Sounds of The Flower Market: A Day in Hong Kong with Masta Mic
Every afternoon for the past forty years the narrow side street on the corner of Sai Yee and Yuen Po Street in Mong Kok; Hong Kong, has been honeyed with the floral scents of ‘The Flower Market’. An entire street; inflamed with the rainbowed oasis of exotic petals and leaves. Today is no different. The tellers perch at their stalls for hours, watering their flowers and counting coins and notes. They are almost always women; middle aged and sun worn, and brand a uniform of muddied gloves, straight leg jeans and faded aprons. In the colder months they’ll wear bright overcoats; some the same colour as the petals they sell; to protect themselves from the wind and rain. The bargain; an eternal jostle between customer and seller, spreads a low whir through the streets; a soft backing track to the sirens and horns of the city that never sits still. Unbeknownst to most who visit, it was the sounds of the Flower Market that magnetised Hong Kong’s most prominent rapper.
“The song Stan by Eminem over here was huge man,” twenty nine year old Masta Mic says from the confounds of his studio housed in one of the apartment blocks that leans over the market. “Over here in Mong Kok, the shop across the road, the flower shops everybody was playing it.”
It’s my second day in Hong Kong and I’ve ventured from my hostel in Causeway Bay (Central Hong Kong) to Mong Kok to meet Masta Mic for an interview. I found him online, rapping in cyphers and on TV shows; strictly in Cantonese and after a hunt through his Soundcloud found his email address. For the past few weeks we have been emailing back and forth bidding to match my empty itinerary with his crowded schedule. Now here I sit, an Englishman in Hong Kong bonding over rap, Grime and Mike Skinner with a rapper I’m only meeting in person for the first time. The decision to bring me to his studio seems a calculated one. It’s his Tardis; a world to himself where he can scheme and plot in relative solitude. He’s on the second floor, above a furniture shop. The Tardis is a decked out windowless boxed room, annexed by a small bathroom and a cramped recording booth in the corner. Three sets of large speakers balance on stands and a heavy mixer lies atop of a thick oak table. A sunken couch has been pressed to the back wall and two electronic guitars have been delicately hung on each side. It reminds me of the comics I would read as a child where the walls of a post office or bank roll back to reveal the villains space-age top-secret lair; tucked away like a MI5 safe house camouflaged amongst the humdrum of everyday life.
The story of the studio is an unusual one. It formerly belonged to Beyond, the Hong Kong equivalent to Coldplay and though they haven’t released an album since 2003 the studio remains a sentimental point of intrigue for the millions who count themselves fans. Just yesterday a tourist from the mainland wandered into the hallway outside hoping to sneak a glimpse and possibly a picture. Mic wound up here through a little luck. His manager met the landlord at a show a few years back. Days later they received word that the studio was his to use rent free so long as he kept it in good nick. He’s so far kept his side of the bargain though yesterday the toilet overflowed and dinged water soaked the tiled floor. Today he has called in a plumber to take a look. During our hour long chat Mic politely excuses himself to the bathroom every so often to check on his progress. Tardis’ are rare and he wants to hang onto this one.
Mic is tall and broad in person and moves with a slow confident amble. His moulded black hair is slicked back and he balances a pair of thin rimmed glasses on his crinkly nose. He has a skin shaven face and a childlike cheeky grin that makes him look a decade younger than twenty nine. When I find him he’s wearing a black t-shirt with matching shorts that extend just below the knees and faded black socks pulled high up on his pasty shins.
We talk steadily throughout the afternoon; in English. First about his poor upbringing in a cramped flat on Lantau Island; then about studying Law in China; right through to finding his feet as a battle rapper on the streets of Mong Kok and the relative pop fame that followed.
When he was fourteen his parents enrolled him an English speaking school. In music lessons he was introduced to western music; learning about Tim Rice and his theatrical musicals like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Though it was an intriguing starting base, the narrow stream of music being peddled on the curriculum was not enough to keep his interest. Mic was struggling to find his place as a teen, he couldn’t identify with the neatness of Britpop and when he turned towards the radio he found dull imitations of their Western counterparts.
“At that time Rock was the biggest thing in Hong Kong, because of the British colony thing, the European white thing. People are not so ready to accept Hip Hop or black music.”
“The [British] culture was already here for a hundred years. So the rift, the guitar was just inside our heads. So [when] you’re talking about the rhythm, the boom bap, the drums, the breaks, they don’t understand that.”
In the search for something different he stumbled upon Eminem and the classic stroke controversial Marshall Mathers EP. He quickly became a rap fan and began emulating his favourite MC’s; rocking XL white tees, baggy Pelle Pelle jeans and oversized Timberlands.
“I’ve got no shame about it,” he laughs. ”Because everybody starts from imitating right? If you study English like me, you study copy books right.”
His parents he says were traditional Chinese families; strict and aspired for their son to become a Doctor or a Lawyer or some other profession deemed ‘respectable.’ But converse to their lofty ambitions Mic begun to shun authority, misbehaving at school and getting regularly suspended. When he was excluded for good his parents kicked him out of the house leaving him to spend a year effectively homeless, sleeping from bed to bed at charity-run youth centres and hostels.
“When you’re in school or you’re somebody’s son you have some responsibility, some rules to follow. But when you’re a kid doing something like that you can just leave everything alone. I felt weird; waking up for nothing and sleeping for nothing. I couldn’t stand that.”
He left the youth centre and was taken in by his Aunty, under the condition that he would restart his studies. Mic obliged. He was eager for a sense of direction; even if that meant a return to education. But there was an issue. Re-joining the Hong Kong school system after being expelled was near impossible. It meant he would have to complete his studies in China where rules were a little less stubborn. He enrolled in a foundation course at a school in Beijing and spent his first year abroad much like his last in Hong Kong: lounging around. “I didn’t study. I was so free. Not just physically but the mind is free.”
He became a regular at Mix, an evergreen nightclub in the centre of the city and struck up relationships with the club’s staff. In the early hours after closing time they would go for breakfast. One morning his friend passed him a rap demo that he had loaded up onto a portable MP3 player. “It was super shitty sound quality. But I feel so impressed because he was just like me, he didn’t know shit about music.”
From there Mic decided to take rap seriously. He started researching and wrote raps of his own; burning them onto bootlegged blank CD’s that he would buy from the local market. When he watched rap documentary “Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme,” he upped the ante and began practicing for twelve hours a day. He was obsessed. When it was time to leave Beijing he enrolled in a Law degree at a university in Wuhan and instead of studying, resorted to usual practices; skipping lectures and tutorials; instead spending hours tuning his freestyle; building up from 2 bars to 8 bars to well over an hour.
After graduating, Mic returned to Hong Kong with a mission to crack the local Hip Hop scene. He scoured ICQ –an instant messaging service similar to MSN –for local rappers. He discovered roughly ten and they agreed to organise Hong Kong’s first Hip Hop cypher.
“If you talk about my music career in Hong Kong, everything started from there. People started to know me because I was really one of the first people to fluently freestyle in Cantonese.”
Word of Mic’s peerless freestyle abilities spread and a video of him rapping on the street was eventually spotted by DJ Tommy and Galaxy; who together ran a small indie label called Color. Galaxy rang Mic’s one evening and told him any concrete offer would arrive only after he proved the rumours of his ability freestyle in Cantonese were more than here-say. “Everybody was saying freestyling in Cantonese was impossible,” Mic says. “I don’t know why though. We think in Cantonese and Chinese.”
Mic proved himself over the phone that same night and penned a management deal shortly after. The deal with Color did not match expectations and in 2008 after two years under contract he had still released no music. When DJ Tommy left to help run Clot; an indie street fashion label, with Edison Cheun, Mic followed him. Cheun was a Chinese Canadian who had built a career in film and fashion. He started Clot with the aim of brining street fashion to Hong Kong. Mic was signed to the firm’s media division with hopes that this would be the catalyst for a glitzy rap career. It was a disaster. He stayed with Clot for two years before he quit; again with no album or mixtape released. “It was a really said experience,” he sighs. “I don’t know why. I’m good; I’m real good at least in Cantonese Rap and Hip Hop.”
With a few salty label experiences out of the way Mic decided to go independent. He released his first mixtape The New Hope and began to amass a fan base. The tape had two meanings: the first was his self-coronation as Hong Kong raps air-apparent; the second; a fresh take on what he saw as a worn-out industry. He covered Lilly Allen and MGMT hoping that the familiarity of the electro-rock synths and heavy strings would be enough to appeal to a new circle of fans outside of rap. It worked, his songs were put into rotation on Metro Radio 997, HK Radio 2 and the rest of the mainstream frequencies. On the back of this he released his debut album Pop Strikes Back. It was a statement that it was possible for pop music to extend beyond easy listening and could balance both melody and substance.
Mic flicks open his silver mac book and pulls up iTunes. Two years on from its release Pop Strikes Back is still in the top ten of Hong Kong’s album charts. It’s a remarkable feat but indicative of an enigmatic difficulty in Hong Kong’s music industry. The small principality spans only a few hundred miles and so naturally the music industry is small. It leaves no space for touring and after selling out the 14,000 capacity Asiaworld-Arena, there are few other directions an artist can head. Mic has yet to reach that pinnacle but is left frustrated by the inevitable plateau.
“I want to challenge myself,” he says. “I want to try and perform in other countries and see how people react to my music. I’ve never been to New York...Maybe one day. I think that maybe they should just give Asian Hip Hop a bigger chance.”
“Yes I work in the mainstream music business but I never forget who I am and what I try to do. I’m trying to improve my life and my parent’s life but also trying to give something back to Hip Hop. The only thing I can do is do better music, promote it, show to the people that Hip Hop is good for you, good for the world, good for society.”
He’s keen to show me some of his stuff, both new and old. Watching a rapper listen to his own music can be a bizarre experience. Much in the same way Ralph Lauren only wears those polos or Bill Gates sticks with a PC, a rapper can vibe off of no track more than the one he wrote, vocaled and in Mic’s case, produced. The first song; a hodgepodge of pitched sirens, startling crashes and a rumbling drum loop, sends him into a spasm. He closes his eyes and relentlessly throbs back and forth; re-joining this dimension three minutes later with a melancholic pout in place of his trademark grin. “I’m not a musical dude,” he says. “Keys, chords. I don’t give a shit about all of that. I just want to feel.”
When we’ve exhausted his personal biography Mic slips on some Nike flip flops and black shades and readies himself to leave. He has an interview at IBHK; an internet radio show in Kwun Tong and mentions that I’m welcome to tag along.
The evening is cool when we step outside; t-shirt weather like most evenings in a Hong Kong summer. The Flower Market has closed for the day and we walk across the now empty pavement to hail down a taxicab. A red five seater swerves to the side of the street and we climb into the backseat. Mic reels off a string of instructions in Cantonese and the driver; about forty and looking slightly jaded, taps away into his Sat Nav. I click in my seatbelt; a move which prompts spirited laughter. Apparently Hong Kong bylaws hold no requirements for passengers to buckle up if you’re in the back. I keep it on anyway and we weave off into the traffic.
When the cab pulls up forty minutes later it becomes clear that there is another side to Hong Kong, a grimier unabashed face strewn miles from the centre of town. The face not paraded on the hostel websites or the e-brochures. Kwun Tong is a rundown industrial district east of Mong Kok. Rows of housing estates peel off high into the darkening sky. The western food courts and high end fashion stores have all but disappeared, as have the English signposts; instead replaced by fruit sellers and grubby dine in restaurants all marked in Cantonese. As Mic gets his bearings he is approached by a star struck fan. Mic flashes him a grin and a fist bump before we continue on our way. Though I had heard him speak of the TV shows and endorsement deals it is only then I grasp the gravitas of who he is here. Hong Kong, after all is only small and rappers, a rarity. Mic is one of a handful to have made a sustained impact on pop culture here. “I don’t really like that type of thing,” he mutters as we walk away. “It’s why I like Lantau Island, coming to central means you’re on show.”
As we walk Mic is going back and forth on the phone with Kevin, the guy who will be interviewing him on the radio. We meet him on the steps of a 7/11 convenience store. He is just under 6 foot and with an athletic build. He has the dominant facial features of a male model; the pronounced jaw line, intense beady eyes and flushed cheeks. Like Mic, Kevin speaks English like a native and as he walks he tells me of his plans for his show I’m INK. In many ways, he is like Mic; an aspiring musician who dips into other fields to get by. He says the interview with Mic and one of his affiliates ‘Big Sammy’ will be his second and third of the day. From tomorrow he will pull his focus onto his upcoming mixtape release.
After a few minutes he stops at the graffiti-tagged iron shutters of what used to be the entrance to an industrial factory and announces that we’ve arrived. Hong Kong, like most major cities is changing. The rich are flooding into the centre of town; raising the rent prices as they arrive, meaning that the not so rich have to find housing elsewhere. In the late eighties Kwun Tong was an industrial hub but business has since dried up with firms redistributing labour costs to mainland China where rents are lower and labour is cheaper. Hundreds were put out of jobs. The factories in which they once worked were left abandoned and have become home for Hong Kong’s creative fraternity seeking low-cost relief from the principality’s gentrifying core.
The building where IBHK operates from is decrepit from the outside and to get to the second floor you have to use an old freight lift. Kelvin; an always smiling media whiz started IBHK in 2013 when he was sixteen with a vision to cover news and current events like the Umbrella Revolution of last summer where thousands of teens; Kelvin included; ground Causeway Bay to a halt. As of late he and his team have begun expanding into entertainment shows like the episode of I’m INK they will record tonight. The abandoned factory space they operate from is heavily furnished. The small windowless room is scattered with boxes of clothes, office equipment and stacks of newspapers from a one-man publishing house in the next room. A handful of yellow tags labelled ‘Umbrella Revolution’ dangle like chandeliers from a pipe attached to the ceiling. Mic and Kevin take a seat in the makeshift studio has been erected at the far end, fitted out with mics and video recording equipment.
Mic is as cool on air as he if off it, blending juvenile gags with sincere moments of candour. When he’s finished we head to an out of order lift to snap some pictures that Kelvin will post up on Facebook along with the interview. Big Sammy strikes a rap mean mug; Mic keeps his shades on and sports a wry smile.
After we’ve said our goodbyes and signed our names on the huge white board by the entrance we head back towards Mong Kok for some food at one of Mic’s favourite spots. It’s a small family run eatery across the street from his studio. Mic orders a bowl of friend rice served with prawns and boiled chicken. The menu is in Cantonese and the owner speaks no English so Mic orders me the same. Whilst we wait he blends a spread of lemon slices with crushed ice tea. Work is finished for a few hours and he can at last loosen up. He raves on the complexities of Kendrick Lamar’s recently released To Pimp a Butterfly and how its predecessor Good Kid Mad City was a great rap album but lacked depth on the production front. His breadth of Hip Hop knowledge is striking. He talks about Kool Moe D and Busy Bee and then jumps to The Streets and Dizzee Rascal. Then it’s a few groups bubbling out of South Korea before skipping to a debate about the best Wu-Tang solo project. “I’ve missed this,” he sighs. “There aren’t many people to just talk Hip Hop with in Hong Kong.”
When the bill is paid he heads back across to the studio. His band have arrived. They are going to pull a late shift; working on the new album Mic intends to release later this year. He prefers working this way; with a live band. Samples can be expensive to clear when you’re an independent artist. It’s one of the frustrating factors that he has to deal with but typically Mic doesn’t stress.
“Being a Lawyer yeah I can make a living and I can make more money than I do right now but it’s not always about money. If I do something that I love and do it one hundred percent then I believe I will have something back.
“It’s not just about me being happy. It can be you being happy, me being happy, everybody being happy. Just like ODB said, ‘Hip Hop is for the children.’ I love that shit.”
As the clock edges towards Friday I start to consider heading back to my hostel. The last tube is in a half hour and I got lost finding my way here in the afternoon. Mic pulls out a piece of paper and a pen and jots down some directions. “Take a left at the 7/11 and walk down past the police station,” he mumbles. He’s ticked into work mode, a tad more focused. He’s quieter now and there is an intensity about him as he barks instructions to his guitarist. There’s a long road to travel if Mic is to become Hong Kong’s first breakout rapper, and it starts in the studio.
Words By Aniefiok Ekpoudom (@AniefiokEkp)