88 rising are starting a global music revolution
Meet the musical collective changing western perceptions of Asian musicians, one record-breaking, industry-shaking, absolutely-banging record at a time.
Photography Christine Yuan
This article originally appeared in i-D's The Superstar Issue, no. 354, Winter 2018
“88rising is an ever-evolving ball of curious energy centred by love and the people in it,” says Sean Miyashiro, the Japanese-Korean New Yorker who founded the record label, music collective, artist management and production company back in 2015. “We’re always looking to challenge ourselves, rather than the status quo, so I like to say that we’re a happiness company: one that wants to create shit, put it out and give joy to people.”
88rising are changing global perceptions of Asian musicians while bridging the gap between creative scenes in the east and west. It all started when they got behind Keith Ape’s wildly popular 2015 single It G Ma, bringing things Stateside by bagging a remix from A$AP Ferg, Father, Dumbfoundead and Waka Flocka Flame. Then Sean met Chinese-Canadian actor, model and singer-turned-rapper Kris Wu. Kris was already big in Asia but seeking recognition for his music in the US too, so Sean suggested he collaborate with Houston rapper and Kylie Jenner baby daddy, Travis Scott. The resulting track, Deserve, blew up when it was released in 2017, immediately hitting the top of the US iTunes charts — a first for a Chinese artist.
Since then, Sean’s musical family has expanded to include Japanese-Australian ex-YouTuber, creator of the viral Harlem Shake meme and now sentimental slowjammer Joji; Indonesian rap prince Rich Brian; and Chinese hip-hop group Higher Brothers. 88rising soon adopted Indonesian R&B singer NIKI, Chinese popstar Lexie Liu and their first non-Asian signing, African-American purveyor of melancholic R&B, August O8. Outside of their core crew of visionaries, they’ve also collaborated with Japanese rapper KOHH, Korean-American producer Yaeji and London’s Japanese pop angel Rina Sawayama.
“My friends say that I’d been talking about doing this forever,” Sean says. “But I think I started manifesting it when I saw more Asian people creating damn good shit. It dawned on me that we needed a home, somewhere that would celebrate what we do. I realised that nobody was going to do it for us, so I said, fuck it, why not me? Why not now?” Sean credits his parents with raising him for this role. “They taught me to put everything on the line for what I believe in. I knew how to struggle and have nothing, and through that, figure out a way. This is the beautiful Asian immigrant hustle,” he says. “Our parents worked so hard to make it here. It’s the American experience.”
Now with a truly dedicated team of people working out of their NY office, and outposts in both LA and Shanghai, 88rising is going from strength to strength. This year has seen their artists go on tours in the US and Asia as a collective, release a hugely successful group album called Head In The Clouds, and put on their own festival in LA. “I’m just living out my dreams with my friends,” Sean says. “That’s the absolute truth. There’s nothing better than waking up with that feeling every day.”
Osaka-born NY-based Joji, who just dropped his ambitious debut album BALLADS 1, likens the 88rising crew to Marvel’s The Avengers, because “we get together once in a while for a blockbuster but we each have our own archives.” Sean reckons there’s a little more to it. “We’re The Avengers crossed with The Office and a splash of The Care Bears in there too. Every one of us has some super powers. Everyone has their own unique quirks that they bring to the work environment – Brian’s like Dwight or Andy, Joji has Jim’s voice and NIKI is basically Pam. Plus the Care Bears, because everyone has their shining quality. We throw all of this in the pot and present it to the world on a silver platter… taste the rainbow.”
“The basic rule for 88rising is: be a good artist, but be a more outstanding person,” Sean says. “Our hearts are in the right place. We aren’t perfect, but we got soul”. Musically diverse, their artists are united by what he describes as “The unspoken truth that we know we’re doing something important, that we represent something great.” But it seems that this doesn’t actually get discussed. “It’s some Depeche Mode Enjoy the Silence shit where we never speak about our trajectory, how we might be inspiring people… but we know.” And it’s true. 88rising undoubtedly play an integral part in the global movement of positive change sweeping the movie and music industries right now. As well as some seriously messed up political shit, 2018 will likely be remembered for harbouring a shift in the representation of Asians in popular culture.
Crazy Rich Asians smashed box office records, bagging the title of the highest-earning romantic comedy since The Proposal in 2009, while To All The Boys I’ve Ever Loved Before, with its female Asian lead, is all any teen is talking about. “It’s about time!” says 19-year-old NIKI, a friend of Brian from back home whose early demos impressed Sean. “Underrepresentation is a real thing. I grew up wondering why there wasn’t an Asian Barbie or more Disney movies like Mulan. A lack of diversity was the norm. It led me to mindlessly agree that, as an Asian female, there was no room for me to ever pursue anything not involving a cap and gown.” Growing up in Jakarta, Rich Brian remembers discovering that a local actor had made it pretty big internationally and moved to Hollywood. “Seeing an Indonesian guy doing that when I was 13, it really motivated me,” he says. “And now people come up to me and tell me I motivate them – kids that look like me. I think it’s the greatest thing ever.” Although the harmful stereotypes stuck with her as a child, NIKI feels that times are changing. “Now that 88rising is a thing, now that the Asian character in Riverdale is a jock and K-Pop groups are selling out the Staples Center… it’s only going to get better from here.”
But Sean is wary. “I don’t believe in the notion that any representation is good representation. Fuck that! The fact of the matter is, Asian people in entertainment, film and music are the underdogs here. And now that there’s one success story, you have every Hollywood agent clamouring for the next Asian thing,” he notes. “That’s how a lot of really bad shit gets made, so we have to be cognisant of that. I agree that if there’s a spark that provides more opportunity, that’s fantastic, but we just can’t get caught up in the thirst trap of the industry.” Which is why, perhaps, 88rising are coming out on top here. An Asian company with Asian artists doing things their own way, without compromising.
“For people to think we are a major force in anything is phenomenal to us, truly,” Sean says. “If we inspire anyone to think more positively, then I’m happy. If we break down any barriers, open any doors, make a kid somewhere think its ok to pick up a pen and write to a beat… then, fuck yes! That’s how the world moves forward; by allowing someone, anyone, to think that something is possible.”
Photography Christine Yuan