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America Isn’t Ready for Asian Rappers. They’re Taking Over Anyway

88rising has pushed Joji, Rich Brian and other Asian hip-hop artists to the top of U.S. music charts, and it’s just getting started

Asian rap collective 88rising has quickly become one of the most popular, and groundbreaking, crews in music.

88rising

Nobody in the crowd at 88rising’s early October show in New York City, an unapologetic riot on the brand-new open-air rooftop at Pier 17, is confused about where they are and what they’re doing there — except the security staff, who wander around most of the night in abject confusion. A few of them watch the whole concert from the edges, looking lost; one, when I ask for directions to the elevator, asks me in return to fill him in about what’s going on.

The audience suffers no such bewilderment. When a bedazzled rap quartet of Asian boys pops onstage and launches unannounced into a bilingual litany (“Hello,” they shout in unison midway through the set, “we are the Higher Brothers, and we ARE FROM CHINA”), the entire waterfront seems to reverberate with thousands of iPhone flashes and bright sneakers stomping. By the time the show turns over half a dozen other artists, accompanied by unsubtle visuals like shimmering Chinese characters and massive gold dragons, the crowd’s roar is veering toward the danger end of the decibel scale. It’s all in celebration of the tour and the obvious talent of record label-cum-marketing company 88rising’s acts. But it’s also a kind of feverish, unified recognition of the moment — its unlikeliness, its import — and just how far it could knock popular music in America off its axis.

In February, Indonesian rapper and 88rising act Rich Brian became the first Asian to top the iTunes hip-hop chart with his debut album Amen. Japanese YouTube-star-turned-elegiac-pop-singer Joji, another 88 act, saw his album Ballads 1 debut at a similarly unprecedented Number One on Billboard‘s R&B/hip-hop chart this month. Last week, the company dropped a capsule with fashion giant GUESS and on Tuesday, it announced a music festival in Asia in 2019. There is the recognizable air of something vibrating with potential, about to explode. “I think we’ve just scratched the surface,” Sean Miyashiro, 88rising’s founder, tells Rolling Stone. “We didn’t know we were going to get this big. We had no idea.”

Everything about 88rising (stylized “88⬆”) is cool in the way Asians have rarely been allowed to be cool in American culture, save for small blips — Mean Girls‘ offhand mention of a “cool Asians table” in Lindsay Lohan’s high school cafeteria may be the most mainstream example of such an allowance — so it’s hard to fault Pier 17’s security guards, or anyone, for being a little bit dazed. In 2015, when the California-raised Japanese-Korean Miyashiro left his job running an electronic music channel at Vice to start a media enterprise that he pitched to investors as “Vice for Asian culture,” his goal was to tease out the cool in Asian culture and amplify it, on a global scale, to its highest possible volume. Rap was gaining steam in China; kids like Rich Brian (fka Rich Chigga) were popping off with rough, catchy cuts on YouTube; American fans of K-Pop and J-Pop were curious about what lay outside those clean-cut genres. It was time for all of that to come together and bloom into something bigger. Miyashiro began signing artists including Brian, Joji (then George Miller) and Korean rapper Keith Ape, as well as collaborating with others like Chinese television star Kris Wu. But he also convinced them to pair on tracks with Travis Scott, 21 Savage, A$AP Ferg — hoping that would give them traction well outside of Asia.

In Chinese, the number 88 means double fortune or double luck. So it’s fitting that Miyashiro set up his Asian media company right before Asian culture at large came into an unexpected global spotlight. In the last year, just as 88rising was gearing up to expand, Korean boy band BTS shot up the U.S. charts and sold out the 40,000-capacity Citi Field in New York in minutes, John Chu’s all-Asian romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians became the highest-grossing rom-com in nine years, and Netflix’s well-received To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before steered the Internet into conversation about the lack of Asian-American families on screen. Asian-American musicians like Mitski and Japanese Breakfast have also been rapidly catching on with U.S. fans, contributing to a single booming effect for the culture. (A New Yorker profile in March observed that Miyashiro seems to be imbued with uncanny predictive sense.)

Inside 88’s office in Manhattan — small and understated save for a sign at the entrance with the two numbers curling in neon, housing a few dozen employees — Miyashiro, leaning back into a couch and drumming his fingers idly against the laptop perched on his legs, says some of the attention around his hybrid label-marketing-management enterprise has come quite easily. “Death Row, G.O.O.D. Music, other rap collectives, they’re all dope. But the huge differentiation for us is: Dude, we’re fucking obviously Asian,” he says.

“The huge differentiation for us is: Dude, we’re fucking obviously Asian” – 88Rising founder Sean Miyashiro

On July 20th, 88’s core group of in-house artists banded together to release Head In the Clouds, an ebullient 17-track compilation debut with appearances from other acts like Playboi Carti and BlocBoy JB. A festival in Los Angeles celebrating the album, cobbled together in only a few months, followed. Then came the month-long 88 Degrees and Rising tour, the group’s first North American circuit, wrapping around from East to West Coast in October. Then the GUESS capsule, comprising 14 tie-dyed pieces riffing off of Head In the Clouds. One thing 88rising understands best is the furious pace at which things must move in the Internet-driven music-streaming era for artists to capitalize on any momentum.

Miyashiro’s straightforward business strategy of giving American industries an avenue into profitable Asian markets, while at the same time offering Asian artists a route into the U.S.’s usually solipsistic music scene, has paid off in the number of fervid 88rising fans alone — online, at shows or writing to him personally to ask if they can leave their jobs and take one with him — and it has also caught the interest of major industry players like Spotify, where employees wear 88rising merchandise and rave about its artists. When Joji’s album came out, Spotify put up a banner on its platform to promote it the same way it did for Drake’s Scorpion. “People would cut their finger off for that,” Miyashiro notes. Recently, the company inked a deal with 12 Tone, Doug Morris’s high-profile new record label, that will let the company operate independently while getting an influx of resources.

Miyashiro’s strategy for himself, as a fledgling major player in the music industry, is also simple, if dual. “You have to be personable. I’m just a nice-ass dude,” he says, laughing. But later he sits a bit more upright and says, belying his usual laid-back affect, “I think I’m going to be the biggest Asian music executive in history, straight up. It’s hella cocky to say, but I’ve done what no Asian person in music has done, and in a totally different way. It’s hard to do this right.” After Crazy Rich Asians came out, many of its stars spoke about feeling pressured to be tokens or leaders for Asian culture; Miyashiro says he’s felt a similar responsibility, as the company has grown, though 88’s missive will always simply be to make “wild-ass shit” different from anything else.

“We’re not trying to change stereotypes,” he says. “But now we have to be more cognizant. We’re now in a position of representing somebody and something, and we have an opportunity to improve how close the world is. Now we can really elevate it, be this shining beacon of light for what a company can do, what a collective of people can do. That’s what really excites us. But it’s also like — hey, we really gotta deliver now.”

The in-house artists of 88rising released their first ensemble album, ‘Head In the Clouds,’ in 2018. (Julian Berman)

Record labels are no longer the locked-in gatekeepers of the music industry — but neither are music-streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, which have to constantly bring new features like playlists and videos to users to stay relevant, aware they can be toppled at any time by something fresher. Every music company in 2018 recognizes a need to do more than simply deliver music. For 88rising, while rap will always be front and center, expansion into a plethora of adjacent industries was built into the business model from the start. Now that many of 88’s main acts have, as Stereogum aptly put it, “reached the escape velocity for minority artistry,” it’s time for the company to take further risks. That might involve collaborating with other facets of Asian music, like K-Pop (BTS’s frontman RM tweeted about 88rising in June and sent a Head In the Clouds track skyrocketing; “We’d be down to work with BTS one day and blow up the Internet,” Miyashiro says), or working more closely with non-Asians (88 recently signed rapper August 08). The company is also exploring projects in film, television and sketch comedy.

88 has had its share of missteps, such as running up against cross-cultural boundaries when releasing certain songs in China and drawing social media backlash from fans in Asia for image choices. But on the flip side, Miyashiro says he gets a handful of emails every day from Asians and Asian-Americans simply expressing appreciation for 88’s existence. “We’ve proven we can really do this shit,” he says. “Are we comfortable to stay here forever?” He actually pauses a moment — as if the question is anything but rhetorical, as if he has ever actually considered any other answer — before huffing a laugh and saying, “No,” shaking his head, saying, “No. There’s so much more room to do things. We’re a first-of-its-kind type of thing, and we’re here for the marathon.”

In This Article: Hip Hop, Joji, music industry

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