88rising, the hybrid record label/all around media company dedicated to launching Asian artists, began its first company venture into North America with its 88 Degrees & Rising Tour. The tour kicked off on Sept. 22 at the Los Angeles State Historic Park with the Head in the Clouds Festival, a large-scale affair which showed off 88rising’s diverse and rapidly growing roster of artists. Headliners included Rich Brian, Joji and Higher Brothers. But many others, like Japanese rapper KOHH, Indonesian singer Niki, Korean rapper Zion. T, musician Sen Morimoto and South Korean rapper Keith Ape also performed, with surprise guest Anderson .Paak. The tour will continue on to 18 other cities in North America.
88rising was founded by Vice alum and San Jose State University dropout Sean Miyashiro on the top of a parking garage, with the intent of putting together “the most wavy crew of creators in history” and amplifying Asian voices in music. Soon, using his music industry connections, he began to link rising artists to big names, and 88rising, which gets its name from the Chinese lucky number eight, acquired more and more artists and became the eccentric conglomerate that it is today.
Effectively a “Vice for Asian culture,” 88 manages a core roster of seven groupsv and creates original content for their YouTube channel, which includes artistic music videos, live sessions, mini-documentaries about WWII-era and Cambodian rock stars, and a food series called Seoulfood.
Their output is relentlessly consumable and entertaining, but at the core of it all is Miyashiro’s vision of “selling people on that Asian dream,” creating a portal into which Westerners are able to catch a glimpse of what it truly means to appreciate another world, to glean a fraction of the swag and beauty and wisdom that Asia has to offer in a way that is, for the first time, cool.
In this way, 88rising comes from a wholly unique perspective that is rarely represented in American pop culture, and it does it all through a pulsing, colorful, digitally-savvy, hip-hop agenda. The brand taps into things like the immigrant experience, censorship in one’s home country, city life in Asia, and navigating two cultures and languages. It extends beyond Asian representation and into diversity of all kinds. For example, Rich Brian is an Indonesian-born Vine star who learned English through watching YouTube, Sen Morimoto is a Chicago-born “jazz-rapper” who plays saxophone on stage, and Keith Ape is a South-Korean rapper whose music can only be described as rap but harder. Asian and Asian-American voices are juxtaposed in a way that is not really seen in the Western world. For example, Higher Brothers, a rap group from Chengdu, China, featured Jay Park for a Korean verse on their song “Franklin,” and Keith Ape’s “It G Ma” features four rappers from Japan, Korea and America who take turns rapping in Korean and Japanese.
88rising’s American debut is significant in that it signifies 88’s commercial legitimacy in a world where Asian art is characterized by exoticism and otherization, always either a niche thing or K-pop, nothing in between. In a stark contrast to the chopstick-bun fetishized Asian paradise constructed by Western rappers like Nicki Minaj and Iggy Azalea, 88rising is real and beautiful. Higher Brothers’ songs and videos show the modern China that Americans don’t see — a bustling and hugely alive force that balances modern technology with ancient mysticality in everything from the language to the culture. For example, in their song “WeChat,” the hook goes “ 我打开微信不是来听你BB这些的,” which translates to “I didn’t log on to WeChat to hear your bullshit,” BB being Chinese slang for complaining or nagging and WeChat being the omnipresent Chinese social media app that every Chinese person now uses to communicate. In “Black Cab,” they rap about China’s extensive illegal cab culture, which operates under the government’s nose and is an integral part of Chinese life.
I first discovered 88rising when I stumbled across Higher Brothers’ song “Made in China.” Higher Brothers seemed like the answer to my dreams; they represented everything I had always loved about being Chinese, and they not only sounded good (unlike the Chinese-pop music I had heard in the past, which made me cringe uncontrollably), but sounded good because they were unabashedly Chinese. They were effortlessly cool, carefree, talented: the epitome of Asian joy and swagger. Their music celebrated the black origins of hip hop with no desire to imitate or condescend and instead reappropriated the classical rap tropes of ultraviolence, struggle, hardship and success to Asian culture. On their hit track “Made in China,” to which rappers like Lil Yachty and Migos famously reacted to on 88rising’s YouTube channel, which begins with a white woman’s mocking voice (“Rap music? China? What are they even saying? Sounds like they’re just saying ‘ching chang chong’”), rapper DZ Know says, “My chains, new gold watch, made in China... the trap, made in China, swag, made in China.” As a Chinese-American who grew up understanding the language but struggling to speak, hearing Chinese in the midst of a banging trap beat is a surreal, almost emotional experience. In a country where modesty and traditional values are respected above all else (in fact, shortly after Higher Brothers’ rise to success, the Chinese government banned hip-hop culture and tattoos from television), hip hop becomes a symbol for youth rebellion, and in the West, where Asian-Americans are often suffocated by stereotype, good Asian hip hop becomes a vindication.
With 88rising Miyashiro has done the impossible and has sold the West on the Asian dream through the creation of a legitimate American project, all without sacrificing its Asian-ness. So to me and many others that look like me, 88rising’s success is an affirmation of what we knew to be true all along: that in a world where Asian-American artists are topping iTunes rap charts, true globalization is beginning (who would have thought!) with art, and to quote Psy.P on “No Hook”: “他们不一定会了解的痛苦/创造了奇迹让他们去重复/黄色皮肤因为镀了金” (“They don’t get the struggle, they can only try to recreate our miracle / Yellow skin because it’s coated in gold.”)