We don’t even need to tell you how hot Asia is for trap and rap music right now. Not just bars, not just beats, but the entire melting pot: the grills, the garms, the attitude and the visuals.
Keith Ape famously let the cat out of the bag last January and took the Asian trap game global with the super viral hit “It G Ma.” The single led to an almost instant LA-relocation for Ape and co-signs from across the board, from Waka Flocka to Skrillex. Now, almost two years later, the single’s release is cited as the tipping point after which U.S. rap could no longer ignore what was happening. The next generation of Asian rap exponents has emerged, and they’re looking further afield with bigger ambitions.
South Korea and Japan lead the charge, while Indonesia, Vietnam, Taiwan and China are all in hot pursuit, adding their own twist to one of the most exciting and organic chapters in international hip hop history.“It is a very exciting time,” agrees NYC-based Sean Miyashiro. Miyashiro is the man behind Asian rap label, collective and management company CXSHXNLY, as well as exploding media company 88Rising.He helped Keith Ape establish his LA base, and has been extremely instrumental in accelerating Asian trap talent across the U.S. and beyond.
“It’s the natural progression in the way culture moves, as there is so much influence from West to East, East to West that there are no borders anymore in expression in creativity,” he explains. “The culture truly has crossed oceans to [the point] where there is so much interest, and interest sparks passion; passion sparks the next talent.”
“Right now a lot of people are passionate about this,” he continues. “It’s a crowded scene and [there’s] a lot of competition; the devil is in the details – it’s down to visuals, swag and who’s making the right moves. That type of heat is making people really up their game.”
It’s all about the full ensemble. Hop on to fast emerging content factory 88Rising – the current essential HQ for ahead-of-the-curve Asian rap visuals and celebration of progressive Asian culture – and soak it up. Whether it’s Okasian and Kohh’s Lost Orcas vignette of inner city reality on their recent video “Save Time” or Rich Chigga’s fresh-faced, preppy, pistol-slinging entourage on the viral “Dat $tick” video, each track hits with the harmony of audio, visual, attitude and narrative.
88 Feet High & Rising
“The details are important,” Miyashiro explains. “Keith and the whole Cohort crew came out with their own unique wave and it blew people away. They’d never seen anything like it. So it’s the whole deal – it’s more about the full ensemble and visuals than it is about just simply bars. A lot of the new guys are paying attention to that.”
Level raised and swag locked, a new level of Asian hip-hop is being built on sturdy foundations now decades deep. Japanese DJs such as Krush and Kentaro helped to establish rich digging scenes, while acts like Rhymester and Dabo brought the party. Korean hip-hop kickstarted a little later in the ’80s and early ’90s with Seo Taiji & Boys and later Drunken Tiger setting new commercial benchmarks. Meanwhile, The Quiett, a Korean hip-hop don and one-third of the much-fabled Illionaire crew, was running labels such as Soul Company in the early 2000s.
Now Asian hip-hop is huge. It’s neck-tattoo deep into its second and third generations, but what’s changed in the mindset of the newer, younger talent is the external, global influences; from the rise of sad boy sounds from artist like Yung Lean to the dynamics, delivery, style and sonics of Southern rap.
“That’s the watershed,” Miyashiro confirms. “A lot of the older guys have grown up on Japanese or Korean hip-hop, that’s their main source of influence. But, since then, the new major influencers like Keith and his peers have been able to take on a lot more global inspiration as well as the legacy acts in Asian hip hop. Travis Scott, Yung Lean, migos and Uzi Vert play just as much influence now. There’s a much more richer, wider wealth of references at play for every artist in the scene.”
The driving influence behind the Asian trap movement should be considered here, too. When “It G Ma” virally tickled the West’s collective cyber consciousness, blogs and pundits suggested Asian trap culture was a backlash and middle finger salute to the commercial manufactured music behemoths K.Pop and J.Pop. However, Miyashiro flips the switch on this in a way all discerning music fans can relate to.
“They don’t even fuck with pop music! It’s as simple as that,” he states. “There’s a huge population across all of Asia that simply don’t listen to that type of music at all. Straight up. Even though those industries are rampant, it’s not an influence in anyway.”
“Just like any music fan, they fuck with trap because they love it, they resonate with the culture, the message, the look,” he continues. “For artists in China, aspiring acts have to go out of their way to digest it. Hyped new troupe Higher Brothers, for example, jump through VPN hoops to navigate their country’s strict browsing access.”
“Once they breach the firewalls, all they do all day is research this music. They’ve fallen in love with it and they’re working on the craft. It’s the natural progression like it is in Atlanta or anywhere else in the world.”
Higher Brothers – like all of their peers across Asia – fuse numerous languages in their flow. Just as “It G Ma” showcased at least three languages (and famously spawned Kohh’s viral “Arigato Loop”), most Asian trap will bounce between dialects and languages in a dizzying way that unifies and captures the imagination of all listeners from East to West.
With more and more international collaborations (both within Asia and with U.S. artists), comment threads on channels such as 88 Rising or the rap uploads on WeLoveKPop overflow with conversations from fans the world, negating language barriers with translations, emojis, memes and straight-up love for lit beats.
For now, though, Miyashiro believes English has been a critical key to unlock profiles onto the wider global rap stage. Not in terms of rapping in full English bars – the hardest and best bars often aren’t in English, and only end in it as a powerful or sometimes humorous cadence – but in terms of commercial, strategical development.
“There is a very clear barrier between those who can and can’t speak English,” Miyashiro says. “There’s a ceiling in their own country. And, if they want to move to collaborate with international artists, then they do need to speak some English. They don’t have to rap in English, but they need it in business and creatively to develop.”
That’s why someone like Rich Chigga has such great potential to resonate with hip-hop fans globally,” he continues. “It’s a very interesting scenario and a lot of international artists have already reached out to collaborate, so its a exciting time for Rich and I to create together. He is a generational genius, he will make a change in culture and its already happening.”
Rich is the latest Asian trap talent to go viral earlier this year with “Dat $tick.” Armed with a deep flow, dry sense of humor, a bookish, fannypack-clad, normcore look and smoking 808 beats from partner-in-grime Sihk, no one forgets their first Chigga experience. For rap fans across the internet, his video has been unavoidable since debuting this spring.
What really broke Rich Chigga’s rep, though, was the “rappers react” video above, where heavyweights like Ghostface Killah, Desiinger and Torey Lanez compound Chigga’s skills and declare him “the hardest alive.” Consolidating his strong currency to untold levels, at the age of just 16, Chigga is one of the strongest names in the rap game, period. So much so, the follow up release will feature Ghostface himself. For real.
And with Rich putting Indonesia on the Asian trap map, more territories are guaranteed to follow. Producer and artistic enigma Josh Pan has already brought our attention to Taiwan with his more dance floor-focused, EDM-trap fusion, while this summer’s Atlanta Cypher between U.S.-based rappers LJ, B-Red, Young-H and S-Fury has once again reminded us of Vietnam’s influence in Asian rap.
With the world watching and the right platforms and crews supporting the Asian trap game, its most innovative and creative talents will rise to the top. Everything is in place for an even more exciting future for rap’s biggest Eastern chapter to date. We don’t even need to tell you to keep this sound locked, but in case this is all news to you, here are the 12 Asian trap artists pushing the hardest right now:
Behind the face masks, grills and natty Cobain blonde hair is a pioneer. 22-year-old South Korean Keith has blasted the global doors open for those peers who can go in as hard or as uniquely. Rolling with his Cohort crew, Keith’s low, gravelly slur punches with emotion, hitting every listener and fellow rapper who wants to work with him.
His explosive SXSW debut in March 2015 led to the remix visual for “It G Ma” with U.S. luminaries Waka Flocka, A$AP Ferg and Dumbfoundead, after which Keith remained in the U.S. and spent a year in the studio. We’re feeling the fruits of this creative hibernation on a near-weekly basis. Originals such as “Diamonds” and “Fendi” and a collaboration with Ski Mask The Slumpgod have all dropped in the last two weeks. We’re amped for what he has in store next.
Representing Seoul, B-Free has been around for more than a minute and has worked his way up through jazzier, more classically informed hip-hop (check “Coffee Break,” one of his earlier cuts for trad backpacker funk) and hazier, cloud-bouncing R&B, most of which is delivered with full English flows.
While his profile is somewhat shrouded by a two-year plus beef with K-pop band BTS, his creativity and contributions are now amplified by his new label, New Wave, which launched with his Free From Seoul EP. Laced with beats that sit between wave and trap, there’s a smoky, faraway, moody soul in B-Free.
No one is doing it like Rich: 16 years old, and already the U.S. hip-hop cognoscenti’s ears are on lock. The Indonesian artist first emerged with the Mancini-meets-Maco debut “Living The Dream” last year, and its title foretold the success he’s enjoying now.
Backed up by consistently witty (and often deliciously weird) Vines, a unique style that flips between preppy and trap and tracks such as this year’s runaway Asian rap viral hit “Dat $tick,” Rich will soon have the whole world’s attention. Watch out for a potentially game-changing video to drop soon.
South Korean rapper Dok2 (pronounced Dokk-ee) may only be in his mid-20s, but he’s already cited as a veteran in Asian hip-hop, having emerged in his early teens and already scoring writing and performing credits with established crews by the mid 2000s.
The co-founder of Illionaire Records, with fellow K-rap mainstay The Quiett, heavily-inked and chained Dok2 has made the transition from national legend to global prospect. His characteristic flow flips naturally between Korean and English, with off-beat humor and a distinct sense of rhyme craft. The authentic full rap package.
A leading light in China’s new hip-hop wave, Higher Brothers first emerged last year with the tripped out “Cosplay” video, and a slick switch of the ubiquitous “Panda.”
Hitting hard with the right level of wit and stylistic dexterity, both tracks were delivered with great visuals, ensuring the attention of tastemaker channel, 88Rising, who’ve delivered their biggest track and slickest video to date: “Bitch Don’t Kill My Dab.”
A Cohort/Underwater Squad member alongside Ape, Okasian and many more Korean heavyweights, JayAllDay has spent time growing up and studying the culture in South Korea, America and Japan. Cited as a key strategist in “It G Ma,” Jay brought Japanese rap titans Kohh and Loota into the fold to ensure the hit’s full Asian punch.
His signature is to go in hard with a heavy buzz of energy. Some of the best examples of this are last year’s “Sirens” and his show-stopping club-trap collab with Australian beatmaker Jia Lih, “Nightrider,” with UK MC Proton. Trust us, it goes hard.
One of the biggest rappers in Japan, Kohh’s targets are now set worldwide, just as he states in last year’s track “Paris” or his angst-fuelled “Living Legend.”
His global breakthrough came via his role in “It G Ma,” but his repertoire is eight years and two albums deep. Not shy of going hard and best witnessed over icy sci-fi beats, Kohh’s range flips from witty flow to gutsy rage with an ease that’s universal. A genuine craftsman and Japanese rap pioneer.
LA-based Korean crew MKIT RAIN acts as a label and collective. Comprising Loopy, Nafla, Bloo and recent member Owen Ovadoz, the troupe emerged for real with the fittingly-titled “Come Thru” earlier this year.
A dramatic, synthetic club banger sprung with 808 moodiness, their statement of intent has been clear from the jump. The recent track “Weatherman” references a little of the mid-’90s R&B, smooth hip-hop style, while still hitting hard with the kicks.
Seoul-based but U.S.-educated Cohort founding member, Okasian, is respected as a true Korean rap OG. With an album (Boarding Precedures) and several Cohort mixtapes to his name, Okasian’s cool, confident signature has been present since breakthrough bangers such as the supreme-funked “Spread The Word.”
Continually sharpening his style over the last six years, his laconic lines switch between rifle-like to smooth southern slurs with real appeal. Most recently spotted throughout the Cohort’s summer series, “Last Orca” on 88Rising, but rumored to be working on a new album, Okasian is a premiership Asian trap player.
Co-founder of the Yellow Mob, a creative collective of rappers, artists, models, producers and designers, Sik-K is already showing all the right swag as he rolls deep and jumps happily between a more commercial style of hip-hop and straight-up power bars.
This summer, he treated us to a showcase of both styles and everything in between on his debut album Flip. Ranging from the scorching hot slow-jam “Rendezvous” to the T-Pain-level autotune operatics of “God Damn,” Sik-K hits with a widescreen style.
For his harder bars, check his lead role in the “Eung Freestyle”, viewed more than 5 million times, alongside fellow K-peers Owen Ovadoze, Punchnello and Flowsik.
Since emerging in the late 2000s, Vietnam’s verified queen of hip-hop, Suboi, has successfully dabbled in various pop and electronic styles. She isn’t technically trap, but this year has seen her go back to her darker inspirations with a much harder, sharper sound. Case in point: the dark, angular narrative on “Doi” and the slightly rock-edged “Lam Mom.”
Interestingly, she made her U.S. debut at the same SXSW as Keith Ape, and returned to Austin’s acclaimed new talent phenomenon this year, too. Months later, she famously rapped to Barak Obama when he visited Vietnam earlier this year, as a homage to America’s finest modern art.
Vietnamese crew 95Generation represent the forefront of Vietnamese rap. A lucid collective of rappers, beat makers, designers and artists, they’re grabbing serious Asian trap real estate with each track.
Hitting new highs with this summer’s hard-edged earworm “SG Homie Squad,” the interchangeable lyrical likes of Lil Wuyn, SMO, Khoa Wzzzy and friends are an essential addition to any Asian trap playlist.
For added authenticity check their “How We Live” videos on their YouTube channel. These guys live the life.
If you want more in the way of new genres, check out why you need wave music in your life.
- Words: Dave Jenkins
- Lead image: eyescream