Sounding Board

88Rising Is Reshaping Popular Culture In Its Image

Earlier this month, the seven-member K-pop boy band BTS had the #1 album in the US with their compilation record Love Yourself: 結 ‘Answer,’. Simultaneously, Crazy Rich Asians, the Jon Chu-helmed romantic comedy featuring an all-Asian cast, was the highest grossing film in the country for the third week in a row. That means, at one time, the most popular media Americans were both watching and listening to were depictions of decidedly non-white experiences.

Consider that in this same moment, the novel by Kevin Kwan on which Crazy Rich Asians was adapted became the best-selling book in the country, with the Korean-American author Jenny Han’s To All The Boys I’ve Ever Loved sitting below at #3. The latter title had just been released as a Netflix film a few weeks before, and swiftly dominated the conversation online across both emphatic raves of its casually radical charm and title-twisting memes ad nauseam. The same day as the film’s premiere also saw half-Japanese singer-songwriter Mitski Miyawaki’s Be The Cowboy declare itself upon impact as the year’s best rock album. Altogether, the ubiquity of these projects define a distinct moment of representation from artists of East Asian descent, one where their output is taken holistically rather than pulled apart solely by its author’s demographic makeup.

This new order of unqualified respect for the creative work of traditionally unseen minority voices falls in line with the vision Sean Miyashiro laid out for himself back when he was building his empire from the top level of a parking garage near his girlfriend’s medical college. In 2015, when his multimedia/management enterprise was still billed as CXSHXNLY, Miyashiro had set out from a career with VICE (he helped launch their electronic music channel Thump) to pursue a movement to put on Asian Americans in popular culture. Miyashiro’s business plan was ingeniously simple. As he explained his math to Forbes: “There’s four billion Asian people. There’s two billion millennials between 16-34. They’ve been waiting for a media brand that speaks to their taste, but also celebrates and communicates that to people outside of Asia…We want to not just cover culture, but we want to create it. We want to create big moments.”

Circulating beneath Miyashiro’s larger idealism was a baseline desire to simply prove to a skeptical populace that Asian people could rap, a goal broadly achieved in one fell swoop when the debut single by a previously unknown rapper calling himself Rich Chigga became a smash sensation in early 2016. Situating a baby-faced Indonesian boy alongside some of rap’s most notorious tropes — from gunslinging posturing to the pink polo — the video went viral on arrival, as much for the song’s inherent hypnotism as for the unspoken impression that it all had to be some kind of bit. Viewers read the presentation as the same trick George Watsky pulled in 2011: a stack of genuinely impressive bars that shocks because of the atypical demeanor of the vocalist behind the words. Watsky was a geeky-looking white boy who rapped fast while petting a cat. Brian Imanuel was an Asian kid with a dextrous baritone adorned in a fanny pack. The jokes weren’t in the lyrics but in the fact they were rapping at all.

But like Watsky, Imanuel kept going. First he released a string of increasingly legitimate singles with 88Rising that proved his nimble, rubbery flow wasn’t simply an anomaly, but a singular asset. Then he scrubbed his originally problematic moniker, discontinued his use of the n-word, and crystalized his accumulated social capital into an impressive debut album as Rich Brian. Released earlier this year, Amen was a genuine force in hip-hop, one with beats that hit like crushed ice, a narrative built on an organic groundswell, and a feature from Offset, taking it onto charts across the globe, including the US top 20.

Imanuel reached the escape velocity for minority artistry — launching him from a reputation as a novelty to a vital force competing for the same stream-space as “traditionally mainstream” rappers. You could cite what he’s opening up for an entire class of aspiring artists of color who want to enter the game as equivalent to the moment Das Racist’s subversive combination-fast-food-chain-fame-turned-proper-mixtape-force legitimized rapping as a viable outlet for South Asian brown kids.

What’s most astonishing about Imanuel’s breakthrough is that he’s part of an entire cast of peers accruing the same clout for their respective nationalities. While Imanuel was one of Miyashiro’s earliest signings, 88Rising are now a seven-member ensemble of contemporary Asian artists making their way into Western spaces that were, until recently, devoid of their image. Their roll call includes Keith Ape, a Korean rapper with a greasy growl who bit OG Maco’s instantly immortal “U Guessed It” for his breakthrough “IT G MA” — which Miyashiro helped catch an audience in the US by coordinating a remix featuring A$AP Ferg, Waka Flocka Flame, Father, and Dumbfoundead. The brooding crawl of the song got Keith Ape a Complex premiere, and its subsequent popularity helped secure the newly minted 88Rising its first round of venture capital funding. (The business now houses some near 50 employees across three offices in New York, Los Angeles, and Shanghai.)

“IT G MA” was Miyashiro’s first “big moment,” catalyzing a cross-cultural pollination between the explosive internet rap taking place in both the West and East. During 88Rising’s early days, this was Miyashiro’s predominant strategy: garnering co-signs from relevant cultural symbols to establish the legitimacy of artists who might otherwise be treated at first glance as inherently niche. After “IT G MA,” Miyashiro knew that to push “Dat $tick” out of gimmick territory, he’d have to contradict an audience’s racially-affixed literacy. That’s how the also viral “Rappers React to Rich Chigga” video came about, where hip-hop artists with their authenticity not under question like Ghostface Killah, GoldLink, and Cam’ron all offer their surprise, then enthusiastic praise of “Dat $tick.” Tory Lanez lauded, “He’s killing like 70% of Americans,” before Ghostface goes on to offer himself for a remix that would come out seven months later.

“IT G MA” and “Dat $tick” set the stage for the rest of 88Rising to exist unbound by the paradoxical dichotomy that’s burdened the few previously eminent Asian American hip-hop figures like MC Jin and Dumbfoundead. Miyashiro, who grew up in the Silicon Valley spending his days “hanging out with friends whom he describes as ‘wannabe’ Asian gangsters, looking tough in the parking lots of bubble-tea cafés,” is well-versed in the code-switching-as-cultural-cosplay narrative that defines the development of most second-generation children of immigrants: wanting to fit into what’s happening in culture when what’s happening seems to have nothing to do with you. 88Rising’s earliest strategies were an expression of their survivalist instincts, needing to place of-the-moment collaborators, from Charli XCX to XXXTentacion, into their vicinity to claim second-hand credibility.

Where it could initially be read that these artists were staking their careers on proximity to prominence rather than establishing their own orbits, the relationships they formed evolved to be symbiotic. The group is bringing Asian artists to America, but also American artists out to Asia. 88Rising’s affiliates aren’t simply imports, but a bridge between halves of the world that rarely follow the same threads simultaneously. They are linking scenes split by hemispheres in ways that bring up all parties involved, with these connections based in organic mutual interest and shared instincts rather than simply market strategy, as opposed to the way promotions like Snoop Dogg being green-screened into a Bollywood film tie-in played in the past.

Travis Scott, a big fan of the massively popular Chinese celebrity personality Kris Wu, jumped on the actor’s debut hip-hop single last year. 21 Savage, perhaps the least down with Rich Brian in that initial reaction video, showed up on a song with the rapper the next year gloating of their camaraderie. On the label’s first compilation album Head In The Clouds, a seasonal-ready collection of bops released this summer, the roster’s mainstays trade mic time with real-time trendsetters like 03 Greedo, Blocboy JB, and Playboi Carti, and it’s impossible to discern who is leveraging status from whom in each exchange. Beyond reciprocal admiration, there’s a clear business angle, one it’s practically insulting that no one tapped before now. Everyone wants to be seen as cool in China, which plays host to a massive consumer base interested in foreign commodities. Miyashiro provides the access, doing so in the service of normalizing culture across continents.

Rather than assimilate to an existing framework, 88Rising have instead pushed out the definitional edges of hip-hop to include their likeness. That likeness extends from a family that includes the Chengdu rap quartet Higher Brothers, Indonesian YouTube-cover-star-turned-shimmering-songwriter NIKI, the Japanese soft-tempo sad-boy Joji, the Chinese trap-popper Lexie Liu, and August 08, an R&B singer and the troupe’s first non-Asian act. The collective are part of a present wave of boundary-breaking in hip-hop, with a flood of new voices crashing in from subsets of the population previously implicitly — and sometimes explicitly — unwelcome. This includes the swaggering desi duo Swet Shop Boys, brash mothers like BbyMutha and Rico Nasty, and queer loudmouths á la Young M.A. and the members of Brockhampton rocking bolder machismo than their exhaustingly straight peers.

Like the rest of those marginalized identities, Asian Americans have specific nuances in their struggle to be seen. To subvert the usual typecasting of young black men, Brockhampton want to be considered a boy band, whereas the international members of 88Rising are looking to break into the Western eye as anything but a boy band. Up until now, it’s been almost impossible to gain traction as a mainstream figure in music coming from Asia unless you could sing, dance, and package yourself as ostensibly K-Pop. And there were nine of you. 88Rising are being received in the US not by presenting themselves as these laminated, consumer-tested personalities, but rather as ordinary people who look just like you, cutting their teeth through the same process in raising themselves up.

And as much as they’re shifting the face of American rap music and the perception of Asian faces in America, they’re also deeply rooted in their global hometowns. Half of the group’s audience still comes from East Asia; where personalities like Vince Staples do Sprite commercials in the States, Higher Brothers’ MaSiWei’s face has become nationally adjacent with the soda all over Chinese TV. In his ad spot, MaSiWei turns out against his family’s expectations of him and wins them over anyway; it’s a subtly important message as their government continues to target and censor rap lyrics and thus to a larger extent the culture itself. In both the United States and abroad, 88Rising are affirming their role in regions typically resistant to their inclusion.

That inclusion in hip-hop has led to important questions about the extent to which participants removed from the genre’s lived-in origins can embody its legacies. Even as films like Crazy Rich Asians shatter long-fixed ceilings for stories representative of non-white communities, the lifting of black culture to boost their own media has complicated what should be celebrated virtues. There have been similar snags to 88Rising’s own momentum, but as with Rich Brian’s previously appropriative shtick and moniker, those mistakes have been owned up to in real time as everyone figures out how to be respectful while sharing a room once inconceivable they might occupy at all.

That’s the next frontier for representation: to make space for everyone against hegemonic cultural norms without taking from those who’ve managed their own footholds. And alongside their early transgressions, 88Rising has pulled off a previously unaccomplished feat. They are broadcasting native Asian culture for the rest of the world, doing so without selling themselves as anything other than themselves. This Saturday, the company is hosting their inaugural Head In The Clouds festival in LA Historic State Park, featuring a bill composed predominantly of the label’s in-house artists, all of which precedes a full North American tour launching next Friday. It’s a confirmation of how Miyashiro’s efforts now exist as part of a continuum that resulted in last month’s notable inflection point: the moment that Asian culture in America finally felt appreciated as simply culture.