Rina Sawayama is a pop wizard. She has an uncanny ability to take all of the very best tropes of the genre, put them all in an aural blender and emerge with a beautiful smoothie of music. Her latest offering, the seasonally thematic “Valentine (What’s It Gonna Be)” is a similar feast for the ears, and tells a story of fleeting, uncertain love: “Making promises is dangerous / I’m just a phase / I’m just your Valentine,” she sings on the chorus.
Rina’s a maximalist, and “Valentine (What’s It Gonna Be)” doesn’t defer from that path. It’s a track full of hooks and singalongs, and even on a lyrical level (“All I want is everything,” she sings) we’re informed of Rina’s go-big-or-go-home tendency. From its openings, where the bass brings to mind classic R&B slow jams, to its big hitter of a chorus, which eventually soars to a melodic bridge underlined by the electric guitar that has become a Rina hallmark, there’s so much going on here that it’s hard to take it all in on one listen (this, of course, just means you have to play it over and over again, as I’ve been doing all morning.)
It follows, then, that this track is also a reminder of Rina’s magnificent magpie qualities: she has the ability to take influence from and pay tribute to various artists through her music without ever feeling unoriginal, or like she’s copied them. As Noisey’s Daisy Jones wrote last November, her 2017 mini-album RINA is, amongst many other things, a “concise masterclass in reimagining throwback pop influences.” That’s also even true of standalone tracks like “Valentine (What’s It Gonna Be)”—here there are shades of Kelela (who Rina will play a support slot for at London’s Roundhouse next Thursday, February 22), and of 90s boy bands like NSYNC, whose sound I can always hear coming through Rina’s much cooler reinventions. In any case, all of this is to say that if you’ve forgotten to buy a Valentine’s gift for the beloved music aficionado in your life, just send this their way instead: it’s much less cliche than chocolates.
On February 2, Rich Brian released his debut album Amen. It was the culmination of a wild ascension for the Indonesian teenager—he only started working with music software a year or so prior, but Brian learns fast—he ended up providing most of the album’s production.
At this point, Brian’s story is a part of internet folklore—his early Vine career, the “Dat Stick” video and subsequent viral streak—it’s all been well-documented. But on Amen, we heard the story from a new perspective: Brian’s. The tracks are filled with autobiographical details, from early employment (working at his mom’s café, sidestepping goats in his backyard) to his first impressions of America.
It’s all in the Book of Brian, a secret tome that has only been rumored to exist until now. In this exclusive interview, the artist agreed to read a few excerpts for us. So sit back, get a glass of wine, and… we’ll let Brian take it from here. Watch our latest Music Life above, and watch a recap of his biggest moments below.
Sometimes you hear a song and immediately put it on repeat for the next 24 hours straight. It’s the song seeping through your headphones as you roll your eyes at Tesco’s V Day display and the song leaking from tinny speakers as you numbly swipe left on an endless stream of puppy-toting suits. This is that song. This is Not A Love Song.
The track comes courtesy of the very new bülow. She’s 17-years-old and busy finishing up high school in the Netherlands. She’s only got 6,130 followers on Instagram but on Spotify, Not A Love Song has 8,115,551 streams and counting. It’s great; sparse, slick production underpinned by a heady dose of synths. It’s clever, cutting and topped off with anything-but-corny lyrics. Try not to nod your head along to it. Go on, try.
Premiering today on i-D, is the music video for Not A Love Song. Set in Berlin, it’s got a DIY home video feel that fits perfectly with where bülow’s at in her career: “I wanted this video to be natural, just being myself in a fearless city,” she explains. “Berlin is a special place to me.” A special place for a special girl — lord knows we need more popstars like bülow writing anti-love songs just in time for Valentine’s day.
In a smoky room atop Park’s BBQ in Koreatown, a half-dozen of the fastest-rising rap artists and industry moguls in the world grill slices of steak, tear through mounds of kimchi and plot their next moves.
At one end of the long dining able, Brian Imanuel, the slightly-built but booming-voiced 18-year-old Indonesian phenom who now performs as Rich Brian, trades rehearsal notes with labelmates about their “Double Happiness” tour of the West Coast and New York. At the other end, Sean Miyashiro, the 37-year-old founder of the record label, media portal and catchall entertainment firm 88Rising, dishes with the Chengdu, China-based rap quartet Higher Brothers — here in the U.S. for the first time — about video ideas.
“I truly believe we make the best video content in the world,” Miyashiro says, batting around treatments and K-Pop allusions as a server cuts up glistening slabs of chicken with a pair of scissors. “Not just in Asia but the world. I mean, did you see that video of Lil Yachty freestyling for 30 minutes over nothing but Big Bang beats?”
Right now, the dominant culture of hip-hop comes out of Atlanta home studios or Compton rehearsal rooms. But part of its future is perhaps being made around this long tabletop grill, where a new wave of Asia-based rap music is meeting and collaborating with America’s top talent on its own terms.
The scene around 88Rising is also transforming the countries where these artists originate. Huge crowds used to lighter pop music are discovering the subversive potency of this era of hip-hop, and leery government officials have noticed.
A few days before the sold-out Double Happiness hits the Shrine Expo Hall on Saturday, Miyashrio and his cohort took a bit of a victory lap. This week saw Imanuel’s debut album “Amen” hit No. 1 on the iTunes hip-hop chart (a first for a solo Asian act) after two years of viral hits that racked up hundreds of millions of plays.
He’s the most recognizable face of the label, a gifted MC and producer who first turned ears two years ago for “Dat Stick,” an endearingly silly clip from an earnest Indonesian teenager trying on hip-hop tropes and discovering that he can rap with verve and poise (a follow-up video showed MC’s like Ghostface Killah, Tory Lanez and Desiigner giving their approval).
But for many people, the name he performed under at the time — Rich Chigga — was a sour note. Perhaps it was the honest mistake of a rap-loving kid from Jakarta who didn’t quite get the fraught history of allusions like that. But in the ramp-up to “Amen,” he finally dropped that moniker for Rich Brian, a gesture that atoned for the misstep and asserted that he and 88Rising are finally ready for lasting spotlights.
Was it long overdue? “Yeah. But people’s reactions have been only supportive of it,” he said of the name change. “I read comments on my phone all the time. I still remember the first time I saw someone say ‘Yo, he’s surpassed meme status.’ ”
Over the last two years, 88 Rising has, indeed, surpassed skepticism to forge a one-of-a-kind global scene. But even Miyashiro — a Bay Area native always ready with a hundred ideas for beats, stage plots and photo shoots — isn’t entirely sure what the company is.
“Originally, we wanted to be a media brand doing cool stuff to celebrate Asian culture because that space didn’t really exist. Many had tried, but they had a really narrow-minded definition of what it meant to be Asian American,” he said.
But as Rich Brian caught on, he knew there was a deeper wave building around contemporary Asian rap music, which had long informed genres such as K-Pop but was finally coming into its own.
“The music was so strong, and there’s a law of attraction,” he said. “For a lot of people. This was the first time they’d heard Chinese rap sound good.”
Miyashiro began a slow but purposeful signing spree, enlisting rising acts such as the noisy South Korean rap phenom Keith Ape and Higher Brothers, the latter of whom is arguably the most talked-about rap group in the world’s most populous country.
He also roped in savvy collaborators like the former EXO member Kris Wu, who performed at a Super Bowl event this year and who collaborated with Travis Scott and Baauer. Ape’s hit “It G Ma” got a remix treatment from ASAP Ferg, Father, Dumbfoundead & Waka Flocka Flame. Their records are hyper-modern, nimble and beautifully shot on video.
Higher Brothers may be the label’s most interesting challenge. The four members — Masiwei, DZknow, Psy.P and Melo — made Chengdu a sort of Chinese Miami in the SoundCloud rap era: the flashpoint for a rowdy, transgressive new world of Chinese hip-hop. Cuts like “Made In China” and “Flo Rida” don’t bite from U.S. hip-hop so much as celebrate their own weird, wild take on it. One hook from “Made In China” sums it up:” “My chains, my new gold watch / Made in China.”
“We’re the first hip-hop group a lot of people there have seen,” Melo said. “We kind of have to teach them how to turn up.”
But the Chinese government is decidedly not going to make that easy for the four dreadlocked, insouciant young men with such command over crowds and deep American connections. Last month, the Chinese government banned many depictions of hip-hop culture on television, a startling about-face in the wake of such popular shows as “The Rap of China.”
Back at Park’s BBQ, the quartet is nonchalant about their culture’s survival in China, even as they look to America and elsewhere for new opportunities.
“We’re changing, but it’ll take some time,” Masiwei said, of the recent censorship push.
88Rising, however, isn’t waiting around for change. Miyashiro has already signed his next wave of acts, including the Japanese-Australian producer Joji (whose slow, textural R&B earned Frank Ocean comparisons) and August 08, the label’s first African-American signing.
“There’s so much diversity in what they’re doing,” August 08 said. “Who wouldn’t want to be part of a family like that?”
After Double Happiness, Miyashiro already has his eye on a standalone 88Rising festival in L.A., and he’s drafting script treatments for feature-film and episodic dives into the larger scene and aesthetic around the label.
“A lot of K-Pop and and Chinese pop stars have asked us to manage their careers. We just don’t. I don’t take a lot of meetings,” Miyashiro said. “We want to do more provocative things as a label.”
The music speaks for itself — Rich Brian’s album and sinlges have cameos from Migos’ Offset and 21 Savage. But his introspective, authoritative voice is front and center, with candid lyrics about family expectations, lost loves and his unusual path to global fame.
He’s not out to make an overt case for Asian hip-hop, but he recognizes the potency of what they’re up to.
“All I have to do is to do my thing. I don’t have to talk about it like ‘Oh, I’m representing for Asians’,” Imanuel said. “I’m just…doing it. But yeah, seeing someone who looks like you doing this, you know it’s possible. I never thought I’d see an Indonesian in Hollywood until the Fast & Furious movie [the actor Joe Taslim] , and it was so motivating.”
The thousands who will see the crew take the stage at Double Happiness may walk out with similar feelings.
“We never wanted to, like, ‘change perceptions of Asian people’ or anything. We’re not trying to wave a flag per se, and we never want anyone to feel like they don’t belong here,” Miyashiro said. “But there is responsibility in this opportunity. We can’t say we don’t feel proud.”
Rich Brian is oscillating in an office chair at XXL‘s Manhattan headquarters. He’s set to release his first full-length project, Amen, in 10 days, and he’s sharing an early listen with the staff. He plays an unfinished version of the Offset-featured track “Attention,” and midway through, the Migos member pays homage to his host.
“No tick tock, Rolex watch, plain Jane, keepin’ it simple/Young rich nigga, in the trap with Rich Chigga,” Offset rhymes, making reference to the controversial, racial moniker that the 18-year-old artist born Brian Imanuel changed on New Year’s Day 2018. Still reclined in the chair, Rich Brian, swallowed by a black, down-filled bubble coat, insists the lyric will be updated as to omit his former alias.
“We didn’t actually need to re-record anything,” Brian tells XXL of Offset’s verse one week later, phoning in from Los Angeles. “We just edited the vocal and then it sounded like he was saying something else.” [Ed note: “Rich Chigga” was changed to “rich niggas.”] Rich Brian is intent on turning over a new page in his young career, and that shift goes beyond just his stage name. The artist who first made waves in 2016 via the viral parody trap record “Dat $tick” has pivoted toward creating music that’s more serious than satirical in nature.
The artistic shift came as Rich Brian prepared to drop Amen (out now), a record that he says details how his life has changed since his migration from Indonesia to America—and all of the new experiences that have come along with that. This includes his newfound celebrity status, which he encounters head-on during his interview with XXL, as he’s mobbed by fans asking for photos near his Hollywood Airbnb rental (he obliges). And he’s marking milestones in the process. With Amen, Rich Brian became the first solo Asian artist to reach No. 1 on iTunes Hip-Hop/Rap chart.
XXL spoke with Rich Brian about Amen, transitioning into a new sound and his plans beyond music.
XXL: On the Amen song “Occupied,” you rap, “I should probably go delete all of my old tracks.” What does that lyric mean to you?
Rich Brian: That was when I was still trying to find my sound. I had no idea what I wanted to do and the kind of music that I wanted to make. I had a point where every track it’d be really easy to hear another artist make a song just like that. And I just wanted to delete those tracks. But at one point, I finally found my tempo and I was like, “OK, this is what I want to do.” It definitely took me a little bit to know what I wanted to write about. It was a process of finding myself and thinking about which sides I wanted to show to people. There were probably six or seven songs that didn’t make it to the project that were during the time that I was in that phase.
Was that during the time when you were trying to find a middle ground between comedic raps and more serious content?
It’s not really about being serious or being comedic. I just love making people laugh. To me, it’s just being witty. There are people that rap who just have really funny lines in their songs. Even Kendrick Lamar or Kanye [West]. That’s what I’ve been doing. I say funny stuff in my songs sometimes, but it’s still all in the seriousness of the music and the craft.
You learned how to produce while you were making this album, yes?
I learned how to produce about a year ago. Making music became a lot more natural to me because you can come up with a new idea, lay it down and start writing. I’ve been doing that almost every day.
The music on Amen sounds so different from what your peers are making. What were your influences for the project?
The influences are a little bit of Childish Gambino and Mac DeMarco. I’ve been trying to listen to stuff that’s not hip-hop, because I’ve been listening to hip-hop for like two to three years straight. I definitely tried to be a little bit more versatile and diverse on this project.
Why did you decide to call Amen a project instead of an album?
The reason I’m calling it a project instead of an album is because it started when we were just working on this as an EP. We thought it was going to be a five-song EP that we were going to release last September. But I’d make songs and listen to them with my manager and we’re like, “This sounds really good but it’d be better if we put this on the album release later.” It happened so much that we kind of realized, “Why are we limiting ourselves? Why don’t we just keep making songs and put them in a folder and see what happens?” That was like seven months into the process, so we didn’t really have much time to really work on it as an album. In my opinion, an album has a story from start to finish and has a concrete concept.
What’s the significance of the title as it relates to this body of work?
The reason behind the name Amen is because I’m a very optimistic person, but at the same time, you can never be too sure about something. You can never get too cocky about some shit. I just say “Amen” a lot. It’s just about being grateful and never taking things for granted. So on this project I talk a lot about being from Indonesia and coming to America and a lot of new life experiences on this project.
Do those experiences include your newfound fame?
Definitely. Every little thing that I’ve been experiencing, I just think about those moments and try to lay it down in the lyrics. I love to revisit stories and put those things in my music. Those are always my favorite songs, songs that have moments in the lyrics where people just talk about their life with very unique, vivid stories. And I definitely tried to do that for this project.
How did you get Offset to appear on “Attention”?
It was my manager, he sent him the beat. It had that sample from the intro, and then the beat dropped and it became something else completely different that I didn’t like. But that intro sounded so good. So I just took that and was like, “Yo, I’ma fuck around and make a beat.” I just put drums on it, made it faster. One morning, I just made the hook and started writing. I recorded to it on my phone and then put it together in FL Studio and thought it was pretty fucking good. I was in a phase where I was listening to the Migos really heavy, listening to their whole discography, their old mixtapes and stuff. I was really obsessed with Migos at the time. I was like, “It would be amazing if we could get Offset on this.”
Why do you think he was perfect for that song?
I feel like he’s the perfect mixture of Quavo and Takeoff. He’s really good at catching melodies and he has some really good solo projects. Offset is definitely one of my favorite Migos members.
What do you want people to know about you?
I really want to do a lot of things—things that I haven’t even discovered yet. Right now I’m doing music heavily but I want to take acting classes and get into acting. I want to make an impact and inspire people my age or younger, to let them know that this shit is really possible. You really can do and become whatever you want as long as you have that vision in the back of your head that you know it’s gonna happen one day. That’s my biggest thing: making an impact and inspiring the shit out of people.
iolence is the shortest way for strangers to make a connection. Before he was collaborating with the likes of Skrillex and Migos, before he was rapping on late-night TV, even before he’d adopted the troll-lite persona of Rich Chigga, Brian Imanuel was into violence. People shoot people a lot in his early YouTube videos.
“I feel like kids naturally love guns, so I was drawn to that,” explains the rap wunderkind from the micro-living room of his Airbnb on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. When a random person buzzes up saying that she’s locked out of her apartment, Imanuel goes running to let her in. He’s naturally helpful, self-possessed in a low-key rap power suit of camo pants, black sweatshirt, and gold chain. Imanuel pulls up a video called “Time Freeze Shot” on his laptop. He made it seven years ago, back when he was a prodigious 11-year-old growing up in Jakarta, Indonesia. “Time Freeze Shot” lasts 15 seconds. There’s a shot of his feet running—cut to Imanuel firing a semi-automatic whose muzzle flash “freezes” in time—cut to a kid texting on a phone who inadvertently catches the bullet hail. Blood splatters, credits roll. Expertly applied sound design holds it all together.
The overall effect is thrillingly, impossibly real, more like a low-budget action movie than a goofy home video. A love for rendering special effects was what led him to create videos as a mischievous pre-teen. Only later did the storytelling impulse arise. In the years to come, Imanuel would transfer this knack for engineering hyperrealism from video to music.
Just as the predilection for special effects editing led to his early gangster shorts, Imanuel started fine-tuning his English by learning to rap big hip-hop singles with the speed and articulation of the original MCs. He taught himself to produce beats by rebuilding popular instrumentals. In each instance, the first concern is: How do I make this appear real? Then: Now where can this go? With the same intense skillset, he set out to make music that exploded the divide between mimicry and auteurism.
The web’s deepening influence on us is a hard-to-grasp mix of hotwired facts and feels. In many ways, Imanuel is a representative global citizen: Millions of kids goof off on YouTube each day, and the vast majority of them live outside the U.S. What makes Imanuel unique is how he’s able to feed back into that system, offering a glimpse of how culture travels in a digital era while opening up new channels of communication for kids far from the traditional centers of power.
At 16, when Imanuel decided to shoot a video for his song “Dat $tick,” he’d been producing YouTube shorts, Twitter fodder, and Vines under the name Rich Chigga for a couple of years. He had a good sense of what would work. His meticulously detailed scenes, camera angles, slow-mo moments, the whole deal. The key issue for “Dat $tick” was what to wear—a question of costuming as much as persona. “I decided I wanted to dress like a dad,” he says. “The day of the shoot me and my parents drove to the mall and got the polo shirt and fanny pack. It was either gonna hit or be a terrible mistake.”
Ignore the screen and “Dat $tick” is a catchy trap song with thugged out lyrics rapped in a staccato baritone. “Rogue wave on you niggas, no fail when I hit ’em/Every time I see a pig, I don’t hesitate to kill ’em” runs the first verse. A sour-sweet synth doodle lands on each quarter note, marking time rather than offering melody. A textbook trap beat made of fast hi-hats anchored by a kick drum completes the tune.
Open your eyes, though, and everything shifts. The teen crew is Asian. They’ve got fake guns, real booze, and, from the looks of it, high school homework to return to later that day. Ringleader Chigga raps in impeccably slanged-out, self-taught English. It’s a good song and a great, not-quite-tongue-in-cheek video.
“Dat $tick”’s humor lives in the strange gaps between its component parts. The beat and lyrics tell one story—a story some found offensive for its use of the word “nigga.” The deadpan video goofing tells another story. Being the 85 millionth individual (or bot) to view the clip tells yet another story, one that implicates you in a sticky global web of looking.
But the thing that made “Dat $tick” go viral two years ago was Imanuel’s normcore dad drag. The buttoned-up polo shirt, fanny pack, and cargo shorts—and their unresolved distance from everything else going on—made him internet famous. Puffed-up machismo is the currency which “Dat $tick” both trades on and deflates, and the normcore dad figure is a nurturer who has aged from coolness into comfort.
The worldwide audience could relate: Young Thug’s androgynous dress on the cover of his 2016 mixtape Jeffery summed up rap’s loose vibe that year. Identifying particularities in a widespread mood then fashioning a meme around them is Imanuel’s particular gift. The deftness with which he hacked into timely pop soundworlds and long-running macho anxieties reflects how producing viral content can be a complex global skill.
No meme is an island. And YouTube is increasingly its own ocean, greedily overwhelming the various specifics of street, city, nation, race. “Dat $tick” traveled so fast in part by visualizing this fact. Get mad at Rich Chigga’s “Dat $tick” and reveal yourself to be humorless; laugh it off as teen-optimized meme rap, though, and you’ll miss how the rise of Asian hip-hop is decentering genre and aggrieving context in strange new ways.
Within a week of “Dat $tick’s” February 2016 video debut, Imanuel had signed to 88rising, a media company captained by Sean Miyashiro, a former Vice employee. Miyashiro manages a stable of pan-Asian MCs and often talks of bridging East-West millennial culture. His company’s growth—from a handful of employees to more than 40 in the past two years—is intertwined with that of its flagship artist, Imanuel.
Miyashiro produced a “Dat $tick” reaction video where big name rappers such as Ghostface Killah and Cam’ron gave young Chigga a massive co-sign. They acknowledged his humor while respecting his embrace of one of rap’s core values: a capacity for self-invention. “It was perfect,” enthused D.C. rapper GoldLink. “He should never change. He should get more ‘dad.’”
A raft of collaborations followed. On the toxic masculinity side of the spectrum, Imanuel recorded a track with SoundCloud rap sensation XXXTentacion and South Korean trap star Keith Ape. On the nontoxic side, his single “Glow Like Dat” made a concerted effort to step away from the “Dat $tick” persona. “Don’t test me because my skin ain’t thick,” raps Imanuel about his first love—an online-only relationship with a Trinidadian girl in Maryland. The video has him dancing in a field of flowers. It’s shot in Day-Glo tones beset by shadows.
That gesture towards vulnerability as asset was promptly derailed by the video for “Crisis,” featuring 21 Savage. Moody lighting, graffiti, car, warehouse, couch: We’ve all seen this video many, many times before. Two female bodies appear for a half-second, with their faces cropped out. “Crisis” isn’t funny at all. Of course, Imanuel’s persona doesn’t require humor to function effectively. The risk is that circulating in American rap networks without continuing to look for ways to bend their ruling logic will disavow the gleeful, dissonant oddness that landed him there in the first place.
On the flip side, some consider everything Imanuel does to be (racist) joke rap. Unlinked from lived experience, the argument goes, Imanuel apes black expressive forms whose power stems from painfully specific real-world conditions, and his distance from those conditions is what has given him attention—attention better due to rappers with some actual connection to trap life. Of course, music can reinforce all sorts of creepy power dynamics. If we want to discuss the murky ethics of Indonesian-American musical encounters, we should start with revered avant-garde composer John Cage, one of the biggest appropriators of Indonesian gamelan music. As for Rich Chigga, looking at how Imanuel arrived at hip-hop foretells a future as odd as how hip-hop arrived to him.
If you happened to walk into the right Jakarta mall at the right time in the early 2000s, you would have been able to see Brian Imanuel’s first public appearances. From age 6 to about 10, he played drums in his family’s Christian rock cover band. The group performed almost exclusively in malls. This is even less likely than it seems: Christians make up a mere 10 percent of all people in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country.
For the first decade of his life, Imanuel lived near a goat farm in a modest neighborhood of Jakarta. After that he relocated almost entirely online. His family is ethnically Chinese, although he’s not quite sure how they ended up in Indonesia several generations ago. Their family band’s blend of novelty (a 6-year-old holding down the beat!) and familiarity (Christian covers) seems to have seeded Imanuel’s subsequent interest in meme culture, which operates along similar lines, albeit in a radically different context.
Imanuel was homeschooled from the second grade; after a year, his parents stopped assigning homework, which freed him to surf the web for hours a day. “I felt guilty for a while, thinking I’m such a lazy piece of shit,” he recalls. “Turns out I learned a lot of things from being on YouTube all the time.”
A pre-teen obsession with Rubik’s Cube solution videos was his entrée to a world of online tutorials. When he was 11, Imanuel discovered a love for the English language. Crucially, it wasn’t the blandly functional international English that attracted him. He was hooked on the slang-filled, hyper-referential dialects of his long-distance American friends on social media.
Imanuel chides his mother tongue of Bahasa Indonesia for being so inflexible that people are reluctant to say “I love you” or “sorry”—the former too romantic, the latter too formal. Language gleaned from Twitter and rap offered another world entirely. “I learned a lot about American culture by listening to rap songs,” he explains, describing how he looked up every unknown reference on Childish Gambino’s 2012 mixtape Royalty. Imanuel would speak English with himself to practice. One day, he realized that, even without an IRL interlocutor, he had even begun thinking in English.
Though it seems like he absorbed internet culture with ease, throughout our conversation it becomes clear that his meme-making fluency in American pop sensibilities is hard-won. We Americans irradiate the world with our movies, music, and economic policies. Yet the uniquely American mix of underinformed optimism and over-armed aggression simply don’t make sense to much of the globe.
“It took me a while to figure out the U.S. sense of humor, a lot of trial and error,” he says. “I would write down jokes to casually tell my American friend over Skype to see which ones he’d laugh at.”
He used his virtual buddy as a focus group in order to make stuff for YouTube itself, and not for his few friends in Jakarta. Imanuel understood the site’s true power as a machine for reinforcing Anglophone, white American sensibilities.
Case in point: Grammy-winning white rapper Macklemore is the origin figure for Imanuel’s potent strain of black-identifying Asian hip-hop. “I started listening to rap when ‘Thrift Shop’ came out,” says Imanuel. “Everybody on Twitter was talking about it. It became a meme for a second, and I was like, Yo, what is this? This is interesting. What if I learn how to rap this song?” That a white guy from Seattle served as his initial inspiration points to the genre’s rowdy global spread.
Now is an incredible time for hip-hop worldwide. French rap duo PNL’s cinematic cloud-rap globalism emanates from some undisclosed Parisian suburb; Germany’s RIN explores Auto-Tune emotionality; Ghana-based singer Mr Eazi’s light vocal touch makes his exquisite Afrobeat-dancehall slowdowns go over, well, easy. The picture widens even further when you consider frequent rap collaborators from adjacent scenes, like nervy Barcelona flamenco vocalist Rosalía. To top it off, the aggro sonics of trap have landed pretty much everywhere, primed by EDM. Against this varied tide, Imanuel’s pursuit of American fidelity is striking. But if meme is your medium, then you’re bound to follow the largest crowds.
Imanuel has recently begun making original beats. He taught himself via mimicry: “My goal was to make the beat sound exactly like it does in the original. When you listen deeply to a song you find all the little sounds they use, and subconsciously learn how to produce and mix.”
Verisimilitude—not virtuosity—was the target. Copying is how we all learn. Copy enough and you end up creating. Participation matters, as does appreciation. Originality? A boring Western myth.
A term more fitting for what’s at work here is the Chinese concept of shanzhai. Commonly used to refer to knockoff smartphones that sometimes improve on the name brands they’re aping, shanzhai’s meaning gathers around the notion of unauthorized or unofficial productions. The flexible term can stretch from “bootleg” all the way to “parody.” In his book Shanzhai: Deconstruction in Chinese, Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han writes: “In ancient Chinese artistic practice, learning takes place specifically through copying. Moreover, copying is considered a sign of respect towards the master. One studies, praises, and admires a work by copying it.” Like a meme, shanzhai “negates uniqueness in order to increase the efficiency of reproduction.”
Problem is, the dumb shit gets copied too. Back to Macklemore.
Black culture’s fundamental contentiousness regarding objects and value began with the importation of Africans as merchandise during the Middle Passage. Music, rhythm, style, “soul”: so much black cultural expression happens in these immaterial forms, which both resist easy commodification and are open to be imitated.
By the time “Thrift Shop” shows up in Jakarta, all those legacies of struggle and historical specificity take second seat to the music video’s opening shots of Macklemore: a blonde man literally supporting himself on two women, one white and one black. Images eat history.
The best headline of New Year’s Day 2018: “Rich Chigga Changes His Name to Brian.”
Unlike Panamanian vocalist Nigga, who switches his name to Flex only when in the U.S., Imanuel seemed genuinely concerned that the wonky portmanteau that helped fuel his viral success might hinder a rise to wider fame. A few days after the rebrand, Imanuel tweaked his moniker once again. He split the difference with Rich Chigga to arrive at Rich Brian.
Four years prior, Imanuel went on Twitter to post a Photoshopped image of himself, stone-faced in a hoodie emblazoned with “Nigga” on it, standing next to a smiling President Barack Obama. That image was his first viral hit. Can he reroute that dubious catchiness into something resembling a career? His just-released debut album, Amen, is a clear bid for American pop acceptance. Fans will find it a pleasant enough listen, although Imanuel’s genius lies in his facility with shorter, web-native forms. But perhaps international rappers shouldn’t pay much attention to what us Americans say, anyway.
The Chinese hip-hop reality show “The Rap of China” was streamed 100 million times within hours of its summer 2017 premiere. The runaway success proved controversial because it was a top-down corporate affair, one that retrofit an imported cultural form to please ads sponsors, government censors, and, perhaps lastly, a young public. Last month, a women’s association accused the show’s co-winner, PG-One, of “instigating drug use among youths and publicly insulting women.” He responded in the worst way possible: by blaming black people. PG-One took to Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, to complain how “early exposure” to black music left him morally impaired.
These moves accompanied the Chinese government’s wider ban on broadcast programs featuring hip-hop culture, which was set in motion against “The Rap of China”’s unprecedented popularity. Given this environment, it’s not surprising that Imanuel’s recent China tour was heavily censored. “The culture bureau showed up to my shows like, ‘Yo, so these are the songs that you can’t perform,’” says Imanuel. “They brought my setlist down to about six songs, and no swears.”
The Chinese authorities are as anxious about rap music’s rise as an Asian youth platform as Imanuel and 88Rising are excited. While Rich Chigga required messed-up American energy to be born, Rich Brian may well end up making bank elsewhere.
And not just China. Imanuel has performed in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, and South Korea to date. He reports that the hypest crowds were in Thailand, although Indonesia remains special.
To hear him tell it, Rich Brian’s visibility has elevated hip-hop’s popularity in his home country, and now major Stateside rappers are getting invited to play Jakarta. When Imanuel plays hometown shows these days, everyone raps along. No English? Don’t worry. Participation, with a little careful listening, is everything. “One thing about Indonesians,” he says, “is that a lot of them, even if they don’t understand English, have absolutely no problem memorizing English songs. Even my dad.”
Rap phenom Rich Brian just became the first Asian artist to ever reach #1 on the iTunes Hip Hop Chart with his debut album, “Amen.” But how is he with hot food? Find out as Indonesian-born, Internet-bred emcee goes wing for wing with Sean Evans in the Hot Ones terror dome. As he faces down sauces like Extreme Karma and Da Bomb, Brian discusses touring with Joji, his bromance with Post Malone, and the finer points of fanny-pack fashion.
We first told you about GKR back in 2016 when we hung out with the young rapper in Reykjavik, getting to know him and his sound — both fun and animated, with a sensitive side — as well as the burgeoning local hip-hop scene. Since then, music fans and press across the world have slowly caught on, whether they understand the Icelandic subject matter or not. Back now with new single Nei Takk (Icelandic for ‘no thanks’), the 23-year-old, already well known in his home country, is on a mission to go global. Produced by Ian Boom and released via Swedish indie label Fever World, the energetic track is about “denying offers that don’t meet your standard, not getting lost in what others think you’re capable of and never settling.”
The accompanying self-directed music video is a departure from GKR’s colourful past (just watch Morgunmatur), and sees the rapper turn the saturation way down with an all black everything look throughout lo-fi footage of him dancing across the stark tundra, exploring junkyards and handling snakes at house parties. “There are so many emotions inside me that I haven’t expressed before, and this video is a starting point,” he told us over email. “This year I want to work at a faster pace than usual, to do more collabs, direct videos for other people and release more of my own productions. I want to make a name for myself.”
Songs titled “Funeral” are born into this world with tough competition. The word conjures vivid images, usually of sadness, death, and loss. With his debut single, however, AUGUST 08 is taking a different tack. “Don’t say it at my funeral,” he sings on the first taste of the upcoming Father EP. “Say it to me now.”
The EP was created in two feverish days of songwriting. The titles came first, when August’s friend encouraged him to put some of the internal drama to paper. Then, the music: the resulting tracks were recorded in August’s hometown Los Angeles—his family bounced around a swathe of L.A. neighborhoods as he grew up, but despite the area’s musical history, it wasn’t until he started looking outward that his artistic ambitions expanded.
“We didn’t even have a radio,” he says. “I heard radio out in the street, but nothing ever played at home.” As new acquaintances started showing him modern sounds, however, internal creative forces began to stir. From Kid Cudi to Phil Collins, August’s musical consumption skyrocketed, and here we are. Listen to “Funeral” below, and read on to get to know 88Rising and Red Bull Records’ newest signee.
Can you tell me about the EP’s title?
I’m speaking to my friends and family and I’m also speaking to those kids who are afraid to express themselves. I’m speaking to the people who are scared to feel like, “Fuck it, we can soar together.” And that’s what I wanted to do with this project, because the project was really based around my father and my father left me when I was young, when I was 11 or 12 years old.
But I also wanted to make it a thing where everybody who’s experienced the thing I’ve experienced can relate and feel something from it. No one is talking about those feelings or having father issues. That’s why I think “Funeral” is a very important part to the puzzle of opening people up; to realize that’s a bold thing to say to someone: “Don’t say it at my funeral, say it to me now.”
Do you have any sort of relationship with your father now?
I don’t really have a relationship with my father now, I think we’re not in that stage yet. But hopefully this music can be… A step in the right direction for him to want to be a part of this and me to want to be a part of his life.
How did you first get introduced to music?
In my home I didn’t really grow up with music playing, it was kind of like no music at all in the house, we didn’t even have a radio. I heard radio out in the street, but nothing ever played at home.
Was that because it wasn’t allowed in the house? Or was it just not a part of the family dynamic?
It wasn’t part of the family dynamic. I grew up where it was like, I was in my room, my sisters were in their room, and my mom was in her room. We never had family dinners, even if there was food cooked we didn’t eat together, it was always separate at all times.
It was a weird dynamic, I know a few people who have that similar thing going on. We were together but we weren’t present in the same room.
So it was friends of yours that first got you into playing music?
My homie Channel—Sheldon, his name is Channel Tres—he produced “Father Issues” on this project. He sent me this artist named Dwele, and the song was called “Open Your Eyes,” I think it was a Common song. That was my first introduction to like wanting to make music and wanting to be apart of music and Dwele was so fire.
Channel works on his own music but he also works with DUCKWRTH, he’s worked with Mac Miller, all those people, and he was the person always sending me music. So when I went to school the next day I was like, “What the fuck is this?” So he starts sending me all this shit, he introduced me to Kanye, he introduced me to Kid Cudi, he was kind of the person who really really showed me music in a different way. We met because we both played the drums but he introduced me to songs and writing.
I think everybody needs one of those, the friend that blows your mind with music.
Absolutely, he showed me the whole vibe.
So how about this project in particular?
I was going through a tough time in November 2016 with my family. I started achieving some kind of success as a songwriter, and I didn’t have family to enjoy it with. I talked to my manager about it and he was just saying, “Write about it,” so I thought about it for like a day, and I wrote out a whole bunch of song titles. The majority of the songs on the project are the titles I came up with, and I told my manager that this is gonna be the EP. He’s like, “Where are the songs?” I said, “I gotta write them.” [Laughs] I took two days—you know the basketball player JaVale McGee?
On the Warriors?
Yeah, so basically I’m at Javale McGee’s studio in Inglewood and I just wrote the songs for two days. I wrote five songs in two days.
Were you listening to anything in particular during the recording of this?
What is it about him that you like?
Phil Collins is the God. Everybody has to connect with Phil—Phil Collins, he’s another melancholy member. He’s a super happy, chill dude, no emotions. But then next thing you know, he’s like writing these songs about all these emotions and this girl over these hard-hitting ass drums. He’s the God man. I use him as my inspiration, I used Snow Patrol, I was listening to a lot of Stevie Wonder, I was listening to Journey. So basically like a lot of alternative and rock shit.
Do you want to be famous? Listening to your music it feels very intimate and feels almost private, what’s the end goal with music for you? Do you want to stay on the West Coast?
Stadiums, bro. [Laughs] I say that all the time. I’m doing this to show the world that you’re able to do something and feel something. You can’t suppress that.
I want to let it be known I’m not just from Long Beach. I grew up in Lynwood, Long Beach and Compton. We grew up in all those cities, I would feel like I’m not doing it justice if I don’t rep all those places and just rep Long Beach—we have to rep Lynwood, Long Beach, and Compton. All those kids where I’m from, we all grew up in those places together.
Was there anything distinctive about each one that stands out to you now looking back?
Compton is where my family stays, and that’s special to me because my family is from there. Lynwood is where I went to school and lived, Long Beach is where all my friends stayed and I lived. I experienced young adulthood in Long Beach, I came of age in Long Beach with my friends with like learning music and trapping in the garage, that’s where I did my thing. Now I live in Koreatown. It’s home, I can’t move… [but] I actually wanna work on my next album in New York.
We have some studios over here.
I just want to get lost out there and work on the next project, but I’m excited for “Funeral” and Father. It’s going to make me happy to see people’s reaction to the music.
“I’ve had a lot of Asian kids come up to me and be like, ‘Yo. I’m more confident now because someone like you exists.’” Rich Brian became a viral rapper with popular tracks such as “Dat $tick” under his former moniker Rich Chigga. Now he’s released his highly anticipated full-length project Amen, which also features Offset, Joji, NIKI, and AUGUST 08. The album reflects Brian’s early life in Indonesia and his move to the United States. This theme is especially prevalent on the album’s title track “Amen.”
“I say the word ‘Amen’ a lot,” Brian tells Genius about the inspiration behind the single. “I’m a pretty religious person, but like I’m also very optimistic. But at the same time my whole thing is you can never be too sure about things because anything can happen. And I feel like that’s a big part of why it’s called ‘Amen.’”
Brian recently sat down with Genius for the latest episode of Verified and broke down the track. Watch him go line-for-line with “Amen” in the video above, and check out past episodes, too.
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.
Rich Brian (formerly known as Rich Chigga) has turned his virality into stone-cold hype for his debut project, Amen, which released today (Feb. 2). In promotion of the album, the Indonesian-born rapper paid a visit to The Late Late Show With James Corden to play a brooding medley of “Amen” and “Cold” both of which are on the album.
Alone on the dark stage which flashed between blue and red lights, It was Brian and the mic, as the online sensation spit rapid fire bars over an eerie synth as a vintage film projector streamed “AMEN Rich Brian” In bold blue letters across the wall behind him.
As he rapped, smoke began to fill the stage floor, as the lights brightened, revealing a bedroom stage set. A flurry of percussion came over some hi-pitched keys, and the medley transitioned from “Amen” to “Cold” as Brian exchanged machine-gun raps for a more melodic delivery. “You don’t get me? Well I don’t blame you, I don’t get myself,” he sings in a deep rumble.
This producer-MC has amassed hundreds of millions of YouTube views partly by being an outsider – his deep voice and impassive flow doesn’t quite match the spotty teenager it emanates from. And if there is something patronising, even racist in the way some people have latched on to him (“He’s a rapper, but get this, he’s an Asian nerd!”), Brian is smart enough to complicate matters by embracing it, originally naming himself Rich Chigga and wearing bumbags and khaki shorts. His tracks, meanwhile, are far too good to ever have him sidelined as a novelty. He may be known as a SoundCloud rapper but is a long way from the violent idiocy of Lil Pump, 6ix9ine et al.
Instead, there’s a good dose of the daydreaming, stoner romanticism tapped by Odd Future affiliates such as Frank Ocean, Syd, and Tyler, the Creator, as on woozy ballad Arizona, or Flight, which sees him humbly reflect on his new life. OK, being 18 years old means Brian also has a pathological obsession with fellatio, but his laconic delivery seems to dare you to think he’s serious. And he is often drily amusing even when laying in the gutter: Chaos opens with him celebrating “I’m 18 now and women can legally have sex with me.” His neo-G-funk backings – synthscapes in pink neon with weed smoke drifting across them – are admirably lush and melancholic, but his flow is his greatest skill of all, deadpan patter that rattles out like ticker tape.