Straight outta… China? The young Asian artists bucking hip-hop trends

Updated 11:14 PM EDT, Wed August 2, 2017

Story highlights

Bridging East and West, 88 Rising has helped Asian rappers find an audience in America.

The Brooklyn hip-hop collective includes YouTube stars who racked up millions of views.

CNN —  

His rhymes are reminiscent of the gangster rap of 50 Cent, but instead of a do-rag and six-pack, baby-faced teenage rapper Rich Chigga sports a pink polo and fanny pack.

Indonesian-born Rich Chigga, whose viral hit “Dat $tick” has racked up more than 50 million views online, is the principal – and some say unlikely – face of a new generation of edgy, young Asian hip-hop acts, whose growing popularity among US audiences is helping to subvert Asian music stereotypes.

Born Brian Imanuel, 17-year-old Rich Chigga is signed to 88 Rising, a Brooklyn-based record label responsible for acts such as Korean rapper Keith Ape, Chinese hip-hop group Higher Brothers and Joji, a Japanese-Australian producer who kicked off the Harlem Shake meme video phenomenon.

“We want to push the culture forward,” said 88 Rising head Sean Miyashiro. “We’re not trying to break stereotypes or change people’s mindsets. We’re showing people what we can do, by doing what we do.”

Miyashiro, a Japanese-Korean Brooklynite, founded the label in early 2016 after leaving his job at Vice Media’s electronic music platform Thump. “At first it’s a wild visual to see, somebody Asian rapping that way, killing it in a video,” said Miyashiro of the label’s appeal.

The company, which is known for its slew of massive viral video hits and collaborations with established American artists such as Ghostface Killah and Skrillex, has reached a sort of cult status among fans, especially those in Asia.

“Our artists and our brand is the most influential in Asia because we aren’t coming from some manufactured pop machine. We are the tip of the sphere of a new face of music,” said Miyashiro. “The reason for that is we are the first label that actually is making impact in the West and East.”

Japanese-Korean Brooklynite Sean Miyashiro
88 Rising
Japanese-Korean Brooklynite Sean Miyashiro

Straight outta China

But 88 Rising acts are not the first Asian faces to make inroads in America.

In 2004, Chinese American rapper MC Jin made headlines after winning numerous freestyle battles, before later signing to the well-known hip-hop label Ruff Ryders.

“It was good that Jin and people like that existed to trailblaze the way, but it’s a completely different era now,” said Miyashiro. “I think with social media, people are used to seeing Asian people in general … and the world is more open.”

Compared with MC Jin’s debut single “Learn Chinese,” Higher Brothers’ online hit “Made in China” offers more of a nuanced take on modern Asian identity. Both songs mix English and Chinese lyrics, but the Higher Brothers go deeper, poking fun at themselves. (Sample lyric: “My chains, new gold watch, made in China. We play ping-pong ball, made in China.”) In the video, which has so far racked up more than 3 million hits on YouTube, they don China Olympics track suits and Chun Li-style buns, all the while rapping in a slow Dirty South-like drawl.

Unlike themes common in US hip-hop, the Higher Brothers rap about their everyday lives, with songs about 7-11 convenience stores and the social media platform WeChat. Their lyrics alternate between the profane and the profound. One of their emcees, Melo, even got in trouble with China’s notorious censors over a viral song about Uber that featured the lines, “I don’t write political hip-hop. But if any politicians try to shut me up, I’ll cut off their heads and lay them at their corpses’ feet.”