Rich Brian Learned How to Rap from YouTube
words by Alex Wong
We talked to the artist formerly known as Rich Chigga, whose new album, Amen, is out today.
Brian Imanuel is having a wild two years. He was born and raised in Jakarta, Indonesia, where he discovered the beauty of YouTube and hip-hop music at a young age while he was being home schooled. At 11 he joined Twitter, and became a viral star known for making weird, inscrutable Vines. But everything changed in 2016, when he took on the moniker Rich Chigga and released a music video for a song titled “Dat $tick.” The video went stratospheric. To date, the track has over 83 million views online and cosigns from rappers like Cam’ron and Ghostface Killah.
And as his notoriety grew, Imanuel received a corresponding amount of criticism for his moniker and its adjacency to the n-word. To kick off 2018, he changed his name to Rich Brian, announcing in a tweet: “I have been planning to do this forever and I’m so happy to finally do it. I was naive and I made a mistake.”
On February 2nd, Rich Brian is releasing his debut album Amen (it slaps!). We caught up with him to talk about what it was like growing up in Jakarta, discovering America, whether he regrets the name Rich Chigga, what he thinks about the criticism about him, and more.
GQ: How much English did you know before you started learning it by being on YouTube?
Brian Imanuel: I knew very basic English. In Indonesia, the stop sign would have the word stop. The exit sign would say exit. Yes and no, that kind of thing. But if I watched an English movie, I wouldn’t be able to understand the movie without subtitles. At around age 11, I started watching these YouTube videos, mostly just random and weird stuff, and at some point, I had this realization. I was thinking about something one day, and that inner voice when you’re thinking about something, one day it was in English. I was like, this is super tight, I want to keep learning this. So anytime I was by myself I would just start talking to myself in English to help with my pronunciation.
Was there a particular television show or movie that helped you?
It was mostly romantic comedies from Judd Apatow.
When did music become part of the equation?
I’ve known about hip-hop for a long time. The first time it intrigued me was when I saw this music video by Tyga on television. I was intrigued by the whole aesthetic. It was very unique. The first song I ever tried to rap over was Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop.” I was 12 at the time. I tried to memorize the whole song. Then I listened to other Macklemore songs, and it led me to Drake and 2 Chainz. That’s how I got into it.
And when did you start thinking about having an actual music career?
It started by just me being on Twitter, messing around, doing music stuff. I wasn’t really thinking about it too much. My main goal was to be a cinematographer. I was making short films, and the plan was to keep uploading them on Twitter and build a fanbase there. One day, I just started making music for fun. When I made “Dat $tick,” it blew up, and I saw the potential in that. I was like, I need to take a stab at this. A few months after, I started learning about music production and started writing more things, and realized I liked it more than making videos and being a cinematographer.
How did the music video for “Dat $tick” come about?
It was just me and my friends. I had a friend named Andy Garcia. He was a cinematographer. I hit him up and was like, yo, I have this music idea. So I met him on the day of the shoot and explained everything to him. He showed up with his camera and was like, cool, let’s do it. I told all my friends to show up in a black t-shirt. I got my pink polo shirt and fanny pack and we shot the video in like seven hours. I edited it the next day and uploaded it online the day after. The feedback was amazing.
People have rightfully taken offense to your rap moniker Rich Chigga. How did you settle on that name?
My producer friend and I, we were talking after I put my first song out on SoundCloud. I was trying to figure out what my name should be, because Brian Imanuel was just way too long. We came up with a lot of different names, and when he said Rich Chigga, I was like, that sounds really catchy and we went with it, not really knowing what was going to happen. I was just putting something up on SoundCloud and not taking it too seriously.
You had an interview with FADER last year when you said you weren’t trying to offend anyone and you were thinking about changing your name. When did you start feeling like you needed to change it?
It was awhile ago. I felt like it didn’t really represent me anymore. I wanted to go in a certain direction with my music and wanted to be authentic with the things I talk about in my music. I didn’t want my music to be about the stuff I talked about in “Dat $tick” anymore. I had a lot of conversations with people in the industry, I got feedback, and I just didn’t feel like it was me anymore.
Do you regret using the name?
I do. There were people who said that if my name wasn’t Rich Chigga, people wouldn’t have checked out the music video. I feel like the video itself is why people liked it. It just resonated with a lot of people. I personally think the name didn’t really play a big part.
There are people who have said that you’re changing your name now because you used the name Rich Chigga to build up your brand, and now that the name has served its purpose, you’re making a change.
First of all, I don’t think that’s true. It was just something I realized along the way. It was a mistake I made a long time ago.
There are other people who will say that you’re an Asian guy who is taking a lot of stereotypes about hip-hop, and profiting off it.
I’m inspired by a lot of things. I came from Indonesia. I grew up watching a lot of YouTube videos and was inspired by all these other things. I just love making music. I don’t think I’m trying to profit off anything. I just like creating stuff.
A lot of your content, and the “Dat $tick” video, has a very clear comedic aspect to it. Do you want to be taken seriously as a rapper?
Definitely. I’ve always been serious with music. I do like entertaining people, and I think it’s just like what a lot of other rappers too. Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino, these guys have a lot of funny lines, but they’re not necessarily comedians. That’s kind of my style. I say funny stuff in my lyrics to make people laugh, but it’s all in the seriousness of the music. I’m just being witty.
Do you ever think about the responsibility you have a mainstream Asian public figure?
I try not to think about it because it’s kind of a pretty big responsibility. I think it’s a great thing. I’ve had people, and not just Asian people, talk to me about how much I’ve influenced them. Teenagers will come up to me and tell me how they saw my video, listened to my music, and felt that what wasn’t possible before now feels like it is possible. I know what that feels like. I’ve been inspired by other people before, and it’s the greatest feeling ever. Just knowing I can do that for people, I think it’s great.
You just turned 18 last September. Is your life crazy given all the attention you’ve gotten online?
I’m dealing with it pretty well. I don’t think about it that much. I still feel like a kid. My parents think I’m a completely different person, but when I’m home, it doesn’t feel any different. All my friends still treat me the same way.
When’s the first time you came to the United States?
And what was that like?
There wasn’t a lot of culture shock because I’ve wanted to come here since I was 13, and at one point I had more friends online than in real life, and a lot of them were from the United States. I’ve been preparing for it, but the first time I saw a Walmart, I freaked out. It was everything I thought it would be.
What do you want to accomplish with your new project?
I talk a lot about my experiences, and coming to America. There’s a lot of personal stuff in this one, and I produced most of it. I don’t really have a certain goal, but it’s great to finally make an album and I’m really excited to see what people think about it.
What will you be doing in five years?
If everything goes well, I’ll be starring in a Spider-Man movie with Donald Glover.
Styling by Martin Tordby.