Rich Brian is on a roll. After his studio album debut ‘Amen’ in 2018, and the critically acclaimed ‘The Sailor’ in 2019, the Indonesian hip-hop artist is back in the spotlight with a new EP called ‘1999’ – all that before turning 21, which he did on September 3. The 88rising artist – and one of the few Asian rap artists to make it in the US – seems to be taking that age-old saying “seize the day” to heart.
NME caught up with the busy Brian via Zoom from China, where he’s judging the televised rap competition Rap For Youth. We talked about ‘1999’, the weird story behind his first-ever tattoo, and why he’s dipping his toes into acting.
When judging Rap For Youth, what are you looking for in terms of talent?
I would say that a lot of the contestants I’ve seen are really good. It’s funny because I’m the only one in the show that doesn’t understand any Chinese at all. So I’m judging it based on the vibe that I get from the performances, and the people in general. I just pay close attention to their personality. You can just tell if someone’s just ready to be a star. It’s a really rare quality.
I’m going to be honest, I don’t think I really have that star quality.
Oh no. Don’t say that.
I don’t know. Just viewing it from my perspective at the time. I just felt shy and I wasn’t feeling like I was in my place. And sometimes people are just ready and you can just tell right away. That’s just one of my favourite things to see.
Let’s talk about the new EP. It’s called ‘1999’. That’s your birth year, obviously. But what’s the significance? Is that like Taylor Swift’s ‘1989’?
[Laughs] I think it’s because a lot of the topics of the songs in this EP are very personal and introspective, which a lot of my music is, but I feel like in this EP, specifically, I wanted to have it be, like: This right here, it’s about my experiences and everything, but it’s mostly just seeing things through my lens. And being as honest and vulnerable as possible. So I felt that name kind of just fits perfectly.
And also the cover art, this drawing of myself and the three circles, is a tattoo that I have. I just kind of feel this one to be the most personal project that I’ve ever had so far.
Tell me about the significance of those three circles.
Yeah, that’s the first tattoo that I’ve ever gotten. And also, I have this crazy story that my parents told me. When I was a baby, my hair pretty much grew out and formed these three perfect circles. They showed me a picture of it and I saw it. They hid the picture, because people might have acted weird about it at the time in Indonesia.
Yeah, so apparently that happened. It was pretty crazy. And not many people believe it when I say it, so I kinda wanted to have that tattooed on me.
The ‘Love In My Pocket’ video is just visually stunning, and funny. How much creative input did you have for that video?
Usually when I make music videos, it’s a collaboration between me and the director, when we’re working on the treatment. But this one is Daniel Campos, and I feel like he did a great job at researching my background. I didn’t do much on this one. When I got there, he kind of was just doing his thing. I feel like there were a lot of things that he learned about me. And so many little things that I didn’t even tell him.
Like there was a scene with this yo-yo trick. People know about the Rubik’s Cube and stuff like that. But the yo-yo thing, specifically, was a trick that I used to want to learn so bad when I was a kid. And I never got to learn it [laughs]. And the fact that one of the clones did it is pretty crazy.
I’ve always just been a fan of [Campos’] work. And he’s really good at doing stuff with choreography. It was a great experience for me.
You talked a bit about ‘1999’ being a personal project. But ‘The Sailor’ was also a very personal album. What was different this time?
I think, this time, the process of it was super different. And also, I was just going through a different stage of my life. ‘The Sailor’ was such a big turning point for me. It came out during a time when I hadn’t put out something in a long time. I wanted to come out with something that was really special and so different. And something that showed a lot of growth in my music. Because I really do feel like, with ‘The Sailor’, I learned so much working on that album. And so much about production and writing, and working with a bunch of great people.
‘1999’ has seven songs, and I produced five of them. I recorded a lot of the songs myself because I learned how to record myself. I think it was just great and a lot more natural than the process that I used to do.
It was a lot of going back to the basics, and that makes it so much more honest and natural to me. It was also a lot of letting go of overthinking, and being afraid of what people might think of all this when it’s out. With ‘1999’, I’m making this right now and I love the way it sounds. And that’s all I’m worried about.
If I listen to a song again and I still love it, I’m gonna put it out. That was the case for a lot of the songs in the EP.
Why did you decide to release it as an EP as opposed to doing a full album?
That was something that I just felt that it was the right time to put it out. I made two full-length albums at this point, but I wanted to know what it feels like to have something that was shorter and more compact and simple. Even though a lot of the songs are pretty simple and easy-listening. It’s only seven songs, and it doesn’t really have as heavy a concept as ‘The Sailor’, but it’s still very deep and personal to me. That’s how those seven songs kind of connect to me. Even though they sound super different, they touch on very similar topics.
A lot of people comment about you collaborating with this or that artist. How do you feel about working with big names in rap and hip-hop?
In my opinion, it’s always really cool when I get the chance to collaborate with big names in hip-hop. I’m in the music industry now and it’s crazy how these guys are my peers now. But at the same time, I used to listen to these guys growing up. And I was such a big fan of all of them, and I still am now, even though I am one of them, which is still weird to me. It’s really cool.
And if I were to collab with someone, I would collaborate with Kendrick Lamar. And this might be far-fetched, but Jay-Z would be amazing.
Obviously you’re one of the few young Asian artists to have crossed over to the mainstream in the US, which is a notoriously difficult nut to crack. What’s the experience been like for you?
There are times when I can feel the pressure of catering to both sides of my audience but it comes back to me being: I’m just a person at the end of the day telling my story, and I’m going to do it in a way that I believe sounds good and something that can inspire people as a whole, no matter where you’re from or no matter what age group you belong [to]. It’s the kind of feeling I got growing up listening to hip-hop, and any kind of music I used to listen to – that feeling of being so inspired. I always want to give that same feeling to the people that listen to my music.
I think it’s a great position and I feel very blessed to be in it.
You’re still promoting ‘1999’, but after this, what’s on the horizon?
A lot of interesting things. I’m still making music. ‘1999’ just came out, but I’ve been recording a lot, so to people who are wondering what comes next, I’m always working on stuff. I just like making random stuff and going back to listen to them all the time and do a lot of different experiments to listen to.
But outside of music, I’m just exploring a lot of opportunities. Hopefully acting in the near future. I can’t speak too much on it, but it’s something that I’ve always wanted to do for a long time. I used to make short films before I started making music, so it’s something that I want to just kind of touch back on.
Yeah, I remember you mentioning you wanted to go to film school. Is that still on the cards?
Maybe not right now, with the pandemic. Right now the best I can do is do some acting exercises in front of the mirror.
Rich Brian’s ‘1999’ EP is out now