Asian Hip-Hop Label 88rising Moved To LA To Make Waves
It's no easy task spreading the gospel of Asian hip-hop to doubters around the globe. But 88rising has a bold gameplan to convert skeptics while bringing existing hip-hop fans into the fold. And that plan starts right here, in Los Angeles.
In early 2020, the record label, video production, management and marketing juggernaut moved its headquarters from New York to L.A. This weekend, the company has partnered with Goldenvoice to host Head In The Clouds, a two-day music and arts festival featuring 29 acts.
The lineup for the Rose Bowl confab, which will also be livestreamed via Amazon, is a murderer's row of international musical talent — Joji, NIKI, Rich Brian, Saweetie, CL, DPR Live, Beabadoobee, Japanese Breakfast, to name a few. The event also highlights local acts like all-girl teen punk band the Linda Lindas, which went viral after a set at the L.A. Public Library.
The provenance of these performers spans seven countries, which is exactly how 88rising CEO Sean Miyashiro, 40, wants it.
"We operate on the internet. If you are in Vietnam or Indonesia or China or Australia or Argentina, we want our music to reach as many people as possible," Miyashiro says.
Before 2015, only a handful of Asian hip-hop acts had achieved widespread success in the United States. MC Jin, Far East Movement and Dumbfoundead all gained some traction. But staying in the Western mainstream proved difficult.
In 2002, Chinese American rapper MC Jin became the first Asian American hip-hop artist signed to a major label. Although he tasted fame with his debut album, The Rest is History, his later releases didn't chart. Jin has since found success as a Cantonese hip-hop artist in Hong Kong. He has also dabbled in faith-based music and acted in a few action films.
In 2010, Far East Movement dropped the single "Like A G6," which made them the first Asian hip-hop group to top the Billboard 100. Their album Free Wired performed solidly. Their subsequent releases floundered.
Dumbfoundead earned his stripes as one of the most prolific battle rappers in the West Coast underground scene, but he struggled to find success with bigger record labels, as recounted in the 2016 documentary Bad Rap.
"I don’t know what goes through the minds of these label cats when they hear my stuff… I don't think they could market me right now," he said.
In an attention economy where we're bombarded with new artists, sustaining audience interest in the Asian hip-hop scene can seem like a daunting task. 88rising has already scored some big wins while working mostly outside the major label ecosystem.
In 2018, it saw dual milestones when Rich Brian was named the first Asian solo rapper to top iTunes' global hip-hop chart and Joji became the first Asian-born artist to top Billboard's R&B charts. Dumbfoundead even signed with the company and became one of its front-facing artists.
Miyashiro, a San Jose native, grew up obsessed with rap music, often trekking across the Bay Area to see acts such as Living Legends and Hieroglyphics. In his late twenties, he packed a suitcase for New York and eventually helped found Vice's now-defunct electronic music site, Thump. In 2015, he left Vice to launch 88rising with media executive Jaeson Ma.
"We started as more of a media company doing video, everything from Japanese mixology to crazy art to certainly music," Miyashiro told Forbes in 2019. "What ended up happening, because we’re so small, some of our music stuff just popped off."
After five years in New York, the company’s move to L.A. seemed like a foregone conclusion. "Just in general, the music industry, a lot of the artists are here. I think it was just a natural thing to try to be out here so we can create together," Miyashiro says.
Still, with an international audience and a roster of artists most of whom hail from Indonesia, China, South Korea and other parts of Asia, 88rising could've settled in any number of cities. Why L.A.?
"From a music perspective, there's just so much music happening here all the time. That's what's really dope, and being able to work with the best producers in the world, just get into the studio, in an hour's notice. That's something that's really magical about L.A. that I think is very different as opposed to anywhere in the world," Miyashiro says.
Aside from tapping the staggering amount of talent in L.A., 88rising aims to continue its online storytelling and collaborating with Asian creatives. After all, part of its success comes from its origins as a digital native.
88rising harnessed the power of YouTube to create Rappers React, a popular series that features established U.S. rappers reacting to tracks from the label's Asian artists. They've also nurtured collaborations between their artists and viral hip-hop stars by pairing Joji with Lil Yachty and Rich Brian with Post Malone.
To help the label's streaming stats, Miyashiro has worked hard to build 88rising's relationships with Spotify's Southeast Asia team and Apple Japan. "These platforms are truly global, and we have direct relationships, like with the Southeast Asia Spotify team and Apple Japan," he told Radii in 2019. The effort has paid off. On Spotify, Rich Brian and Joji continue to pull more than 13 million monthly listeners each.
The company's move to L.A. doesn't change its digital strategy, but it does suggest a desire to be near the pulsating grooves of the country's musical epicenter. Between West Coast rap, Laurel Canyon folk, bubblegum pop, trippy psych rock, Latinx punk, Pinoy ballads and Japanese sansei dance, Southern California has a little bit of everything.
"There's such an amazing Asian American community here. It's really been inspiring to be able to be in the same time zone and meet up with really dope inspirational creatives that bring about a lot of different opportunities. This is the place to be in terms of that," Miyashiro says.
Miyashiro's chief of staff, Ollie Zhang, echoes those sentiments. Although he grew up in Diamond Bar on a steady diet of Swedish death metal and classic rock, Zhang didn't see music, at least not the kind he wanted to have a hand in, as a viable career path until college.
"There were not many artists, especially in the mainstream, that came from a similar background that I did," Zhang says. "I felt that mission in my heart, coming out of college. I wanted to find the space or be part of making a space where Asian artists can be successful and be brought into global prominence."
Many of 88rising's 80 employees were enthusiastic about the move to L.A., according to Miyashiro. He says several signed acts, including Indonesian artists NIKI, Rich Brian and newbie Warren Hue, have bought houses in California.
"I'm already quite adapted to California," Hue says. "I feel like even in Jakarta, I would just look into American culture all the time. Everyone that I've met here just made me feel like home."
Hue made it big with his 2019 self-released album SUGARTOWN, produced by Korea-based Chasu. The 18-year-old rapper initially had plans to attend a university in the U.S. but one Instagram DM later, he found himself signing to 88rising and moving to L.A. to pursue his musical career.
"Out here in California, I feel like there's just more connections when it comes to developing my music. Maybe collaborations with different artists or being in studios with different producers and building my vision. That's mostly what I take from California," Hue says.
Being at the vanguard of Asian hip-hop has also made 88rising a target for critics. The company has sparked debate about whether its acts appropriate Black culture. During the wake of the George Floyd protests, Bohan Phoenix, a Chinese-born rapper and former collaborator with 88rising, slammed the company for profiting off hip-hop culture without paying proper respect to its roots.
In March, the company was blasted on social media after it uploaded a now-deleted Instagram post with a yellow square in response to the Atlanta spa shootings. The post, which mirrored the Blackout Tuesday movement, was criticized as performative activism.
"The conversation is totally welcome, and it is part of the shaping and the building of Asian or Asian American youth culture. Anybody is totally entitled to have their viewpoints and express that viewpoint. And we'd always welcome that exchange. It's all part of the conversation," Zhang says.
When asked about what SoCal-centric plans 88rising has in the works, Miyashiro spouts a few buzzwords including "events" and "retail" but doesn't offer specifics. Although he'd love to see the bulk of his roster take center stage at Coachella, right now his priority is Head in the Clouds.
"I hope it doesn't rain, I'm freaking out about that," Miyashiro says. After all, a move to the Golden State should mean sunny days, right?