HARI In-House Blog

Hiphop x Asia: The Higher Brothers and a Successful "Journey to the West"

It is hard to miss the growing influence of 88rising, a global media company, record label, and self-described “meme factory” all in one. 88rising is the management behind some of hiphop’s most up and coming artists, including Rich Brian, Joji, Keith Ape, and Higher Brothers. Highlighting an east-meets-west perspective on youth culture, 88rising has been able to bridge the gap between vastly different parts of the world, and we wanted to witness this phenomenon firsthand.

Our chance came when the Higher Brothers, the aforementioned 4-man rap group from Chengdu, China, stopped in Boston as part of their first U.S. tour titled “Journey to the West” in late February. Most of the tour was sold out, and their show at the Paradise Rock Club was no different. The line of people waiting to enter the venue already snaked around the corner about 30 minutes before the doors were set to open, and as we joined the queue, we were struck by the makeup of the line. The majority of concertgoers were Asian, and we overheard more conversations in Chinese than English while we were waiting for the show to start.

Despite the wait and the chants of “HIGHER!” for almost an hour, the openers started rolling out at 8:15 pm to an energetic crowd.  Matthew Law, a Philly DJ accompanying the Higher Brothers, came out first to the simultaneous relief and chagrin of a crowd that was both hungry for entertainment yet craving the Higher Brothers.  He managed to build the hype with big 88rising hits such as “Dat $tick” and “It G Ma.” There was also popular hiphop and EDM mixed in to really get the place bouncing. Matthew Law was a constant presence who kept us bumpin’ all night.

Following Law’s solo DJ set, iLL Kris came out literally jumping. Almost no one in the crowd knew his lyrics, but his energy was contagious. His crowd-surfing and general antics had everyone even more pumped for the main act than before. iLL Kris was followed by Niki, an R&B act out of Indonesia, who brought a more subdued vibe. Unfortunately, her performance suffered due to mic complications, and issues with stage presence as a result. When audible, her R&B- and trap-infused melodies were definitely catchy and had the crowd bobbing along. The last, and strongest, opening act was 88rising affiliate Bohan Phoenix. Phoenix rapped with vigor, and his music often spoke to the difficulties of living with his Asian-American identity, something that definitely resonated with concert goers. While mainly rapping in English, he reverted to Chinese to snap off several memorable hooks (“I give you that 加辣 加辣 加辣!”). One especially memorable line took place during a short acapella interlude, where Bohan rapped about being “too foreign for here, too foreign for home.”

Finally, it was time for the Higher Brothers to perform. From the very first seconds of their set, we knew we were in for a crazy show. The Higher Brothers came out together, rapping the first few bars of “Flo Rida” to a crowd that went into a frenzy. You would expect a lot of stage presence with four rappers on stage, but they surpassed even those expectations. They played the simultaneous roles of rappers and hype men, and were able to keep the crowd bouncing for the entirety of their 45-minute set. The Higher Brothers were also able to connect with the crowd, often taking selfies with fans and pointing their mics into the crowd to let the audience rap along. The cultural connection between the rappers and audience played a big part of this rapport, as the group generally spoke in Chinese, even wishing everyone a happy Chinese New Year (“新年快乐!”) in one particularly friendly part of the show.

Throughout the show, the Higher Brothers would also teach and review lyrics through call and response before they performed a song, ensuring the crowd was fully hyped for what was coming. This sometimes led to comical effect, as they had the entire venue chanting “I want to go to 7-11!” before diving into their performance of “7-11.” Their performance of “Wudidong” was the highlight of the night, where the combination of the thumping bass and the rappers’ contagious energy pushed the excitement to overdrive as the crowd pushed and shoved each other in the closest the show came to moshing. After their lively performance of “WeChat,” the Higher Brothers thanked the crowd (“谢谢!”) and quickly left the stage. The crowd responded by chanting “HIGHER!” the loudest that they had all night, eagerly anticipating a final encore. The Higher Brothers didn’t disappoint, eventually sprinting back onstage with Bohan Phoenix in a performance of their joint song “No Hook.”  The crowd turned back up for the final song of the night, demonstrating once again just how frenetic the Higher Brothers’ fans are over 7,000 miles from Chengdu.

As the venue lights faded back on after the final song, revealing a sweaty yet thoroughly satisfied crowd, it was evident that the Higher Brothers tap into a unique part of hiphop, blending their native Chinese culture with the Black, Western hiphop tradition. This was exemplified by the visuals backing their final song, which came from a popular Chinese cartoon Journey to the West (西游记). In a crowd where many of the concertgoers no doubt grew up watching these cartoons, this homage seemed like the perfect way to encapsulate the show - a proud celebration of Chinese culture, modernized to reflect the changing tastes of the modern youth.

Setlist:

1. Flo Rida

2. Isabelle

3. Chanel

4. Room Service

5. 7-11

6. Bitch Don’t Kill My Dab

7. Wudidong

8. Made in China

9. Why Not

10. WeChat

11. Encore - No Hook (w/ Bohan Phoenix)


Hiphop x Asia: During the month of April, we are investigating the interactions between hiphop and Asian cultures. The 2018 Hiphop x Asia series will highlight artists from Asia, celebrate the intersection of hiphop with Asian culture, and examine how cultures can draw from each other while promoting mutual respect. Learn more HERE.

Jeff Chang is a Senior at Harvard College studying Computer Science and Statistics. His favorite artists are JPEGMAFIA and Kanye West.

Christian Floyd is a Senior at Harvard College studying Sociology and Human Evolutionary Biology. His favorite artist is Childish Gambino.