Music

88rising's quest to find a Japanese hip-hop sensation

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

Japanese music hasn’t made many inroads into Western markets this decade. Save for some brief viral flashes and niche success, the country’s artists have mostly been overlooked. However, Sean Miyashiro, founder of media company 88rising, thinks Japan still holds one big advantage.

“I think the perception of Japan in the West is of being the coolest Asian country,” he tells The Japan Times on a recent trip to Tokyo. “Korean pop music is great, that’s a different level of appreciation. But when it comes to culture, when it comes to appreciation even to Asian people, it’s perceived that way.”

Since Miyashiro founded it in 2015, 88rising has helped a handful of hip-hop acts, predominantly from Asia, gain a foothold in the West, primarily the United States, where they’ve long been unable to get traction. They’ve received positive press, created videos racking up millions of views and, last September, held a festival in Los Angeles that Miyashiro says is among his happiest moments.

“People were crying,” he says. “They were so proud. It was like 70 percent Asian people. Us being able to feel that energy together was a big moment.”

Part of Miyashiro’s trip to Japan has centered around two performances (showcasing some of his company’s biggest names, held in Tokyo and Osaka early in January). Among the performers were Indonesia’s Rich Brian, Chinese rap group Higher Brothers and Japan’s own Kohh, who is not officially on 88rising’s roster but is a frequent collaborator whose first U.S. show came at the company’s LA festival last year. It was a chance for 88rising to connect with a burgeoning fanbase, an effort that Miyashiro says is all grassroots, since it doesn’t have any employees based in the country.

The trip has also presented a chance to learn more about one of the largest — and trickiest — music markets in the world.

“As I speak to you now, I am ramping up on my knowledge of this market. And I think that it’s a very interesting, insulated market,” Miyashiro says. Up until now he says he has mostly found artists organically, but that his next challenge is “to make music that Japan also likes. If it’s just pop, we can sprinkle in some of our Western influence and elevate the production and talent level, that’s great, that’s what we want to do. There’s no formula for anything — that’s how we’ve always operated.”

88rising’s establishment was inspired in part by a Japanese artist. The song “It G Ma” by Korean rapper Keith Ape (currently with 88rising) featured a handful of Korean and Japanese guests and went viral in early 2015.

“That was a watershed moment for Asian hip-hop and it was kind of like the spawn of 88rising to be honest,” Miyashiro says, adding that the song was embraced by English publications and listeners in a way no hip-hop song from the region ever had been before. It served as a realization that this could work abroad.

“It’s still the best Asian rap song,” Miyashiro says, and he’s especially emphatic about Kohh’s verse near the end of it. “He went viral, man. His verse is crazy, the craziest verse. He had all the swag.”

88rising’s success in the West is certainly owed to its ability to both connect with global youth trends — like the rise in hip-hop’s popularity — and cultivate talent, in the form of flagship artists Rich Brian and Joji (real name George Miller, who grew up in Japan). They started out as a social media goofball and YouTube comedian, respectively, but Miyashiro helped them level up musically and artistically, and they were able to avoid being pigeonholed as comedic entities.

88rising has also mastered YouTube as a means of sharing music videos and other content. In the past year, it has put more focus on music from artists in its stable and beyond, but early uploads covered all kinds of Asian culture, including Japan-centric offerings featuring bartenders, American rapper Desiigner reacting to Pikotaro and an explainer video on the Bape fashion brand.

“Another thing is that we operate out of America,” Miyashiro says. “We are building relationships with the Spotifys and the Apple Musics of the world and they’ve come to appreciate us a lot. And that’s helped us.”

The embrace of youth-friendly streaming platforms is something the Japanese industry has been hesitant to do.

Jun Morikawa, an editor at Newspicks, agrees with the streaming approach. “The Japanese mindset is all about how to maintain the domestic market, or even when they go overseas, they usually see only niche markets.” Morikawa thinks some of the biggest lessons Japanese companies and artists could take from 88rising is understanding an artist’s strong points and knowing the audience.

“The most important part is you need to know how to deliver the music to the right people. Spotify, Instagram, Youtube … it’s not just about posting new videos. Even if your music is good, that’s just 20 percent. The other 80 percent is really important, team building and so on.”

Miyashiro says artists across Asia have been reaching out to his company recently, but how about Japan?

“I would say less than other countries,” he says. “I’m here now but I don’t have any artists identified per se. Whereas in other countries we are already working with multiple artists.”

While 88rising has collaborated with a variety of Japanese acts since launching, including big names such as Miyavi and Verbal, Miyashiro admits he is still learning about the country’s musical community, though he is increasingly curious. Before speaking with The Japan Times, he sat down with popstar-turned-rapper Sky-Hi for a video interview. Throughout, Miyashiro asks questions about his music and the hip-hop community at large, carrying over after the cameras stop.

He’s still trying to figure out what a global Japanese star might look like. They certainly could come from a hip-hop background — Kohh earns high praise throughout our talk (“I’m not sure what his team structure is or whatever, but you know he certainly has the goods to be huge in America”) — but it isn’t limited to that. In particular, Miyashiro talks glowingly about city pop, the 1980s born funk-meets-jazz genre defining the bubble economy years (his company has uploaded videos of older songs to its channel). He says future songs on 88rising compilations will draw from the style and he hopes to legally sample city pop songs in the future, getting especially animated when imagining somehow incorporating Mariya Takeuchi’s YouTube hit “Plastic Love” into rap. But the exact form remains to be seen.

“If we could come together and create a Japanese global phenomenon, much like BTS and all these other people that are happening, (that) would be amazing,” he says. “If it’s a girl band, a boy band, a rapper, I don’t know what it is at the moment … but we’re going to try.”

Three Japanese hip-hop acts to watch out for

88rising founder Sean Miyashiro hopes to give more attention to Japanese artists on the global stage. Given his company’s preference for hip-hop, The Japan Times decided to highlight three young rappers in the country we think are worth checking out. The next viral sensation? You never know.

Normcore Boyz
This collective of young rappers has rocketed up from the corners of SoundCloud and is starting to get buzz from bigger forces in the music industry. They’re getting attention for their Atlanta-inspired tunes, but work best when they’re sentimental or going full J-pop. They even released an authentic Christmas song.

Haruruinu Love Dog Tenshi
Women trying to navigate Japan’s rap community have often adopted a “whisper rap” style to stand out from their gruffer male counterparts. and Haruruinu Love Dog Tenshi’s understated delivery to consistently surprises. Her late-2018 debut, “Lost Lost Lust Dream,” features steely tracks in which her voice sounds downright intimidating, but the moments of pop release are what’s particularly catchy.

Sleet Mage
Japanese artists have really taken to SoundCloud rap, a sub-section of hip-hop that borrows a sad-boy vibe from 2000s emo. Sapporo’s Sleet Mage does it better than most, mostly by putting his spin on downcast tracks that feel intimately closer to the drama of a J-rock stadium act like Glay.
Patrick St. Michel

For more information on 88rising, visit www.88rising.com.