Meet James Mao, 88rising’s edgy music video director shaking up China’s rap scene

Ep.3/Oct 15, 2019

When James Mao first started making music videos, he had a problem. Googling his name turned up a basketball player in Taiwan named James Mao.

“The first five pages are that f---ing basketball player,” says Mao, now a music video director for the Asian-American label 88rising.

So he came up with “mamesjao,” a moniker he still uses. “Now you Google mamesjao and it’s all my work,” he says.

A stupid reason, he admits, but it helped build his career. Now, he’s the go-to director for hip-hop juggernauts like Higher Brothers and Lexie Liu.

His aesthetic is unconventional, especially in China, where highly produced and clean-cut videos are the standard.

Trained in computer animation, Mao is particularly known for his trippy animated sequences, which are unorthodox, disjointed, and jarring—“like PS2 graphics,” as he puts it.

Now, when you Google James Mao, his LinkedIn profile appears second in the results. (The first result is still that f---ing basketball player.)

The perfect mistake

Mao was born in Shenzhen, a city in southern China, and grew up speaking Mandarin and Cantonese.

His childhood was spent moving back and forth between China and the Americas. At age 5, he went to Canada to learn English before returning to Beijing for middle school.

That period in between exposed him to hip-hop, specifically 50 Cent, Eminem, and Jay-Z.

(Read more: Meet Bohan Phoenix, the Chinese Eminem)

When he went back to China in the early 2000s, he noticed that he was light years ahead of everyone else. Mainland China’s hip-hop scene was still young, and rappers from Korea and Taiwan were more well-known.

“My teachers were always like, ‘Oh, James, your pants are falling,’ and I’m like, ‘No, they’re not.’”

James Mao

“When I just moved back to China, I was the only kid sagging my pants and listening to hip hop,” he recalls, “and people were like, ‘The f--- is wrong with this kid?’ My teachers were always like, ‘Oh, James, your pants are falling,’ and I’m like, ‘No, they’re not.’”

Looking back, Mao credits this experience for molding him into the artist he is today. His bicultural upbringing gave him an understanding of both sides of the world, and convinced him that his Western pedigree could help him shake up China’s staid music video industry.

So after graduating from the Parsons School of Design in New York, he moved to Shanghai to direct music videos.

James Mao on a shoot in Shanghai.
James Mao on a shoot in Shanghai. / Photo: Courtesy of James Mao

Mao is not afraid to take risks and leaves visual gems that might otherwise be perceived as mistakes, like the lo-fi graphics in his music video for Trippie Redd’s “Hellboy,” which was divisive, to say the least.

“Some people really f---ed with this,” he says. “Other people were like, ‘Yo what the f--- is this? This looks like PS2 graphics.’”

For inspiration, Mao cites frequent Björk collaborator Andrew Thomas Huang as an inspiration.

“He’s like the first cat I saw in the game that really combined 3-D with live-action stuff in music videos,” Mao says. “He would purposely do things like use tracking markers as an aesthetic. It’s like, ‘Oh s---, the f---ing editor left the tracking markers in the video.’ It looks f---ing cool.”

(Read more: In short film, Andrew Thomas Huang pays tribute to China’s protector of gay lovers)

Mao’s big break was a short animated sequence for the song “Ps & Qs” by American trap sensation Lil Uzi Vert.

The video racked up 60 million views on YouTube and helped him land other gigs, including at 88rising, where he is now directing videos for its stable of Asian artists.

“It turned all these Asian artists into superstars, and it made people no longer think that the Asian kid’s the nerd.”

James Mao

“88rising changed a whole generation of kids,” Mao says. “It turned all these Asian artists into superstars, and it made people no longer think that the Asian kid’s the nerd or the Asian kids like all those typical stereotypes, the way it's portrayed in American media.”

Within China, he’s hoping to challenge the long-held assumptions of what a commercial music video should look like.

“There’s more of these types of work coming from the U.S. and Europe,” Mao says, referring to his unconventional music videos. “I'm trying to open up a new market for this type of work in China, to sort of curve away from that whole standard commercialized work, to be more open-minded to different aesthetics and more alternative, more edgier aesthetics.”

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Producer: Hanley Chu

Videographers: Hanley Chu and Zhang Kai

Animation: Ray Ngan and Carol Ng

Editors: Caron Che and Hanley Chu

Mastering: Victor Peña