REVIEW: 88rising brings eclectic musicians, Asian culture to LA

The New York-based media company 88rising, famous for its lineup of Asian artists, hosted its first music festival on Saturday, with headliner Rich Brian at the Los Angeles State Historic Park. (Photo from Instagram)

On Saturday, 88rising held its first Head in the Clouds music festival at Los Angeles State Historic Park. The media company, popular for its lineup of Asian artists like Rich Brian, Joji and Keith Ape, drew an incredibly diverse crowd with an equally eclectic roster of performers.

The park, studded with inflated balloons marked “88,” featured various food trucks, including Howlin’ Rays, an L.A. chicken staple and a Guess pop-up shop. The festival kicked off right at 3 p.m. with opener Diablo, followed by DJ Don Krez. Krez played a few songs from his latest album “prequel,” as people started trickling into the festival.

Indie artist Sen Morimoto — dressed from the pages of a Muji catalogue with his long black hair, olive linen pants and printed white t-shirt — lulled the audience into a relaxed mood with low-fi beats and smooth raps heavy with internal rhyme.

Rapper AUGUST 08 took the stage later, playing  “Lately” and “Missed Calls,” before bringing out rapper DUCKWRTH as a surprise addition to the lineup. They used the latter half of their set to commemorate rappers XXXTentacion and Mac Miller, both of whom passed away this year, delivering an emotional rendition of “Funeral.”

The transitions between later acts were messy — the artists and genres contrasted so much that hordes of people left the stage as another wave rushed in between sets.

Japanese hip-hop artist KOHH set the bar for energy high, storming out in a studded black jacket, which he tore off during his first song to reveal what looked like a rainbow-patterned laptop case strapped to his chest.

NIKI, the only female artist on the lineup, claimed the coveted dusk slot, and both her music and the warm-toned visuals projected onto the stage behind her provided a sharp contrast to KOHH’s charged set. She opened with “Newsflash!” and fans waved their arms to the chorus: “Go be someone else’s hangover!” A stripped-down rendition of “Dancing with the Devil” revealed a softer side to her elusive persona and, like an annotation of her album, she crafted a story arc over the span of five songs.

Higher Brothers, a Mandarin-speaking rap quartet, came on after and fans often struggled to keep up with its lyrics. Keith Ape appeared shortly after, and played a short set, including “IT G MA,” the viral song that brought 88Rising to the limelight.

It’s not unusual that lineups become delayed over the course of a festival but through the night, the schedule slipped behind a half hour, only catching up at the very end. Producer Murda Beatz played a set that felt drawn-out, featuring a mix of songs he produced for artists like Drake and Travis Scott.

In a red Adidas tracksuit, Japanese-Australian record producer Joji took the stage next, resetting the crowd’s mood with his “sad boy” beats and personal anecdotes. His recurring interjection, “unblock me b-tch!” became the catch phrase of the night as he sang about heartbreak in “SLOW DANCING IN THE DARK” and unrequited love in “Yeah Right.” Unfortunately, Joji sapped up the crowd’s energy, and the dancing that Murda Beatz evoked was replaced with slow swaying and half-closed eyes.

The wait for the last act of the lineup was unexpectedly short; after a 10-second countdown, Indonesian rapper Rich Brian emerged, bringing every audience member to their feet, yelling.

Rich Brian exhibited the most personable stage presence, but the immaturity that disappeared with his former moniker “Rich Chigga” shone through once again. Between songs, he asked if anyone in the crowd was under 18, calling them “children” and then advised everyone in the crowd to “light up your crack cocaine!” But Rich Brian was also the first of the evening to note the vast diversity of the crowd, and proclaimed he was proud that the Asian community came out to a festival run by a company that was originally branded as “VICE for Asian culture.”

He played songs from his latest album, including “Cold” and “Amen,” closing out his set with the song that kick-started his rap career: “Dat $tick.” Immediately after, Brian launched into “Midsummer Madness,” and the rest of his labelmates flocked onstage to end the night with their collective album, “Head in the Clouds.”

Those who came to Head in the Clouds for the sheer breadth in artists under 88rising’s label may have gone home satisfied, but for those who came for a single artist (or waited six hours for Rich Brian) might have been off-put by the extreme variations in genres, moods and themes of the lineup.

Rather than playing extremes back to back, the night could have arced in mood to build up to the headlining acts, though it does not help that Joji and Rich Brian have very different styles. Softer R&B acts like NIKI and Zion T. could have led into the various producers, to bridge the genres, before finally bringing out the harder rap artists like KOHH and Higher Brothers to amp up the energy for the final acts.

Despite the lack of good pacing and consideration of the sheer festival length, the variety of audience members and artists captured precisely what the label and festival set out to do — make a space for minorities in hip-hop and share Asian culture.