High Peaks Pure Earth has translated an interview with Tibetan rapper Uncle Buddhist that was originally published on December 19, 2018 on the popular TibetSheep WeChat Channel.
Uncle Buddhist, from Golog, Amdo, is a prominent person in contemporary Tibetan music and we previously translated his songs Do Whatever You Want and Tsampa. He also collaborated with ANU and other Tibetan rappers on the song 1376.
Last year, Uncle Buddhist (real name Lhundrub Gyatso) changed his artists’ name to SCARK!D. His 2018 album “City Tibetan” is available on Bandcamp: https://scarkid.bandcamp.com/releases
“City Tibetan is Hip-Hop and Also an Attitude”
An Interview with Tibetan Rapper Uncle Buddhist
In April 2018, I randomly came across a Tibetan rap song on YouTube called “Do Whatever You Want” by Uncle Buddhist. I opened and listened to it; and I could not stop. I had to listen to it over and over again. I really liked the voice of this artist. Then I went to look for some of his other music to see if it was as special and if the lyrics were as energetic. I found out that this rapper was already quite famous in Tibet, especially in Amdo. I found some of his parts on the first track of “1376 ROT.Cypher.”
In the summer of 2018, Uncle Buddhist went on his “A City Tibetan Moves Through the Grasslands Tour.” He didn’t pass through my hometown, so me and two good friends drove a few hundred kilometres to one of his concerts. His show and presence on stage was outstanding, full of energy.
We all thought that we could not stop there; I felt that good music should be known by more people. So I specially interviewed Uncle Buddhist here to let more people know about his music. So let me also take this opportunity to thank him for making time and speak to me.
Lhundrub Gyatso UNCLE BUDDHIST
Q: Hello, Uncle Buddhist. Could you briefly introduce yourself?
A: I was born on the grasslands, but then, because of my father’s work, I moved to the city (Xining). From then on, I was exposed to Chinese language medium education; I went to a Chinese language medium school.
I didn’t have many opportunities to learn about my own nationality. Later, at university, I came into contact with music. I liked hip-hop because I had previously done some street-dancing. But I never thought that one day, I would actually be able to make this music myself. I actually studied music at university and this where I slowly began to come into contact with hip-hop. A good friend had a band called 0971. It was because of them that I started my career as a rapper.
Q: Ok, so may I ask: when did you come into contact with rap for the very first time? Why did you choose to rap as opposed to, for instance, play rock or folk rock?
A: I was exposed to rap in middle school, but, as I said, I never thought that I would do it myself. I liked street-dance; so when I started studying at the polytechnic, I was really into rock music. It was also the environment; rock music was really becoming big in China. I even had my own rock band with a couple of classmates.
Later I went to Beijing to study at the Contemporary Music Academy; that is where I slowly learnt about other things. I had one classmate who is now also one of my producers, his name is Helian Changhong. He always wanted to form a hip-hop group; he wanted to do Qinghai rap.
At university, there was a period when I was really depressed. So I started to write some songs myself. I was studying European and American pop music, so I was singing some of those English pop songs. My first song was a remix; I showed it to Helian Changhong and he said “oh, not bad! Should we produce some rap together?”
“Of course!” I said.
I also really wanted to do this and so I started to rap with them. The first time, I felt that I was not quite there yet that I wasn’t good enough yet. But we ended up rapping together. But I still like rock and folk rock (laughs).
Q: Which musicians influenced your music?
A: Very generally speaking, it would have to be Michael Jackson. I recently went back to many of his albums. I think it is because of his spirit.
In terms of rap, it would evidently be Tupac, but also J.Z, Kanye West, Wiz Khalifa, Lil Wayne etc.
It is probably also because when I started making music, they were really the most famous ones; I at least learnt by listening to their music. I tried to understand how they were doing things. That’s more or less how it was.
Q: The title of your album, “City Tibetan”, is quite fascinating; could you explain how this title came about? What do you want to convey with it?
A: I came up with this name during the production process. Initially, I did not have any clear idea about a name.
Hip-hop is always based on reality, so I was thinking about how I had grown up from a young age. I am a boy who grew up in a city, I am a city-boy, so why not call it City Tibetan?
According to some experts, this title (གྲོང་ཁྱེར་བོད་པ) may be grammatically wrong. But I don’t care; I actually think that nowadays, you have to have some innovation (laughs).
What this name conveys is really quite straightforward; this society keeps developing and progressing and our lives get better and better. But we lose many ethnic traditions. I believe that many of my fellow city Tibetans will sympathise with this.
I tell them that the things we have lost, we have to find again by means of the tools that we are good at. That is the best scenario. Some things would maybe be very hard, but I managed to learn Tibetan especially for this album.
And then some people perhaps misunderstood, saying that the idea of a city Tibetan suggests being advantaged in terms of general living conditions etc. etc. I don’t care if people think that.
If you want to criticise me, do it. But wait until you have heard my music until you criticise the title. What I want to convey is some positive energy.
Q: I really like your song “Do Whatever You Want”. What kind of emotions of yours is it trying to convey?
A: When I started writing this song, around two years ago, I was listening to a lot of Korean songs. “Show me the money” was really popular. I saw many Koreans producing these things and I liked them. So I studied and borrowed some of their ideas. For the beat I even integrated the Tibetan dranyen instrument.
Our producer, the one I just mentioned, Helian Changhong, was the first one to use modern 808 drums and add traditional dranyen sounds. I think that was a great breakthrough within Tibetan music. Not many people managed to combine these elements so well; they come from different time periods after all.
In terms of the lyrics, it is really about how one should do whatever one wants; one should try everything to realise one’s dreams as long as one can.
I want some young people to understand that whatever adverse circumstances you find yourself in, you have to keep going and produce some results.
Q: Can I ask which one of your many pieces of music would be your personal favourite?
A: Actually, I like them all (laughs). But there is of course also one that I like the most. My favourite should be “City Tibetan;” probably because I feel that it really portrays my innermost feelings, it conveys all the things that I think about.
I portray the things that I have gone through by making fun of myself, and in this way, it can be a warning for today’s young people. It is about what I experienced growing up, I wrote down my very own thoughts and that is what I wanted to convey.
Q: In the process of producing all these songs and MVs (music videos), is there anything that happened that you will never forget?
A: For this record, I invested my own energy and money. I have to rely on myself for everything, of course with the great help of a few friends; their contribution has been absolutely essential in the making of this album.
And then, to make a good MV, you really have to spend money. My resources are limited. But I believe that I managed to make the best out of it. I have a good friend whose name is Geru Sangye, he acted as the director for most of my MVs.
He has a lot of good ideas and they correspond with mine. So I basically leave all things related to producing MVs to him. For one video, we usually spend about three to five days; there is a lot of concrete work that goes into this; we have to visit all the places that we want to shoot at in advance so as to know what the environment looks like.
Usually, we have a time set to go and shoot. But sometimes things don’t work out, because the weather isn’t good. To give you one example, for the video of “World Peace,” we wanted to go to the “Alien Ruins” in Delingha, Tsonup Autonomous Prefecture. Under normal circumstances, one sunny day would have been enough in the Gobi Desert, but it was raining non-stop.
We waited there for two days. In vain. It was still raining. We couldn’t wait any longer, but had to shoot. When it finally stopped, it was still cloudy. But we just decided to shoot anyway.
When we got back and looked at the footage, it turned out to be quite good. Much better than expected. That was really an unforgettable event.
Other than that, when I was shooting the MV for “City Tibetan”, I asked some famous Chinese directors; I asked Long Zening who has directed MVs for some very famous rappers, like GAI, TT, VAVA, Higher Brothers, Ty and so on.
I thought, no matter how much it would cost me, I had to have him. I thought they he could really shoot what I had in mind. So I asked his team to come over. It was all new for them, they had never shot anything like this (Tibetan rap), but they liked it, they found it interesting.
They were like “Wow! I never thought that you have this kind of stuff out here.” “This is one of the best projects I have done over the past few years.” I was really moved. And we have been good friends since.
Q: “Tsampa” has been reposted by many Asian Hip-Hop channels on YouTube and I saw a foreign netizen’s comment: “I like how they got some of the hip-hop culture mixed with their native home culture.” How do you look at this? How do you understand and practice the localisation of hip-hop culture?
A: Actually, this was also really unexpected for me. When I was recording the song, I didn’t think that much. I never thought there would be many who would watch this, I didn’t have a platform.
Actually, this song does not include too many electronic elements, this song is really hand-made, recorded using real instruments. And in the MV, we didn’t include that many modern things. For the MV we waited especially for the tsampa festival. We waited for a long time. It only takes place once a year; it’s an atmosphere of a carnival; everyone is having fun. You cannot control anything, so the MV is full of shortcomings. But I got the effect that I wanted; a feeling that outsiders have when they come to this festival.
My flow is still following traditional rap, but in terms of arrangements, I integrate a lot of traditional ethnic elements. Plus, the praise for tsampa in the lyrics at the beginning of the song; you don’t often see this in Tibetan music, it was something new and innovative, I guess.
I don’t think hip-hop is all that different from local culture. This is because hip-hop is about real life. And so is our local culture, it says something about our actual lives. So I think our local culture is very hip-hop and what we do is also very hip-hop.
Q: Over the past few years, Tibetan music isn’t the same as it used to be; there has been even a breakthrough in terms of audiences. Many people from other ethnicities also listen to songs that are purely in Tibetan. Like your song “Tsampa” or ANU’s “Fly”. What do you think about this development?
A: Well, I think music is not divided by national borders, it is not divided by languages. Many people advised me to rap in Chinese because otherwise no one would understand what I am rapping. But I said, well, most people also don’t fully understand English. But they like the sound. So I always say to these people that language is not important as long as it sounds good.
Nowadays a lot of music breaks through linguistic boundaries. Many people create something new through imitation. Even when they don’t understand a word, they use homophones or even Chinese characters. There are many like that.
I guess my song “Tsampa” still hasn’t achieved that. It hasn’t been circulating that much, but people can see that we continue to transmit much traditional culture. ANU’s “Fly” was really a breakthrough for all traditional music. We are good friends, so when first heard the song I knew it would be huge.
Q: What are your views on the current situation of rap in the Tibetan areas?
A: I feel that more and more young people are starting to play this kind of music; there are a lot in the Tibetan areas. Tibetans are very open to new music and styles. I really think that this is a great thing.
For example, Dawa 9Teen will be an extraordinarily great rapper; these are people that I believe in as a new generation of rappers. As long as they stick to it, there will be some result. They all have good stuff. And as I said the day before yesterday in that documentary called “Speak Out”. I was simply the first one to do it, but I also don’t know to what level I can take it.
Q: Over the next few years, what are your plans as a rapper?
A: Over the next years, I want to make some even better pieces of music. I already have one album; but I want to get better. I might experiment with different styles, but I haven’t decided yet. We definitely have many plans. No matter whether in music or life, we want to get to the next level.
In any case, we will try our best, that is always the right way.