One concert was all it took to spark the idea of the Asian arts collective 88rising overseeing the soundtrack for one of the most hotly watched action movies of the year.
It happened in early 2019, when Destin Daniel Cretton, the director of the forthcoming Marvel Studios movie “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” caught an energetic Los Angeles gig by the Chinese hip-hop group Higher Brothers. “I’ve never been to a show that was primarily made up of Asian Americans who were all just owning themselves,” Cretton said in a recent interview. “Nobody felt like an outsider; I don’t know if you want to call it a punk rock mentality, but everybody was so pumped to be there.”
Sean Miyashiro, the 40-year-old founder of 88rising (which includes Higher Brothers on its roster) was there, and when the two met backstage, Miyashiro didn’t need a formal pitch to convince the director of what his artists could do. Cretton “looked like he was hypnotized,” Miyashiro recalled. “He told me he’d never seen a bunch of Asian kids just wilding out like that — thrashing and jumping in the mosh pit. That really stuck with him.”
Over the last few years, 88rising has steadily made inroads into the music industry. Its artists rack up millions of streams on listening services; it stages a festival, Head in the Clouds, which will return in November to Los Angeles (the pandemic foiled last year’s event). And the “Shang-Chi” soundtrack is an opportunity to showcase how Miyashiro’s mission for 88rising — to “provide and celebrate Asian creatives, especially in music, no matter where you’re from” — is part of a shift in available creative outlets for Asian Americans across the United States.
Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé previously assembled albums that accompanied “Black Panther” and the remake of “The Lion King.” The 88rising roster doesn’t possess a generational megastar (yet), so “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings: The Album,” which was executive produced by Miyashiro and 88rising and arrives Friday alongside the movie, functions as a sampler for the label’s offerings.
Rich Brian, whose wry lyricism and laid-back persona made him the first 88rising artist to receive mainstream attention, raps throughout the record. DPR Ian and DPR Live, who Miyashiro calls “two of the most exciting artists coming from Korean R&B,” sound like smooth-voiced Daft Punk robots on “Diamond + and Pearls.” There are also contributions from artists outside of the 88rising universe, such as Anderson .Paak and Jhené Aiko, who serve as a bridge between musical worlds.
While the typical orchestral palette — stirring strings, ethereal voices — is used to score “Shang-Chi,” the 88rising album is liberally incorporated throughout the film. The delirious party cut “Run It,” a collaboration between DJ Snake, Rich Brian and Rick Ross, is synced with the hero’s first fight scene, as he battles a group of villains on a city bus. “We were able to go back and forth with Sean and his artists to mold that track, so when you watch that scene, you’ll see very classic scoring techniques but through an electronic song,” Cretton said.
In 2015, when 88rising was founded, a close collaboration with a director of a Marvel film might have sounded like an overly ambitious goal. Miyashiro, who was between jobs and “super broke,” as he put it, decided to take the plunge and break ground on his long-gestating dream of centering Asian creatives under one hub.
“Nothing existed at the time, which is staggering to think about because this was only six years ago — there was not one media platform or YouTube channel dedicated to this type of creativity,” he said. “So I was like, ‘Man, we should do that.’ And it just took off.”
A one-time employee of Vice, where he helped found the electronic music website Thump, Miyashiro had the instincts for identifying and packaging compelling content. After Rich Brian went unexpectedly viral in 2016 with his self-released song “Dat $tick,” Miyashiro signed him to 88rising. In an equally savvy move, he and his team filmed a video where established rappers reacted to the song. (21 Savage, a skeptic in that video, has since collaborated with Rich Brian and also appears on the “Shang-Chi” soundtrack.)
Despite its ascendance onto a larger stage, those involved with 88rising stressed that it’s still an independent brand that’s learning how to operate in real-time. “It feels like a family; it’s very tight knit; it’s not like this major company with thousands of employees,” said the 88rising singer Niki, who appears on several songs on the “Shang-Chi” album. “The same people that I’ve worked with four years ago are the same people that I’m still on a text thread with today.”
Though 88rising has steadily grown from those early days, the “Shang-Chi” album represented a very different kind of assignment. Miyashiro and Cretton said Marvel was mostly hands-off with the music. However, there were some ground rules. None of the songs could include cursing, and Miyashiro had to install a bank vault’s worth of security programs on his computer before he could see any material from the movie.
The pandemic threw the process for a loop, too. After the Covid-19 lockdowns began, Miyashiro didn’t hear from Cretton for months. “Frankly speaking, I forgot about it,” he said. The conversation picked back up over the summer, with Miyashiro and Cretton hashing out the loose thematic framework for the album, which parallels the movie: a young Asian American, beholden to his family lineage and expectations, must grow into his own person.
“We didn’t want to make music about a superhero,” Miyashiro said. Instead, he wanted to depict what it’s like to absorb a particular environment while growing up, citing Kendrick Lamar’s album “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” and the film “Goodfellas” as references. The movie begins in San Francisco, and Miyashiro, who was raised in San Jose, said the Bay Area was a big inspiration: “I took a lot about what I saw and what life at home was like: life with my friends, getting into trouble, mischief, all these different themes wrapped around growing up as an Asian American kid in California.”
Beyond that initial template, and the demands of whatever particular scene Cretton happened to be scoring, Miyashiro let his artists have free rein. “There’s this trust — that’s what makes the whole machine work,” Niki said. “He doesn’t really micromanage or anything; he’s very much allowing us to find ourselves, and just be completely what we want to be.”
The realities of recording during a pandemic, with a roster that splits time between Asia and America, introduced additional pressures. Warren Hue, a Indonesian-born rapper who’s featured on multiple tracks, recorded in both Jakarta and Los Angeles; Niki said she tracked her vocals with a USB microphone in her guest room in Los Angeles. “We had to take Zoom calls super late at night, into 4 a.m.,” said Miyashiro, who noted that they did rapid testing for every in-person studio session.
But sleeplessness has long been a demand of Miyashiro’s quest to expand 88rising and further a musical dialogue between Asian, American and Asian American audiences. It’s exceedingly rare to find a company that puts out pan-Asian music, he pointed out: Korean labels tend to stick with Korean artists, and so forth. “When we’re growing up in America, it’s all Asian homies — we’re kicking it with everybody,” he said. “So naturally, we’ll work with creatives from a lot of different countries, and we’re really proud of that, too.”
Cretton, who was born and raised in Hawaii, said he never listened to any Asian American musicians growing up, simply because he wasn’t aware that any existed. “As a kid, you don’t really think you’re missing anything until your brain develops enough to realize, ‘Oh, that’s kind of weak,’” he said.
“When I go to an 88rising show, I’m seeing a reflection of myself not only up onstage, but also in those giant crowds of Asian faces,” he added. “There’s an exhilaration and a release that almost feels like a buildup of generations who’d lacked that. It’s very exciting to be at a point where new artists are being celebrated across all cultures.”
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