Hip-hop and shanzhai: when two remixing worlds collide

In early December, the hip-hop rapper Soulja Boy came out with two of his own consoles, the SouljaGame Console and the SouljaGame Handheld. Soulja Boy’s official website claims that the Console runs PlayStation, NeoGeo, PC, Sega, Game Boy Advance, and NES games, as well as “SouljaGames”, with 800 games preinstalled, whereas the Handheld runs Switch, 3DS, Vita, NeoGeo, Game Boy Color and Advance games, and has 3000 games installed. Soulja Boy claimed in a tweet that he had made $250,000 off his consoles in the first day of release:

Still, his consoles have received mixed reviews at best. Soulja Boy’s consoles have been branded “rip-offs”, “tacky”, “fake”, “terrible”. Many have noted that these consoles are not Soulja Boy’s consoles from scratch but are rebranded consoles from the Chinese company ANBERNIC. There have been several links posted to ANBERNIC’s AliExpress and Amazon stores where you can buy the exact same console for a fraction of the price. It seems that Soulja Boy has been undeterred from these revelations, as he has released two brand new consoles from seemingly similar sources.

ANBERNIC’s and Soulja Boy’s consoles look remarkably similar in these two pictures

A more immediate criticism which may concern Soulja Boy is the fact that a large proportion of these games may be unlicensed, which video games companies have been cracking down on recently. The most public example is Nintendo, who have been taking aim at read-only memory (ROM) games and emulators, suing the LoveROMS and LoveRetro sites for “brazen and mass-scale infringement of Nintendo’s intellectual property rights.”

Perhaps a similar example can be drawn from the early history of hip-hop, specifically sampling. The arrival of the digital sampler meant that people could take snippets of existing songs (i.e. samples) from artists from other genres, blending a wide ranging of sounds and mashing them up to create a completely original sound. In the same way, is this not what Soulja Boy was doing for his consoles: using an existing technology in order to create something brand new and different?

Havoc of Mobb Deep, making a beat using the “Akai MPC 4000” digital sampler in just over five minutes

The criticisms of sampling and of Soulja Boy’s latest business venture are profoundly similar. One man who produced for well-known bands such as Nirvana calls sampling an “extraordinarily lazy artistic choice” and “cheap and easy”. The jazz musician Richard Lewis Spencer, who owns the “amen break” sample which he has never received royalties for, labelled its sampling as “plagiarism” and “bullshit”. And, as the Turtles sued De La Soul for using an uncleared sample, singer Mark Voltman condemningly told the Los Angeles Times: “Sampling is just a longer term for theft.”

The aforementioned case was only one of several incidents in the late 80’s and early 90’s that rocked the hip-hop world. This initial clampdown in samples only forced the hip-hop artists to be more creative in how they were applying their samples, and hid them within the beats, making it much harder for other artists and lawyers to sue. The added creativity needed to remix a sample into a beat and mix it with various other sounds was a major development from the sounds of the early 80’s; the restriction on samples forced hip-hop artists into new creative avenues.

Nowadays, sampling has become a fully accepted practice in the music industry, with many pop artists now using it in their songs. Check this video out to see how many samples you can decipher:

What could be said then of the city of Shenzhen which, once vilified for producing “cheap and shoddy” electronics, now accounts for 91% of global electronics production? Indeed, Shenzhen’s remix culture is remarkably similar to hip-hop’s remix culture: taking existing electronics and mashing them up to make something new and original, as hip-hop took existing sounds and mashed them up. As you walk through the markets of Huaqiangbei, you can see the various “samples” in electronics, from smart watches, humidifiers, headphones, speakers, and yes, consoles too, to create the ultimate remix world.

A handheld “Sup(reme)” console from Huaqiangbei, complete with 400 games

These products are not “samples” but “shanzhai”, once known as imitation or second-rate electronic goods. These were goods that were produced in factories that had the blueprints to existing products and sold for cheap in the markets. The first imitations were not mobile phones, but DVD players and MP3 players, designed to be able to play both real and imitation media. The success of “shanzhai products” like these allowed the factories to expand their industry.

The high cost of these non-shanzhai mobile phones influenced the rise of shanzhai phones greatly. These phones would be multi-functional. For example, they could have four SIM-card slots, in-built speakers, and even tasers to deter would-be assaulters:

All the wacky variations you could have for your “shanzhai” phone — guess which one carries the taser?

For shanzhai, it was customer approval that forced its development — people wanted smoother, slicker, less tacky, and in many ways wanted to get a product that looked like the latest iPhone! As Apple used factories in the area, shanzhai factories did not hesitate to take from them to create their remixed phones, as well as produce imitations.

The Huawei P20 Lite, the Oppo F7 and the Vivo V9. These are the smartphone companies dominating today’s industry. All based in Shenzhen, with their roots in shanzhai.

Nowadays, both the hip-hop world and the shanzhai world are billion-dollar industries. The hip-hop industry now generates at least USD 10 billion a year and has transcended its working-class roots into a dominant and increasingly lucrative lifestyle. Similarly, shanzhai has seen immense growth: for example, Huawei, Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi are the four biggest phone manufacturers in the world, having started as small shanzhai firms.

So, in light of this, how should we view Soulja Boy’s latest venture? Granted, some of the criticisms are valid — perhaps Soulja Boy should have spent a little more effort crafting his brand and distinguishing it from ANBERNIC. But actually, this is how hip-hop and how shanzhai started as well. There was no initial attempt to hide the origin of their remixes. They were experiments from outsiders, the fringes of society, attempting to create from the few things at their disposal. The hip-hop artists could not afford instruments, and the shanzhai inventors could not afford the latest gadgets.

What they both represent is an attempt to participate in not only creativity, but creativity accessible to all. Today’s sampling and shanzhai do not signal laziness and theft but represent examples of high-level creativity and ingenuity in hip-hop and electronics respectively. Do Soulja Boy’s consoles point to a new collaboration between hip-hop and electronics? If so, it will probably follow a similar pattern: confusion, ridicule, denial, and some legal action, all whilst it gradually develops into something huge. If hip-hop and shanzhai are anything to go by, these collaborations will only continue to get more sophisticated, more creative, and more mainstream.

“Perhaps it’s a little easier to, take a piece of music, than it is to learn how to play the guitar or something. True, just like it’s probably easier to snap a picture with a camera than it is to actually paint a picture. But what the photographer is to the painter, is what the modern producer and DJ and computer musician is to the instrumentalist.”
Shock G, Digital Underground