Why Rich Brian’s talent is learning – not rapping

Words: Dylan Murphy
Photography: Ellius Grace

In the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests and as the danger of a global pandemic accelerates Dylan Murphy caught up with Indonesian rapper Rich Brian. The 88Rising artist spoke to him about where he finds peace amongst radical changes in the world.

According to a study in 2013, Jakarta is the capital with the most active Twitter users on the planet and today, it’s still there or thereabouts. It comes as no surprise then that Indonesia’s first hip hop star would emerge through Vines on Twitter as the genre’s growing popularity ran parallel to the increasingly ubiquitous presence of social media.

Rich Brian aka Brian Imanuel Soewarno has grown a lot since the fanny-pack donning days of his controversial break out track ‘Dat $tick’. He’s a little more mature, has two albums under his belt, numerous world tours and is still only 21.

Brian’s rise was explosive and he had the suspect moniker to match the commotion around his first viral single. Formerly going under Rich Chigga, he’d been labelled a gimmick, a flash in the pan and an offensive appropriator of hip hop culture, being pigeon-holed by some as an attention-seeking teenager with a flair for viral content. Make no bones about it, the name was offensive and ill-advised, but his decision to change his moniker at the age of 18 was not only a welcome move but deliberate signposting of his evolution into a more mature artist.

Rich Brian’s break out track ‘Dat $tick’.

With the support of his label 88Rising which is also home to other Asian and Asian-American stars like Keith Ape and Joji, Brian was able to rid the shackles of his past and really come into his own. In his debut album, he padded out his deep-voiced bars with thematic nuance and brought a level of sheen not seen before in his work.

By the second album ‘The Sailor’, he’d created a cinematic universe soundtracked by melodic croons and heartfelt confessions. Whilst everything had changed, it wasn’t all that different. He may have sounded a bit more sophisticated, but really Brian had just taken time to experience life and in that time developed a wider array of tools to deliver his sermons. He’d cut the bullshit and evolved into a bonified artist – all without losing the trademark wit and humour that made him so endearing in the first place.

In truth, his coming-of-age story, though less extreme, mirrors that of Tyler, The Creator to an extent. Tyler changed his pre-pubescent Twitter handle from @FuckTyler to @TylerTheCreator and less than a year later dropped ‘Flower Boy’ – his most compelling and confessional project yet. Littered with singing and inflexions that the former Odd Future miscreant wouldn’t be caught dead uttering as a teen it was a deliberate stride. The internet era is often unforgiving, but we are seeing when artists are given time to grow they flourish.

So despite the social upheaval and uncertainty in the world when I spoke to Brian on June 8 he seemed sure of himself and his values. He’d just released the innovative and totally self-sufficient visuals for ‘Bali’ from the comfort of his home and by the looks of things was in his element. Speaking to me as he carefully meandered around the edges of his pool in his LA home he tells me about his plans to make video games and how he found his spot in hip hop.

What have you been up to the past few days, have you been out in the protests or have you been keeping safe in the house?

I’ve been staying at home, kinda just looking at everything on the internet and just kind of been trying to help as much as I can through my platform.

I’ve been making a lot of music man.

Have you found it hard to be productive during this or have you been thriving?

Honestly been the most productive I’ve been in my entire life, it’s been cool. I’ve been making a lot of music with friends and stuff.

When I saw the video for ‘Bali’ it seems like you thrive off the back of facing this adversity. A lot of people would shy away from it, but you become more creative, would that be fair to say?

Definitely, yeah I think when the whole COVID thing happened I was just at home by myself and that kind of gave me time to think about a lot of things. I really felt I really just wanted to put out something else. I knew if I was by myself I could record songs so I learnt how to use Protools and record myself and that paid off in the long run because now I just record myself and my other friends too.

I watched a live stream with you and Trippie Red and you seemed pretty content at peace with where you are in your music career. What was the process of getting to that point like?

Honestly, it’s a very very long process. I would say the best way of describing it is realising your own worth and kind of not being too critical of myself. I’m realising I’ve done 20 years of that and now it’s kinda time to follow my instincts.

“Honestly, it’s a very very long process. I would say the best way of describing it is realising your own worth and kind of not being too critical of myself. I’m realising I’ve done 20 years of that and now it’s kinda time to follow my instincts.”

Rich Brian

I’ve gained 20 years of knowledge from just studying my environment and kind of like learning through experience and studying how other people do it. At this point, I’ve gained all that and I’m going to do my thing now and I’m going to follow my instincts and since that happened everything is a lot easier. Songs are a lot faster because it’s hard as an artist, it’s good to be a perfectionist … it’s really good in fact, but like it gets to a point where you can’t even enjoy music anymore. I would be listening to Drake and be like “oh that’s a cool hi-hat right there” or “I wish my vocals were mixed this way” and I can’t even enjoy music anymore. I would love it when I’m making it and then I’d put it out and be like ‘that could’ve been better right there”.

But I’m finally getting to a point where I’m looking back at all my music and thinking “wow, what fucking progress”. So yeah I think it’s definitely a long process and everybody goes through this especially artists.

When I was looking at your twitter and you were posting old videos from youtube when you were younger and it looked very much like you were reflecting on what it was like. I tend to look back on stuff and cringe but you look comfortable where you are.

Yeah definitely, it’s kinda like looking at everything from an outside perspective for the first time. It’s pretty crazy, but I came to America three years ago. You know what I’ve come to realise the whole time is like my whole life, that I’ve been working towards this goal of coming to America because America was my idea of happiness and success at the time.

Everything I did was working towards that goal. I was so focused and I was thinking about the next thing to do, the next step to go to America and reach that goal… I was so on the go this whole time I didn’t realise I was already at the goal. Only very recently I realised “holy shit I have everything I need and this is enough for me”. For the first time, I was like “wow you finally got everything you wanted since you were 12”. This is cool and I’m going to keep doing this.

I’m finally at a point where I’m comfortable with my own skills and my abilities and it’s not even me trying to be confident it’s a knowing thing. So there’s no need to prove anything to myself or prove anything to other people. I’m just very at peace with everything.

Even in that live stream, you were saying about how the only vinyl you had in your house was yours and ‘IGOR’ and to me, there are some parallels between your progress and Tyler’s progress.  You know you’ve picked up more melodic tinges and he’s singing more. It feels like you’ve really come into your own lane as of late, especially with the new album.

I think throughout the years I’ve got more comfortable with that and it started off with me singing but still in my deep monotone voice and as the years progressed I started to open up my voice. I think ‘The Sailor’ was a really big step in the progress in my sound. I learnt so much from that process. I think that’s when I was like “wow I’m really good at lyrics and I love lyrics” that’s when I found that pocket of trying to be confident, experimenting with all these new sounds and now I’m realising I can do both and it’s cool. 

Did you ever feel like you had to be any type of rapper when you started gaining popularity, being boxed in or having to represent Asia in that sense too?

Absolutely, yeah I think when I first started I was definitely very… still confused. Still even last year, I was trying to find that place in hip hop and thinking “who am I? What type of rapper am I? Am I the lyrical rapper, the J. Cole type rapper or am I a singing rapper?” Kind of putting boxes on all these things and rappers I’ve looked up to since I was 12.

Cause I’ve listened to hip hop since I was 12 even before I was rapping and that’s all I was listening to my whole life. I’ve looked up to all these different rappers and studied them so I know everything so well and notice patterns and that’s why I’ve been so perfectionist my whole career. Beating myself up for all these things that no one else notices and yeah it’s just a whole big realisation that all that shit is me. That’s not me being anyone else or trying to be anyone else – all that shit is me and that’s ok to do that.

Do you think you are aware of how much influence you have ?

Absolutely, yeah that’s something i’ve always tried to be aware of, I have a big platform and I have to use it the right way and not everybody gets the opportunity to be heard by this many people. It’s hard because a lot of people forgot that because it just seems like numbers on a screen and even when you do shows it’s just like “oh it’s another show it’s another venue, it’s another crowd of people”. You don’t realise these are a bunch of dope ass human beings that are just like you that happen to like you.

That’s just the coolest thing ever to me. The reason I say they are just like you is because they like you for you. It’s basically like having a bunch of friends you haven’t met yet and yeah I think that is something I am always wary of and I try to be responsible about it.

I just realised my only talent, my one and only talent since I was a baby is that I pick shit up fast. I learn things fast and that’s just how my brain happened to be wired.

Rich Brian

When you are off the internet like you seem at peace with your music, what does your peace look like outside of music when you are tuning out of the world?

At this point man, I just find peace everywhere, I love doing a lot of things. I love learning.

I Kind of realised my whole talent my whole life has never been music or cooking or making videos or any of these things people tell me I’m good at and I’m just realising these are skills that I’ve had to pick up. I’ve had to teach myself and it all came so easily to me because I was so focused on that goal of coming to America, I had to teach myself English all that shit. I just realised my only talent, my one and only talent since I was a baby is that I pick shit up fast. I learn things fast and that’s just how my brain happened to be wired.

So I just find peace in learning about shit and looking at the world in a way that I look at this plant and I’m like “Oh that’s a cool plant, I want to learn about that plant”, (Grabbing a plant and pulling it towards his face to sniff it) just little shit like that.

That’s why I love cooking. I learnt to cook because I used to count calories when I was a kid for whatever reason and I just learnt to make healthy foods and I was like “oh this is fun”. Then I got to the point where I didn’t have to count calories anymore and I was like ‘oh shit I don’t have to cook healthy food all the time’ and that became a new thing for me. I just find a lot of peace in learning about stuff.

What have you been learning about/ spending time doing during quarantine?

Doing a lot of relearning shit I always loved doing as a kid but kind of like staying away from because I felt I didn’t have enough time because my main priority was music. For example, I’ve been doing a lot of editing and like shooting videos with my friends. I’m friends with this dude James DeFina who does a lot of Post Malone’s videosand I’ve done plenty of music videos with him in the past. He’s been over at the house with his red camera and we just film stuff and edit stuff together and I wanna get into 3D animation and stuff like that.

I wanna make video games low key. I’ve always loved playing video games and I’ve been playing more video games, I got a couple of new consoles and watching movies, stuff like that.

I’m just trying to live in the moment and enjoy life. 

Since this conversation Rich Brian released ‘Don’t Care’ directed and edited by James DeFina.