In an age where multiple media companies are trying to “pivot to video,” George “Joji” Miller is trying to pivot from it. In June 2008, the half-Japanese, half-Australian artist posted his first video his YouTube channel, DizastaMusic. Titled “Lil Jon falls off a table,” the 21-second clip features Miller in a silver mask, dreadlocked, rasta-colored wig, white tee, and baggy basketball shorts writhing around to “Get Low” in front of an outdoor cafe. Near the end of the video, he starts dancing on a green table, which eventually topples over while he’s on top, and the clip ends with him running off-screen.
His run-and-gun aesthetic and absurdist, DIY attitude carried over into his second YouTube channel, TVFilthyFrank, where he came into prominence for 36 seconds of his video “Filthy Compilation #6 - Smell My Fingers.” The clip in question depicts Miller, clad in a pink bodysuit as his “Pink Guy” persona, along with some other friends dressed as an alien, a Power Ranger, and a sumo wrestler, dancing to a portion of Baauer’s “Harlem Shake.” What followed was one of 2013’s most viral memes, one that’s been reinterpreted by everyone from the U.S. Military to The Simpsons. Granted, Harlemites felt slighted about the meme overshadowing the actual dance that shares its name (the track is named after Baauer’s sampling of a Plastic Little track, “Miller Time,” which references the dance), but the standalone video, uploaded a month after the compilation in debuted in, currently has over 58 million views.
As he refined the cast of characters populating the Dadaist, lo-fi punk, and offbeat humorous style of his channel, Miller’s Filthy Frank and Pink Guy creations occupy a space between YouTube Poop—a nonsensical mashup of pre-existing media content meant to shock, offend, be funny, or all three—and short-form sketch comedy. It pushed boundaries that even mainstream adult humor platforms like Adult Swim couldn’t. Sex and drugs were oft-visited topics, and Filthy Frank’s antics range from bathing in a tub full of ramen to smoking multiple cigarettes from his mouth and nostrils.
Pink Guy in particular developed a huge following for Miller, and this past January, he released the Pink Season mixtape, a 35-track album that hit the number 9 spot on Billboard’s U.S. Top R&B/Hip-Hop albums, and peaked at 70 on the Billboard U.S. 200. Its songs speak the nonsensical, mile-a-minute language of the Internet, like “Hot Nickel Ball on a Pussy,” which alludes to view-baiting “science” videos on YouTube depicting superheated nickel balls melting through various objects, or “ セックス大好き” which loosely translates to “I Love Sex.” The Japanese language track is one of Miller’s favorites. With nearly 8 million subscribers on YouTube combined (and more than a billion combined views), pretty much anything Pink Guy does on a different platform is guaranteed to tap into that massive built-in audience.
“I call it my ‘mac and cheese,' because it's easy to make.” says Miller of his more comedic work. “The only Pink Guy type of music I could make was formulaic. You think of a jingle, add a trap beat to it…And it got depressing because I wasn't able to challenge myself, because it was just the same shit over and over again.”
So Miller decided to go back to the drawing board to create a sonic universe that better reflected his musical aspirations. He figured it would be easier than trying to transition an established persona into a totally different attitude. What would eventually become “Joji” began on a SoundCloud called “Chloe Burbank” in late 2015. It was a secret alias that allowed the product to speak for itself, leaving it open to the rapid-fire, hard-to-impress judgement of the Internet, but instead of harsh criticism, he found praise. His singles “Thom” and “you suck charlie” were gaining traction, which led him to realize that he could build a similarly organic following through music. Miller also came to an epiphany—that perhaps fans of his more comedic personas could equally appreciate his more serious music.
“A bunch of kids, or young people, might still want a certain thing,” he says. “But then you realize that as you're growing older, your fans are growing older with you. And they just start liking you for you.”
He’s adamant that his YouTube career and music career are two separate things, but the common thread between them is his very DIY approach. That includes getting better through trial and error. Although his first single as Joji, “Will He,” off his recently released In Tongues EP, topped Spotify’s Global Viral 50 when it was released. In Tongues also snagged spot 58 on Billboard. And in the comments for plenty of his recent YouTube videos, fans are more than eager to promote his Joji project, even though Miller says he’ll never do that himself.
“There's no space or place for that to ever mix,” he says. “And I'm glad that the sounds are different enough to keep them apart. So people with more than a couple of brain cells will be able to tell the difference.”
Miller, who now lives in Brooklyn, compares his other life to a “day job,” something he’s known for but isn’t nearly attached to as much as his work as Joji, where he feels he can really dig in and express himself as a creator. It’s a left-of-center pivot that surprisingly works, similar to how Jordan Peele found success through breaking up Key and Peele into digestible YouTube skits, then successfully managed to release horror film Get Out years later. Miller thinks knowing when the time is right to make the switch is important, and used Chloe Burbank as a way to see if there was an audience ready for his music.
Unlike Peele, who was already plugged into the entertainment industry prior to Get Out and Key and Peele, Miller doesn’t think he can be taken as seriously, since his platform exists entirely on the Internet. But he does see advantages in how YouTubers are growing their careers within the platform and outside of it.
YouTube Red, a paid premium platform within YouTube, is tapping its community of creators, like Cameron Dallas, for original content like feature films. Meanwhile, other prominent YouTubers like Lilly Singh are on the radar of more traditional platforms. Singh was recently cast in HBO’s adaptation of the Ray Bradbury novel Fahrenheit 451. So clearly, the old guard of media is more receptive to this new breed of DIY digital creatives.
“It does show where the power is of new school creators, but obviously I don't wanna be seen for the numbers,” he says. “If someone's gonna have me on, I want it to be because they fuck with the music.”
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Miller is signed to 88rising, a label that consists of predominantly Asian artists like Keith Ape, Rich Chigga, and the Higher Brothers. Unlike his labelmates, Miller thinks he has two factors that will make it easier for him to break through to the mainstream. The first is that he’s trying to make it in production and singing, which are infinitely more inclusive mediums than rap.
“When ‘It G Ma’ came out, I saw it and I was like: ‘This is it. This is the bridge. Here we go,’” he says. “Luckily it's easier for me because I'm a singer, and I do it in English. So that's a little better, but there still is that struggle of not wanting to be known as an Asian artist.”
The second factor, and one that he bemoans, is the fact that he’s half-white, and therefore doesn’t look stereotypically East Asian. He acknowledges that his racial ambiguity gives him less obstacles to overcome than guys like Keith Ape and Rich Chigga, who must also deal with discrimination and an overall lack of representation in the hip-hop community at large. Though he's adamant that those hurdles shouldn't exist in the first place, as he believes that his peers are equally deserving of a shot at blowing up on a bigger stage.
”Someone like Keith [Ape] would face a bigger difficulty. One, because he's rapping. And two, because people might just see him as that ‘Asian trap guy.’”
Miller self-produced all but one of the tracks on In Tongues, and the 16-minute EP shows a lot of promise. You can hear how he’s influenced by the lush soundscapes of Shlomo and Flying Lotus, with a healthy dose of angsty lyrics, courtesy of an adolescence spent listening to Korn and The Deftones. His songs already have millions of plays on Spotify and SoundCloud. The audience is definitely there, but his next hurdle will be making the transition from digital exhibitionist to live performer. Whether it’s a YouTube video or recorded track, there’s still a bufffer of time between a work in progress and a work ready for consumption. Now, he’ll be spending the next two months touring Asia with Rich Chigga and the Higher Brothers.
“In the production world, you can review your mistakes and keep editing it until it's perfect, whereas in a live performance, you can’t,” he says. “The only way you can do it is trial and error. And that's how I'm rolling. Just the same way I started on the Internet.”
Now read more about 88rising and the rise of Asian trap music.