot of old traditional Chinese music and sounds. It’s kind of hard to dig for music in Mainland China – a lot of stuff has been destroyed. I’m trying to remake this old stuff in a contemporary way.

Can you tell us about your composition and production process?

Mostly I will select a set of songs, then start adding my other beats and drum works. I sample a lot of stuff and I’m always looking for interesting songs to put into my music. I think this year, its all like dance floor ready – I play a lot of gigs in Beijing and Shanghai. I want to blend Chinese culture and dance music culture, so I’m constantly digging for local content and sounds.

Dance floor ready, what kind of beats are we talking? Last year’s ‘Eastside Sampler Series’ and ‘Borderless Shadows EP’ had a trap feel to them. Are you continuing with the trap vibe are do you feel your sound is evolving.

Yeah, I think I’m trying to move away from trap a bit. I think within trap there are a lot of 808s, kick drums, long sub and hip hop vibes, which is what I am looking for. In recent production and for the new album, I’ve been trying to push forward beyond trap, to blend every genre I know.

You are signed to TrapDoor Records, who surely have an emphasis on trap music?

Yeah, they do have a strong sense of trap music, but they are also trying to avoid the stereotypes and push it forward to something like ‘post-trap.’ The first track they signed me called ‘A Strange Afternoon & A Strange Night’ was the first non-trap release they’ve done, its more of a hip hop vibe. They are very open minded people and want to push everything in bass music. Is trap big in Chengdu? My label mate Guzz just played at TAG last night, have you been?

Yeah, I go there pretty regularly. I wouldn’t say trap is huge, there is more of a techno/house feel. Other clubs may have a stronger hip hop sense, and there is a big psy scene. You mentioned Guzz, could you tell me about your music collective Do Hits? What do you guys do and how did you form?

Sulumi, Guzz, Billy Starman and myself have been making parties for like four years. We started from a little tiny electronic club called School Bar in 2011. Now its a rock club. At first it wasn’t very good, then we moved to Dada in 2012 when it opened.

We are trying to build up a very small scene of music lovers, of new faces. We have a lot of very young Chinese people in our nights and Dada is always packed for it. Three of us are producers, making local content. That’s the main difference between us and other party labels in Beijing.

The Do Hits crew. Howie, second from left.

The Do Hits crew.

I used to go to Dada a lot when I lived in Beijing last year. I still have some friends there, who say there have been big crack downs on clubs like Dada, where the cops come in, lock the doors and check everyone for drugs – especially foreigners. I was wondering if you have had any experience with that and if it has had any effect on the scene?

Oh man, it’s bullshit and was one of the biggest issues last summer. Basically the cops went and locked down the club, tested everyone, got foreigners deported because they had drugs. The problem is that everyone in the scene is kinda involved with drugs. So after the crack down people feel very pressured and don’t wanna go out to clubs. One event we had in August there were only like five foreigners. So it has had a big effect on the scene, it’s really bad.

Yeah that sounds like bad vibes. However, your Borderless Shadow EP has been rated pretty highly in recent ‘Best of 2014’ lists and that. Do you think that shows an increasing popularity of electronic music in Beijing?

It’s breaking through, there are more producers coming up, and more internet users. The hip hop scene is slowly evolving alongside the electronic scene and they are blending together. In Beijing the different hip hop crews have a bit of beef with each other, but it is getting better and better.

“I wouldn’t say electronic music is big now, because it’s just not. Rock music still dominates the underground scene in Beijing.”

What do you think the effect of the blocking of Soundcloud in China last year has had on electronic music?

Oh shit, that’s fucked up! I would have waaay more followers on Soundcloud if it wasn’t blocked. I just started a Xiami account cos I have to, otherwise people in China can’t listen to my music, but it is a waste of time to manage different platforms inside and outside of China. It’s bullshit and completely unnecessary.

Xiami.com is a different story – Chinese producers can only talk to other Chinese producers.

It’s a very big barrier. I know a lot of Chinese producers who have stopped using it after the ban. It’s such a pity. That’s why Soundcloud is an important and useful tool in building an online community of music lovers and producers. People need to talk to each other. In China, I don’t see this happening that much.

“There are many talented people who could use Soundcloud to improve their music, but now it’s gone… that’s the problem, the barrier of the internet is slowing Chinese people down.”

You had your first exposure to electronic music when you studied Sound Art in London. Can you tell me about your impressions of the music scene there, and how you first got involved with creating your own music? 

Yeah, I think London is definitely the best city in the world for electronic music. They have such diversity – hip hop, bass music, Jamaican music, indie rock, plus the best record labels. Every weekend you can find interesting stuff happening and there are loads of people who are crazy about music. I always go to Dalston, the hipster area in East London. The Nest and Dance Tunnel are very good underground clubs.

I know you were previously in a ‘cheesy pop punk band,’ what drew you away from that and into electronic music?

I used to play in a pop punk band when I was younger and had no idea. I’ve been making electronic music for a long time, but at that time in China I was just working on it by myself, I didn’t know anyone or any labels. Finally, my band went to an electro dance direction and I started to produce for the band. They wanted to sign to a mainstream label but I didn’t want to so I quit. When I was at university I DJed at small parties a bit, then realised I just wanted to create dance music. I met a British DJ called Harikiri, who taught me how to make dubstep – and my mind was blown. Then I moved to trap in 2012 and did a Snoop Lion official remix. That was the beginning of people getting to know my music internationally.

In addition to making music, you are also quite well known for the visual aspects you bring to your live show. What do you feel is the relationship between the aural and the visual in your music?

I want to use visuals to help people understand my music during my performances. In electronic music there is a loss of traditional music gestures, like when you see a guy playing guitar, you can see him making the movements. But with laptop music, you lose those gestures. So I want to rediscover them by syncing the visuals with my music, my rhythm, so people can experience it better. My wife Veeeky is a visual artist, so she has helped me a lot with building the visuals.

Chinese people have a stereotype about DJs and nightclubs. We want to change that, to let them know there can be more interesting things in the club than DJs playing shitting mainstream EDM tunes. We want to be the curators of the club, we want to build different aspects of music and art, to let people know you can do all these things, and more importantly, you can do them by yourself.

“The visual aspect is also very important for social media. People can see interesting visuals, take a photo and post them on Instagram and shit. It helps to build an audience.”

In this mission to show Chinese people the better side of club music, you also do electronic music workshops, such as with VICE last year. Can you tell me about your work in ‘creative education’ so to speak?

Yeah, I’m trying to help people with workshops. For VICE and at my old university. Like 100 people came, but I wouldn’t consider those events a success. Most of the people who came were interested in electronic music, but they have very limited knowledge, so the stuff I was talking about didn’t quite reach them. The problem for me is that I don’t know how much they know, so I can’t find the best way to express myself in a way they can understand.

Wow, but 100 people showing up shows there is an interest, which I think is really positive. Are there any suggested apps, software or websites that you recommend people could visit to get a start in investigating electronic music production?

I think for Chinese people, it is still a long way to go to in understanding this culture. I use Ableton Live to produce. I started by watching YouTube tutorials and slowly building up techniques that I felt comfortable with. The most important thing is to be open minded – it’s just problem solving, looking it up online [laughs] and trying to solve it by yourself. Also being self critical. Reading reviews can also be important.

I watch Boiler Room all the time cos I wanna see how other DJs play. I also read features on Resident Advisor and FACT UK. You gotta get a VPN first. People can sign up on the Do Hits WeChat account, we translate a lot of articles. Also I’ve translated a book called Dance Music Manual 《电子舞曲手册》, it’s a very good book, very heavy.

Awesome. Do you frequently come to play in Chengdu? What are you looking forward to the most?

I used to play in Chengdu a lot around 2010, at the old Xiong Mao and the new one. Yeah, 2010 was a great year for electronic music in Chengdu. Also I played Big Love Festival, which I’m not sure if you heard… it was totally chaotic.

I’m really looking forward to coming in March – I haven’t experienced Chengdu’s audience in the past few year.

Can we expect Howie Lee to perform in New Zealand any time soon?

I’d love to, but I don’t know much about the music there. I know one producer called Haan808 and we’ve talked a bit. If you know anyone who wants to book me, hook me up!

What is the expected release date of the new album and do you have a title?

I want to release it in September. It is in the very early stages. Haven’t signed to a label, probably TrapDoor but maybe someone else. The title is also unknown.

Now that Shanshui Records have moved from Beijing to Japan, are there any others?

Subculture in Shanghai, Groove Bunny Records in Ningbo…

Favourite music to blaze with?

Jazz and soul. Deep stuff. FlyLo.

Cheers Howie! Look forward to your show!

Thanks, see you in Chengdu!

Poster by Veeeky.

Poster by Veeeky.

Special thanks to CVALDA for setting up this interview!

Sign up to the Do Hits WeChat account to follow what’s happening in the Beijing electronic underground. Check out Howie Lee on Soundcloud, and get a VPN.