What comes to mind when mentioning modern-day hip hop? Names like Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West are two of the first mentioned almost instantly. There are countless names in the hip hop world who have forged their own legacies using inspiration from old movies, fictional characters, jazz, and fashion. Even anime has found its way to the forefront of rappers’ minds.
Kanye West comparing legendary anime titles Spirited Away and Akira
The most accomplished names in rap have made their stake in the genre and music industry as a whole through utilizing these inspirations in their work process and creating quality music. Well into their 30s, these accomplished names have shaped what hip hop is today. Jay-Z and Kanye’s ‘Watch the Throne’ made headlines in 2011, Drake’s annual mixtape/album releases earned him his top 5 placeholder position in terms of popularity, and Eminem and 50 Cent’s volatile synchronicity throughout their early-mid 2000s releases made them legends in their own right.
Those artists have paved the way for the ‘young and hungry’ names of today, who for better or worse are the driving force behind today’s hip hop. However, these ‘new kids’ break the norm of what rap is ‘supposed to be’, taking away the once-imperative need for masculinity in hip hop and replacing it with fierce independence and creativity. And creativity, in this case, is whatever way they can deliver their personal experiences and intrapersonal feelings into a song. They might share a similar sound, but their delivery varies and is influenced by personal experience and other factors. This is the ever-more popular new school of hip hop, and believe it or not, many of its artists are influenced by Asian culture.
Who are They?
Beginning to emerge as early as 2010, these East Asian culture-inspired hip hop artists were few in number. Rarely would you hear a song from a rapper that referenced a certain anime, or see album/mixtape art inspired by East Asia. Lupe Fiasco referenced Dragon Ball Z, a rarity back then. Now it’s commonplace in the world of hip hop. Today there are dozens of rappers who represent a part of East Asian culture in their own way. Each rapper who is influenced by East Asian culture to some degree expresses that in their music through their own uniquely crafted aesthetic. Most influences are admittedly made on the basis of Japanese anime. A plethora of young rappers typically references anime in their music as it’s what they were exposed to growing up. However, many of these same rappers are heavily inspired by otaku culture as a whole as opposed to merely anime on its own. They proudly express this through either their music, style, social media activity and/or album art.
Meme highlighting Lupe Fiasco’s early DBZ reference
Over time, these artists became more and more popular as the ‘taboo’ notion of otaku culture was removed from the world of hip hop. While it may be true that East Asian influences such as martial arts and other aesthetics were present in rap since the early 90s, they’re nowhere near as mainstream as they are today. Well-known anime fan and prevalent underground rapper Robb Bank$ (who interestingly enough is the son of pop star ‘Shaggy’) mentioned in an interview how anime wasn’t considered ‘cool’ by many African-American youths, and therefore wasn’t very popular with most rappers. While elements of his statement may still hold true, a lot of otaku-inspired rappers nowadays do not give way to that notion and increasingly create anime and otaku-inspired music. The more this happens, the more accepted the world of otaku, anime, and everything related to East Asian culture becomes. Since the mid-2010s otaku culture’s prevalence in the world of hip hop has only grown. Ethnic East Asian acts and groups rapidly emerged and were given a liaison-like platform to help them emerge onto the scene.
The Current Merging of Asian Culture & Hip-Hop
Long past the days of Chinese-American rapper Jin’s 2004 breakout hit ‘Learn Chinese’ (which taught hip-hop heads that even Asian rappers could excel on the mic), the current years of hip hop are experiencing a significant influx of ethnic Asian rappers into the mainstream. Starting off with a plethora of hype, Korean rapper Keith Ape and his posse broke into Western hip hop in 2015 with the hit single ‘It G Ma’. The single gained enough attention to even receive its own remix, which featured names the likes of Waka Flocka & Asap Ferg, as well as Korean American rapper Dumbfoundead. Keith Ape toured throughout America after his single blew up and even made it onto many US rappers’ songs through features. Keith Ape and his crew, which features fellow Japanese/Korean rappers Okasian, JayAllday, Loota, and Kohh, swarmed US hip hop in terms of popularity and signaled the breakthrough of Asian rappers onto the US commercial rap scene as well as the underground.
Korean rapper Keith Ape made waves throughout the U.S. rap scene with his breakout single ‘It G Ma’.
Then by early 2016, just a week ahead of Indonesian-American rapper Rich Chigga’s “Dat Stick’”single release (which would become hugely popular), 88Rising was formed. 88Rising is a platform that conjoins US hip hop with Asian artists (some who don’t even speak English), allowing them to emerge onto the scene easier by giving them an introduction and a few minutes of fame on YouTube. Rich Chigga’s success propelled him to popularity in a similar manner to Keith Ape, even earning his “Dat Stick” single a remix which featured underground rapper Pouya and veteran Wu-Tang member Ghostface Killah.
Indonesian Rapper Rich Chigga – A somewhat nonchalant and well-received ethnic Asian rapper that broke through the scene with his infamous single ‘Dat $tick.’
88Rising not only allowed Asian rappers a chance to shine onto Western hip hop but also featured videos and performances from popular US rappers the likes of 21Savage, Desiigner, Lil Yachty, Anderson .Paak, Flatbush Zombies, and more. In addition, 88Rising introduced the world of US hip hop to a plethora of Asian rappers who were all popular in their home country – acts such as CL, Higher Brothers, and Bryan Cha$e. It even propelled the popularity of Australian-Japanese YouTuber Filthy Frank, allowing him to perform under his alias Joji.
Higher Brothers – The first breakout Chinese rap group, ready and willing to make a real impact in the U.S.
88Rising is doing much more than merely combining the musical worlds of Asian and the West. 88Rising has a plethora of videos based on Asian culture, videos which dig deeper than the usual Asian cuisine highlights that Westerners love so much. With platforms like 88Rising facilitating the breakthrough of Asian artists, and other music platforms such as Soundcloud eliminating the need for Asian artists to face prejudice by record labels, East Asia has indefinitely carved out a piece of hip hop for itself. A part of Western hip hop is now East Asian thanks to the decade-long efforts of artists who attempted to fuse their ethnic East Asian influences with the US hip hop industry.