For North Americans who don't own a Haier Black Pearl cellphone, the name can seem subversive enough to make one wonder who exactly is asleep at the switch in the People’s Republic of China. How in the hell can a country that famously has a less-than-zero tolerance on the issue of drugs continue to turn an oblivious eye to a rap unit that dubs itself the Higher Brothers?
That’s right, the Higher Brothers, a name presumably more in keeping with being high as a fucking kite than having a higher IQ than the next university applicant.
In North America, you can call yourself the Higher Brothers when you’re from Compton, Atlanta, or Vansterdam—places where it’s open season at the buffet on any drug you can name, including bath salts, N-bombs, and grey death.
It would seem like a less than wise name choice when you’re from a country where drug dealers are not only routinely sentenced to death, but also paraded out for extra humiliation at public sentencing rallies, where the audiences often include busloads of schoolchildren.
Because some things get lost in translation, the reality is that the Higher Brothers—Masiwei, KnowKnow, Psy.P, and Melo—didn't mean to choose the most cleverly subversive name in modern Chinese music.
In North American, the Higher Brothers sounds like the name Willie Nelson, Snoop Dogg, and the ghost of Bob Marley would choose for their supergroup. In reality, the band's name was inspired by the Chinese consumer-electronics company called the Haier Group Corporation.
You know, the company that, in addition to dehumdifiers, fridges, and air conditioners, brought the world the Black Pearl, a device so small it's been described as a "a lipstick-case sized luxury phone". In some ways, the story of the HIgher Brothers starts here, with DZ featuring Masiwei and Psy. P before they were famous. Bonus points awarded if you can identify every appliance namechecked.
However people choose to read their name, massive respect to the Higher Brothers for being amazing despite coming from a country where everything is hyper-regulated up the ying-yang, including pop music.
How regulated? Let’s start with the foreigners. Katy Perry has been blacklisted ever since waving a Taiwanese flag on-stage in Taipei back in 2015, joining a truly headscratching, try-and-connect-the-dots list that includes Björk, Oasis, Bob Dylan, and Maroon 5.
Sometimes music fans get an explanation from Chinese officials like this one for Miley Cyrus, who in 2009 stupidly thought it was a good idea to post a photo of herself pulling her eyes back into a slant: “Miss Cyrus has made it clear she is no friend of China or anyone of East Asian descent. We have no interest in further polluting our children’s minds with her American ignorance.”
Jay-Z, meanwhile, had the welcome mat pulled away for having too many “profane” lyrics, the government deciding to “protect the city’s hip-hop fans from nasty lyrics about pimps, guns and drugs”.
Which brings us back to the Higher Brothers and their rise not just in China, but also in North America.
Their success at home is easily understood. For those who’ve never been there, Asia’s most populated country is a fascinating mishmash of old and new. A shiny high-tech subway system runs underneath hutongs that date back centuries to the Yuan dynasty. Dusty street vendors sell deep-fried duck heads out front of gleaming Louis Vuitton outlets. Everyone between the ages of seven and 97 has a cellphone, but—with the exception of the truly VPN–savvy—is unable to access the things we take for granted in the West: YouTube, Instagram, and Spotify.
What stands out, though, is that someone has created a pipeline for getting hip-hop to the under-30 masses. You don’t hit a shoe store, T-shirt shop, or durian cheesecake stall (yes, it’s a truly delicious thing) without hearing Kendrick Lamar, Tyler the Creator, or Childish Gambino.
Hip-hop has truly gone global, and Higher Brothers are proof. More importantly, instead of delivering a watered-down knockoff of the real thing, the group has taken a decidedly North American genre and warped it into something fiercely original—in a place where being an original outside the mainstream isn’t always rewarded.
Early Higher Brothers tracks like “Black Cab” eventually made their way to YouTube, where they led to comments like: “Ay props for reppin your style but if you want to grow your base to the US & Euro market gotta learn that ENGLISH”; “that moment when the cab driver starts rapping”; “I see them on campus and think they are nerds”; and “wtf is this shit.”
The answer to that last question is something that we haven’t heard before on these shores, which gives us one thing in common with hip-hop fans in China. In a Billboard interview earlier this year, Masiwei recalled getting some degree of flack at home, noting the main criticism from some language purists was that the group didn’t sound Chinese.
For those who don't have a masters degress in every langauge spoken on the planet, the group's MC pronounce and bend words to rhyme in their Sichuanese dialect, which is different from the more common Mandarin dialect. Pronunciation and intonation in Chinese language is important, so by distorting the words they were bucking tradition and doing something that more traditional people at home had a hard time understanding. Kind of like the way half of America has no clue what mumble-rappers Trippie Redd, Lil Yachty, Lil Uzi Vert, and Young Thug are on about half the time.
The Higher Brothers’ rule-breaking Asian spin on trap made instant fans out of western rap heavy hitters like ScHoolboy Q, Ski Mask the Slump God, Denzel Curry, and Guapdad4000—all of whom appear on the group’s swaggering new album, Five Stars. That title is partially a nod to China’s national flag—which speaks volumes about the affection the members of the group have for their homeland.
Mostly, the record acts—in the tradition of all hip-hop classics—as a window into a culture we normally don’t get the opportunity to see.
Tellingly, though, one of the tracks on that album is “Open It Up”, where over a classic West Coast bass groove the Higher Brothers roll out lines that translate to “Come home with me, or the hotel, or in the car/Don’t blame me for thinking too dirty/Fucked up the plan, don’t worry I got plan B.”
It’s the kind of song that smells like Snoop Dogg–approved sticky-icky-icky, complete with no seeds and no stems. It’s a good thing for the Higher Brothers nobody in China, apart from the kids in the clubs, shoe stores, T-shirt stores, and durian cheesecake stands, is paying attention.
Higher Brothers play a sold-out Commodore on Saturday (May 25) and an all-ages show at Venue on Sunday (May 26).