HIP-HOP artist Tha Gift of Richmondbroke musical ground by being the firstAmerican hip-hop artist to perform in China.
HIP-HOP artist Tha Gift of Richmond broke musical ground by being the first American hip-hop artist to perform in China. (D. ROSS CAMERON - STAFF)
CHINESE YOUTH are hungry for American culture and the Beijing government is willing to pay for it. But sending American culture to China costs big bucks, and deals have to be built on carefully forged relationships.

That's what a group of Sacramento investors and mortgage brokers learned when they sent China's first American hip-hop artist, a Richmond native, to the Southern Chinese city of Guangzhou in November.

When Tha Gift (real name Antonio Ramos-Gooden) appeared there at the International Music and Audio Show, he was swarmed with cameras, reporters and autograph seekers. It was a great coup considering that China's powerful Ministry of Culture had denied entry to famed hip-hop artist Jay-Z a few weeks before, citing the vulgarity of his lyrics.

"They have a couple of local stars in China, but they want hip-hop to come from America," said the 19-year old artist of the label SNF Entertainment, which is supported by Ian Dixon

MUSICIBusiness 2and Suneet Singal. Dixon and Singal are founders of Sacramento commercial mortgage group CMXL and ABW International (www.abwholding.com), a holding company for entertainment and hospitality investments.

When they discovered that China was practically an open frontier for them, Dixon, Singal, investor John Tran and others agreed to pay a quarter million dollars to provincial authorities to market their artist's appearances there. Their agreement was structured as a 35-65 split of revenues in favor of the American investors.

ABW had earlier in the year ponied up $400,000 to prepare Tha Gift — not to be confused with Christian rapper Tha Gift (Alexander James Harris) of Miami — with a production facility and label (SNF Entertainment) and create his first CD, Dixon said. A MySpace page, http://www.myspace.com/snfent, contains music and video clips from Tha Gift, as well as more information about SNF.

Artwork promotes his actto a Chinese audience.
Artwork promotes his act to a Chinese audience. (illustration courtesy of THA GIFT)

"We want to do a lot of business with China, where most of the economic activity is these days, but there's not much for us to export to China," Tran said. "A lot of China's youth are into American culture and that's what we can export — culture.

"There's a lot of demand for hip-hop in Japan, Korea, China and Vietnam," he added, alluding to possible future ventures.

Dixon's and Singal's entry into China was engineered by David Zhang, their president of international relations, formerly a Bay Area restaurateur with influential connections in the Chinese mainland.

Zhang was acquainted with the vice president of the Guangzhou branch of China National Publications Import and Export Group. The group, under the Ministry of Culture, is responsible for the import of foreign literature and entertainment media. Zhang pitched the idea of sending ABW's homegrown hip-hop artist to China. The Chinese official was willing to chance it, despite China's previous experience with Jay-Z.

"That was the pivotal relationship that got us together with the Ministry of Culture," Dixon said.

Dixon and ABW had agreed to put up 75 percent of the marketing campaign to fund marketing initiatives for three months, but the American investors did not get the entire amount transferred until late December. Instead, they initially sent only $70,000 to China, of which $20,000 underwrote the production of Tha Gift's CD, which they plan to produce in China. The next $50,000 was to pay for press conferences, interviews and publicity setups.

Zhang translated Tha Gift's lyrics, which were then vetted by the Ministry of Culture, an important step.

Much of the Richmond native's content revolves around romance and expressing manhood, such as his pieces "Start Again" and "IM Focused." Relax" praises single moms.

Dixon said the hip-hop artist's debut in China was phenomenal. Tha Gift said he received "instant superstar status" and was thronged by press and fans at the trade show. He was also feted by Southern China's largest daily, the Guangzhou Daily.

Hip-hop "is in almost every country now," Dixon said. "Not just singing but the way you dress and hold yourself. These Chinese people were so used to love ballads that their even catching the beat was remarkable. Tha Gift sang a cappella a couple of times and they went crazy."

However, the funding delay also delayed ABW's plans to export hip-hop to China. Although their Chinese counterparts originally predicted Dixon and his co-investors could expect 100,000 orders for CDs by now, there have been no CD orders to date. Plans for a January trip to Beijing, Shanghai and Macau with additional artists have been put on hold.

Zhang, who deals with the mainland authorities, said he's trying to keep the Chinese side happy despite the bumps. Still, he does not doubt the project will move forward, the CD orders will come through and the next appearances will materialize.

"I've been to China three times now and I think our prospects there are fantastic," he said.

ABW plans for Tha Gift to return to China with artists such as Cyn (Jason McCormick), also of Richmond, and with a band called The Hitmen.

Contact Francine Brevetti at fbrevetti@angnewspapers.com or (510) 208-6416.