TAIPEI, TAIWAN - You have to make Yao Chung-jen pose before his face cops the menacing scowl expected of rappers. In normal conversation he bounces between happy casual and sober rational. Yao’s stage name is MC Hot Dog. He’s Taiwanese and raps about everyday concerns in his hometown Taipei.
He's among his hometown's few superstar rappers. He had sold more than 300,000 CDs as of 2018 and his YouTube videos handily grab 2 million to 20 million apiece.
Among his 200 songs written since he took a shine to rap while in high school, a 2019 song called “Giwawa! Hater” (where Giwawa means “chihuaua”) plays to children frustrated by “senseless” acts such as being denied toys at a shopping mall, Yao said in an interview Tuesday. Song lyrics express “hate” for mom, dad and the world. The video fetched 2.1 million YouTube views in nine months.
The rough edges of living in a big city feature in most of his music, often motivated by his own experiences, criticisms, reflections or stories he hears, the 42-year-old rap composer and singer said.
“I think my music’s biggest unique point or its biggest difference from other people is that I sing about life, and I mean normal life, not a fantasy life, so I think the reason my music can always be something people like is they can understand it,” he said.
MC Hot Dog started recording himself on a crude machine while attending a Catholic university in suburban Taipei. He’s been at it since 2001 and has seven albums of his own plus a part in three others.
For youth, “whether they’re from the East or the West, they like direct language in lyrics, something they can understand,” said Yang Lian-fu, a Taiwanese publisher of local history books. “They like music that’s fast or that’s a bit more direct.”
Yao’s rhythms and beats reflect a Western rap influence, typical of rappers in Taiwan who got into the groove relatively late. But unlike a lot of mainstream rap in the United States, MC Hot Dog’s lyrics omit language that’s self-aggrandizing, racially charged or offensive to women.
Among his earlier hits, a tune called “I Love Taimei” turned a shadowy word into a hip one, Yao said. The term “Taimei,” though literally translated as “Taiwanese sister,” used to mean a slutty betel nut seller, he said, but the 2006 song gave it a new glow.
“When that song came out it totally overturned that impression and flipped over the old definition of that word,” he said. “In the end, women were starting to think ‘I’m a Taiwanese sister.’”
MC Hot Dog said he wrote the song simply because he likes Taiwanese women.
Cause for anger?
MC Hot Dog hardly mad dogs a visitor to his colorful office full of posters, boxes and suitcases on the 18th floor of a Taipei office tower. He considers questions quietly for two seconds before answering and never goes on for too long on any single point. He’s open to learning from criticism that he gets online, too.
But the rapper calls himself a victim. The outbreak of COVID-19 this year forced the cancellation of shows in Taiwan, China, Europe and the United States. He had held out for two months on his U.S. tour but cancelled it on three days’ notice because the respiratory disease had “suddenly exploded” there on its way to becoming the world’s most severe.
“I’m actually a very serious victim of this,” he said. “The losses are quite severe, but I’m OK with that because this is a worldwide problem and we’re all victims. This thing will eventually get better.”
Pretenses aside, MC Hot Dog doesn't chafe under fire from older Taiwanese who don’t like lyrics about hating mom and dad. His tunes thrive on “contrast” and “black humor," he said.
“DJs will say when these songs are on the radio ‘a lot of older people are calling into the station opposed to your song,’” Yao said. “But I don’t really care.”
Rap is always strengthening its reach among Taiwanese youth anyway, said George Hou, a mass communications instructor at I-Shou University in Taiwan. There are even rapper contests, he said. Rap helps people make sense out of things that are otherwise hard to explain, he said.
“When it binds together life and the things that Taiwanese people care about, it’s a good medium and a good weapon,” Hou said.