The best stories are often born from the unlikeliest of places: in the case of pan-Asian powerhouse 88rising, this was the crossroads meeting of a controversial online comedian, a fanny pack-toting rap sensation, and a team with a vision for new representation. From the already-buzzing CXSHXNLY collective — home to the talents of Dumbfoundead and Josh Pan — the 88rising phoenix emerged, transforming a set of ideas into not just an award-winning label, but a monolith of Asian and Asian-American musical identity.
«From the beginning, the intent was always to build a platform, build a space where we’re celebrating Asian creativity» explains Ollie Zhang, 88rising’s current Chief-of-Staff, and an instrumental figure in the organization since its earliest days — «that mission has always stayed the same.» And no event represents that mission better than 88rising’s own festival, Head in the Clouds: now on its third U.S. installment, the event sees the roster and friends take to California’s Brookside at the Rose Bowl this Nov. 6 and 7.
Expanding this year from a single-day event to a two-day extravaganza, this year’s festival is not only the organization’s biggest event to date, but its most diverse. Headlining the event are, of course, 88’s flagship artists Joji, NIKI, and Rich Brian, but this year they have company — straight-talking Californian MC Saweetie and South Korean rap sensation CL add a rap-heavy touch to this year’s headlining slots. Fans of this rap-laden approach will be pleased to see underground talents like Audrey Nuna and Guapdad 4000 take the stage, alongside Korean rap legend Tiger JK, who is planning a bold performance alongside his FeelGhoodMusic collective.
On the poppier side,attendees have plenty to look forward to: indie-pop enthusiasts are treated to appearances from Beabadoobee, REI AMI, and Keshi, while fans of the Korean pop industry can expect great things from DPR’s IAN and LIVE, as well as Seori and eaJ,who collaborated last month on the euphoric «Dive with You.» On the fringes, there’s floor-filling EDM from special guest Illenium,a thrashing set from punk four-piece The Linda Lindas, and a much-anticipated slot from indie outfit Japanese Breakfast, who recently won critics over with their third studio album Jubilee. Recent signees to the label, including explosive J-Pop outfit ATARASHII GAKKO!, Indonesian singer/songwriter Stephanie Poetri, and melodic singer/rapper Warren Hue, make their major-stage debut, adding further credence to 88rising’s place as a platform for new Asian voices.
To Zhang, this represents a natural, yet exciting growth. «We’re massively elevating the experience… I look at the line-up and could not have wished for a better roster of artists.» It’s a progression that not only marks a momentous event for the company, but one deeply entrenched in its core mission. «It just allows us to, again, be a bigger platform,» Zhang describes, «to showcase more artists, from more places around the world.
«To the artists themselves, Head in the Clouds proves to be nothing short of a landmark event. Speaking to Warren Hue, a 19-year-old signee who debuted on 88rising with March’s «omomopunk,» I get the sense that the festival extends far beyond the sum of its parts. «It represents a community of young talented Asian artists who can create something special and break boundaries» the musician tells me, explaining the festival’s role in building the label’s identity. But for the talents already established on the global stage, the festival holds just as much import — Indonesian singer/songwriter NIKI seems to have cinematic ambitions in the works, hinting at her designs for «the most iconic insane set ever» via Twitter last month. «NIKI, I know, is intent on putting on the performance of a lifetime» – says Zhang, «It’s going to be an immediate reaction once you actually see what she’s planning.»
To make this all possible, 88rising is making 2021’s Head In The Clouds their most collaborative effort yet. With the growing pains of a double-sized line-up, the organization has partnered with international event organizers Goldenvoice, the team responsible for festivals like Camp Flog Gnaw and Coachella. In Zhang’s words, «they do festivals like nobody else.» The return of the team at 626 NIGHT MARKET, who curated food for the festival in previous years, ensures that crowds will be treated to a whole host of local delicacies, while a minimum donation to Inner City Arts ensures the festival continues to support the 88’s history of charitable work.
This focus on authentic collaboration remains not only at the core of the festival, but 88rising as a whole. Just recently, the organization partnered with Marvel Studios on the soundtrack to their latest blockbuster, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the 10 Rings, crafting a wide-ranging project based around the Asian-American narratives at the heart of the film. Hue, behind four of the album’s cuts, recognizes it as a powerful anomaly: «It’s definitely a gem in the music world» he explains — «everyone showcased their culture on this album.» On every level, it is a soundtrack not created by corporate necessity, or one chasing for another «Sunflower«-type hit, but instead one shaped by an authentic desire to simply do things right. «I think the beautiful thing about the Marvel collaboration is that there was a lot of trust, and a lot of care, in putting the creative first» Zhang confirms – «That was of paramount importance.»
This is but one moment in a recent collaborative streak for the organization: a 2020 deal with Samsung and R/GA gave NIKI, BIBI, and Ylona Garcia the chance to debut new material via the new Galaxy S21 handset, while flagship artist Rich Brian has been filming for his debut feature film, the Justin Chon-directed Jamojaya. As I’m speaking to Zhang, there’s the sense that all of these collaborations are part of a greater focus on brand-to-artist authenticity, a collaborative process that remains authentic in spite of the obvious corporate origin. It’s a unique approach to marketing artists — with a tough balance between individuality and popularity — but for a company where the artist’s vision has always been top priority, it seems only natural.
So, what next? Much like its present, 88rising’s future seems defined against a backdrop of collaboration. The label’s Philippines-based imprint, Paradise Rising, is fresh off the back of second compilation Semilucent 2, and looks to continue to grow its character with key signings like Ylona Garcia and Steven Peregrina. Plans for similar offshoots in Vietnam and Thailand are already in consideration, as the organization looks to find ways to incorporate local talent into a global discourse. Internally, 88rising’s roster is busy at work on their long-awaited third compilation, Head in the Clouds 3, which Zhang assures me will make for «another special moment» for the organization come 2022. With new signees like Warren, there’s plenty in the pipeline, too – » I want to create new ideas, new music videos, songs and piece an album together» the musician explains, » I want it to be a moment when my album comes out.»
For the festival itself, the future seems equally bright. 2020’s Jakarta edition of the festival was intended as the first in a series of global expansions – and with the COVID-19 restrictions beginning to lift worldwide, it seems that international offshoots are in the cards. Here’s hoping we’ll see a few more of those in the years to come — but for now, we’ll have to leave it to the Californians to reap the benefits of 88rising’s most vibrant event to date.