words by Frank Guan
One might think that after our extensive article on him last fall, we wouldn’t have much left to say about Rich Brian, the up-and-coming Indonesian-Chinese rapper. But with a new album out today and a fresh name change (he’s now the artist formerly known as Rich Chigga), there ends up being plenty to discuss. As the name change suggests, Amen is something of a rebirth for the artist: crisp and assured, it confirms the turn Brian (full name Brian Imanuel) has taken away from trap replicas easily mistakable for parodic appropriation toward a more seasoned and melodic sensibility grounded in personal narrative. It also happens to be a showcase for Imanuel’s burgeoning talents as a producer: Almost entirely self-produced, the album’s bright and buoyant sound contrasts nicely with the newly grounded persona put forward by the 18-year old. We met with Brian in the Manhattan offices of his managing company 88rising to mull over, in no particular order, how he learned to speak perfect English, why his ambitions began with The Raid films, Asian parents who don’t tell their kids what to study, money, studio time with Pharrell, and his dad having a Molotov cocktail in his hand in 1998.
Amen is your first album, and the first time you’ve produced your own album.
I produced like 95 percent of it. There’s a collaboration with J Gramm, who did “Broccoli” with D.R.A.M, and there’s one with Niki, who’s also from 88rising, and that’s fully produced by her.
You said in a song that you were working with Pharrell on something.
We didn’t finish it, but that was the first time I was in L.A. They hit us up for an interview, so I did Othertone with them, and we just kind of clicked. Before that, I’d never worked with anyone else in the studio. I’d just do it in my room; I’m not used to it. That was crazy. I woke up at like 7:30 in the morning, got there at 8, he was already in the studio working. He was like, show me some unreleased music so I can know what you’re going for; I played him three songs. I never had to write in front of anyone. It was a now-or-never moment. That was the fastest I’ve ever written anything, because Pharrell was in the room. The sounds he used for that beat were the same sounds he used on [Lil Uzi Vert’s] “Neon Guts.”
On the song that broke you out, “Dat Stick,” you were already specifying what you wanted to hear from the producer. Has this always been an interest for you? You were playing the drums when you were younger.
Another thing with producers is it’s hard to explain what you want. They usually never get it right. You learn so much other stuff from self-producing. Mixing, the other technical stuff, how to set up a hard-ass drop, what makes songs catchy.
So have any artists reached out to you about producing for them?
21 Savage, actually. Cause we shot the music video for “Crisis” and he found out that I produced the song and then he was like, here’s my number, send me a beat pack. I haven’t sent it to him yet.
That’s the kind of thing you would want to wait on doing. To tailor it for him, there’s a certain strike zone for him.
Definitely. Also, I’ve just been so focused on this record.
The lyrics on this album, they’re quite different from what you were doing before. They remind me a lot more of Drake lyrics, in a way.
I’ve been really inspired by Drake, Kendrick Lamar. I’m super into Kendrick Lamar’s style of writing. And, like, Childish Gambino too. All the songs I put out since “Glow Like Dat” will be on this record. I feel like that song was the turning point.
Did the fact that song got more streams than anything since “Dat Stick” kind of push you in that direction?
When I put out that song, I wasn’t sure how people would feel about it. That was my first time singing on a track. And some people were like, what the fuck is this. But what they don’t know is that if they keep hearing the old style, they’re going to get bored. Some people know me as the “Dat Stick” guy but also a whole lot of people know me as the “Glow Like Dat” guy. On this project I’m also experiencing a lot of newer sounds because I’m getting a lot of different inspirations like Mac Demarco and Tame Impala and stuff like that.
I remember watching a YouTube video that was, like, how to make a Rich Chigga song.
Ah yeah. That was really good. The one where he was actually rapping on it? I love that video.
Did that steer you to step your game up so that people can’t just crack the code on you?
A little bit, a little bit, yeah. That was so funny, the sound of the synth he chose for that beat is literally my favorite sound.
So Offset is on this album. How’d you reach out to him?
My manager, Sean [Miyashiro, founder of 88rising], was like, who would you really love to have on this record. I’d made the song (“Attention”), already made the beat. Offset would sound so dope. I thought of a couple of people, but Offset was really the best. Sean just hit him up.
Tell me a bit more about your relationship with 88rising.
A long time ago, when I’d just put out the “Dat Stick” video, he followed me on Twitter, and I DMed him the link, like, if you have the time, you should check this out. He was like, I already checked it out, what’s your number so I can put you in touch with my manager. Sean was managing Dumbfoundead, he was managing Keith Ape, telling me all about his vision. This was before 88rising started, on YouTube at least. And I was like, “This is super dope and I want to be part of this.” And it’s been a great relationship ever since. I worked with Sean for a year before actually meeting him, just calling on the phone from opposite time zones.
Hmm, Jakarta. I assume you’ve seen The Raid films?
You like those?
Oh, definitely. The second one was so good.
I feel like The Raid 2 is underrated. The first one’s great, but if you rewatch The Raid 2 the plot is so intricate.
The cinematography, yeah. Also, The Raid was a pretty big part of my motivation and drive to do this.
Really? Say more.
This guy, Joe Taslim, he was one of the actors. He was, I think he was the lieutenant? [Taslim plays Jaka, the sergeant.] After that movie came out, he got a role in Fast & Furious . It wasn’t even that big of a role, he was one of the bad guys. But even that, seeing it as a kid, I was like, holy shit. That was the first time that an Indonesian person got into Hollywood, and seeing that was just like a mixture, of just like …
Like you didn’t know that road existed?
Exactly. I was just like, this is insane, I’m so jealous and so motivated and so driven at the same time.
A couple of The Raid guys were in the first [new] Star Wars, right?
[Laughs] That was amazing.
They didn’t get to do much, but …
They were speaking Javanese, which is like a part of the Indonesian language, and my parents speak Javanese, so.
Tell me a bit more about your family. They’re Chinese but they’re part of the diaspora, right?
We’re like a Chinese and Indonesian mixture. I have three siblings; I’m the youngest one, and my parents have been nothing but supportive.
I feel like there’s a lot of Asian parents who don’t get that kind of recognition.
I think it also came from my sister, ‘cause she started singing when she was 3 years old. Now, she’s a fashion blogger. I think my parents just understand the whole entertainment world because of that. But they were also really against my decision. When I told them when I was 13 that I wanted to move to America when I turned 17, they were like, absolutely not. You’re not gonna be there by yourself, you need someone there to protect you, I don’t think we can do that yet. And at one point I’m like, “All right. I’m probably never gonna be in America now, I’m gonna be in Indonesia.” But then the 88rising thing happened and I told my mom. “Hey mom, I might be going to America to perform a show.” And my mom was like, “Go, do it.” Right away. I definitely cannot do it without their support.
Is there a track on the album for your family?
I definitely have a few lines.
But not a whole track.
Not yet, not yet. I would love to make that, though.
You’ve got a lot of Asian fans, I feel like they would really like that.
Can you see past this album yet?
Yeah, I’d say so. I’m definitely going to keep working on songs, nonstop. I haven’t lately because I have to focus on everything, like music videos. I’m thinking of just consistently putting out singles. And I want to get into acting, that was part of my passion. I need to take acting classes, though.
You’re already thinking of video concepts for the songs on Amen.
Even when I first make the beat, I already kind of know what the visual treatment will be.
And you’re how old now, 19?
Given that you couldn’t imagine five years ago what you’re doing now, can you even start to think of what you’d be in five years?
I feel like acting is what I really wish to do.
In an American movie?
Just to be, like, the second Joe Taslim. [Laughs]
It could happen. There’s this Asian rapper, her name’s Awkwafina …
Yeah, I love her.
She’s going to be in the next Ocean’s Eleven movie.
I saw her on Neighbors 2. I love her role in that one. Have you seen that one?
I haven’t. It’s nice that she stuck around and now she’s getting gigs to be an actress.
The role she played, she’s in a sorority, and she’s like, the badass. Which is totally what I would want to do, if I was like her.
I noticed some lyrics on the album are directed at what it’s like to be Asian. Is that something you’re starting to delve into further? Or are you aiming more at the mainstream?
I don’t think I actually went over that that much? I did mention the—
The straight-A stuff, right.
Yeah, that was one of them. I’m not really thinking about it too much. I’m just writing about what I’m thinking, what I think needs to be said. My focus right now is just to be as authentic as I can, as honest as I can in my lyrics. Honesty is the key to good art. Back then, when I would write lyrics, sometimes I would cringe at lines that were too embarrassing. But I realized that when I heard other people’s music and they’d do that, you can feel the confidence and it’s awesome. That’s what I’ve been trying to do more.
How often do you get to go home these days? Is it more or less like college right now, you’re away for nine months and home for three?
I try to go home every three months. Last time I was here for six months, though, for the tour.
Do you still have the same friends you used to have back home?
When I get back it feels like I never even left.
Has your family been in Indonesia for a long time?
Like they were around for the pogroms, 50 years ago?
Back when all the killing happened, 50 years ago. It was when Suharto took over.
There was a thing in ’98. I wasn’t born yet, but they told me some crazy stories. My dad built a Molotov bomb and everything. They were hiding in bakeries and my siblings were still little babies.
Is that part of the reason they kept you out of the school system?
There’s multiple reasons. My brother was the first to be home-schooled, and one reason they home-schooled me was so he wouldn’t get jealous. Another thing is my mom noticed that I would stress out a lot about school. I would ask my teacher how good my grades were and think about that all the time. Being home-schooled, you really get to explore your hobbies, what you want to do for a living. I figured out I wanted to do cinematography just watching YouTube videos.
You speak perfectly now.
How long did that take you? Were you Skype conversating a lot?
I started when I was 11, from watching a bunch of YouTube videos. One day I was thinking about something, and you know you have the inner voice, and one day it was in English. It was like having a friend to talk to. I made an American friend on Twitter and talked to him every day on Skype. He’d teach me: I’d say, Oh shit, you hanged upand he was like, You mean hung up.
And that was around the time you started listening to rap music?
2012, yeah. I got into Drake, “Started From the Bottom,” 2 Chainz. The first album I ever listened to was by Childish Gambino. I love hearing those scary chords, I remembered hearing that for the first time with the 808s and going, holy shit, what is this.
It’s like a whole different language within English.
I learned a lot about American culture. Learning rap songs, learning how to rap, really helped my pronunciation. You have to do it fast.
When you first emerged as a musical artist, did you understand how and why people were responding to you in America?
It definitely took me a little bit. It took four or five months to really figure it out, to learn why people even like me, what I should stick with. It was constantly changing.
You already knew something about having a lot of people respond to you, because you were doing comedy stuff before, right?
I learned a lot of stuff on Twitter. A lot of marketing, seeing how people respond.
So what was different about the response to you as a musician? What did you have to learn that you didn’t know before?
Sounds, music videos. My style.
Did you understand why people didn’t like you? Were you interested in that aspect as well?
What did you conclude? How did you adjust to that?
You don’t have to deal with that as much as a comedian. Now you’re a musician who calls himself Rich Chigga. It’s not something everyone’s going to be fully onboard with.
I figured that out almost instantly, just seeing people’s response.
You always read the comments.
I read the comments a lot. Other than that, there were people who were like, his flow is starting to sound the same. When I saw that I knew I had to try new stuff.
The flows on this album, you’re going less with the deep voice.
Yeah. One thing I learned through producing was this thing I call the day-and-night effect. Going from the deep voice to the high voice. I’ve been doing a lot of that.
You’ve toured in Asia. How do they know about you there? How big are the crowds there?
The crowd is very big, actually. I think they just like seeing an Asian face, it automatically resonates with them. It’s funny, a lot of Indonesian people — from the whole Twitter thing, I’ve always been aiming for the U.S. So when I first came out, I was performing at a festival and they released the lineup, all the Indonesians were commenting, Yo, he’s finally coming to Indonesia. Because I didn’t put it out that much. I still repped Indonesia, but it wasn’t in my bio or anything.
Do you feel like you’d ever do an album focused on Jakarta? Or would that not be something Americans would be interested in.
I don’t know. We’ll see. On this project there are some songs where I’m talking about my home country. We’ll see. I would love to do that though.
Can we talk about money for a bit?
What level of money would you need to feel comfortable? Like, are you already past that point?
I’m definitely already comfortable. I’m really not a materialistic person. I very rarely shop. The only money I spend is on, like, Uber and food. This whole tour, the only thing I bought was an Airsoft gun. [Laughs] That was it. Even when I bought that I felt kind of guilty about spending my money on that shit.