88rising makes hip-hop its own at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium

Anissa Nishioka/Senior Staff

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On Oct. 31, music from hip-hop heavyweights such as Drake and Run The Jewels was relegated to background music for 88rising’s final stop on the “88 Degrees and Rising” tour. From “Teenage Fever” to “A Report to the Shareholders,” each song played between sets to warm up the crowd for the actual headliners of the night— Joji, Rich Brian, Higher Brothers, Niki, Kohh, August 08 and Don Krez, all part of the artist collective 88rising.

Focused on but not limited to representing Asian and Asian American artists, the part-media company, part-record label 88rising set out on tour in late September to give audiences a taste of each of its signed label mates. And whether it was artists from Chengdu, Tokyo or Jakarta, rapping in Chinese, Japanese or English, members of the audience either rapped along or simply turned up to every single song.

Kohh, who made his worldwide breakthrough with a verse in Keith Ape’s blaring “It G Ma,” decidedly switched the tone from August 08’s solemn and contemplative set that night. Rings of a church bell and snarls of a half-man, half-beast introduced the rapper and reminded everyone that it was Halloween. Throughout his performance, Kohh screeched his lyrics, looking like the frontman of a screamo band and showing a glimmer of the punk aesthetic that’s influenced hip-hop of late.

After Kohh’s performance, hailing all the way from Chengdu, China, the quartet rap group Higher Brothers showed the Bay Area just how skilfully it has been able to adapt to the current waves of hip-hop while instilling its own cultural heritage into the genre. The words “Made in China” flashed on the screen as the group performed the song of the same, ubiquitous name. It was a moment of triumph and truth — even the songs we party to are now made in China.

South Korean rapper Keith Ape achieved a similar effect during “It G Ma” when the English and Korean spellings of the phrase (“잊지마”) were projected behind him. And to add another hurdle over cultural barriers, Kohh reappeared onstage to deliver his verse of the song. In a symbolic moment, the two artists performed together to bring a new sound to a new generation, pushing an entire history of tumultuous country relations aside for a few moments. Yet another example of how hip-hop, or music in general, can overcome language and cultural barriers and bond very different groups of people together.

Overall, the artists had the opportunity to showcase their individual styles and personalities throughout the show. Even Japanese singer and producer Joji hinted that he still had a penchant for disruptive humor — just as he did in his Filthy Frank days — when he interjected between his heartbreak ballads, “Yee-haw!” and “There’s a snake in my boot.” (Joji was a cowboy for Halloween.)

But toward the end of the show, the entire roster of 88rising came onstage like a happy family reunion to perform “Midsummer Madness.”

The film industry’s #AsianAugust movement may have passed, but 88rising and its cohorts have evidently been riding their own wave and breaking new ground for Asian and Asian American representation in popular media. On the Monday after the show, Joji debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums with his first studio album, Ballads 1 — released through 88rising Records. He is the first Asian-born artist to do so.

The collective had anticipated and, in many ways, already celebrated this milestone Oct. 31. Before ending the show, Niki performed a slow and sincere cover of “Slow Dancing in the Dark” to congratulate Joji on his full-length debut.

All the members of the 88rising collective brought forward their various sounds and genres that night, but they altogether embodied one statement: We’re doing this and we’re going to continue to do it. Cue Post Malone’s “Congratulations.”

Contact Lloyd Lee at [email protected]. Tweet him at @helloydlee.