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Originally published Saturday, June 14, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Beijing hip-hop trio hopes Olympics will help pick up the beat

No matter how far you go, Beijing welcomes you back/ One plus one plus one is three/ In Three, In Three, In Three/ Bringing the true Beijing...

Special to The Seattle Times

No matter how far you go,

Beijing welcomes you back/

One plus one plus one is three/

In Three, In Three, In Three/

Bringing the true Beijing style/

Watching the old heads

play Chinese chess/

Keep on speak-singing

the true Beijing way/

Enough of these brothers

with phony spirits/

Stick to speak-singing

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the true Beijing way/

In Three is dropping a beat

So begins "Beijing Welcomes You Back," as rapped by the soulful Chinese act In Three (Yin San'er). Chen Haoren, Meng Goudong and Jia Wei want the world to remember their city and the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Blast In Three and you'll hear Olympic China — east and west, old and new. "Maybe a year from now you'll cry when our song comes on," said Chen, 25, who has lived all his life in Beijing.

The fast-approaching Olympics have inspired all sorts of Beijingers: athletes, scientists, salesmen, dissidents. Even rappers such as In Three are counting on the Games and the millions of visitors drawn to Beijing to boost China's nascent hip-hop scene.

Sugary pop ballads dominate Chinese music. Teenagers worship superstars from Hong Kong and Taiwan.

For now, the city's hip-hoppers converge on hole-in-the-wall record shops. And local record labels rarely sign raw hip-hop acts such as In Three.

"In China, hip-hop is relatively unknown," said Dr. Jin Yuanpu, who heads the Humanistic Olympic Studies Center at People's University. "But if hip-hop catches [on] anywhere, it'll catch [on] in Beijing. Beijingers love to talk."

According to Angela Steele, a rap researcher, Beijing spawned China's first hip-hop artists between 2000 and 2004 — rappers such as Yin Tsang and turntablists such as DJ Wordy.

Rather than imitate American hip-hop, In Three has developed a sound based on traditional Beijing shuochang ("speak singing" or rapping).

Mule drivers invented shuochang centuries ago. Comedians and salespeople perform the art today.

"We lead different lives than rappers in the United States," said Meng, 26. "We brag less. We're from a socialist society. We're less competitive."

Added Chen: "We rap about our environment, about Chinese development. We try to make meaningful music. Beijing's hip-hop scene is trash — too many pretenders.

"When I see Chinese kids wearing hip-hop clothing — kids who are empty inside — I feel uncomfortable."

Longtime friends

Chen, who speaks in a slack-jawed Beijing drawl, has dreaded hair and pierced ears. Meng sports a fitted baseball cap, Jia stylish T-shirts.

Posters of Tupac and Bob Marley hang inside the trio's smoky, two-story apartment, one light-rail stop from outer Beijing.

Chen and Meng have known each other for years. "For a while we listened to hip-hop, danced and drank in the same circles," said Meng, 21.

African friends, from Nigeria and Burundi, turned Chen on to hip-hop. He promoted for local nightclubs. That led to freestyle rhyming alongside Meng.

The pair approached Jia in 2007, at a nightclub in northwest Beijing. "We heard him flow, and he was ... wow," Meng said.

Chen, who plays a mean clarinet, studied music theory at China's Central Conservatory.

"At first we weren't sure about our son and hip-hop," Chen's father said. "We were hoping he'd stick to clarinet.

"We encouraged him to go one route, and he went another. But we didn't stand in his way. We wanted him to be happy."

Chen calls his father an "ex-bad boy." Chen Shu was 12 when China's leaders launched the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). A music lover like his son, Chen Shu listened to Beethoven and Tchaikovsky behind closed doors. "Western music wasn't allowed," Chen Shu said. "It was a dangerous time.

"When my classmates went out to drill with the Red Guards, I stayed at home and studied music."

Thousands of fans bounced to In Three's MIDI Music Festival set last year. Beijing authorities have postponed MIDI 2008, citing security concerns ahead of the Olympics.

One might expect In Three to oppose the Games, as an American hip-hop group might. On "Beijing Welcomes You Back," however, Chen, Meng and Jia wax patriotic.

From track & field to swimming/

From the Bird's Nest

(National Stadium)

to the Watercube

(National Aquatics Center)/

China's people are realizing

an Olympic Dream/

Participating determinedly,

achieving victory/

Winning glory for our

socialist country/

Our national flag rises above Tian'anmen with the sun

The song fits China's manicured Olympic image — grand and upbeat. In Three are proud of their city.

Then again, Chen, Meng and Jia speak frankly about the Games. "There's so much hype," Jia said. "If you yell Olympics, the guy next to you will pull off his headphones."

Children of the early 1980s, Chen, Meng and Jia remember a different Beijing — grayer and quieter. The city and China opened in 1978, under Mao Zedong's successor Deng Xiaoping.

"Hosting an Olympics is like opening your window," Jia said. "You get a nice breeze coming in. And when the wind picks up, you're covered in dust.

"Some older homes have been knocked down. Some people have been asked to move. So the Games ... there's good and bad."

Beijing's Olympics could lend In Three — and Beijing rap music — global exposure. But they aren't getting their hopes too high.

"Don't count on it," Chen said, smiling. "For us, the Games are niubi — of great consequence. But streets will be blocked, nightclubs shut down.

"There won't be hip-hop in the opening ceremonies."

Daniel Beekman, a Whitman College graduate and Fulbright Research Grantee in China, writes Blogging Beijing for Seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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