Discussions of race in hip-hop generally presume the relevant terms are black and white. However, the most populated place in the world by far is Asia, until recently, a relatively untapped market on the supply-side of rap (peace to Jin). Acts within countries like China were often suppressed by the government, making a break through to the mainstream nearly impossible. The typical hip-hop concert audience, at least in Baltimore and the DMV, generally features few people with roots in the Eastern half of the world, despite being a large and important presence in the country. With the relevance of hip-hop at an all time high, it was only a matter of time before someone began catering to this audience.
This is where the new media company turned record label 88 Rising comes into the picture. Founded by Sean Miyashiro in 2015, the company focuses mostly on its video production, but has recently expanded to release the music of its flagship artists. The goal of the company is to focus on immigrants, specifically Asian immigrants, which helps give the company its unique identity.
88 Rising features an incredibly diverse cast, including Rich Brian, formerly Rich Chigga, who is originally from Indonesia. Born Brian Imanuel, the then 16-year-old had a big hit in 2016 with “Dat Stick,” whose video sits at over 100 million views, and even scored a remix with Ghostface Killah. 88 Rising also signed the Higher Brothers, a four-person rap group straight out of China who mostly rap in Chinese. The group has been cosigned by the likes of Famous Dex and Ski Mask the Slump God, creating Eastern flavored trap bangers. Other standout voices include NIKI, Keith Ape, and August 08, each creating different and unique sounds in their genre.
Arguably the most standout voice in the group belongs to alternative R&B artist Joji, who has had one of the most interesting career arcs in recent history. Joji, whose real name is George Miller, began as an internet personality named Filthy Frank, where he created surreal, irreverent, and often controversial video content on YouTube, establishing himself as one of the weirdest people on the internet. His other alter ego, Pink Guy, is even more over the top and controversial, going as far as to release two “comedy” rap albums under this name. These records were actually received fairly well, despite their ridiculous content, with songs such as “Hot Nickel Ball on a Pussy,” “Please Stop Calling Me Gay,” and the ode to underage Nick sitcom stars, “Nickelodeon Girls.”
Shorty after this full-length release in early 2017, Miller made a hard transition into more serious and mellow R&B stylings along with the name change to Joji. Releasing some singles like “Will He,” and “Demons,” Joji introduced this drastic change in tone, and released an EP, In Tongues, at the end of the year to officially solidify his transition. Joji’s first album under this name is set to release on October 26, and its lead singles so far have generated a lot of hype. Together 88 Rising’s artists released a summer tape this year, which seemed intended to more officially introduce the collective through the vehicle of a summer songs collection, including incredibly catchy tunes like “Midsummer Madness.”
88 Rising embarked on a North American tour this year, their first as a collective, stopping at the MGM National Harbor on October 9, 2018. The show ran straight from 6 to 11 p.m., with little to no breaks in between, and about 8 different sets throughout the evening. Whether a symptom of the highly sophisticated and expensive venue or the organization of the 88 Rising tour, the show ran like clockwork with less than 10 minutes in between each set, keeping the thousands in the audience hooked and ready for more. The most significant and interesting part of the show assuredly was the audience. The vast majority of the patrons of the show were Asian, and many knew the lyrics of every song, regardless of language. Though somewhat dwarfed by the enormous room that holds the MGM National Harbor’s theater stage, the crowd numbered into the thousands, densely packed as close to the stage as possible.
The show consisted of short but energetic sets from all the artists. Some of the best moments included NIKI’s wonderful voice, and the Higher Brothers’s crazy energy and crowd interactions. Rich Brian’s amazing enthusiasm induced some of the best crowd reactions, along with his shirt featuring himself wearing a shirt of himself wearing a shirt of himself. Joji continued his apparent tradition of throwing merch into the crowd, and had the biggest crowd sing-along of the night with “Slow Dancing in the Dark.” The end of the evening featured all of the artists coming out and performing a few songs, including a surprise appearance from DC local GoldLink. The crowd’s enthusiasm never waned during the long evening, and the variety of performances spread throughout the night managed to keep the five-hour spectacle feeling constantly fresh.
88 Rising’s business model is unique and will likely influence many after it. The members of 88 Rising sit in a special place in hip-hop, where, although they may not have attained mainstream appeal by some standards, the group is incredibly popular with an audience that has been ignored or at best appropriated for decades. The artists of 88 Rising still have plenty of room to grow in terms of the music they are creating, but the aesthetic and vision of the company are commendable, and will continue to influence the industry in the future.
These incredible photos from Joey Purp’s performance at Songbyrd Music House, in Washington, DC, on October 8, 2018, were taken by StayUp.News senior content producer and photographer Jack M. Angelo: