Glass talks to rising hip-hop star Rich Brian

IN FEBRUARY 2016, Brian Imanuel Soewarno uploaded the video of his debut track Dat $tick on YouTube and, as clichéd as it sounds, the rest is history. The video instantly went viral, simultaneously gaining the attention of the hip hop industry and the internet. At just 20 years old, now better known as Rich Brian, he has become the first Asian artist to reach #1 on the iTunes hip hop charts – no small feat.

His second album, Sailor, was released last year cementing himself as an artist not to be taken lightly. The album is his most personal body of work so far, opening up about his rapid stardom, immigration and his Indonesian heritage. The collaborations with two of music’s biggest icons, the producer Bekon and Wu Tang Clan’s RZA,  are testimony to his capabilities and talent, illustrating the start of what can only be predicted as an extraordinary career ahead. 

How did you end up discovering YouTube and do you remember what you began watching?
I discovered YouTube from internet cafes in Indonesia called “warnet” and I discovered what Google was at the age of eight and it was blowing my fucking mind. I thought they literally had a picture of every single thing in the world. I began watching Rubik’s Cube tutorial videos and PrankvsPrank vlogs mostly.

Coming from a completely different culture and speaking a different language, it must have been a shock to be presented with this other world – do you remember what was going through your head?
I do not remember a thing because the progress was so quick I forgot to stop and smell the flowers. Only recently, I realised the resources I have.

Rich Brian for Glass Man, face mask onRich Brian. Photograph: Definate Film

Your music has definitely matured and grown up with you. Was it important to step away from the ironic nature of music that you began your career with?
It was in the beginning because of how separate comedy and hip hop was at the time. But as I continued to make music, I realised I just love doing this shit. Writing, melodies, production, music videos – all of it. I love hip hop. I’ve been listening to it since I was 12 and it’s what shapes my musical DNA.

Last summer you released another album, Sailor, which is your most personal body of work so far. How does it feel putting out music about topics so close to your heart?
It feels amazing to know that all these lyrics I thought were me not being able to stick to one topic on a song has turned out to be one huge demography of one topic, which was my life.

In your song, Yellow, you really open up about immigration, seen clearly in the lyric “I did it all without no citizenship”. Was it important for you to express your background?
Absolutely. It’s an insane journey for all of us no matter who you are or what you do. Your brain is processing new information every second and making snap judgements and pre-conceived notions every second that you forget what your own opinion on things are. Like, are you living for yourself or doing what’s good under other people’s standards?

Rich Brian Pool landscape

Rich Brian. Photograph: Definate Film

On your album, you collaborate with RZA from the Wu Tang Clan. How does it feel to have someone so legendary on your album at the age of 20?
That shit was amazing. I really got the man who created hip hop on my album. I will never forget that moment of interaction with that man – he was radiating with good energy. 

You’re still very early on in your career yet you have achieved so much already. What have been the “pinch-me” moments?

The pinch-me moments have been every time I saw the sky or looked at the mountains and realised how crazy the lighting is and how everything feels like a colour-graded movie. Whenever I see things like that I’m like, “wow I’m really here”.

What has been the biggest challenge so far that you’ve encountered?
Doubting myself and being too structural with everything. It was definitely good for me but it got to a point where I couldn’t enjoy a song as a song but was always dissecting every single technical thing about it.

Rich Brian feature portraitRich Brian. Photograph: Definate Film

You’ve become an inspiration to the younger generation in Indonesia. How does that feel and do you feel a responsibility to them?
It feels great and I don’t see it as a responsibility, honestly, it is my job. But it’s what I’ve always wanted to do. So I’m just having fun and being myself. Hopefully that inspires someone.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Bekon once told me that it’s okay to take breaks from music, and that helped me a lot.

What is your ultimate career goal?
To learn more things and do more dope stuff. That’s always been the plan.

Apart from music, what are your interests and hobbies? 
I love film, Rubik’s Cubes, cutting my own hair. Random nerdy shit that I can get into and learn about is always fun to me.

Rich Brian landscape, rubiks cube, glass man

Rich Brian. Photograph: Definate Film

Even though the world is at a pause currently, what is next for you?
A lot of new music.

With the theme of this issue being “Shine”, what does shine mean to you?
To me it means being comfortable with where you’re at in life because you have awareness of your abilities and how you can impact others as a person. Not trying to move anywhere or go back to anything, and just dealing with everything that’s around you. Improving your surroundings instead of seeking validation from others. Wow, I sound woke as shit – don’t listen to me.

by Imogen Clark

First published in the Summer 2020 issue of Glass Man – Shine

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Photographer: Definate Film
Talent: Rich Brian