Inside 88rising: Rich Brian Explains How Asian Artists are Breaking Into Hip Hop (Exclusive)
By Colette Ngo
Scott Dudelson/Getty Images
Over the past few years, Asian representation has grown immensely in mainstream media. Since the premiere of the 2018 romantic comedyCrazy Rich Asians (Hollywood's first movie with an all-Asian cast in 25 years), milestones have continued to hit for Asians in entertainment. Asians are now playing lead roles in films -- including Vietnamese actress Lana Condor in Netflix's film,To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Chinese-Korean actress and rapper Awkwafina in The Farewell and Korean actor John Cho in Searching.
Not only have Asians been represented better on the big screen, but Asian artists are beginning to be more influential in the music industry, too. K-pop group BTS became a worldwide sensation, receiving recognition at almost all the major awards shows honoring music this year, and the first female Asian American DJ, TOKiMONSTA, was nominated for Best Dance/Electronic Album at the 2018 GRAMMYs.
Aligning with ideals of greater representation for the Asian culture are the goals of Sean Miyashiro, the co-founder of 88rising, the first Asian mass media company with the goal of promoting Asian cultures to the mainstream, primarily through music. 88rising is an overarching company that encompasses a record label, video production, marketing and artist management. The reason behind the name 88rising? "88" means "double happiness" in Chinese.
There is musical expression in every Asian country, but there was never a central platform for it to thrive, until now. In 2015, Miyashiro took a one-way trip to New York with a vision to innovate hip-hop and R&B music in a way that has never been done before -- with an Asian flair.
88rising quickly became home to artists like Japanese/Australian "trip hop" rapper Joji, Chinese rap group Higher Brothers, Indonesian R&B singer NIKI and viral Indonesian rapper Rich Brian, formerly Rich Chigga.
Flash forward to present day, where 88rising's annual music festival, Head in the Clouds, is gearing up for its second year, and just days away from making history in Los Angeles. The upcoming one-day festival, taking place Saturday, Aug. 17, is a celebration for attendees to come together and honor art at the only U.S. music festival with an all-Asian lineup.
Ahead of the music festival, Brian spoke with ET about how 88rising has helped him transform from a viral sensation to serious rap superstar.
ET: Looking back at how far you've come from "Dat $tick" to now, with the release of your new album, The Sailor, what does it all feel like?
Rich Brian: I remember having vivid memories of when I was 13 … I would be sitting outside, looking out at the sunset like an emo kid. Thinking about my future and just like, "S**t, what's gonna happen?" I just had this whole dream of, like, "I want to go to America and see what it's like out there." I was just thinking about that dream so often, every day, and I just stressed myself out over it. The fact that just me doing what I love got me here is definitely insane.
You learned about hip hop through the internet. When you heard rap for the first time, did you find it to be something you could relate to culturally or was it the sound you fell in love with?
I think it was both the sound and the message. The first time I really listened to hip hop was Macklemore, when he came out with "Thrift Shop." I started rapping along to that song. Then I started learning the lyrics. That was really hard to do, because I had a super heavy accent back then. [laughs] But through that, that's how I found out about Drake and 2Chainz. That's when I was like, ‘This s**t's super tight.’ At the time in Indonesia, I didn't know anybody that was listening to hip hop. So that was a whole, brand new world to me. It made me feel really cool.
Did your parents give you full support in the beginning? Did they understand the vision?
Honestly, they didn't know I was rapping until I was about to go to America. I was just making songs for fun before I really started blowing up. After the whole music thing started happening, 88rising picked me up, and they wanted to fly me out to America. I told my mom, who was the one who was the most against it. I was like, "Yo, I think I'm gonna go to America to do a show." She was like, "You should go. You should do it," and she was just, like, right away on board with it.
As an Asian in the rap game, there really hasn't been anybody to look up to before you and other 88rising artists. What challenges did you have to overcome along the way?
Definitely being in this country that I've never been to for the first time … there was a lot I had to learn -- going on the first tour, working with my first DJ, working with my first tour manager, meeting my managers for the first time and seeing how everybody's working.
I had to learn how to talk to people [and] how to express if I don't like something. There's a lot of things that I still have to learn. I didn't know how to do any of that in the beginning.
The album you just dropped, The Sailor, represents you as the sailor going into uncharted territories, meaning your experience of coming to America and being an Asian in hip hop. What is the importance of telling a story about immigration?
The first reason I wanted to tell this story with my album is because I realized this is something I never touched on before in my whole career. This is very personal to me because it's what I went through when I was 17. At the same time, I know that there are a bunch of stories like that out there. Anybody that left their home country to pursue a dream, I feel like that's a really crazy story that hasn't been told very much. I think it's a story of pure determination, really.
Luckily, you had 88rising to help you pursue that dream. How did you first get involved in the project?
So Dumbfoundead, the rapper, was the first rapper that followed me on Twitter. I thought he was following me for comedy stuff and when the ["Dat $tick"] video came out, I DMed it to him. I was like, "Yo, man, whenever you have time. Can you check it out and let me know what you think?" And he's like, "Dude, I already checked it out. It's actually super dope. Can I connect you to my manager?" which was Sean at the time, who is now my manager in 88rising. Sean started talking to me about this whole vision for 88rising before 88 even had a YouTube channel.
So you've been there since the very early stages. How amazing has it been to see 88rising grow over the years?
It's been growing so fast. It's amazing knowing that there's all these people that are there to work for your project and are as passionate, if not, more passionate than you are about it. Just having people around you that have that same dream and goal.
Most Asians with an interest in art often fear pursuing their dreams due to lack of representation. Can you talk about how 88rising has changed the way people look at Asians in music?
I think that's been our goal since day one; having a platform where there's a lot of Asian people putting out music [and] putting out art. When we were first coming out, we came in such a strong way. I feel like I've never really seen that happen before. You could feel the presence.
The fact that we're doing this with a bunch of Asian people is something that I've never seen before. I'm just super grateful to be part of it.
What has the overall response been like from the culture? Has being a part of 88rising given you a sense of belonging?
My favorite part of working as a musician, as an artist, is seeing tweets from people saying [things] like, "You are making me feel represented" or even people just tweeting at me like, "I was gonna quit music, until I heard your song and I wanted to pick up the guitar again." That's the tightest thing ever; that's the one thing that keeps me going.
Representation helps inspire that whole part of the universe of kids that feel like it's not possible. It can be as simple as seeing somebody that reminds you of yourself who loves what you love to do and succeed at it. So, I'm really excited to see the next generation of Asian people that are gonna be in music and in movies and stuff like that. It's already starting to happen. We're not there yet, but I'm really excited to see what comes next!
It's definitely on its way, and this weekend's Head in the Clouds festival in L.A. is a perfect example. What's it like to be part of a festival with Asian artists as headliners?
It means so much to me. It's a whole team of Asian artists and Asian creators. This festival is this physical embodiment of it. Seeing a whole audience full of [mostly] Asian people in the crowd in L.A. is just so surreal. People can come home and they won't forget about it. They'll be really inspired by it.
What advice would you give to fellow Asians wanting to pursue art?
Know that whatever it is you're doing, you could be the next new thing that nobody's ever seen before. The most important thing is if you're pursuing whatever art, just show as much as your unique personality as possible. Us Asian people -- or people that aren't from America [in general] -- we have such a unique perspective on things and life. We have a lot of stories that haven't been told before. Basically what I'm saying is, show as much as yourself as possible, because that's what's going to separate you. That's what people are going to love about you!