met some dancers
who talked with great reverence about a man named Stanly. They made him sound like a legendary figure; the "godfather" of Chinese hip-hop, some called him.
"You don't go to Shanghai without seeing Stanly," said Pracat, a breakdancer in Xianjiang. "It's like a pilgrimage. Anyone in China who's serious about hip-hop knows about him. He's the original b-boy." Someone else described him as a very large, dreadlocked, middle-aged dude with serious moves who really liked his weed.
But not just some weird pothead. Pete Rock, the legendary producer (and a godfather figure himself when it comes to East coast hip-hop) had made a pilgrimage to see Stanly.
Who the hell was this guy?
Let's back up for a moment: Chinese hip-hop? As it turns out, the world's most populous country has quite a vibrant scene. Rap songs are performed in dialects ranging from Mandarin to Cantonese to Sichuanese, and there's even an annual hip-hop awards show in Shenzhen.
I wasn't able to meet Stanly, but after returning to the U.S. finally tracked down his whereabouts - he teaches
at a dance studio he founded in the Fucheng District of Shanghai, called Dragon Dance Studio.
I sent them an email, and after a few exchanges - as well as some translating help from his English-speaking assistant, Kaori - his story came into focus.
Indeed, the man is a Chinese hip-hop pioneer, among the first to spread the music to a nation of 1.35 billion people. His full handle is Stanly Wong, and he took his name from a popular Taiwanese singer named Stanley, but dropped the 'e.'
In 1988 Stanly - then only 9 - got his first rap cassette, MC Hammer's Let's Get It Started
. It was the only commercial hip-hop release approved by the government's censorship board, says Kaori. In any case, it was unlike anything Stanly had ever heard before. He became obsessed.
"I think I listened to it about 10 times in a row," he says over email, as translated by his wife, who also works as his assistant.
He asked his older sister, based in Chicago, to bring more of this music home for him when she returned. She did, and also brought the iconic 1984 hip-hop dance film, Breakin'
. Turns out hip-hop had an entire culture associated with it, one which resonated with Stanly's surroundings.
"My family was poor and lived in Shanghai's ghetto," he says. "I wasn't always a good kid. I got into fights almost every day and ran away from home. I made my parents cry. Hip-hop gave me a choice: I was either going to end up a gangster or a dancer. I chose dancer."
But it wasn't as easy as he makes it sound.
Not long ago, I found myself in Western China, and