88Rising Founder Sean Miyashiro on Label’s Rapid Success Bringing Asian Acts to Western Audiences
Billboard explores the magical run by newly formed hip-hop label 88rising.
88rising’s inaugural group show (and the kick-off to their Asia tour) was scheduled to happen aboard It’s the Ship! The floating festival, which bills itself as the continent’s largest dance party at sea, would, indeed, have been an idyllically turnt backdrop for a first-time hangout. Four days and three nights of warm saline breeze, maritime hijinks and enough alcohol to incapacitate a pod of blue whales sounds like a natural fit for a label whose diverse soundscape can support both the perpetually energized stylings of Chengdu-based rap foursome Higher Brothers and the aqueous, lo-fi electro R&B crooning of Osaka-born New York resident Joji.
Yet as such things often unfold, everything did not go according to plan. At the last minute, Joji was unable to make it.
Attempt number two occurred in Jakarta, the home city of another 88rising signee Rich Brian — who officially made the change from his initial stage name, Rich Chigga, in the infant days of 2018 — and this time around, 88’s initial label-wide link-up was a rollicking success. Collectively, the artists headlined the behemoth Ismaya Live-organized Djakarta Warehouse Project, which sees between 70,000 and 80,000 attendees over the course of three days. It was there that members of the 88rising team — some of whom had seen very little rest — got to celebrate their hard-won moment of triumph that included stage dives from the Higher Brothers, swooning fans screaming for more of Joji and a massive sing-along to Keith Ape’s “It G Ma.”
“We’ve always been very strong at the creative part, but we also wanted to make sure we were checking the box on execution,” explained 88rising founder Sean Miyashiro of the label’s meteoric rise in 2017. “I think we’ve tightened that up… We’ve gone from a staff of three people to 30 people,” he continued, speaking from the label’s Los Angeles office. Three years ago, Miyashiro could never have imagined that the casual collective of artists and friends he’d gathered under the informal umbrella of Catch Only would coalesce into a record label-cum-creative agency with offices in New York, Shanghai and L.A. “I still can’t believe we hired five people in Shanghai in 18 months. I never thought we were going to have people working full-time in China and definitely not this soon.”
In a time where even legacy music labels are being forced to restructure to compete with the demands of the digital age and the autonomy it affords artists, the rapid ascension of 88rising feels truly unprecedented. Particularly because 37-year-old Miyashiro is far from your traditional artist manager, or even label owner. In fact, it’s something he fell into through a combination of casual accident and a love of music. “I’d say this all started around 2015. At the time I didn’t know what I was doing, all of the artists were just my friends,” Miyashiro confessed with a laugh.
These early forays into management combined with a long-term stint at Vice, where he helped to launch the platform’s now defunct electronic music platform Thump, gave him an eagle-eyed understanding of the digital landscape. “I’d never had experience launching a media brand, it was invaluable. I learned everything at Vice because they were so aggressive in the way they worked. They had smart people that I worked with closely to curate the cadence and quality of Thump. Even just having to learn the production process and picking up a camera and going and shooting something was absolutely critical.”
While the knowledge Miyashiro gleaned from these experiences helps provide the backbone of 88rising’s creative strategy, he’s also quick to point out the inherent ability of his artists to create their own viral content. For instance, Keith Ape, the label’s first true breakout star blazed a trail in the American market with “It G Ma,” an infectiously bouncy, trap-flavored single that arguably overshadowed Atlanta rapper OG Maco’s similar track, “U Guessed It.” Released in 2015, the video currently has over 49 million views and spawned an official remix with A$AP Ferg and Waka Flocka Flame, as well as one-off remakes from Anderson .Paak and Father of Awful Records.
Rich Brian simultaneously captivated and puzzled with his viral debut “Dat $tick,” a troll-tastically comedic hip-hop effort underpinned by an undeniable talent for wordplay, and an ear for production. The self-released accompanying music video currently boasts over 82 million views. Joji’s history shows a similar familiarity with Internet culture. Before the forlorn melodies we’re familiar with today, he created the absurdist persona Filthy Frank, who is responsible for the original “Harlem Shake” video, which features a costumed Joji and three similarly attired friends dancing along to Baauer’s “Harlem Shake”. The video went on to inspire hundreds of copycats and meme responses.
With so much natural talent under one umbrella, Miyashiro’s job is less about shaping the artists than it is working with creators who already have a strong point of view. Essentially, the 88rising team uses their varied backgrounds as a braintrust to execute each musician’s vision at the highest level. “Nobody knows exactly what they want to do all of the time,” Miyashiro admits, “but we talk every day and we view the process as a true partnership. The music comes first and once we’ve got that we think about the visuals and try to figure out a way to amplify it by telling their story in the most unique way. We get our whole team involved so there’s a lot of people working every single day just making sure things move along. We’re small but extremely efficient and extremely, extremely scrappy.”
88rising’s robust YouTube channel is perhaps the best example of this. Despite the leanness of the team behind it, it has garnered over a million subscribers and manages to provide updates at a frequent enough pace to whet their appetites. In 2018, Miyashiro and only plans to up the ante across the board. “We want to have our own festival in Asia so people can really experience our vision. We’re also doing a U.S. event series called Double Happiness, which is rad because we’re going all in. It’s a truly immersive experience on a production and art level. I’m just excited for people to see more. All of these guys are so talented. I know that’s cliche but I truly believe the reason we’re all working together is because they’re all special.”