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JChan’s Sinobreaks: the story of a cultural and musical mix between China and the U.S.

Buyiding had a nice chat with JChan, a sino-american music producer now based in California. He told us the fascinating story behind Sinobreaks, an enthralling mix of vintage Chinese tunes and classy beats inspired by his childhood and Chinese identity.

Interview by Mauro Marescialli.

Listen to Sinobreaks here.

JChan (Jerry Chan) was born and raised in Houston, Texas and is currently based in Irvine, California with his wife and two children. After getting his M.A. at the University of Texas at Austin he moved to Beijing, China in 1999 and lived there for the next 17 years.

During his time in Beijing, JChan worked as a writer, editor and executive for several media companies and was one of the founding editors of The Beijinger magazine, a popular city magazine in English, and its website. An avid music fan, he also played in a band and organized live music shows and events before getting into beat-making and music production.

In 2017 JChan released Sinobreaks, a digital album of remixes culled from classic Chinese pop, funk, soundtracks and love ballads by artists hailing from Shanghai, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. Now with three new tracks and an accompanying Youtube video, the project is described by JChan as an “homage to the sounds and songs of my childhood and Chinese heritage.”

We recently caught up with JChan to discuss how his background and musical tastes shaped the album, and what he has in store in the coming months.

What’s your family background and how did you end up living in Beijing?

My parents were both born in Mainland China – my mom’s side is originally from Dongbei (东北, North-eastern part of China) and my dad’s family is originally from Hainan. They both grew up in Taiwan (my mom’s side had some business interests dating back prior to the Second World War, and my grandfather on my dad’s side, was a Lt. General in the Kuomintang) and emigrated to the US in the 1960s. I was born and spent most of my childhood in Houston, Texas, and now reside in Irvine, CA. I went to school in Austin, Boston and Switzerland, and have also lived in Singapore, Dubai and Beijing.

I was in Beijing from 1999 to 2016 ­– so basically, I spent all of my “formative adult years” there. I moved there after finishing graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin, and originally intended to just stay for a year before returning to the US for law school, but I found Beijing so enthralling and dynamic, one year, became two, and then three, and then eventually stretched out to 17.

Can you tell us something about your music background and musical tastes?

I’ve loved music since I was a kid growing up in Houston, Texas. I would listen to all the pop, rock and urban radio stations in my room until late at night, but the real game changer was getting my first cassette Walkman for my 11th birthday.

I went through a few musical phases growing up (classic rock, punk, new wave, goth, industrial etc.). Nowadays, I love listening to an eclectic variety of music ranging from jazz, funk and reggae, to dream pop, psych rock, electronic and soundtracks. I also have a lot of nostalgic fondness for the 80s pop music, but hip hop was the genre that really stuck with me.

There was a radio station in Houston called “Magic 102” that played these incredible hip hop mixes back in the early 80s. This was how I got introduced to Run DMC, LL Cool J, Roxanne Shanté, Eric B. and Rakim, Biz Markie, Big Daddy Kane, KRS-One, Mantronix, Public Enemy and all the other classic artists back in the day. I thought it was amazing how the MCs would rhyme over such complicated beats, basslines, samples and scratches.

Breakdancing was also big at this time. I remember riding my bike with my friends to watch Breakin’ 1 and Breakin’ 2 at the local cinema over those summers. At school and all the cool Black and Latino kids would breakdance on cardboard mats during lunch, recess and after school (waiting for the bus). There were a few Vietnamese kids who could get down too. I was just this nerdy Chinese kid with a bowl cut taking it all in, but I thought it was all so dope (or “lit,” as the kids say nowadays).

Have you ever been in a band?

I played drums and was in a band called “Lunacy Commission” when I was going to school in Austin. We were into Sonic Youth, The Melvins, Butthole Surfers and Steel Pole Bathtub and boy did we suck. I was a terrible drummer and our guitarist could barely play, but we made a lot of noise. Even though we played this loud, abrasive noise rock, my bandmates and I loved hip hop the most.

We had a set of obnoxious club speakers (that I bought from a guy in a van) set up in our living room in the house we rented in Austin’s Hyde Park and we would play blast Wu Tang Clan, A Tribe Called Quest, Redman, Gang Starr and Nas at ear-splitting volumes. Fortunately, we were next to an abandoned property on one side, and our other neighbors were a deaf elderly couple – otherwise we probably would have been evicted.

I was also in a short-lived band in Beijing called the Xiaorong Cocktail, which featured Brain Failure’s Xiao Rong on guitar, Jonathan Leijonhufvud of PK14 on drums, Christiaan Virant of FM3 on keyboards, Dave O’Dell on bass and me on vocals. We were going for a Guitar Wolf/Refused/Stooges garage rock type of sound and played a few shows before we fizzled out. We recorded a couple of songs at this classical recording studio in Beijing’s Xinjiekou. I downed a bottle of erguotou (二锅头, a cheap, cheerful and lethal Beijing spirit), went into the studio and hollered and screamed for a few takes until we settled on one. The engineers had never recorded loud, aggressive rock music before, so they didn’t know what to make of us.

Short-lived but intense: JChan fronting Xiaorong Cocktail, Beijing ca.1998

Listen to Xiaorong Cocktail's 78-over here.

What are some of your other aesthetic influences?

As a producer, I don’t listen to music in the same way anymore. I’m always keyed into whether or not I can sample from a song, so I love listening to older music, especially soundtracks (as I mentioned above). I have a special affinity for Italian film composers and film soundtracks – aside from the late great Morricone, there have been so many greats like Stelvio Cipriani, Bruno Nicolai, Piero Piccioni, Piero Umiliani (to name but a few) whose bodies of work are gold mines for producers like me.

A scene from Dario Argento's 'Deep Red'

I also love the visual aesthetics of Italian films and directors like Argento, Pasolini, and Fellini, as well as other European masters like Herzog and Truffaut. Visually, European films of the 1960s and 70s are always fire – especially the pulp and cult films of that era.

Tell us about your passion for beats and creating remixes and mashups. How did this come about in your life, when did you start and how would you define your style?

I still love hip hop, but now I mainly listen to it for the production. I’m an old head, so my bread and butter are the 90s classics ­– Wu Tang, Nas, Biggie, Big L, Mobb Deep, Kool G Rap, Black Moon, DJ Premier, A Tribe Called Quest etc. I can’t get into the current crop of pop rappers (i.e. Drake, Juice WRLD etc.) and the kind of production that goes with it.

But there are still artists and producers putting out stuff nowadays that I think are quite good. On the MC side I like Freddie Gibbs, Roc Marciano, Tha God Fahim, Mach Hommy and the Griselda crew (Westside Gunn, Conway the Machine, Benny the Butcher).

For production, I really dig Alchemist (who has done production work for basically every rapper worth their salt in the game) and Cooking Soul (who has fantastic Youtube Vlogs and tutorials that are great for aspiring beatmakers).

Listen to this Freddie Gibbs ftg. Scarface remix by JChan here.

And of course, you gotta love Madlib, J-Dilla (R.I.P.), Pete Rock, RZA, MF Doom, Havoc, Buckwild, Showbiz and all the other Jedi Master Producers who are still making bangers to this day. I’ve always been most attracted to the rhythmic aspects of music (which is why I gravitated towards drums) and started making beats on my laptop around the time Xiaorong Cocktail was winding down.

The Man, the Mask, the Maschine

What kind of setup you have for producing and mixing?

At first, I was just playing around with an old program called Acid and the original Fruity Loops, but I started getting more into beat-making after I got married and was at home more with my family. By then, I had long given up any live music aspirations, so being a “bedroom beat producer” thing was the perfect creative outlet for me.

At the time, I was messing around with loops and samples on the iPad (primarily with iMaschine and an app called Reactable) and making remixes with acapellas, until I made the leap and bought a Maschine Studio, which is still my go-to equipment today.

What was the main inspiration behind Sinobreaks?

I’m pretty sentimental, so Sinobreaks was mainly inspired by my childhood and Chinese identity. The cover is a photo of my parents (taken when they were young and hip) and I put together the accompanying video as a “visual collage” to go with the music.

Much of the footage is taken from classic Chinese films like “Springtime in a Small Town” (小城之春 ), and “The Goddess” (神女), starring the impeccable Ruan Lingyu (阮玲玉). There are also clips from a 1970s Hong Kong action film called “Rumble in Hong Kong,” 1960s diva Ge Lan (a.k.a. Grace Chang 葛蘭) and an homage to Chinese-Jamaican reggae producers like Clive Chin and Leslie Kong (set to a remix of Stephen Cheng’s rocksteady rendition of “Always Together’).

Tell us more about the tracks you remixed on Sinobreaks.

The beats in the mix were culled from Youtube and a couple of old records that belonged to my late parents. Here is the tracklist:

1. Unknown Artist – “Come On” 来吧 All I know about this little intro ditty is that it’s a group from Taiwan, presumably from the 1960s.

2. Stephen Cheng – “Always Together” (JChan Remix) The backstory of this one-off Chinese-Jamaican fusion track recorded in 1967 in Jamaica by Chinese opera singer Stephen Cheng is fascinating. As Hua Hsu describes it in The New Yorker: “Most Jamaican rocksteady singers of the time mimicked the cadences of American soul. Cheng sings in a bold, over-the-top style reminiscent of Chinese opera. The words he sings are in Mandarin: the lyrics for “Always Together” were adapted from “Girl from Ali Shan,” a folk song that originated in Taiwan, thousands of miles from Jamaica. “Always Together” was obscure even upon its release; eventually, it became a cherished novelty among hard-core Jamaican-music fans.”

3. “Don’t You Want Me?” 你到底要我吗? The spoken word intro of this 1960s garage ballad by Huang Qingyuan and the Stylers always takes me back to the Sunday afternoons we’d spend watching cheesy Hong Kong love-story flicks at the Chinese cinema in the Diho Shopping Center in Houston. I just flipped the intro organ loop and part of the breathless spoken part.

4. Qin Huai 秦淮 – “White Clouds 白云” (JChan Remix)

I found this little gem on one of my parent’s old record and flipped this remix from the title track of Singaporean Chinese singer Qin Huai’s 1966 debut. It’s got a nice little Latin Mambo vibe.

5. Li Xianglan 李香兰 – “Sour Plum Wine 梅花” (JChan Remix) According to Youtube user zzenzero: One of the classic songs sung by the extraordinary Li Xianglan, with lyrics by Li Junqing, and music by Leung Yue. It comes from the Shaw Brothers' Hong Kong thriller "Lady of Mystery" 神秘美人 released on 12/22/1957 and directed by Mitsuo Wakasugi. It tells of the virtues of the humble Plum Blossom whose courage and resolve against all the elements gives hope to people who have also braved their way through Winter, and now look forward to the coming Spring.”

I sampled some dialogue from the classic film “Springtime in a Small Town” for added dramatic effect.

Part of JChan's Chinese vintage record collection

6. Lena Lim 林竹君 – “Flesh and Flame” 恋之火 (JChan Remix) My favorite track in the mix, I sampled this beat from Singaporean singer Lena Lim’s “Fire of Love” (戀之火), a track she recorded in 1968 after performing it as the winning entry in a televised contest.

7. Unknown Artist – “Rumble in Hong Kong” (JChan Remix)

Another mystery artist. This song was lifted from an old cassette of Taiwanese funk pop of unknown origin that belonged to my dad. I love the 1970s Magnum Force Gully vibe.

8. Francis Yip – “Red Faced, But Smiling Inside” 臉兒紅心兒笑 (JChan Remix)

Previously sampled by French producer Onra on his Chinoiseries (pt 1) album, this track by Hong Kong singer Francis Yip (叶丽仪) goes hard from the get-go with its moody, dark bassline punctuated by the distinct percussive tones of a Chinese hand gong (luó 锣). My version focuses on the darker, moodier aspects of this track.

9. Francis Yip – “Green is the Mountain” 阿里山的姑娘 (JChan Remix) A pretty straightforward beat flip, Hip Hop fans will know Francis Yip’s funky rendition of the famous Taiwan folk-song from the RZA’s soundtrack to “The Man With the Iron Fists”.

10. Pan Xiuqiong 潘秀琼 – “The Moon Represents My Heart” 月亮代表我的心 (JChan Remix)

My dad loved KTV, so the final track (a remix of Pan Xiuqiong’s cover of Deng Lijun’s “The Moon Represents” 月亮代表我的心) reminds me of the laserdiscs he used to sing along with at home. I used footage of Deng Lijun (a.k.a. Teresa Teng) for this part to pay her tribute to her influence and legacy on Chinese pop culture.

Are you planning to do a Sinobreaks #2?

I will definitely revisit this theme at some point – especially as more and more classic Chinese pop songs are getting posted online. In the meantime, I’ve got a folder of samples from the soundtrack to “The Monkey King Conquers the Demon” (金猴降妖), Te Wei’s 1985 animated classic that I’m going to flip into an EP, and I recently put out a mix of Japanese Citypop remixes – I want to keep on this Asian theme and work with music from other Asian regions and countries as well.

What do you miss the most about Beijing?

Of course, I miss the usual things – friends and food etc. – but I also miss the feeling that anything is possible if you live in Beijing. I also know that my own version of Beijing I left behind no longer exists and I’m happy to have moved on, nevertheless I’m very thankful that I had the chance to experience it for such a big part of my life. |


Listen to a whole lotta of JChan's remixes on:

SoundCloud | Bandcamp | Mixcloud | YouTube | Spotify |

All pics courtesy of Jerry Chan.

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