Andrew Ryce profiles the Chinese techno producer making waves around the world.
WeTransfer supports Breaking Through. Tzusing says, "Here's one track from my debut LP on L.I.E.S., a remix for Osheyack on Shanghai-based label Svbkvlt, a compilation track for Cititrax and a new one from my forthcoming EP on Bedouin Records."
"You liked my set? Actually?" Tzusing stared at me in disbelief while we had lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles. A few days earlier, he headlined a raucous party called Private Selection in Downtown LA. He played rap, trap and pop alongside his usual hard-edged, broken techno tracks, a decision that pleased some people and annoyed some others. It was a curveball for an event series associated with straightforward techno. I'd count it among the most memorable DJ sets I've seen all year.
Tzusing's shock when he hears that a techno fan wholeheartedly enjoyed one of his sets is telling. Splitting his time between China and Taiwan, he occupies a unique position in the scene, drawing connections between what might seem like disparate communities and sounds. His style might rankle some techno purists, but then again, his records find a loving audience nonetheless. He attributes his musical outlook to his immersion in the open-minded Shanghai club scene, far from the influence of techno capitals like Berlin or London.
"Chinese kids really shaped the way I DJ," he told me. "The music is all new to them. You have to keep them interested, and the timespan is short. There's no slow build-up. That style is just what I'm used to. I'm kind of ADD. And as much as you might want to be like, 'Oh, I'm a DJ and this is my aesthetic,' I still care about the dance floor. You need to interact with the crowd, or else you're a dick."
Tzusing has been playing out for 15 years, but only recently began receiving recognition, thanks to a stream of releases on L.I.E.S., Public Possession and Born Free. Before it closed last year, he was a resident at Shelter, Shanghai's best-known nightclub and a hub for touring house and techno acts. He was part of a scene that brought dance music culture to one of the world's most vibrant, bustling cities, a scene that initially catered to expats but has begun to attract locals as well. To support his music career he runs a bicycle parts company, splitting his time between Shanghai and Taipei, though he's also increasingly busy touring around Asia and North America. He brings Asian instrumentation and arrangements into a form that can otherwise seem entirely Western, but he does it naturally, making it feel less like a gimmick and more an extension of his personality.
Tzusing has always been something of an outsider and a rebel. He was born in Malaysia, spent his early years in Singapore, and then moved to Taiwan, until he was kicked out of high school for destroying a classmate's guitar. "I still stand by that act," he said. "My mom was supportive."
He then went to Shanghai with his father, but kept behaving badly, and was eventually offloaded to his deeply religious uncle in San Diego. It was a mixed blessing. For a teenager, San Diego was a sleepy town, but once he finished high school he moved to Chicago and got his first real taste of DJing.
Around 2002, Tzusing played Thursday nights at smartbar. He opened for DJs like Titonton Duvanté and absorbed sets from Theo Parrish, Traxx and JTC (who's now his favourite artist) before deciding that he wanted to pursue music full time, which didn't exactly please his parents.
"I got a call from my dad, and he was like, 'What the fuck are you doing in the United States, fuckin' around? You gotta be a good Chinese kid,'" he told me. "So I went back to Shanghai and started a bike parts business."
He settled in an industrial zone about an hour from Shanghai, which he described as "incredibly lonely." Tzusing put his music to one side, and quickly found success with his bicycle business. But as age 30 bore down on him, Tzusing decided he needed to do something for himself, and moved back to Shanghai proper. ("It was one of those YOLO things," he said.) He got his break at Shelter when he was booked to play the owner's night, Subculture. The party was centred on hip-hop and broken beat, so he decided to play a set of all Immortal Technique and Dead Prez, the kind of political rap he prefers. It bombed, and the floor cleared. But the club's owner loved it. "He was like, 'Fuck these guys, you're awesome,'" Tzusing said. "And then I got a residency. Because I cleared the floor."
Tzusing started booking shows at Shelter, which led to another pivotal moment in his music career. He had tried to book Doug Lee—better known as An-I—and although another promoter had scooped him up, the two had dinner in Shanghai, and Lee expressed an interest in Tzusing's music.
"I had a track on a compilation called Dark Acid on Clandestine, so I brought Lee a copy," Tzusing said. "When he went back to Berlin he asked for more. Next thing you know he's like, 'I just sent them to Ron.' I was just like, 'You know Ron Morelli?!'"
Morelli signed Tzusing for a trilogy of EPs called A Name Out Of Place, which came out between 2014 and 2016. That first EP stood out on the New York label because of its relatively high production values and the obvious debt it owed to EBM and industrial music. From the beginning, Tzusing's music was marked by tuned percussion and heavy basslines. He had a knack for the repetitive sample manipulation that defined so much early industrial music, and he gradually started to include Asian instrumentation, giving his music a texture that felt unique.
The styles emerging on those three EPs surfaced fully on Tzusing's debut album, 東方不敗 ("Dongfang Bubai"). The record is named after a character from the wuxia novel The Smiling, Proud Wanderer, who castrates himself in order to learn a type of martial arts. Several films have been made from the novel, many of which portray Dongfang Bubai as overtly feminine or a trans woman. It's made the character an enduring figure in contemporary Chinese pop culture, one who has many different meanings and interpretations.
"Ever since I was a kid, Dongfang Bubai really stood out to me," Tzusing said. "He seemed super badass. It's related to why I like bikes—if you have some dude in a Porsche, but you're rolling up on your bike at a stoplight in a congested city, you're zipping through traffic while other people are stuck in their super nice cars."
That idea feels central to 東方不敗, which comes at techno from an outside angle. The drums trade techno's typical thump for something more dynamic and agile, especially on the Nine Inch Nails-esque opening track. The dexterous drumming of "Esther" makes industrial techno feel lithe, while "Post-Soviet Models" feels like a stuttering military march.
Full of Eastern string instruments, samples and arrangements, the album also represented a turn towards Tzusing's Chinese roots, a move he still isn't totally comfortable with. He raps in a Chinese dialect on "King Of Hosts," though he wouldn't explain to me what he was saying.
"If I'm using this reference that is Chinese, it's OK because I'm Chinese. But I feel like I'm culturally appropriating my own culture, because I don't know it that well," he said. "It's my background, but I'm getting it from this corny Hong Kong movie. I didn't grow up there, and I didn't grow up listening to traditional Chinese music. I'm just interested in it now.
"I also used Middle Eastern instruments, but no one will call me out on it," he added. "I love Disco Halal, Acid Arab, all that stuff. A huge chunk of my last EP on L.I.E.S. is actually made from Indonesian music. But then I'm also interested in Taoist ceremonial music. That's a big influence. It's a kind of chanting, where you let a spirit take over your body—the chanting gets you to that point."
Tzusing is wary of leaning on his Asian identity. But his sound palette and influences, both cultural and musical, are a huge part of his music's appeal. The string instruments on 東方不敗 set it apart from so much other techno. Where the genre usually deals in broad, steely sounds, Tzusing's music flexes gracefully. "I really like my album, and the cover, but there's a huge part of me that's scared that everyone is using identity so much that..." he trailed off and paused. "I didn't think about this until it came out, that I might be perceived as doing the same thing."
"But then, the Westerners," he said with a smile, "are now looking to Asian stuff. They want that ching-chong shit."
Over time, Tzusing has seen more and more Asian involvement in what is often viewed as an overwhelmingly white cultural phenomenon. It's a development that comes, at least in part, from the prominent presence of someone like himself, a position that might encourage more people who look like him or come from similar backgrounds to participate in techno and other dance music scenes around the world.
"I get a lot of Facebook likes from Asia and Europe now," he said. "I never thought that Asians would be into techno. In Chicago it was like me and one other Asian dude. Asian-American culture: everyone's such a good kid. But this time last year I played San Francisco and it was a guy named Aaron Jen who booked me. I was like, 'Whoa, an Asian guy!' And there were a lot of Asian people at the gig there. It was shocking, and it was really nice."
It was at this point in our rambling two-hour lunch that Tzusing, who'd been a little aloof, broke out into a wide smile. By making music and touring, he's empowering diversity in techno and introducing new audiences to it. He's doing it all on his own terms, with a style developed at home in Asia. It once made him feel out of place. Now it's what makes him in demand around the world.