- 88Rising is an innovative new entertainment company for the social-media age, combining a record label with a creative agency, a house for web-video production, and an artist-management agency.
- The company, which features hip-hop stars such as Rich Brian, Joji, and the Higher Brothers, was founded by Sean Miyashiro to “celebrate Asian talent and Asian stories and Asian culture.”
- The company built its name early on with viral hits, but Miyashiro wants to turn his company into a “Vice or Disney for Asians.”
- The company’s greatest asset might be Miyashiro’s ability to work out savvy partnerships with brands including Guess and Sprite.
If you want to understand where the entertainment industry is going in the age of Instagram, SnapChat, and Soundcloud, look no further than 88Rising, the shape-shifting startup that not even 37-year-old founder Sean Miyashiro can find a tidy way to explain.
From the outside, it looks like a record label mixed with a creative agency, a web-video production house, and an artist-management company. But if you ask Miyashiro to explain what exactly 88Rising is, as I did recently, he tends to chuckle.
“Damn. It’s funny because I always answer this different,” Miyashiro told me. It’s as if he knows his company is a Rorschach test for the media, his investors, and its fans.
“We’re really focused on creating superstars and creating heroes and creating something that people can really believe in and be excited about. A global media company that focuses on celebrating Asian talent and Asian stories and Asian culture.”
88Rising – “88” in Chinese means “double happiness” – launched three years ago. It has already fostered several stars. While its biggest names don’t yet rival name-brand artists like Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber, they have dedicated followings and a certain cachet with connected Gen Zers.
The biggest of the bunch include Brian Imanuel, a 19-year-old rapper and beatmaker who goes by the name Rich Brian; George Miller, a Japanese-born R&B singer who got his start as a YouTube star making outrageous comedy videos before turning to music full time under the moniker Joji; and the Higher Brothers, a quartet of rappers from Chengdu, China, who make high-energy, bouncy tunes about modern Chinese life, like the group’s 2017 single “WeChat,” about the titular Chinese messaging app.
When Miyashiro has been asked to explain it, he’s likened his company to a future Vice and Disney. It’d be easy to write off Miyashiro as having delusions of grandeur, but 88Rising and its fans are the kind of thing you need to see in action to really understand.
88Rising and its founder, Sean Miyashiro, have their fingers on the pulse
On a warm September night, Miyashiro invited me to attend the New York date of the company’s 88 Degrees & Rising Tour.
The 21-date road show comes on the heels of 88Rising’s inaugural Head in the Clouds music festival in Los Angeles, which brought together the company’s complete artist lineup, featuring artists from Indonesia, Korea, China, and LA, for the first time.
Held at Pier 17, a swanky rooftop at the southern tip of Manhattan, the concert started slow as the streetwear-clad attendees filed in and 88Rising’s newest artists ran through abbreviated set lists.
Those early sets, like much of 88Rising’s oeuvre, have a DIY quality. Like the first generation of YouTube stars, the artists feel talented, but unstudied and rough around the edges. The artists alternate between bleeding their hearts with unvarnished honesty and making the next irony-laden meme-inspired joke. In a way, each artist’s persona seems designed, intentionally or not, to make teenagers feel like they could be one of them.
In recent dates on the 88 Degrees and Rising Tour, Joji has taken to juggling between songs.
During his set, August 08 – an LA-based African-American singer who traffics in melodic and atmospheric R&B – stops the music to egg on the crowd. “Everybody yell ‘F–k!'” he shouted mischievously. “F–k, f–k, f–k, f–k!”
At one point, he stops mid-song and directs the crowd to look at the sunset. “Everybody look at that skyline. It’s beautiful, man.”
At first I can’t tell if he’s trolling the crowd, but then everyone turns toward the Hudson River. The sunset is gorgeous, with pink, purple, and orange cotton-candy clouds.
Downstairs, in the green room, August introduced himself shyly before complaining that he wasn’t sure the crowd was feeling the set. He, like the rest of the 88Rising crew, is earnest in person. A few minutes later, Rich Brian, Joji, and others in 88Rising’s orbit debated the merits of Brockhampton, another of-the-moment hip-hop collective.
Meanwhile, Miyashiro was in another room finishing up an interview with Vice. The budding mogul is nothing if not savvy. In the last year, he’s scored glowing features in Bloomberg, The New Yorker, and CNN.
After the interview wraps up, he starts talking shop with me. Wearing a rolled cuff skullcap pulled back over messy hair, a wispy beard, and a flamboyantly patterned button-down, Miyashiro has a mind that never seems to stray too far from work. Within minutes, he’s asking me if I shoot video, telling me Business Insider’s feature on 88Rising would work really well as a video, and offering pointers to Vice’s videographers on where they might get the best shots for the segment they’re producing. The funny part is, he’s totally right.
Miyashiro is prone, like his artists, to switch rapidly between impish trolling and wide-eyed earnestness. In the elevator up to the rooftop concert, I ask him about Thump, the now defunct electronic music site he cocreated at Vice, he looks at me deadpan and says, “What’s Thump?” He holds it for a moment before he starts cracking up: “I’m just f—-ing with you, man.”
It’s clear Miyashiro understands the digital-media game better than most – its need for headlines, hooks, and, above all, content – and he knows it.
To Miyashiro’s mind, 88Rising has four parts to its business: a digital-media and video-production business, a music label, a burgeoning arm looking into film and TV opportunities, and a “cultural agency business” working with like-minded brands.
When describing his strategy for helping Chinese megastar Kris Wu break into American hip-hop, Miyashiro told The New Yorker he discouraged Wu from appearing on “Good Morning America.” The morning show’s 4 million viewers aren’t who Wu needs. Miyashiro told Wu he needs the audiences who read hip-hop magazines like XXL and Complex and listens to Zane Lowe on Apple Music’s Beats 1.
Later, when I ask him where the idea for 88Rising started, he again turns to deadpan: “The idea started in my brain. Like, I was just chilling and I was, like, ‘I wanna do that.'” But then he pauses, as if recognising that he needs to be earnest again.
“The whole genesis of 88Rising came from me and my friends hanging out,” Miyashiro said. “I was fortunate enough to hang out with a lot of different creators and people doing cool things that happened to be Asian. They were all leaders in their respective fields, whether it was graphic design or acting or music.
“And I just thought that … if we all tried to combine [our skills] and do something with a real, concerted effort, it was gonna be something that’s better than nothing because nothing existed.”
Early on, Miyashiro figured out how to turn viral hits into a career
Miyashiro possesses a native’s understanding of media, virality, and, in a word, cool. His initial incarnation of the company was a DIY management firm called CXSHXNLY that he started in 2015 from the roof of a Bronx parking garage.
He would trawl the internet looking for up-and-coming rappers from Asia. Miyashiro’s first client was Jonathan Park, a Korean-American rapper who goes by the name Dumbfoundead.
His first big success came when Park showed him the video for the 2015 hit “IT G MA,” by Lee Dongheon, a South Korean rapper who goes by the name Keith Ape. Miyashiro and Park persuaded Ape to come to the US for the South by Southwest talent showcase in Austin, Texas. Miyashiro then persuaded Lee to become a client.
Shortly after, Miyashiro contacted Taiwanese-American music producer Josh Pan to create a remix of “IT G MA” with Waka Flocka, A$AP Ferg, Father, and Dumfoundead. The remix reportedly cost him less than $US10,000 to pull off. It and the SXSW performance launched Ape’s US stardom.
Miyashiro’s stewardship of Ape’s career speaks to how 88Rising, even in its prototype stage, has positioned itself as different from the rest of the music industry and – if Miyashiro’s ambitions are realised – Hollywood too. Miyashiro didn’t simply release a new song for Ape; he strategically directed Ape’s entire entrance into the culture, from his media appearances and his early shows to his artistic direction. It was a creative, hands-on approach to get his artist the right looks from the right people.
“Our label exists because no major label or distributor or American music company’s gonna know what to do with something like this,” Miyashiro said. “We’re the only ones who are gonna know and it’s not easy.”
Miyashiro pulled a similar feat with Rich Brian.
In 2016, Rich Brian was 16 and going by the problematic moniker Rich Chigga, a portmanteau of Chinese and the N-word. He independently released the rap song “Dat $tick.” The accompanying video features the young Indonesian rapping hip-hop tropes like gunplay and fancy cars in his shockingly deep baritone as he struts in a pink polo shirt and fanny pack. The video went viral – it currently has 105 million views – likely because of the transgressive incongruity between Brian’s appearance, his voice, and his lyrics, and the spectacle of seeing hip-hop distorted in his irreverent and foreign lens. But it also courted controversy for Brian’s use of the N-word, his rap name, and, in some eyes, his cultural appropriation.
Miyashiro’s response was to bring together a number of up-and-coming and established hip-hop artists to film a series of videos at South by Southwest. The most successful of the bunch featured the artists reacting to “Dat $tick” and Rich Brian as they watched the video live. Among others, Cam’ron, 21Savage, the Flatbush Zombies, and Ghostface Killah feature in the video, which has more than 18 million views. For the most part, the artists respond positively, if incredulously, to Brian’s style and flow.
Later that year, Ghostface Killah recorded a remix of the track. It has more than 13 million views in its own right.
The video was a savvy move. By putting the question of “Dat $tick” directly to hip-hop’s artists, Miyashiro recontextualized the conversation around Brian’s cultural appropriation and get him rubber-stamped as an artist who could be taken seriously.
Brian dropped the Rich Chigga moniker in favour of Rich Brian at the beginning of this year, shortly before releasing his debut album “Amen.” The album, for the most part, eschews the gangster-rap and trap cosplay for songs both autobiographical and introspective about what it’s like to live Brian’s strange life. He began as an outcast and an introvert using Twitter and Vine as an outlet for his sometimes offensive humour before producing his own music and hip-hop.
Miyashiro maintained that Brian came to the decision to pursue more personal music on his own, adding that 88Rising’s artists are self-directed when it comes to their art. But it seems likely that Miyashiro – and by extension Brian – were influenced by the internet conversations around cultural appropriation. Other 88Rising artists have drawn similar criticism.
“He hasn’t done anything remotely similar since. He’s grown as a person and as an artist, and now has a much more global point of view,” Miyashiro said of “Dat $tick” and Rich Brian. “None of our artists are talking about anything that they don’t do.”
88Rising’s big sell is that it can bring new brands to its audience and new audiences to its brand
What makes 88Rising unique, aside from its focus on Asian stars and entertainment, is its business model.
While Miyashiro started his career with a number of music-related jobs, he made his first real mark at Vice. In 2013, electronic dance music was blowing up and he, along with several friends who managed EDM acts, persuaded Vice to let them set up a new media platform dedicated to the genre. By covering dance music and nightlife from an insider’s perspective, Thump quickly gained the respect of both established and up-and-coming artists and a dedicated following among the larger underground dance-music culture.
Miyashiro helped build Thump from the ground up. He said the experience helped shape his blueprint for how to launch a media property. Tom Punch, Vice’s chief commercial and creative director, told Bloomberg that Miyashiro had a talent for pulling in advertisers, like Anheuser-Busch InBev, that wanted to capitalise on the EDM boom.
It’s easy to see the parallels between 88Rising and Vice. Miyashiro doesn’t shy away from them.
“There are a lot of differences from our business to theirs, but the one core aspect that might be similar is that Vice has an incredibly strong brand,” Miyashiro said. “They have been able to take that brand and what it stands … and they have been able to expand their brand into all these different opportunities.”
As of right now, the music label is the most fully fledged and well known, thanks to Rich Brian, Joji, and the rest of 88Rising’s roster. But it’s hard not to think that it’s Miyashiro’s keen eye for working with big brands that persuaded global advertising firm WPP to invest a reported $US4.5 million of a total $US7 million that the company has raised so far.
In January, the company worked with the ad agency Ogilvy to come up with the concept for a Sprite commercial in China featuring MaSiWei, one of the members of Higher Brothers. The ad, which began airing just before the Lunar New Year, China’s biggest holiday, features MaSiWei visiting his family for the holidays. The family asks him the usual prying questions about his girlfriend and his salary, which MaSiWei deflects with an ice-cold Sprite and rhymes from his single “Refresh,” the video for which also doubles as a Sprite commercial.
“We were actually pitching against all of these legacy agencies in the market that have been there forever and we won,” Miyashiro said. “We’ve never even made a television commercial before.”
The ad and the song are the kind of intermingling of editorial and advertising that brands crave and Vice has oftenbeen criticised for. But whereas Vice must adhere to the standards of a news organisation, 88Rising has no such obligations. It’s an entertainment company committed to raising the profile of its artists and its own brand. The symbiotic leveraging of brands – using big-name ones to introduce 88Rising and its artists to more people and the use of 88Rising’s brand to confer street cred on those brands – is the point.
It’s more or less what Miyashiro has already done in music, partnering with the hip-hop press-approved artists that have been featured on 88Rising’s songs. Playboi Carti, Ghostface Killah, Famous Dex, and Wacka Flocka Flame – all of whom have been featured in 88Rising songs or remixes – give 88Rising’s artists credibility while 88Rising introduces those artists to its fan base.
Though the ad was successful, Miyashiro maintains that, nine months later, 88Rising is onto the next evolution of its business model. Whereas the Sprite commercial came out of a standard ad-industry process – brand produces brief, creative teams pitch ideas, brand selects winner – Miyashiro is after what he calls “true partnerships.” Miyashiro doesn’t want 88Rising to be subject to selling ad impressions against its audience or erecting content paywalls, like most digital-media companies, or responding to briefs like an advertising firm.
Instead, he wants 88Rising to create projects that, by virtue of their premium nature, brands simply want to help fund and be associated with.
“When we get into any type of brand conversation or any type of partnership conversation, we already have the ideas for things that we, as 88Rising, want to make,” Miyashiro said. “We’re not looking to ask [brands] what they want and then make it for them.”
The first fruit of this approach is 88Rising’s upcoming collaboration with the clothing brand Guess, set to drop on November 8. The 14-piece collection features clothing pieces costing up to $US148 and all designed in colourful, psychedelic tie-dye, a nod to the company’s recent compilation album, “Head in the Clouds.”
Guess has a long history in hip-hop. Last year it worked with rapper and fashion icon A$AP Rocky on a clothing line. But, Miyashiro said, this is the first time Guess has collaborated with an Asian company.
Miyashiro maintains that the collaboration came out of creatives at 88Rising and those at Guess wanting to work together, not Guess asking them how to enter the Asian market.
“It’s more like we’re going to come together and our brand is going to be amplified through this and their brand is going to be amplified through this,” Miyashiro said. “When this comes out, this is another thing that elevates us.”
At the concert in New York, the 88Rising employees I met were already dressed in Guess x 88Rising T-shirts. The S’s are turned into 88s with an the company’s signature arrow. It’s likely only a matter of time before 88Rising’s artists are decked out in the swag too.
88Rising is already looking to get to the next level
This year 88Rising nearly doubled in size, from 24 to 45 employees, and has opened new offices in Los Angeles and Shanghai. But as I visited its headquarters in Chelsea, it feels like 88Rising is notable for what it could be rather than what it is. And right now that’s a scrappy young company and CEO making it up as they go.
The way Miyashiro talks, I’d be forgiven for imagining the company’s headquarters akin to Vice’s now famous swanky Williamsburg hipster warehouse. In reality, it’s a workmanlike room with exposed brick walls on the fourth floor of a doormanless building that holds maybe a dozen or so people crowded around laptops and iMacs where video editors cut the brand’s latest YouTube videos.
Miyashiro’s office is in the back. Decorated with a glass table, a velvet sofa, and large neon sign featuring an 88 and the Chinese character for “rising,” it appears to double as a conference room. Framed album covers of 88Rising’s artists hang on the walls.
As we wait to start the interview, Miyashiro seems a bit self-conscious about the office’s startup-standard wood tables and chairs and starts quizzing one of his employees about when she could upgrade the furniture to something more “dope.”
Miyashiro’s eyes always seem set on the next evolution of his vision.
“You might look at us right now and say, ‘Hey, 88Rising is the leading Asian label. They have a great collective,’ Miyashiro said. “But in a year or two from now, we’d like to have films that have been made and brought to the world … Three years from now, we might have our own TV channel.”
Getting to that point will largely rely on 88Rising’s artists continuing to execute and Miyashiro and his team continuing to find ways to get its audience hooked on new artists. In a lot of ways, the team had it easy with 88Rising’s first generation of artists. Before Miyashiro began working with them, Keith Ape had already come out with his career-making single “IT G MA”; Rich Brian had already gone viral with “Dat $tick”; and Joji was already a bona fide star on YouTube, albeit for his comedic antics. He invented the “Harlem Shake” meme when three costumed friends danced along to the Baauer hit.
With artists like Indonesian singer Nikki and August 08, the company’s first African-American artist, Miyashiro is more or less starting from scratch. And that’s before you get into the difficulty of getting an Asian-led film or TV show made in Hollywood, with or without the box-office success of “Crazy Rich Asians.” But none of that scares Miyashiro.
“We like doing things that nobody else has done before,” Miyashiro said. “We want to be a part of that conversation.”