How Zhong.TV and its founder 22K brought Chinese hip-hop to the West

Ep.5/Nov 15, 2019

For years, if people outside of China wanted to see what was hot in Chinese hip-hop, they turned to one channel: Zhong.TV. This is the story of its founder, a wayward Chinese-Canadian kid, introduced Chinese hip-hop to the world—before anyone even knew what Chinese hip-hop was.

Stanley Yang was just 23 when his best friend was killed outside a nightclub in Vancouver, a gunshot wound to the head.

The death hit Yang hard. In 2003, he had just graduated from film school in Vancouver and was living the high life. By day, he worked on the production sets of indie films, and at night, he partied hard. “I was a harsh raver,” he recalls.

Yang was always a rebel. He grew up in a dysfunctional family that constantly fought, and tried to spend as much time as possible away from home, partying and drinking with friends. It was, as he now puts it, “the wrong crowd.”

Stanley Yang, in white, recalls being a “harsh raver” in his 20s.
Stanley Yang, in white, recalls being a “harsh raver” in his 20s. / Photo: Courtesy of Stanley Yang

When several more of his friends survived gunshots following his friend’s death, he started re-evaluating his life.

“I still remember at my friend’s funeral, I was the only one actually crying,” he says. “And that kind of struck a chord with me. After the wake, everybody was like, ‘Oh, what do you guys want to eat?’ Like it was no big deal.”

So Yang, who had lived in Canada since he was 8, decided to leave. In 2005, he sold his car, packed his bags, and moved to Shanghai with no plan, no friends, and no connections. The decision would alter the course of his life forever.


Yang now runs Zhong.TV, a YouTube channel dedicated to promoting Chinese hip-hop artists. With over 200,000 subscribers and 120 million accumulated views, it has a veritable reputation as one of the first platforms to bring Chinese hip-hop to the rest of the world.

Stanley Yang, aka 22K, created Zhong.TV in 2010 to promote Chinese hip-hop.
Stanley Yang, aka 22K, created Zhong.TV in 2010 to promote Chinese hip-hop.

When Yang, who also goes by the stage name 22K, started Zhong.TV in 2010, he had already built up a broad network in China. A chance encounter with the daughter of an art director landed him his first gig, in the art department of Mission: Impossible III.

From there, one opportunity led to another. “I worked on a music video with Andy Lau, and I worked on a TV series,” he says. “I just kind of grinded it out. But film production, it’s a pretty hard life. You’re talking about Chinese film production, too—no union, crazy hours. So after that, I took a year off.”

(Read more: Meet James Mao, the edgy music video director shaking up China’s rap scene)

The break gave him space to figure out what he really wanted to do. He dabbled in freelance graphic design and editing. He also started making music videos for local rappers.

“That was when I decided to do something that was more fulfilling because everything up to that point was more for my career and for money.”

Stanley Yang

“That was when I decided to do something that was more fulfilling because everything up to that point was more for my career and for money,” Yang says. “Hip-hop has always been something that was me. When I was 12, 13, Kris Kross was what got me into it. I was dancing, b-boying, so it just made sense.”

Yang fell into hip-hop and street culture at a young age.
Yang fell into hip-hop and street culture at a young age. / Photo: Courtesy of Stanley Yang

In 2010, no one outside of China could have imagined a burgeoning hip-hop scene there. Most local rappers only promoted their work on Chinese social media, and even today, groups with name recognition in the West such as the Higher Brothers are still considered niche.

But Yang was convinced there was an audience for it and started building Zhong.TV from the ground up.

“Back then, the circle was so small that if you were doing hip-hop, if you were doing something positive in the Chinese hip-hop community, everybody just came together,” he says.

Yang was convinced early on that there was a global audience for Chinese hip-hop.
Yang was convinced early on that there was a global audience for Chinese hip-hop.

He worked with members of Yin Ts’ang, considered the first hip-hop group in China, and C-Block, a rap group from Changsha. He started curating content for artists and publishing them on YouTube. Slowly, Zhong.TV’s reach expanded outside China.

“When nobody even knew about Chinese hip-hop, the best thing you could do was just keep on pumping out content.”

Stanley Yang

“At that time frame, when nobody even knew about Chinese hip-hop, the best thing you could do was just keep on pumping out content,” he says. “Content is key, and content is king. So yeah, no breakthroughs. Just keep on putting out content.”

To this day, Yang still stands by that ethos of grit and patience. In the nine years since he founded Zhong.TV, hip-hop has gone from underground to mainstream in China. Outside the country, international labels such as 88rising are taking Chinese artists under their wing.

(Read more: Jony J, China’s ‘hip-hop poet,’ on socially conscious rap and how J. Cole inspired him)

But Zhong.TV is still going strong. When Yang announced earlier this year that he planned to shut down the channel, believing it had fulfilled its mission of promoting Chinese hip-hop, he received an outpouring of support from fans who urged him to continue.

Because for them, even though Chinese hip-hop is big now, Zhong.TV remains a stalwart in the industry. It was there before everything blew up—and it was all because of one fateful night outside a Vancouver nightclub.

“Looking back, I think everything happens for a reason,” Yang says. “I think now, I have a pretty good understanding of one’s life, like the ups and downs. I just roll with the punches. I don’t really dwell on anything. Everything is just forward.”

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Credit

Producer and Editor: Hanley Chu

Videographers: Frank Pan and Nicholas Ko

Animation: Ray Ngan and Carol Ng

Mastering: Victor Peña