88rising: Empire in the making
In a recent video posted to the 88rising YouTube channel, the Chinese rap group Higher Brothers wear matching tracksuits as they spit the lyrics to their song "Made in China," championing their country's hip-hop scene against all comers. In another, Yaeji — a Korean-American synthpop singer named Kathy Lee — grooves to her smooth bilingual jam "Feel It Out" while pineapples float across the screen. “The Fast Rapper Championship!,” meanwhile, features storied rapper Twista squaring off with Ski Mask the Slump God on a digital stage straight out of “Mortal Kombat.”
"It's a new hybrid company," explains company founder Sean Miyashiro, answering a question he hears often: What is 88rising? "We have a media platform, we have a record label, we have a management company, but I think that we don't even pigeonhole ourselves just to that. It's more like we're a collective that can get into any medium of expression, whether it be a live event or a film."
There are a lot of moving parts in this operation, but one constant is YouTube. “It's how people consume and learn,” says Miyashiro. “When I was at [Vice’s EDM vertical Thump], it was like, ‘Hey, we're gonna start a video platform and it's obviously gonna be on YouTube.’ I used to work with Skrillex and all these different artists on different video projects. We found that YouTube is not like any other platform.’”
For 88rising, YouTube isn’t just a distribution channel. It’s a tool for experimentation, A&R, brand development, and more. Miyashiro explains the template he first perfected while at Thump: “First, we try to figure things out inside the YouTube platform, then how to circulate that link outside the platform too." And video is crucial to this approach as well. “There's other music platforms,” says Miyashiro, “but the difference between being able to hear an artist and see an artist is huge.”
One of 88rising’s biggest successes thus far is the Indonesian rapper Rich Chigga, an Indonesian vlogger-turned-rapper who over the past year has collaborated with the likes of Ghostface Killah, Diplo, Young Thug and 21 Savage.
“YouTube is great because it just helps everybody,” says Rich Chigga. “It's like TV on steroids. There's so much information. Before music I used to do cinematography and be super into making films and stuff. I learned just from watching YouTube videos, I didn't go to school for it or anything. I've been producing my own songs, and I've also learned that through watching YouTube.”
88rising uploaded their first video, an original clip of the rapper Desiigner rapping his song "Panda" with Chinese subtitles, on May 16, 2016. They've since accumulated over 370 million total views and over 1.2 million subscribers. They are one of the few companies to be profiled in both Pitchfork and Forbes, if not the first.
"We're resonating globally," Miyashiro says. "I think that's very important to Asian people in the East. They see that we're resonating in the West and resonating in real hip-hop culture, which is very guarded typically. I think that's something they've never seen and they're really embracing us for it."
Miyashiro emphasizes that 88rising's vision isn't limited to Asia and the U.S. Right now, however, that's where most of their artists — a network of musicians, directors and designers — are based. Some, like Higher Brothers, release music directly through 88rising. Others, like Yaeji, already have a label and management, so the company helps promote work that, simply put, they find cool.
"If I like something, we'll support it," Miyashiro explains. "We don't think super-duper hard about things like that. For us it's like, 'Hey, if it feels good, and the vibes are good, it's all good.' And that's how it started in the beginning. It was never like, 'We're this company, and let's sign this artist.'"
In this sense, 88rising uses their YouTube channel to break down another divide: that between creation and curation. "We started working with more and more people. I was like, 'There's no place for all of this. Wouldn't it be great to create a content factory that houses not only our content but more stuff that we'd aim to make with people that are outside of our core roster, spanning all things music?'"
Music and beyond, really. The series “Seoulfood” is like a Food Network program shot in the style of the movie “Drive,” using stylish cinematography to teach viewers how to prepare Korean dumplings and kimchi. “88 Stories” features mini-documentaries on subjects like linguistic developments among Korean workers. “Fresh Deliveries” premieres new songs over images of exquisite food.
"We get inspired by a lot of different things," says Miyashiro. "I think that whatever fits within our spectrum of things that we like, then we see it as a fit. Sometimes we post some random stuff —and I think that's what’s good about us. We never think too hard like, 'You can post this or you can't post that, because it doesn't fit.' We just aim to create whatever we want to create. We're a collective of creators, and I think we're at the tip of this spear.”