At the very first concert featuring the full roster of 88rising’s artists at Indonesia’s Djarkarta Warehouse Project Festival, we caught up with founder Sean Miyashiro for the full story behind one of 2018’s most vital labels.
In a modest room just behind one of the three spacious stages at Djakarta Warehouse Project, there’s a palpable sense of excitement. Chengdu-based rap quartet Higher Brothers toss handfuls of Indonesian Rupiah through the air, dancing their way through falling leaflets of red 100,000 bills as though life is one prolonged music video scene. Keith Ape and Brian Imanuel (formerly Rich Chigga) look on with naked amusement.
Shortly before 88rising’s resident underground darling, Joji, takes the stage, Imanuel’s mother and father are ushered into the room – they come bearing a generously frosted cake and the loving pride of parents who have borne witness to the success of their progeny. “Group picture,” someone proclaims and everyone huddles together for a quick Polaroid snap. An outside observer would be forgiven for thinking the scene unfolding had been repeated dozens of times at dozens of shows before. However, the truth it’s their first time performing as a collective, and the first time a few of the artists are meeting in person.
Coordinating a complete tour of Asia with headlining slots at two of the continent’s biggest music festivals (It’s the Ship! and Djakarta Warehouse Party), is the kind of learning curve that can make or break a team, particularly one as small and scrappy as 88rising. It was only in the last year the company’s founder, Sean Miyashiro, came to the conclusion that scaling up – which included expanding the team from a staff of three to 30 and opening an office in Shanghai, an addition to the New York and LA arms – was a necessity.
Yet this autonomy and self-reliance is also precisely why the company has been able to shape itself into a hybrid entity that exists somewhere between a traditional music label, media platform and marketing agency. “From a business perspective it’s been a day by day thing,” Miyashiro admits. “We’ve learned a lot and been through a lot of different circumstances but we have a lot of incredibly smart people in the organization.”
A former veteran of Vice’s now-defunct Thump platform, Miyashiro launched 88rising in 2015 as a means to give Asian-American creators additional visibility and support. “It was really the next iteration of something that I started very casually called Catch Only, which was really just me managing a couple of artists who were my friends. At the same time, ‘It G Ma’ and all that good stuff was happening. Keith Ape was really starting to resonate. He was actually a huge trailblazer in terms of being one of the first Asian hip-hop artists to really pick up steam in the States. We were working with him and at the same time I was trying to figure out how we could build a home to elevate, showcase and spotlight not necessarily exclusively Asian creators, but more like our homies and the people we like.”
Despite the company’s intentions, Miyashiro’s proximity to Asian-American creators predates its inception. “When people talk to me about how I got into hip-hop, it’s like ‘how could I not be?’ I grew up in the Bay Area and had an extremely eclectic ethnic group of friends, I think that’s just kind of the Asian-American experience.” Miyashiro’s relationship with Los Angeles-based, Argentinian-born Korean rapper Jonathan Park (known as Dumbfoundead) is initially what led him to Keith Ape. Park, who was already a fan of Keith’s work, showed Miyashiro the “It G Ma” rapper’s music videos and encouraged the two to connect.
“I thought he was dope so I just hit him up and we started talking. That’s literally how it happened. I never said, ‘Hey, I want to manage you’ or anything. It was more like, ‘Yo, this shit is tight and I want to help in any way I can.’ The first thing we did was bring him to the States to do SXSW,” explained Miyashiro. There’s a similar story with every other artist 88rising has added to its roster. First, there’s discovery (which often comes courtesy of Miyashiro’s expansive network), followed by honest conversation and a mutual desire to test the boundaries of creative expression.
Brian Imanuel, who made his viral debut as Rich Chigga with the song “Dat $tick,” was initially received as a gimmick rapper, but Miyashiro immediately saw more. The music video sees a pink Polo and fanny pack-bedecked Imanuel performing at the very height of comedic irony. With all of the seriousness of your favorite 2000s rapper, he brandishes firearms, pours liquor and flexes in front of a vehicle better suited for soccer moms than picking up women. The video’s borderline slapstick sensibility combined with Imanuel’s genuinely clever wordplay fascinated the internet, racking up over 82 million views.
“It was clear to me from the jump he was a genius in his own mind. He had this general perspective of the world and his comedic stuff on Twitter was amazing,” Miyashiro said. The two kept in close correspondence and Miyashiro encouraged Imanuel to pursue his interest in music outside of the frame of comedy. The result of their joint efforts soon yielded the 21 Savage-featuring single, “Crisis,” which was followed up with “See Me,” on January 1. Shortly after, Imanuel officially announced the name change that seemingly completed the quiet metamorphosis from viral sensation to viable musician.
To some extent, Miyashiro’s role within 88rising isn’t very different than what an A&R might do within the confines of a traditional label, but the company separates itself through a singular understanding of the global cultural landscape. The platform takes a holistic approach to artist development, working collaboratively with each talent to realize their vision rather than attempting to conform them to a particular market. In doing so, 88rising has positioned itself as a de facto evangelist of a kind of unfiltered East meets West pop culture experience that previously felt out of reach to mainstream audiences. The visibility and popularity of 88’s roster has also worked to shift Western perceptions of the popular music terrain on the Asian continent. Where American audiences once associated hyper-sleek, talent agency-manufactured K-pop and J-pop groups as indicative of the full catalogue of music offerings, 88rising’s underground-facing, DIY-spirited musical expressions have illuminated the true diversity of the scene.
“People might not know it but there are actually a shitload of Asian artists making rap music, especially in Asia. I think we’re working because we’re making stuff that resonates from a music perspective and as an overall brand. You go onto our platform and enter a universe of imagination. There’s a universe of people and a universe of shit that we just love and want to showcase. That’s where it starts and begins for us and that’s why it works.”
- Photography: Stephanie Smith-Strickland