88rising Brings Asian Hip-Hop to Chicago: Concert Review

Photo Credit David Deloso

Photo Credit David Deloso

By David Deloso

Which demographics spring to mind when discussing rap and hip-hop artists? 88rising, self-described as a “hybrid management, record label, video production, and marketing company,” hopes to make “Asians” the answer to that question. The collective, which features an extensive lineup of predominantly Asian hip-hop and R&B acts, took over Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom on October 14. With seven striking acts packed into three short hours, the sheer volume of talent on their “88 Degrees and Rising” tour exceeded expectations in both quantity and quality.

Wielding a saxophone, Chicago-based artist Sen Morimoto was the first act to take the stage with his unique fusion of jazz and rap. Although many audience members were unfamiliar with his work, the relatively obscure artist had converted many of them to fans by the time he left the stage. While Sen’s set didn’t exactly amp up the crowd, it certainly warmed them up.

The second act was Koreatown-based singer August 08, the sole member of 88rising not of Asian descent. August serenaded the crowd with highlights from his EP Father, alongside his feature from Rich Brian’s song “Arizona” and an unreleased track called “Spiral.” His smooth voice rang out powerfully in the concert hall, entrancing and invigorating the audience. For two songs, August walked into the audience to perform, making his set the most intimate of the lineup.

Next up was Japanese rapper KOHH, whose fierce, aggressive set quickly shifted the atmosphere in the room, causing the first mosh pits of the night to form. In addition to his own material, KOHH performed his verse from 88rising signee Keith Ape’s hit “It G Ma.” Even though Ape wasn’t present that night, the hype in the audience during this song, like the rest of his set, was palpable.

In stark contrast to KOHH’s intensity, Indonesian singer-songwriter NIKI’s set was upbeat, light-hearted, and sensual.  Exuding pure confidence, NIKI’s stage presence captivated the audience to the point where they hardly noticed her poorly-concealed lip-syncing. While most of her material was drawn from her 2018 EP Zephyr, she also sang “Warpaint,” a standout track from 88rising’s recent collaborative album Head in the Clouds.

The next act up was the Chinese rap trio Higher Brothers, and their looming presence hyped the crowd up before they even took the stage. That energy didn’t fade for an instant as they performed highlights from their album Black Cab and their EP Journey to the West. However, the fan-favorite track “WeChat” was noticeably missing from their setlist. The energy escalated when the group members began throwing their (presumably disgustingly sweaty) hoodies into the crowd, causing chaos as fans scrambled for free merch. Discarded outerwear aside, the setlist alone kept the audience consistently engaged.

Photo Credit David Deloso

Photo Credit David Deloso

If you haven’t heard of the next performer, you need to stop everything and look up “Joji”. The artist formerly known under the YouTube persona “Filthy Frank” has made a complete 180   from the vulgarity that once made him infamous to performing a starkly contrasting series of ballads focused on romance and heartbreak. However, the crowd was certainly not bored by Joji, whose name was loudly chanted before he appeared. His rendition of “SLOW DANCING IN THE DARK” had the crowd swaying and belting along rather than moshing. Joji’s trademark sense of humor balanced out his somber setlist as he showed off his juggling skills while Linkin Park’s “Numb” played in the background.

Last but certainly not least, Indonesian rapper Rich Brian, arguably the most well-known act of the night, electrified the audience with his performance. The set began with Brian’s 2017 track “Gospel,” an aggressive track featuring the late artist XXXTentacion (whose verse was played in full) which primed the audience for one of the most energetic sets of the night. Other songs played included “Cold” and “Glow Like Dat” off Brian’s debut album Amen and “History” from the Head in the Clouds. However, the energy sharply increased for Brian’s breakout single “Dat $tick,” which in 2016 turned Brian from a moderately successful Internet comedian to a rap superstar. As the lyrics of the iconic hook, “I don’t give a fuck about a motherfuckin’ po, I’ma pull up with that stick and hit yo’ motherfucking ‘do,” rang out in the auditorium, the crowd’s cheers turned to screams as fans violently shoved each other and pushed towards the stage.

For the grand finale following Brian’s set, the entire 88rising crew took the stage to perform their collective single “Midsummer Madness” off Head in the Clouds. While it was a fitting way to wrap up the night, it highlighted the concert’s main weakness: a lack of collaborative performances. Several members of the group have collaborated extensively amongst themselves, so the fact that they all performed in the same show as individuals, not appearing together at all until the final song, seems puzzling. Multiple songs off the collab album (aside from “Midsummer Madness”) were performed throughout the night but only featured one artist each.

Despite the lack of joint performances, the “88 Degrees and Rising Tour” still made for a fantastic concert. Each individual set was incredibly solid and showcased the artists’ strengths. From more obscure artists Sen Morimoto and KOHH to superstars such as Rich Brian and Joji, everyone on that stage gave it their all. The amount of content that was packed into a three hour concert was almost overwhelming, in the best way possible. At the end of the night, 88rising left concert-goers thoroughly exhausted yet extremely satisfied.

MusicSteven Norwalk