China’s current crop of DIY cassette labels is extremely small and very new. The flow of dakou (打口)—discarded Western tapes sold in the grey market created after China’s 1978 economic opening—raised an early generation of rock bands and noise artists on unevenly imported and heavily damaged cassettes. But by the time these musicians began to release their own music, CD was the dominant format. Urban music scenes throughout the country, with special concentrations in Beijing and Shanghai, have developed significantly over the intervening years. The swarm of small cassette labels launched in China over the last five or six years—some of which you’ll see in the list below—is partly inspired by nostalgic throwback and part of a resurgence in the global tape trade as well as an index of the cross-pollination of ideas allowed by the internet. Ironically, that same exchange creates new offline markets for the international flux of music on tape.
Rose Mansion Analog
One important forerunner to the current tape scene is the label Rose Mansion Analog, which released its first batch in June 2010. Rose Mansion was a loose collective of bands from Beijing and Hong Kong, including Soviet Pop, Hot & Cold, Offset: Spectacles and Yang Fan. Rose Mansion was influential to a number of tape labels that came after it, including Zoomin’ Night, the weekly performance series where the RMA crew initially gathered.
Zoomin’ Night was a weekly experimental music showcase held at D-22, a venue open in Beijing’s university district from 2006-2012, and then at XP, D-22’s successor. With the July 2015 closing of XP, Zoomin’ Night curator Zhu Wenbo ceased his weekly gathering and scaled back to occasional public performances. He now uses the platform to release cassettes of free improv meetings between various artists within the network his event series has created.
Shanghai-based producer Laura Ingalls launched the cassette and digital label Huashan Records with an album produced by an anonymous handful of Shanghai producers (Huashan Unit) and a string of releases by Ingalls’ black-metal drone side project Nahash. He followed those up with tapes by artists who played his now-defunct monthly night at the legendary underground club The Shelter, including Shanghai harsh noise band Torturing Nurse and Berlin-based Chinese transplant and techno dominatrix Pan Daijing. Huashan’s catalog reveals an interesting cross section of artists and sounds, with underground maneuvers dancing between beat and noise in different corners of the country.
China’s most avant and internationally conversant electronic music label is arguably SVBKVLT, which was founded by Shelter club manager Gareth Williams. It started with an early run of beat tapes and cassettes from Laura Ingalls, Manila’s Red-I and Caliph8, and Faded Ghost. In the last year, SVBKVLT has moved on to more esoteric media: their excellent 2015 compilation Downpour came along with a limited-edition umbrella, and their latest, Swimful’s PM 2.5, comes as a face mask to combat megacity pollution.
Groove Bunny is a multi-format label run by Endy Chen from Jinhua, a city of about 5 million that Chen describes as “small.” Jinhua is known throughout China for its famous dry-cured ham and immense manufacturing capability, but to trade in music, Endy mostly works through the internet and within the more established music micro-economy in nearby Shanghai. Groove Bunny focuses squarely on hip-hop and digs up some of the country’s most erratic beatmakers. The Grindstuff tape, for instance, features Guangzhou’s Petechen and Shanghai-based producer Damacha going back and forth on a beat collage sampled almost entirely from Chinese popular music of the 1960s-‘80s.
87FEI87 was founded by two American producers based in Beijing, Fløøød and Verktyget, and showcases their love of the mostly Scandinavian skweee genre. They’ve released a number of tapes and CDs, including three compilations that index some truly underground bedroom productions from around China. Most of their tapes were given away with door cover for blowout release events held at Dada, the epicenter of Beijing’s alternative electronic music scene. Live skweee sets at Dada from some of the artists who 87FEI87 brought to China in 2013 and 2014 (e.g. Mesak, Claws Costeau, Randy Barracuda) were regular highlights for the city’s underground dance music scene and subtly influenced its future development.
Nasty Wizard Recordings has been China’s most prolific tape label over the last two years; it has released 17 titles to date. It’s a predominately artist-run label started by a handful of English and American expats with so many projects and side projects that they needed their own label to keep up with themselves and to share the work of artists they’d met on tour throughout Asia. Nasty Wizard has also lent cassette production services to some great artists on the roster of New Delhi label REProduce, including Jamblu, Lifafa, and Toymob.
Muted Portraits is a spoken word, tape-only label run by New York-based artist Gao Jiafeng. In his own words: “Every Muted Portraits album contains a series of tracks where each track consists of words spoken off-the-cuff in response to a given piece of music. Our editors visit multiple anonymous commentators from various backgrounds, presenting each with an audio recording whose author remains in secret.” So far, Muted Portraits has released tapes for Mai Mai, Li Zenghui and Shih-Yang Lee, all of whom are veterans of China’s nascent free improvisation scene.
WV Sorcerer Productions, run by Nanjing-born and Paris-based artist ruo tan, has quite a heavy mission statement. “We deliver the deep touch of nature and humanity, inevitable urban decay and circulation of cosmos,” he wrote on Facebook. Much of the catalog consists of Ruotan’s solo projects (若潭 ruo tan and Concrete Flesh), which move between noise, drone, black metal, folk and ambient soundscapes. The recording above comes from a concert given at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris by some all-stars of the Beijing free improv/noise scene: Li Jianhong, Wei Wei (aka Vavabond), Wang Ziheng and Li Qing of Soviet Pop.
Life Is Absurd
Life Is Absurd is the newest label on this list, as it was launched by Junky of notorious Shanghai harsh noise outfit Torturing Nurse in late 2015. Torturing Nurse is probably the Chinese artist with the most cassette titles to its name; its discography currently stands at at 202 releases, many of which are tapes put out by DIY noise operations around the world. Junky hand-makes each batch of tapes at whim. One side always features Torturing Nurse while the flip-side belongs to anyone he likes and wants to share a tape with.
Like Fuzz Tape, a short-lived, cassette-only label run by Changchun-based noiser Mei Zhiyong, Life Is Absurd exists within the culture of obsessive, fundamentally DIY harsh noise/power electronics artists and collectors. None of its output so far is available for online streaming, so the track above is from a tape put out by cult noise blog Deaf Sparrow. Life Is Absurd is a manual, offline operation, which you can, ironically, only keep track of by following its Facebook page. Absurd, indeed.
Josh Feola has written about underground music in China for The Wire, Tiny Mix Tapes and LEAP. He’s been active as a writer, musician, and curator in Beijing since 2010 via his platform pangbianr. Contact him here.
Published February 08, 2016.