The May 5 show proved one thing: Higher Brothers are becoming one of the biggest musical imports in America. It’s an unprecedented story for a Chinese hip-hop act who are chasing their dreams of making it in the States, following in the footsteps of Keith Ape and his crossover success with “It G Ma.” Higher Brothers are carrying Keith Ape’s torch and creating a lane for other Chinese rappers to make a name for themselves in America too.
With the group’s release of their sophomore album, Five Stars, featuring new generation rap stars like Ski Mask the Slump God, Denzel Curry, J.I.D, Soulja Boy, ScHoolboy Q, and Guapdad4000, they’ve made historic strides in how Asian artists are being accepted in hip-hop, through the efforts of hybrid label/collective/company 88Rising’s visibility and brand loyalty. A non-Chinese listener, who may like Higher Brothers because they’ve collaborated with their favorite American rappers, are more prone to learn about their story and culture in 2019. Especially with China embracing hip-hop in the mainstream – and the popularity of Kris Wu, Vava, and others – it’s a movement that the world can no longer ignore.
Back in March, Billboard had dinner with Higher Brothers at Tang Hotpot, a Lower East Side Sichuan restaurant. Higher Brothers are originally from Chengdu, located in the Sichuan province, which is home to spicy cuisine and flavors. Masiwei, 26, KnowKnow, 22, Psy.P, 24, and Melo, 24, greet everyone with hugs and handshakes. Masiwei orders for the group, getting four yin-yang hot pots that contain spicy and non-spicy broths, an assortment of vegetables, and a variety of meats — including pork brain.
Before the food arrives, Higher Brothers joke about how they have too much hotpot when they come to America that it starts to make their stomachs hurt. But during our chat, they’re grateful for their opportunities, like touring America for the first time as headliners on the Journey to the West Tour in 2018 (named after a popular 16th century Chinese novel), or meeting artists they admire face-to-face. The group says they were inspired by a particular studio session with Atlanta rapper MadeinTYO, who records much faster than they were used to. “We had our own way in China that we think was right,” Melo says. “But when we went to America, these rappers work harder than us. We need to do more.”
When they attended Rolling Loud Bay Area 2018 in Oakland as fans, it was a new goal for the group to perform at one of the biggest hip-hop festivals in the country. Watching Playboi Carti encourage mosh pits sparked the idea for their own call-to-action anthem “Open It Up,” which has an old-school feel with new-school raps. It was the second single off Five Stars, following their first “16 Hours” about the long flight to China from the States.
They describe the album as having two meanings: Five Stars pays respect to China’s national flag and its golden stars, as well as top-quality, five-star raps.
“This is where we are from,” Masiwei says. “And when we joined into this game, we just wanted people to know we can do some good music. And also, we represent China. So we need the people to know we come from China. You only know Chinese is good at math. Now Chinese is good at rap. We can do some swag shit.”
“Also, we use a different language,” Melo adds. “We can make America interested in our language, our culture. I think it is a good, good thing for China and America. You can learn our culture. We can learn your culture.”
It’s on this day that Higher Brothers traveled to Staten Island to record with Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA and Ghostface Killah. The legendary group is known for imparting Shaolin wisdom, as found in albums like their classic 1993 debut Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), and while Higher Brothers were tight-lipped about the collaboration, it’s rooted in a mutual admiration for each other’s culture.
“They really, really respect China culture,” KnowKnow says. “They will say 'Amituofo' for [greeting] the master. That makes me [feel] amazing.” (“Cool,” says Psy.P, a man of few words, about working with Wu-Tang.)
To their credit, Higher Brothers have a vast knowledge of hip-hop, thanks to their passion for the genre, and its modern-day accessibility via the Internet. Combined, their influences include such East Coast hip-hop fixtures DJ Premier and Pete Rock, Big L, Nas, Big Daddy Kane, and The Notorious B.I.G.
After dinner and celebratory shots of sake, the conversation steers into how the group met. Masiwei explains Psy.P and Melo used to be a duo called TDC, or TianDi Clan. They were all in Chengdu at the time, around 2012-2013, before a mutual friend suggested they meet and perform together. Masiwei, who is from Pixian, was a solo artist who joined Chengdu Rap House (CDC), a loose collective of young local rappers, in 2013, touring different cities in China by himself.
Masiwei met KnowKnow, who is from Nanjing, through Weibo in 2014, after KnowKnow direct messaged him for a beat. They collaborated on a song for a restaurant promotion, which made Masiwei curious about his other material. He discovered one of KnowKnow's songs on Weibo and was surprised by his rapping. “I never listened to Chinese rap like this," he remembers. "It just sounds like I listened to English rap. All the swag, the feeling, and the style. It’s what I want." Masiwei shared the song on his Weibo account, a prominent Chinese social media platform. "I already had my fans," he explains. "So when I [shared] it, all my brothers, they go listen. ‘Oh, it’s fire!’ And everybody [reshared] it. He became a little bit famous.”
Masiwei ran an idea to CDC’s Boss Shady, a mentor of his, about bringing new talent to Chengdu. In 2015, Higher Brothers decided to live in an apartment together, which also served as their first makeshift studio for recording music. Masiwei remembers getting criticized for rapping unlike traditional Chinese hip-hop at the time. “They feel like, ‘It’s not Chinese. You can’t change the tone. You just make it worse,’” he says of altering the dialects of Mandarin and Sichuanese. “But we just keep doing it. We want to say something, but we can’t -- ‘cause you talk to haters, there’s more haters come. We just keep going, we make tracks everyday. Back to back.”
After releasing a self-titled mixtape with breakout songs “Black Cab,” “WeChat,” and “7/11,” 88Rising officially signed Higher Brothers to the label in 2016. Uploaded in June 2017 by 88Rising, “Rappers React to Higher Brothers” was a heat check for Black Cab’s “Made in China” featuring Famous Dex, a song created in response to YouTube commenters who said negative things about their Chinese raps. With over three million views to date, it’s the video that gave Higher Brothers their first American co-signs on camera, as guys like Lil Yachty, Migos, and Denzel Curry praised the song and their rap skills.
“We felt so excited, because all these rappers we listened [to], we fucked with them,” Masiwei says. “But now, they say they listen to our music, we did a good job. It made us more confident. Since that time, we make sure we do the right thing.”
“We know we are on our way,” Melo adds.
Five Stars is the result of each member pushing themselves to be better, furthering the Higher Gang brand with collabs that you would never expect. Krez, who is also an A&R and producer for 88Rising, was behind the album's “One Punch Man,” a song that took two years to put together with Ronnie J, and the KOHH-featuring “We Talkin Bout." He met Higher Brothers at 88Rising Asia Tour in Beijing in 2017, and became friends with them ever since.
Krez says more artists are working with Higher Brothers because “they genuinely like the guys and what they stand for.” It’s not a matter of cultural appropriation or wave-riding per say, but a bridge to close the gap between the East and West -- something that Chinese rapper Bohan Phoenix has preached in his early career.
“It’s just great to see somebody from a different culture [make it]," Krez says. "Like Rich Brian as well. He came from Indonesia and he taught himself English and all that... It’s the American dream. But for them, it is more difficult. They have to go through a lot more just to get here.”
To expose a wider audience to Asian hip-hop, 88Rising partnered with Red Bull for a new documentary called Asia Rising: The Next Generation of Hip-Hop, which came out in March. Director Jonathon Lim wanted to spotlight artists from different parts of Asia to see “the effects of how hip-hop has come from America, and how that culture has come across to Asia.” Vietnam, Korea, Indonesia, Japan, and China are represented through a prominent artist from each country. In it, Higher Brothers’ story of their rise to fame is retold for the unfamiliar, with Masiwei pointing out in one scene that “the world is getting closer,” and everyone is reinterpreting hip-hop for their culture.
“I was asking Rich Brian about this, ‘Are you surprised that these crowds are into Asian hip-hop?’" Lim says. "He’s like, ‘Well you see a track like "Despacito." People can dance to it, they can rock to it, even if they don’t know that language... I think that was a lot of Higher Brothers’ first experiences actually, was kind of breaking through these different countries in Asia, who also don’t traditionally understand their lyrics. They already had to break through those language barriers within Asia, so just because they come to the U.S. and they look different, the language barrier is kind of the same -- what they already experienced.”
“We are proud of this,” Masiwei says of being trailblazers. “But for me, we just think less. Do more. I only know you just need to focus on your work. You do everything, you meet every people who run this shit, run this business. You know who you need to talk to, you know who you don’t need to make friends with. Then focus on your music. Post the music. Keep positive. Then everything will come true.”
In a full-circle moment, Higher Brothers made their debut at Rolling Loud Miami on Saturday, May 11, on the Audiomack Stage. They introduced themselves as Higher Brothers, who come from China. It was a different reaction than their NYC show, with the majority of the crowd watching rather than engaging in their songs. Guapdad4000 came out to perform “Need Me Now,” and famed video interviewer could be seen in the crowd.
However, a call for mosh pits was successful during “Wudidong,” as Masiwei and his brothers were turned up throughout the performance, keeping that same energy as if they were performing it in China. Maybe that's what it takes for Higher Brothers to remain a fixture in American hip-hop: To keep shattering glass ceilings until there are none left.