RICH BRIAN, Joji, Keith Ape...are all names you have probably heard of or have seen in your YouTube recommendations and Melon discovery. You would have also noticed that these artists share two significant similarities: they are all under the New York City-based hip-hop label 88rising and are all of Asian descent. CEO Sean Miyashiro’s 88rising is currently an Internet sensation, producing one viral song after another and amplifying the exposure of East Asian artists in the western pop culture scene. Today, hip-hop music is no longer a genre for black artists only—with the founding of 88rising’s empire, Asian representation has taken one step further in diversifying rap music under the pop culture umbrella.
Before the Rising
The origins of hip-hop music can be traced back to New York City in the 1970s; with roots in talking blues, performance poetry, and reggae, a new genre was formed among African American block parties in the streets of The Bronx*. According to The Guardian, the first artists in the novel music scene were predominantly black, with pioneers of this up-and-coming genre labelling themselves as DJs, since turntables** were used for producing beats. These DJs from the 1970s are commonly recognized as the old-school rappers, and a new wave of rappers known as the new-school artists followed a few years later. Run-D.M.C., A Tribe Called Quest, N.W.A, and Dr. Dre are all artists from the new-school era, of which critics have claimed to be the “golden age” of hip-hop music. The rise of new-school hip hop was most saturated in the East and West coasts of the United States, with iconic artists such as Tupac and Biggie Smalls representing each coast; musical styles henceforth dichotomized between the West and East coasts of the United States, instigating a cultural rivalry between the two poles.
Though still predominantly black, the racial spectrum of hip-hop music marginally diversified in the 1990s and early 2000s with white artists such as Eminem entering the scene. Machine Gun Kelly, Macklemore, and G-Eazy are popular white hip-hop artists today, but the genre is still synonymous with original black music.
88rising: the genesis
Meanwhile, Asian artists in both North America and Asia have already developed hip-hop scenes of their own, though relatively smaller in scale. In 2015 Sean Miyashiro and Jason Ma founded 88rising—the first Asian-oriented label company—and Asian hip-hop began to gain attention in the North American music scene with its emergence. In an interview with Stereogum, Miyashiro explained that he established this company because he wanted to “create a media brand that speaks to the two billion Asians’ tastes,” and that he always had a vision of “celebrating and communicating the Asian culture to people outside of Asia.”
Before 88rising, Miyashiro had been trying to make his dream a reality when he worked specifically with Asian artists during his time at the multimedia and management company VICE. However, he soon set out to launch a company of his own, CXSHXNLY, which in time became what 88rising is today. Miyashiro became one step closer to his vision for 88rising when he discovered Keith Ape—a Korean rapper—who had dropped his breakout single “It G Ma.” The single received large attention in the United States, as it was the first Asian hip-hop song to have been recognized in a predominantly African American music sphere. Upon seeing the success of “It G Ma,” Miyashiro recognized this as an opportunity to popularize Asian hip-hop on the world stage. Since then, 88rising worked on signing aspiring Asian artists and increasing their popularity in the music scene. Distinguished artists such as Rich Brian and Joji have joined 88rising since then, and both artists snatched the center stage of the mainstream music industry.
88rising continued to expand as the years passed, with 15 artists joining the label and their music gaining even more recognition from the hip-hop scene by 2019. With the rising number of subscribers and view counts for their videos, 88rising launched its first Asian tour in 2017, where they toured around nine major Asian cities. The tickets were sold out every stop, and the tour ended up being a massive success. In 2018, the agency released its first compilation album—Head in the Clouds; world-renowned artists such as A$AP Ferg and Waka Flocka Flame participated in the album as feature artists, garnering global attention. The company also organized a “Head in the Clouds” festival in August 2019, with other acclaimed Asian artists such as DPR Live, iKON, and Y2K headlining the show. This festival was a milestone for the Asian music industry as it marked the first-ever music show with an Asian-only lineup in the United States. Moreover, with Joji’s individual world tour in 2019 and Rich Brian’s newly released singles, 88rising’s individual artists are continuously setting records with their music and tours.
Stretching the spectrum
At first glance, 88rising’s immediate success may seem like a result of their unique identity as the first platform for Asian-exclusive media. It is much more than that, though. First, trendiness is what served as the catalyst for their skyrocketing success. Many followers of the platform are well aware that Japanese singer Joji was already a bona fide YouTube celebrity before joining the label with his launching of the “Harlem Shake” rage in 2013. Virtual comedy trends such as the Harlem Shake are what 88rising aims to continue achieving—to create Internet sensations on platforms such as Twitter, and to enhance exposure and thereafter build up a substantial fan base. Rich Brian’s notable single “Dat $tick” also followed this pattern, appealing to his audience through the use of obscene humor. 88rising’s effective use of Internet comedy, commonly known as memes, stimulated a flourishing netizen audience.
Today we are living in the graphic age. Under the framework of social networking services such as Instagram, we are more exposed to information through visuals—photographs, gifs, emojis, videos, and infographics—and 88rising adequately captivates the Internet masses using a specific type of aesthetic appeal. Lo-fi*** art, 1980s pop graphics, streetwear fashion, film camera photography, and graffiti illustrations are all fashionable visuals in 2019 media. Such aesthetics are deeply embedded in 88rising’s image ranging from album covers and music videos to promotional posters. The label’s constant exposure on social media and its visual appeal were building blocks in the construction of the 88 empire. The tag empire appears frequently in article headlines, as the label is not limited to solely the production of albums and music videos. Like an empire, 88rising encompasses all factors of pop culture, establishing their own Internet trends, photography, fashion, and cinema. According to Forbes, “88rising is working off a tight-knit, artist-centric community, rather than rallying a mass-market, passive audience—and is arguably having more success.” In the same article, Joji responded by comparing 88rising’s versatility with “Disney.” Similar to Disney, 88rising’s attitude is creative and experimental, all under the premise of boundary-less possibilities.
88rising not only challenges the scope of mass media as a multi-media agency, but also amplifies the diversity in the hip-hop scene in western culture by breaking stereotypes and conventions. Asian artists who receive recognition in their own countries consider 88rising as a platform that provides opportunities to branch out in America and western media. Such phenomenon is evidence of the growth of hip-hop music culture from its genesis in New York City—which is, coincidentally, the site where 88rising’s headquarters are based in.
88rising and its progress in promoting Asian artists is noteworthy: with its success in hip-hop, the company is currently expanding into R&B and pop industry with artists like Joji and NIKI respectively. 88rising is also working on representing and raising the popularity of Asian artists in the western music field. Artists such as Kris Wu and CL have massive popularity and influence in China and Korea as hip-hop artists; however, as they do not have the same amount of “power” in the American hip-hop field, 88rising has helped them build a career in the western music scene by taking them under its wing.
88rising has been referred to in popular media as “the Asian rap collective changing the music industry” and “the future of music labels” by Paper magazine. Media critics praise the company for “making a place for Asians in hip-hop,” “raising the bar for Asian representation,” and “reshaping popular culture and its image.” Within the world of popular media, 88rising is considered a phenomenon, a cultural outbreak that is finally giving a well-deserved voice to Asians. Many Asian fans feel that 88rising have empowered them and have broken the stereotype that has been ingrained in popular media for a long time. Kim Ji-hoon, a sophomore majoring in Media, Culture, and Communications in New York University offered his thoughts on 88rising’s massive success. In an interview with The Yonsei Annals, Kim explained that 88rising managed to unite the Asian artists that were starting to “make noise” in the hip-hop scene—noises that people could choose to ignore. He claimed that had it not been for the company and its efforts to put up a united front for Asian hip-hop artists, those “noises” would have only remained as “noises.” Because of the collaborative efforts and the clearly driven goal of making a mark in the hip-hop scene as Asians altogether, those scattered sounds were able to come together and become “music.” He added that it was truly amazing to see 88rising pull off such a successful music festival that only had Asian artists for its line-up. “I hope the company grows to become bigger than what they are now. They are setting a precedent with every move, and I hope their stride doesn’t stop anytime soon. They give me pride in being an Asian—I feel represented in a field I thought I would never be represented in, thanks to them.”
88rising’s mark in popular media is indisputable; yet, as rookies in the industry, there is still much room for improvement: primarily diversifying the types of Asian artists they represent and increasing their recognition in the Asian music industry. As of now, the label mainly represents East Asian artists with only two Southeast Asian artists and 88rising has yet to sign any South Asian artist. What’s more, there is still room for enhancing representation in terms of female artists in the company since there are only three within the music label as of 2019.
Secondly, there is great potential in store for the company if they market towards listeners within Asia. 88rising has established itself in the United States, but it has yet to make impact in the Asian music industry. The company is well-known among music enthusiasts, but its goal and the achievements that they have accomplished are not as established within Asia itself. As a media company striving to represent Asians in the western music field, it would be favorable for the company to garner support from their roots. As an attempt to bring attention to the company, Rich Brian released a collaborative song with Chungha, a famous K-pop singer, in October 2019. Although the track did not gain much attention among Korean listeners, it is definitely a step towards raising awareness of 88rising in Asia.
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The 21st century has seen remarkable improvements in Asian representation in popular media. All aspects of pop culture, ranging from music, comedy, and film, have grown richer with more Asians displaying their talents for the world to see. Asians are finally getting considerable recognition in fields they were marginalized in, and much of this is thanks to 88rising.
The media company itself is viewed as a miracle within the music industry. What started out as a small media company by an ordinary Asian man has now become one of the most recognized labels in the western music media. However, this is still not enough for Sean Miyashiro and his artists: until the day Asian artists top the hip-hop charts on Billboard and Asian artists are represented in all fields of the music industry, 88rising will continue to rise.
**Turntables: Record players with rotating circular plates
***Lo-fi: Short for low fidelity, a musical trait where features often considered as glitches are purposely kept in the audio as a stylistic touch