The Man Who Sold the World on Asian Hip-Hop
(Bloomberg) -- Sean Miyashiro’s quest to show the world that Asians could legitimately rap began on the roof of a Bronx parking garage.
Two years ago, Miyashiro had to escape from his girlfriend’s thin-walled dorm room at the nearby Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He liked to stay up late playing loud music—especially from rappers in Indonesia and South Korea, whom he came across on the internet—but other med students complained. Miyashiro took refuge on the top level of a nearby garage, where he could park his car and play music at hubcap-rattling volume. He could get a Wi-Fi signal, allowing him to commune online with the rappers, as well as food at a nearby McDonald’s and a local deli. There was no restroom up on the garage, but it wasn’t a problem.
“To be honest, I would even go to the bathroom here,” Miyashiro said on a recent visit to the parking garage. “I mean, it’s just too far to go back down there. I had everything here. My car was my office.”
Today, Miyashiro has more enviable setup. His company, 88rising Inc., has offices in Manhattan, Los Angeles and Shanghai. The founder and his 24 employees oversee a roster of artists, the best-known of which is Brian Imanuel, a baby-faced, 18-year-old Indonesian who rhymes under the name Rich Chigga. In the video of his 2016 hit, “Dat $tick,” Imanuel deftly parodies American rap culture and Asian nerd stereotypes, talking tough and dancing menacingly in slow motion while wearing a pink polo shirt and a fanny pack. The video has been viewed more than 77 million times on YouTube.
Part of Imanuel’s appeal also comes from the story of how he learned English by watching Rubik’s cube instructional videos, eventually transforming himself into a new kind of global hip-hop star, with some assistance from Miyashiro and 88rising. Miyashiro believes the success of such 88rising artists proves that Asian pop is more than just the slickly produced Korean kind. “K-pop is a completely manufactured thing, right?” he said. “It’s like, dude, you’ve got to learn your dance moves. Then you spent a zillion dollars presenting it to the world. We’re the complete opposite to the core. We come from a total punk-rock vibe.”
Miyashiro has orchestrated two rounds of venture capital funding for 88rising, which he describes as a hybrid management, record label, video production and marketing company. PitchBook Data Inc., a Seattle-based company that tracks such deals, puts the total figure at $7 million, including a $4.5 million infusion in May by WPP Plc, a global advertising firm that put a $20 million valuation on 88rising. (Miyashiro won’t say how he’s raised money and disputes PitchBook’s dollar figure for WPP’s investment.)
“He’s commercially very, very savvy,” Scott Spirit, WPP’s chief digital officer said of Miyashiro. “But that’s something you find out later. His heart is very much in a creative process.”
A personable 36-year-old with a wispy beard, Miyashiro calls other men “bro” and “dude” and laughs loudly at his own jokes. He is in talks with several media companies hoping to create television shows about 88rising’s acts, and he recently organized his company’s current Asian tour, its first, which includes stops in Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines and China. Imanuel is the headliner. Additional acts include the Higher Brothers, four bumptious rappers from Chengdu, China; and George Miller, better known as Joji, a crooner from Japan whose recent single, “Will He,” topped Spotify’s viral chart globally in October.
Lingo Lin, director of marketing and artist relationships at Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., China’s e-commerce giant, believes young listeners in her country are as fascinated with how 88rising turns seemingly ordinary people into stars as they are with its music. “Chinese kids now finally have someone to look up to other than TV stars,” she said. “88rising artists are their great role models. You can come from nowhere and still make an impact.”
Miyashiro grew up in San Jose, California, the son of a mechanical engineer from Japan, who had been a jazz DJ in college, and a stay-at-home mom from Korea, who favored Michael Jackson and the Beach Boys. He went to San Jose State University without getting a degree; Miyashiro was more interested in livening up the sleepy commuter school’s campus. He put on punk and hip-hop shows and organized events for black fraternities. “I never dropped out per se,” he said. “I just never went back, because I started doing my own things.”
He had a variety of music-related jobs, including one at SanDisk Corp., where he worked on a promotional campaign involving the electronic dance music star Tiesto. He could see that EDM was becoming a big deal. In 2013, Miyashiro and some peers who managed EDM acts convinced Vice Media LLC to let them create a website, Thump, dedicated to the genre. Tom Punch, Vice’s chief commercial and creative director, praised Miyashiro’s ability to spot musical talent and also reel in advertisers such as Anheuser-Busch InBev SA/NV that wanted in on the EDM craze.
After two years, Miyashiro wanted to climb aboard what he predicted would be the next musical wave: Asian hip-hop. He was pretty sure he could see it looming online as kids in China and other places embraced rap and gave it their own cultural twist. He left his job at Vice and let the lease expire on his expensive apartment in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York. Which is how he ended up moving in with his future wife in the medical school dorm.
From the top of the parking garage, Miyashiro started a management firm called CXSHXNLY, which would morph into 88Rising. He made contact with budding oversees artists that he and his employees found on the internet. The first was Keith Ape, the South Korean rapper behind the 2015 hit “It My G Ma,” whose real name is Lee Dongheon. The New York Times called Dongheon “a clear inheritor of Southern rap rowdiness that requires no translation.”
That hit helped Miyashiro raise his first round of funding from a group of investors led by Allen Debevoise, founder of the venture capital firm Third Wave Media. “I just loved his vision of creating this new type of company that wanted to bridge East and West,” Debevoise said. “I got hooked.”
Soon after, Miyashiro latched onto Imanuel, who was living in Jakarta with his parents. On a recent visit to the Bronx, Miyashiro pulled out an iPhone to allow his protégé tell his own story, via Facetime. “Dude, you seem not hung over at all,” Miyashiro told him.
“I’m not hung over,” Imanuel said from Boston, in the middle of his first U.S tour. “I feel great!” He spoke English without a trace of an accent.
Imanuel’s hip-hop origin story goes like this: He was home-schooled and started messing around with Rubik’s Cubes at age 10, sometimes participating in competitions. He also began watching online tutorials in English, a language he didn’t speak, because there weren’t any online tutorials in Indonesian.
“One day I was thinking about something,” Imanuel said. “You know, when you have the inner voice in your head? I realized it was English, and I was like, ‘Damn, this is cool. I want to keep doing this. I’m going to learn English.’” He practiced talking on Skype to a kid in Boston named Noah, who taught him about American culture, slang and hip-hop. His tour will allow him to meet Noah in person for the first time.
Imanuel was already posting weird comedic stuff on Twitter when one of Miyashiro’s colleagues spotted him. Miyashiro was impressed. “I was like, ‘Damn, this guy’s insane,’” he recalled. In March 2016, 88rising released “Dat $tick” with a fanny-pack wearing Imanuel grimacing at his enemies and warning what would happen if they tested him.
A few days after the video’s debut, 88Rising followed it up with another much-viewed video, in which such noted black rappers as the Wu-Tang Clan’s Ghostface, Desiinger and 21 Savage praised Imanuel’s fanny pack and his flow. “That’s dope,” Ghostface said on the video. “It’s different. It ain’t the same s---. It’s just him. I’ll get on that track. Oh, you know him?”
You can year Miyashiro on the video chortling with delight. “Yeah, I manage him,” he said.
“Tell him I said, much love,” the Wu-Tang elder said earnestly.
Imanuel, who had never visited the U.S., watched the video with his parents in Jakarta. A few months later, 88rising released a “Dat $tick” remix with Ghostface.
In the midst of the Facetime chat, Imanuel reminded Miyashiro of an impending conference call with a company that wanted to talk with him about a possible television show. “You nervous?" Miyashiro asked.
“I don’t know,” Imanuel said.
“They’re’ just going to vibe with you, bro. It’s going to be cool.”
“I want them to like me,” Imanuel said.
“They do like you,” Miyashiro said. “They’re obsessed with you, bro.”
As 88rising took off and moved into real office space, Miyashiro signed new artists. George Miller, who had already amassed a large following with comedic internet videos in which he runs around in a pink suit doing crazy things, managed to become a more respectable singer of moody hip-hop ballads.
“88 turned me into a serious artist,” Miller said. “They took what was a joke and they flipped it. That was amazing to me. It still is.”
“You’re not a joke, bro,” Miyashiro said.
That’s not to say Miller has given up being outrageous. For one music video, he lip-synced the lovelorn vocals for his viral hit, “Will He,” while lying in a tub filled with what looked bloody water, as if he were committing suicide. “Dark and gritty, a bath of blood,” Miller said. “I thought that kind of represented what the song sounds like.”
On a November evening, Miller was in a recording studio in Brooklyn with Miyashiro. They were preparing to release “In Tongues,” Miller’s new EP, at midnight. He was dressed in black, with a Beatles-style haircut that required him to periodically brush bangs away from his eyes. He was visibly nervous, unlike his unflappable mentor.
Miller departed before midnight, vowing to avoid social media in the coming hours, because he couldn't bear to watch the reaction. “You can get a hundred great comments, and then one is going hurt you,” he said. The following morning, “In Tongues” was in eighth place on the iTunes Music Store chart. Miyashiro had hoped for better, but R&B star Chris Brown released an album at the exact same time. “Chris Brown is Chris Brown,” Miyashiro said.
That Sunday, Imanuel came to Manhattan to perform two sold-out shows at Irving Plaza. Miller was on the bill, too. Kids started lining up outside at around 1 p.m., five hours before the doors would open. They were mostly young Asian Americans who fell in love with Imanuel when they saw “Dat $tick.”
“It was lit!” said Sylvia, a young woman with dangling earrings, at the front of the line. “We like his fanny pack,” said Mina, another fan, with braces.
They appreciated Miller, too, whom they knew from his pink guy period and then followed into his more serious mode. These fans also knew 88rising. “They’re repping the Asian community,” Mina said, while her peers nodded in agreement.
Inside, Miyashiro was on stage watching his artists do their sound checks. Imanuel sported an oversized purple hoodie that made him looks even younger. Then it was Miller’s turn. He was nervous, as usual, and couldn’t get the reverb right on his vocals. “Sometimes I wish I was a rapper,” he said mournfully.
Upstairs in the dressing room, Miyashiro opened a can of beer and listened as Imanuel regaled everybody with tales from his tour. It was routine pop star stuff that Miyashiro asked us to keep off the record. There would be more to come when Imanuel toured Asia in a month, alongside Miller and the Higher Brothers, before returned returning to the U.S. in February to play bigger halls in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York.
Miyashiro chatted up Jeff Chia, a record industry executive in China, who sported a white beard and a philosophical demeanor. “This dude is a legend in China,” Miyashiro said. “Doesn’t he look like a legend?”
“I’ve heard your song,” Chia told Miller, who brightened up.
“Are you going to make it blow up in China?” Miyashiro asked.
“Yeah,” Chia nodded.
“He’s like, ‘Yeah,’” Miyashiro said, laughing loudly.
©2017 Bloomberg L.P.