"[It was a] very emotional experience… I don't like really singing at the KTV, I was putting on loads of slow jams hoping we could just have a chilled one…some Ciara "Body Party", some Aaliyah, some Brandy, some R. Kelly… I was just putting the vocal version on, trying to put the mic down slowly so no one noticed. It lasted about half an hour and one of the guys put on some Beyond. [Hums: dee dee DAH DAH DEN de da!] -- you know that one?"
No one -- myself, roommate Joey playing NBA on PS4, or our photographer Rhiannon -- knew what he was on about. Swimful, whose real name is Jamie and is classically trained in piano and music theory, moved to Shanghai after graduating from a program in sound arts at London College of Communication, where he studied music, incidentally, along with classmate Howie Lee, the Beijing producer behind the Do Hits label.
Now 23 years old, Swimful has been coming here since he was a teen, when his dad lived out here working in the building materials industry. They both played in loads of bands, Jamie on multiple instruments, his dad on drums, and they played together at seminal live music spot Beedees [R.I.P. Jeff]. In his late teens, he started doing noise music, released a 12" record, then started trying to blend the blissed-out sounds of shoegaze with hip hop instrumentals, and some of his beats got picked up by next wave American hip hop artists, Lil' B and Main Attrakionz.
"Lil' B literally listens to everything people send him. You could just send him a beat right now, and in about three days you'll get a quickly responded, typo-ed thing like "dope beat." With '05 Fuck Em, that got covered by Rolling Stone, but no one knows that it was me."
Classic story: producer starts making dreamy beats in the bedroom, gets booked to play in clubs because of said productions, then realizes they want to play something more dancefloor friendly, so they shift their style. Swimful is part of a newer generation of Shanghai producers who work in hip hop, grime, and "bass music", for lack of a better term. Though not officially linked in any kind of crew, his peers include Zean, Damacha, Naaah, Downstate, and Pantoo, who used to live with Jamie in Qingpu before moving back to NYC. That's not to discount other Shanghai crews producing music, like Co:Motion, but that's more on the house / techno tip.
"There's a group of us who are just really pushing each other… competitively pushing each other like, 'I just made this tune, it's better than what you've got -- what have you got now?'"
An older brother figure in the scene, Conrank, mastered Jamie's latest album PM2.5, which comes out as a pollution mask with a digital download code this Friday on Shanghai label SVBKVLT, run by Shelter manager Gaz Williams. That's the same label that Damacha's Tuhaojin own concept album came out on last year.
"When 'Tuhaojin' came out, I was really blown away by that. A lot of people at the moment are trying to make music with traditional Chinese samples, but it doesn't say anything about modern China, so much. With Johnny, that record, it changes things a bit -- he's actually addressing contemporary Chinese culture, the whole 'high music' thing, the kinda traditional club with chicken feet that get brought out to you."
So, we chilled in Qingpu for hours. We ordered Domino's, but Jamie just chain smoked and played us some of his new tracks. He can seem shy if you don't know him, but he'll talk eloquently at length about music and the city. One theme that came up repeatedly is the idea of representing and having pride for Shanghai city, as an artist.
"I'd much prefer to be well respected in China first and foremost than in the West, like, 'Oh, Swimful, he's making tunes in Shanghai.' Something that fucks me off is like, when people put (UK) on my poster; they don't realize that on every single social media outlet I've had for the past four years, it's had Shanghai on it. Shanghai is the place where I wanna make music and do my thing. So, it's kinda sad when people are like 'oh he's from the UK.' I've always kinda repped Shanghai."
PM 2.5 contains several bangers, but the biggest tune by far is a remix of a Wiley tune from 2003 called "Shanghai." It's huge. Slackk played it on his RinseFM show. I hope it becomes an anthem for the city in 2016, something that people scream madly for when it drops in the club, before the DJ rewinds it two or three times. We need a tune like that.
So, ahead of the release, some excerpts from our discussions. Some of this comes from our IRL interview in Qingpu, and some comes from a follow-up over email.
Do you consider the Qingpu Remix a "Shanghai Anthem"? Did you have that in mind when making it?
Swimful: I don't know if I get to decide whether it's an anthem or not. I think that's something that the people decide. I didn't consciously set out to make an anthem with the track, I made it initially because I wanted to play the original out. The original is very sparse and can be hard to slot into a set, so I made a version that I could play around peak time. After I'd finished the first version though, I did get the feeling that it was a big track, and obviously using the melody from one of the best known grime tracks and the fact that it's named after the city meant that I knew I'd be playing it a lot at Shelter over the coming year.
What are you doing out in Qingpu anyway?
Swimful: Pantoo sorted me out a job here. Qingpu's cool cause it's a lot cheaper than downtown. It's separated just enough to where it's a bit secluded, but not far enough to where it's hard to get down town. The bus right outside the flat, if I go at 8 or 9pm, it takes about 35 minutes to get to Nanjing Lu.
Do you find you're more productive out here?
Swimful: I'm a bit of a party animal in a way. If you listen to my tunes you won't get that from my tunes, but if someone asks me to go out, I find it hard to say no sometimes, and so being out here, there's less stuff going on at nighttime, so it gives you more incentive to just stay in and keep pumping away at music.
What's the nightlife out here like?
Joey: Very deep.
Swimful: We're got MD Club, we've got Las Vegas, we've got Louie Party Space. It's one of the ones where the girl comes and sits with you and says nice things to you. MD Club is like, really showy, a bit of a tuhao spot.
You ever DJ out there?
Swimful: Funnily, I met someone who knew the manager down at Touch, which is far and away the best bar in Qingpu, and he knew the manager [at MD] and was talking about getting me on, and I played him some grime and he was like "yeah m8 I'll get back to you about that" [laughs].
Swimful on the roof of his office building, which is called Kindness Plaza
You mentioned musicians and DJs here don't really rep Shanghai / China / their city or district here like they do in the West. Why is that? Is it an issue or the artists, the audience, or both? Who is repping?
Swimful: It's not that people don't rep the city, I think people try, but there's usually not the same kind of support from the local crowd that you might find in other places in the world. I think you can find examples of similar stuff elsewhere; if you go and ask a kid on the street in London what they're listening to they'll probably say Rick Ross or Meek Mill rather than Skepta or Novelist, at least in my experience. It's probably mainly just an obsession with the exotic.
You can see the kind of reception that an international artist will get coming to Shanghai, even if people don't know who they are or just started listening to their stuff on Xiami the day before the show. In contrast, nights like Lost Cargo that do a great job of pushing Shanghai producers and DJs only occasionally get an audience rivaling that of an international artist, which I find really sad.
I think that maybe people here actually don't believe that Shanghai can be a music capital because it isn't right now. The only way for us to change that is for more people to start supporting the scene here and showing that they're not just interested in the artists who come through for their fame or status, but that they support great music even if it's on their doorstep. Shanghai has got enough producers and DJs already on an international level to get behind. As for who's really repping... shouts out to Damacha, Zean, Pete Chen, Alta, Naaah, Heatwolves, Caution, Aivilox, Endy, Gaz, Howie Lee, Jason Hou, Bloodz Boi, Bobby... the list goes on.
Though classically trained, dude still prefers to just write all his melodies on a computer keyboard
What are some of your favorite city / hood anthems? "Bow E3" comes to mind.
Swimful: DJ Screw's "Sailin' Da South" is a big one. "Don't Give Me No Bammer Weed" by RBL Posse and Main Attrakionz' "Do It For the Bay". I know that Skinny Brown always plays "天涯歌女" at Popasuda, but to me "夜上海" is the quintessential 周璇 tune when it comes to repping Shanghai in the '30s. Novelist's "Endz" that came out last year was a good one. If you wanted one for Newcastle or the north-east of England generally, you could just pick anything made by Richard Dawson or Nev Clay.
Should we just give this track to all the DJs in Shanghai and make me play it? It really is quite good.
Swimful: Haha we could do, I wouldn't mind seeing someone drop it at Diva or MYST.
Is it necessary for artists to get famous outside of China before they're accepted here? Why?
Swimful: Shanghai is a really fashionable city, so if something is fashionable, people will be a bit more keen to pay attention to it. One of the limitations of being a popular artist in China is that the firewalls tend to make it harder for Chinese artists to expand their listener base into other countries. If you look at the major pop singers in China, how many of them are popular elsewhere? And by contrast, if you look at American popstars, how many of them are popular outside of America? It's a pretty obvious one.
I also think that people here still look at taste-making sources outside of China. As much as I'd love them to, people aren't getting all of their tip offs from places like Wooozy or JuZhen. More likely they're looking at sites like Pitchfork or listening to RinseFM. There's still a bit of a ceiling here in terms of how far someone can get in the local scene, and I think when people start appreciating local taste-makers and artists, that will change. But it's like, I play regularly at the best club in Shanghai, but still, me getting a few plays on the radio in London has done a lot more to push my music. Unfortunately, the way it goes is that I think people take you more seriously in Shanghai if you're known outside of the city.
Do you listen to any Chinese pop?
Swimful: I love Wang Fei. That's about it really. In terms of pop singers, I just think Wang Fei has had the best evolution. She did a record with the Cocteau Twins. To me, Wang Fei is boss.
What are you listening to lately?
Swimful: Lately I've been listening to dubs from the mysterious producer WeChat (bangers). The Wiley "Ice Master" dubs, Young Peach, 狠毒男孩, Bloodz Boi, Lil B's "Thugged Out Pissed Off", Lil Ugly Mane's "Oblivion Access", Slackk dubs, hnrk, DJ Alta's latest grime mix, and a load of other stuff.
Final question: you eat a lot of Shaxian Xiaochi right? What's your go-to order there and what's better -- Shaxian or Lan Zhou La Mian and why?
Swimful: I think everyone knows that you go Shaxian for the fan and Lanzhou for the mian. It depends who I'm eating with, but usually I'd go for the huiguorou with rice, and if I'm feeling fancy I might get one of the marinated ya tui. For me, the choice between the two is mood-dependent, but I think Lanzhou La Mian would win.
The release party for PM2.5 the album in Shanghai city happens Saturday, Jan 30 at The Shelter, with support from Zean, Alta & Naaah from Push & Pull, and Damacha. They're also at Dada Beijing on Friday night.