“I’m really inspired by authenticity. In my lyrics, I just try to tell the truth rather than writing something that isn’t real.” - Haysen Cheng
The music game in Hong Kong keeps going from strength to strength. Whether you’re into indie bands like Thud and My Little Airport or fresh R&B stylings from the likes of Wesley Jamison, you’re bound to find some local talent that hits in just the right way. And if you’re a hip hop fan, then you’re probably already familiar with Haysen Cheng, the Hong Kong rapper with the iconic voice and the lyrics to boot.
Meet Haysen Cheng
For many young musicians, the early years are filled dreaming of becoming superstars. This was kind of true for Haysen Cheng, but not in the way you’d think.
Cheng grew up in Hong Kong and was surrounded by music, playing the cello in his school orchestra and also singing in choirs. “From when I was 5-10, I didn’t even know that hip hop music existed. I just thought that classical music was the only genre of music there was. All I had in my head was Mozart, Bach, Brahm’s, and Canto Pop,” explains Cheng.
Aged 10, he moved with his family to Shanghai where life became all about studying and playing basketball. “When I moved to Shanghai, the school was more international and I was hanging with kids from all over, so I discovered rap. And I loved the lyrics and the ways they told a story. The first album I ever purchased was a Rick Ross album called God Forgives, I Don’t. I still listen to that album once a day because the story-telling is just legendary.”
Falling for hip hop
When he started listening to Lil Wayne he was always analysing the lyrics. As a child, Cheng was always taken by poetry and knew it was one of his gifts. Then, he began realising that hip hop and rap was like adult poetry.
“Drake changed the way my brain was wired completely. Lil Wayne and Rick Ross, I couldn’t really relate to their image, but Drake… He was raised by a single mother and the stuff he went through was what I was going through, like really realistic financial stuff. He had to take care of his mother, he dropped out of high school, he didn’t go to college. I really, really related to that stuff.”
The family had some financial problems, and at age 16, he wasn’t able to continue at his school. “At the last minute, my basketball coach in Shanghai, who is actually Spanish, got me an offer to go and train in Gran Canaria. The whole goal of the place is to play College basketball in the US,” he explains.
“My routine there was pretty brutal. We woke up at 5am every morning and went to practice until 7am, then we’d go to school and I had no time to do my homework.”
Cheng says that his experience in Spain changed his life, the largest being developing his love for hip hop music and realising that he had a gift for rapping.
“Those 2-3 years really shaped who I am now. I was training with people from Senegal, Mali, the Netherlands, Canada, and Spain. A lot of things that seemed really far-fetched for me, like training with ex-NBA coaches, became reality. I learned the reality that race doesn’t matter at all. It’s all about your skills and what you’re bringing to the table.”
Back to Hong Kong
At age 18, he had seven scholarship offers to go to the US, but Cheng didn’t take any of them. Instead, he chose to return to Hong Kong and work with his mother to support the family business. A self-professed hustler, he was pulling long hours in the business and teaching English on the side to make ends meet.
When Asian rappers like Higher Brothers started coming out, he knew that he wanted to make rapping a career, so when he wasn’t working, he was writing songs (we’re talking like 60 songs). Months went by where he wasn’t able to actually produce his music, but when he’d saved enough cash he started recording some of them and the result was his mixtape Durags and Chopsticks which garnered lots of success both locally and internationally.
Fast-forward a few years, and Cheng now works on his music full time. He’s worked on projects with artists like Dough Boy, Derek Chan, and just dropped 7 Minutes Tops with Hong Kong producer East City.
“There’s this sound I always envisioned Hong Kong having. Just a very gritty, hard sound that I always thought about, and East City is the first person I’ve found who really gets it.”
Cheng believes that his background in classical music and understanding of musicality is what sets him apart in the world of hip hop. “I don’t just want to copy the sound of American rappers. I want to cultivate a very authentic Hong Kong sound.”
What are the long term plans?
Unsurprisingly, Cheng has big plans for himself and his music, and we’re all hoping to see him on the stage at Clockenflap this year (fingers crossed it returns!)
“Personally, I want to take my music to mainland China, and Shanghai, which is where my grandfather is from. But it’s very hard to wait my turn sometimes. I know I’m going to get there. I used to daydream about this stuff, and now I have talked all of this into existence. I’m itching to get things done.”
Follow Haysen Cheng on Instagram