Listening to contemporary China’s heartbeat through Howie Lee’s rhythm
Picture yourself in one of Shanghai’s most en vogue clubs among the trendy youth. Lasers and neons only slightly shatter the darkness, but no more light is needed to feel the energy emanating from the crowd which pulsates around you. Suddenly, a very recognizable melody resonates: 好日子 hao rizi (a good day), or rather its remix. The public sings along in a single voice. When the song ends, a communist chorus takes over, merged with heavy bass, making the floor tremble. You can't be mistaken. The legend Howie Lee is playing.
Howie Lee’s Hao Ri Zi, part of his album Socialism Core Value III.
Chineseness in Electronic Music
"As a Chinese producer, you should make some Chinese things. I record bits of Peking Opera or samples from on the street. When I go out, I always take my audio recorder with me. For me, it's like taking photographs… I think it's a really interesting time in China right now. As an electronic music producer, I hope I can capture this period."1
Beijing-based leading electronic music producer Howie Lee is mainly famous for incorporating Chinese traditional and pop culture references into his electronic and techno craft. This feature resonates with the audience powerfully, as one can witness when attending his live performances. The crowd sings along to any track he plays, whether hip-hop, folk, or old school reminiscent of the mid-20th century China.
During his shows, this is the power of Howie Lee and what makes him so relevant in today's China. He appeals to the younger generation through his upbeat, very modern remixes whose music genre is foreign but trendy while connecting it to familiar references, sometimes in a very ironic way.
Howie Lee's most famous work “Golden Snake Dance” (金蛇狂舞 Jinshekuangwu), which you can most certainly hear playing around Chinese New Year.
Candidly capturing the spirit of the time
Recently, the music he produces and which makes its way within his albums has gotten more experimental and has incorporated folk and ethnic sonorities from around the world. He, however, still plays mainstream tracks during live performances, acknowledging that his most recent albums are not suitable for clubs.2
We believe that Howie Lee's latest productions still resonate with today's China, even though not as literally as his Chinese references-filled tracks. His recent albums' atmosphere definitely reflects the wave of modernization and technological development the country has been experiencing for several decades now. The explosion of information fostered by the usage of smartphones, video sharing, constant flow of news articles and images (as the artist himself puts it3), is overwhelmingly expressed in his music and the visuals that accompany them. Similarly, the track “Bankers,” with its banknotes- and ATM-filled video clip, is dedicated "to the wonderful world of capitalism," a theme particularly relevant in a country whose liberalization has made the headlines since the 1980s.
Howie Lee does not aim to bridge the gap between the West and the East or be the symbol of China's modern electronic music, nor does he consider his craft unprecedented. "I don't think I have creativity,"4 he says, emphasizing that he sees his work as copying since he draws inspiration from other creators’ works and the people surrounding him. In that sense, he humbly points out that artists' creativity relies on the inputs and influences they gather, yet their craft lies in their ability to transform this unique set of references into a brand new piece.
Because this reflection on inspiration plays a big part in his creative process, Howie Lee genuinely captures part of the country's spirit of the time. This is why he resonates with the youth, as his packed gigs and their enthusiastic crowds prove. Most probably, the power of his music lies in its atmosphere: immersive, always dancing on the thin line between genres and rhythms, and intuitively crafted from the heteroclite influences he gathered. As such, he sounds utterly familiar yet refreshing to his public.
To a foreign ear, listening to his tracks feels like traveling around China for the first time. The electronic sonorities hit as powerfully as the technological development and flows of modernization that have taken over the country. The popular references and folk sonorities that linger in his music are remindful of stumbling upon a historical landmark. The samples borrowed from overseas allude to the many instances in which China has drawn upon foreign inputs to build its own economic model and technological development.
Howie Lee might not purposefully infuse this analogy into his work, yet he masterfully does so.
References / To go further
Beijing Pulse, “Beijing Pulse - In the Studio with Beijing’s Howie Lee,” YouTube video, 9:46, June 28, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H-w3BLry-Ck&ab_channel=BeijingPulse.
Howie Lee, “专访｜Howie Lee：昨天今天和明天，总是魔幻地交织,” interview by Qian Lianshui钱恋水,澎湃新闻, October 19, 2017, https://www.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_4688687.
Howie Lee, “专访.”
Howie Lee, “‘I Don't Think about Creativity, I Just Copy’: Howie Lee on Passive Creation and the Chinese Dream,” interview by Philana Woo, RADII, December 26, 2018, https://radiichina.com/chinese-creative-revolution-howie-lee/.