88rising founder talks about Higher Brothers and Worldwide Flex

It’s said that a rising tide lifts all boats, and New York-based 88rising has undoubtedly done more than any other organization to raise the profile of Chinese hip hop on the world stage. “It’s hard to do what we do… there are levels to that,” founder Sean Miyashiro told me last month in Shanghai, days after landing in China for the first time. “It’s not a joke, it’s taking shape in the United States. Especially since we are independent, we don’t have a big machine behind us. So, no… there is no one in the world who do what we do.

Although he presents himself as too hyperbolic – “Forget the history of Chinese hip hop, forget the history of Chinese music – it’s straight up the history of Asian music,” Miyashiro later said of from the second Higher Brothers album. Five stars – it is hard to argue with the list of milestones the Chengdu rap team has achieved in the past year under the banner of 88.

Higher Brothers toured the United States twice in 2018 – one with Indonesian rapper Rich Brian, 88rising’s biggest star, and only one headlining – where they performed to sold-out crowds on both. ribs. Higher Brothers also turned heads at 88rising’s inaugural Head in the Clouds Festival in Los Angeles last September, and were recognized for their ‘kinetic’ presence in ForkReview of the eponymous album of the same name with fellow label mates Brian, Keith Ape and Joji. The first reactions of fans to Five stars are also supportive, despite the language barrier – one Redditor claims to have a harder time understanding Soulja Boy’s guest spot on the middle track of the “Top” album than any of the Bros’ transition between l English, Mandarin and Szechuan.


Higher Brothers Releases New Video and Announces February Release of Second Album “Five Stars”

Much of 88rising’s success in translating the Higher Brothers’ hype is due to the fact that it operates more like a PR agency than a record label. Miyashiro estimates that 30% of the company’s staff are dedicated to music full-time, which includes marketing, A&R, creation and artist management. The remaining 70% is split between video production, business development (maintaining relationships with brands like Sprite, Adidas and Beats seeking to tap 88rising’s consumer base) and promoting direct relationships with music streaming platforms and video, the digital medium for which 88rising tailors most of its output.

Rather than working within well-established music industry networks, 88rising has built its influence largely through astute use of social media, producing viral hits like ‘Rappers React to Higher Brothers’ internally and developing personal relationships with platforms such as YouTube, Apple Music and Spotify to increase the algorithmic performance of its content. “These platforms are really global and we have direct relationships, like with the Spotify team in Southeast Asia and Apple Japan,” said Miyashiro. China presents a unique challenge, however, with most Western streaming platforms being blocked and replaced with local equivalents.

This explains why 88rising’s only office outside New York is in Shanghai, where the company employs more than a dozen full-time people. It also indicates why Miyashiro made his very first trip to China last month: 88rising won the Label of the Year award from Chinese music streaming platform NetEase in January, with Higher Brothers taking home the hip hop artist award. of the year at the same event. (Ironically, a month after receiving these awards, several titles on the rise – including “Swimming Pool” and “Red Rubies” from last year Head in the clouds album – were removed from NetEase, apparently for lyrical content outside the comfort zone of Chinese censors.)

Kris Wu poses with Higher Brothers and Rich Brian (Weibo)

Despite an almost universally positive reception in the United States – see glowing profiles in the New Yorker, Rolling stone, and Bloomberg for proof – 88rising has its detractors too, especially among those familiar with both sides of the cultural divide between the United States and China. Rapper Bohan Phoenix was instrumental in managing 88’s relationship with Higher Brothers from the start and acknowledges that the brand has “single-handedly helped raise the profile of Asian creatives over the past two years,” but questions 88rising’s myopic promotion of the hype about an engagement with the community of artists she claims to represent. “Through marketing, public relations, millions of dollars in investment, they’ve gone from zero to capturing the world’s attention as the first and only platform to truly ‘organize’ Asian artists exclusively,” Bohan said, before adding:

“Being there since day one of the company and helping them sign and manage Higher Brothers, as well as helping them with their day-to-day life between New York and China, I saw with my own eyes that they are more of a PR and advertising company than a music company. Their top four performers – Higher Brothers, Rich Brian, Keith Ape, and Joji – were already showing up before 88 came in and picked them up. With Higher Brothers, who were already doing well in China, they really saw the image of ‘Asian Migos’ and decided to push it all the way without thinking about the consequences. Rich Brian was an amazing and talented comedian, but then a joke song breaks out, and he decides to take that joke and use it and make a real career out of it… Keith blew up on his own from ‘It G Ma. ‘Once 88 dealt with his popularity, they just forgot about it and moved on to Brian, and it’s safe to say that Keith’s career was cut short. And sure enough, Joji was already big like Filthy Frank and Pink Guy, and he already had a built-in audience.

“If 88 really cared about cultivating Asian talent and culture, they would cover and highlight heaps and heaps of artists, but because they aren’t as marketable or don’t have a lot of followers, they are completely overlooked and neglected by 88… Just because 88rising is the first platform to focus on Asian culture doesn’t mean is concerned on the well-being of the community.


Bohan Phoenix injects a dose of reality into the Chinese hip hop boom on the new track “YMF”

Either way, it’s clear that Higher Brothers still have the label’s full backing. Five stars may or may not prove the “pivotal moment in Asian music history” that Miyashiro claims to be, but the promotional scale behind it is undeniably epic: The Bros are gearing up for a world tour of 27 cities, where they’ll hit new ones. markets like Detroit, Dallas, Barcelona and Berlin in addition to their proven coastal strongholds of New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. In LA, Higher Brothers performs at the Regent Theater, with a capacity of 1,100. It is perhaps the only underground Chinese group with the potential to sell such a large venue.

Can one exaggerate the PR copy (“The senior brothers define what it means to be Chinese in an increasingly globalized and Internet-powered world,” explains the Five stars press release) and a fixation on digital metrics (“more than 250 million flows in the world”, he later declares) translate into a sustainable model for the development of artists? Are YouTube views and Spotify playlist placements exactly how the music industry operates now, and the only way forward for other Chinese artists hoping to walk the path charted by Higher Brothers? These are the questions hanging over the 88 degree rise and what Chinese music might claim in the future on global attention span.

Lyle L. Maltby

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