Brian Imanuel wants you to take him seriously.
Imanuel, an 18-year-old from Jakarta, Indonesia, began his artistic career making darkly comic Vines and YouTube videos, but launched to viral fame in 2016 with the video for his rap song “Dat $tick,” which he released under the name Rich Chigga. The clip featured a baby-faced but deep-voiced Imanuel rapping about popping shells and killing pigs while dressed in a pink shirt and wearing a fanny pack.
No one quite knew what to make of it. Was he serious? Was he making fun of himself? Of rap? And what was up with that name? Whatever was going on, between the video itself and a video of rappers like Ghostface and Desiigner reacting to the video, people couldn't get enough. “Dat $tick” racked up tens of millions of views, and Rich Chigga became a rapper.
Now, following a name change to Rich Brian, Imanuel is getting ready to release his first full-length project, Amen (out tomorrow, February 2). I met up with him at the Complex office, where he played me a number of songs, including the title track, an autobiographical, triplet-heavy manifesto. Here's our conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
The new project is very different than the stuff you've been known for up to this point. Lyrically, what are the themes of the album?
A lot of the stuff that I'm talking about are experiences that I've been going through, like being in America for the first time and going through all of these things, and then past experiences of growing up in Indonesia, and just being with my family. Also, the name of the project is Amen. It's because I say “Amen” a lot, because I'm a very optimistic person, but at the same time, you can never be too confident about things because who knows what's going to happen?
That's just the type of person I am. The first song goes over that topic as well. A lot of it is just going through real life stuff that I've been experiencing the last couple of months.
Musically, there's a bit more of a range than we've heard from you so far. There is a lot of of-the-moment trap style stuff, but there are other sounds as well. What else is going on musically?
I've been getting different inspirations nowadays. I'm listening to Tame Impala, Mac DeMarco, Frank Ocean, Childish Gambino. I'm just trying to just get as many different inspirations as I can. I love artists that can adapt and have different styles.
It sounds like you're thinking more about flow and rhythm on this. You have that one line, “Never using triplet flows because I'm not a Migo.”
But you used triplet flows on the first song on the album, so you seem like you're playing with that style.
That was a triple flow on the first song. But at the same time it's not exactly like “Look At Me,” because so many people do that now. I feel like a lot of people, when they make songs, it feels like a formula that they're doing. That's kind of my pet peeve, when it's a good song but you can tell that they are going for a certain thing. It's very artificial sometimes.
This is really the first project you conceived of as an album, right?
I'm not really calling it an album. I’m calling it a project. Just because I first started it a year ago, and the plan was to come out with a five song EP. That's been my mindset. That was the first half of the process of making this project.
But then in the middle of it we realized, why are we limiting ourselves to just an EP? We're not really rushing into it, so make it an album. We decided that it was going to be a full 13 song thing in the middle of it. So the reason I'm calling it a project is just because I wish I had more time to work on it as an album. Because an album is something that has a concept and a story from the first song to the last song.
What are albums that hold up that idea?
Drake has a lot of good stuff. Kendrick Lamar. A lot of their stuff sticks to a certain topic. Chance The Rapper.
You were around music very early. Your sister was a singer and you played the drums.
She started singing when she was three years old. She still sings now. I started playing the drums when I was five.
Were you any good?
Yeah I was. I was pretty good. I was listening to Phil Collins and Dream Theater. I stopped playing the drums when I was ten and I picked up Rubik’s Cubes. I was doing that for a while and then I got into cinematography. But then my sister was in a band and I would go with her to the studio when she was recording stuff, and I would just be like, “This is a lot of pressure. I don’t know if music is my thing.” So for a while I kinda freaked out about music. Then I just picked it up again along the way, and now it’s probably my biggest passion.
The family band you were in as a kid—what was that?
That was a Christian cover band. I was on the drums and my brother was on the keyboard, and my sister would sing and play the bass at the same time.
Before you were on Vine and before you filmed any of your comedy skits, there was Twitter. That was your first interaction with communities online. Tell me about getting on Twitter. You wanted to do things that would get peoples’ attention, right?
Yeah. I made a Twitter account when I was 10 years old. I wasn't even trying to be funny. I was still tweeting in Indonesian. I didn't really speak English yet.
I started getting to the comedy stuff because there would be these parody accounts. Sometimes they’d tweet funny stuff. So I would try to be funny on Twitter. But at the same time, the American sense of humor and the Indonesian sense of humor was very different. So there was still some things that I didn’t understand, I definitely learned a lot through memes and Twitter and comedy and stuff. And I met my first American friend on Twitter as well. His name is Noah, and we started Skyping every day. From that, I met a lot more people on Twitter. Twitter is my main source of news and knowledge. At one point, I had more friends on the internet than I did in real life. [laughter]
The comedy videos you did—they’re funny but they’re pretty dark. They deal with stuff like suicide, drug addiction, and dead parents. Where did that aesthetic come from?
I don’t know. I wasn’t trying to be dark or anything. I just kinda find it funny. [Laughter]
I was always into shows like Family Guy and I've been watching a lot of Rick and Morty recently. I would learn a lot about American comedy through watching R-Rated movies like 21 Jump Street or Super Bad, stuff like that.
A lot of people refer to that kind of style of humor and community as “Weird Twitter.” Is that a term you identify with?
Yeah. I was definitely a part of that for a while. A lot of my friends are still doing that.
How would you describe it? It can be kind of hard to pin down.
I feel like there’s different categories of Weird Twitter. There's the older Weird Twitter, where I personally find it funny. But some people in the Weird Twitter category are not really that funny.
The people that are usually actual stand-up comedians or writers are the people that I’m friends with. You can't explain the sense of humor. A lot of it would be like memes that are famous, but they would post it and then put like a really weird twist on it. The caption would be really weird and have nothing to do with the picture. Just stuff like that.
You started making songs and videos as well. Tell me how that started.
It started when I first made a song. I put it on SoundCloud. That was just for fun. I found an MF DOOM beat on YouTube and I was just rapping over it, and I lowered the sound of my voice.
It was fun for me to write. Writing lyrics was a lot harder than I thought, because I had to rhyme things. It took me a while and I was like, I like that challenge. Plus, I just like making stuff. I used to draw a lot, and I was doing the cinematography stuff making short films for a while. It just started from me doing that as a hobby at one point. My friend who is an EDM producer in Indonesia was just like, “Yo, let’s get together and make something.”
I was super-obsessed with coming to America since I was 13. I learned English from the internet.
That led to "Dat $tick"?
And that led to “Dat $tick,” yeah. I just came to his place and we made the beat, and we recorded it and mixed it. It took me probably two weeks to write that whole song. Then I put out on Soundcloud and tweeted it. It did pretty well. But then I was like, I really want to do a music video to this.
And that started the craze. But in the the video before you did prior, “Living the Dream,” there was a picture of you that became a little notorious. It’s a photo of you and Obama, and you're wearing a hoodie with the n-word on it. What were you thinking about when you did that? What kind of response did you get?
My whole thing on Twitter was, I would Photoshop a lot of stuff. A lot of times what would happen, I would post these pictures and it'll be super-random. It's not always pictures that have me in it. It's a picture of, like, a billboard but it’s Photoshopped. It would be memes that I would make. And then the bigger parody accounts would steal it.
So my whole life for about two to three years was waking up in the morning and thinking about what should I tweet tonight, because my time is the opposite time zone [from the U.S.] The whole day I would think about all of these tweets. When I was thinking about that picture, I was just like, what is the most insane picture that I can think of right now? I had a picture of me in a hoodie and I found a picture of Obama, and I just put it together.
What kind of response did you get from that?
It got really big. It was on Reddit and stuff like that. That was 2014. That was the first time a tweet of mine blew up like crazy. That was a while ago. That was crazy.
Looking back on it now, what do you think?
I mean shit, it was it was, uh, very controversial. I deleted the post. [Laughter] Just because it was like, I don’t want people to see it. But yeah.
How did [his management company] 88rising come into the picture?
It was a week or two after I released the “Dat $tick” music video. Dumbfoundead follows me on Twitter. I put out that music video and I DM’d him the link. I was like, “If you have time, do you think you can check this out?” He was like, “Oh dude I already did. What's your number? I want to link you up with my manager.” And then he introduced me to Sean [Miyashiro], his manager at the time. Now he’s the CEO of 88rising.
Then I got on a call with Sean. He talked about his whole vision—this was before 88Rising was on YouTube. I just loved it. And he managed Dumbfoundead, who I loved, and he managed Keith Ape, who I was also a fan of. I was like, this is what I’ve always wanted.
“Dat $tick” obviously got a ton of attention, I think in part because people found it funny—something you are obviously aware of. How did you move past that to be more than a novelty act?
I think what happened is, I just put out more music. I picked up producing. I started producing more of my own tracks and I put out singles that were straight up audio, and then I’d just try to go off. And then at one point people were just like, “Yo, he's actually serious.”
Was a particular point where audiences stopped thinking it's a joke?
I’ve always been serious about the music stuff. There’s times where people think it’s comedy, but it's really just me trying to be witty in my lyrics. The things that I put in the music videos, it’s all just because I love entertaining people and making them laugh. It's all in the seriousness of my craft in music.
One more thing about “Dat $tick”: you used the n-word in it. I read something where you said you did that to make a statement.
What was the statement exactly?
I also mentioned this in the Genius verified video a long time ago. But it was because at the time, I thought by me saying that it would help take the power out of the word and make you less sensitive to it.
A lot of people liked the song and I played it for a lot of people before putting it out. The thought process was like, “This video is dope. This song is dope. He said the n-word, but I guess it's fine.” But at some point I was like, what was I thinking, just because I was totally not in position to do that, honestly.
How has your thinking changed on that over the last year?
I realized it almost as soon as it came out. I was like, yeah, I probably shouldn’t have done that.
With 88rising, their thing is to be a bridge between Asian pop culture and America. Do you think that having a specifically Asian-focused company guiding your career could be limiting in any way?
I don't think so. But at the same time, 88rising is not really focused on an Asian group of people. It's something new and something fresh. A lot of people outside of the Asian group also love 88rising and they've never seen anything like it before. I think so far it's been going pretty smoothly. People really love it, and they really support it.
One of the biggest things that 88rising did was the “Rappers React to Rich Chigga” video. What's the backstory of that? How did that come to happen?
I was in Jakarta, so I didn’t really know much of what was going on. I think that was shot in South By Southwest. Sean got all the rappers together to watch the [“Dat $tick”] video, and then I saw Ghostface reacting to it. And he was like, “I want to be on it.” I was like, “Oh wow, that's cool. Probably not gonna happen.” And then a week later, he sent his verse. It was the most insane thing ever. I called my mom.
As someone who just started rapping in 2012, what's it been like to be on songs with Ghostface and Offset, and in studio sessions with Pharrell?
It's been a dream come true, man. It’s been such a crazy journey. Sometimes I forget about how crazy everything is. A lot of times, I really can't believe what’s going on.
I want to talk about the name change from Rich Chigga to Rich Brian. I don’t know how long you've privately been uncomfortable with the name “Rich Chigga,” but publicly you’ve been ambivalent about it since at least the middle of last year.
Why wait until now to change it? Is it just because you have an album coming out?
I felt like it didn’t really represent me for a long time. And I realized how offensive it was, and how I was going a certain direction with my music and I don’t want people judging from that name any more.
I realized that even more strongly when I went to the States. I've always been seeing everything through the internet, and it hasn’t been very accurate. I’ve always wanted to change it, but I didn’t know if this is the right time to change it. When I put out the album, there was a strong feeling. I called Sean and was like, yo, maybe we should change it now.
What was your thought process behind the name Rich Chigga?
It was a thing that me and my friend came up with when I came out with my first song on SoundCloud. I realized I don’t really have a rap name. And then my friend from Wichita was just talking about it. We came up with a couple of names which were cool, and he was just like, “Rich Chigga.” I was like, “That is really catchy.” And that's honestly it.
Was the idea to be shocking?
It was shocking. But that wasn't really the whole [idea]. I just like the way it sounded. It had a nice ring to it. It was just a song I was putting out on SoundCloud, I didn't know where any of this was going to go. I didn't really think it was big deal.
A few days before your name change, the writer Brendan Frederick wrote a long thread addressed to you about the name. Did you see that? Did it play a part in your decision?
I definitely saw that. I was already thinking about changing it before that. But I saw that and I totally agreed with what he was saying.
You've had a ton of live performances recently. Hows that been going? Are you getting comfortable performing?
Yeah. It's been a lot more comfortable. I just did a US tour for about a month and a half in October. That was great. I really got to get used to the crowd and knowing how to control the crowd, because I was doing shows every day, and it at that point it just feels like exercise. You just go into the venue and do a soundcheck and get it right. You just get used to it and it's awesome.
Is “Chaos” on the record?
I saw the video for that. It has this pool party theme going on, with people throwing money around. Was that intended to be exaggerated and funny? What’s the story behind that video?
I just liked the aesthetic. I was going for a Wolf of Wall Street kind of aesthetic. This dude was holding a really old phone and some people had Walkman-like headphones. I was the only person that was not dressed that way. When I was thinking about the concept of that music video, I really loved the aesthetic of that.
Are you in L.A. basically full time now?
I still come back to Indonesia every few months, but I’m spending most of my time in L.A. I don’t have a place yet. I'm just in AirBnb's now.
Do you miss your family?
I do. I most definitely do. I just came back from almost a month. I spent a good amount of time with them.
As someone who also has filmed inside of Japan’s infamous “suicide forest,” what are your thoughts about the Logan Paul controversy?
It's insane. I see a lot of crazy shit on the internet. So that wasn’t really that surprising, because I feel like there are so many stupid things that people would do for views and stuff. That was pretty wild. It was messed up.
[When we filmed there,] we didn’t get very deep in, just because it was very intense. It was really intense energy. We just kinda walked five feet in.
Is this record entirely self produced?
I would say it's about 95% produced by me.
Talk to me about the process of learning to make beats.
A friend of mine had FL [Studio, a music production program]. He taught me the basics of how to drag samples into the timeline and everything. After that I was like, okay, I got it. So I got myself FL Studio and I got all these samples.
Then the next few weeks I locked myself in my room and watched YouTube tutorials on how to do certain things and put effects on things. My favorite thing to do was remake songs. It’d be like “XO Tour Llif3” or “Hotline Bling.” From that, you learn so many things—new techniques, and you subconsciously learn how to mix because you're just trying to make it sound exactly like it does in a song.
Do you play keyboard?
Not really. I mean, I've learned certain songs. I would like to know how to play but I don’t, really. I know enough to be able to produce.
Who are some producers that you're modeling yourself after?
I really like Murda Beatz. I like his drums a lot and his chords and melodies are really good. I like Frank Dukes a lot too.
What's next for Rich Brian?
I'm doing a lot of shows. I'm headlining an 88rising show. I have one in Terminal 5. I have one in the Shrine in LA, the Warfield in San Francisco, and then I have a European tour coming up. I’m also doing Bonnaroo. That's really exciting. After that, I'm just going to keep consistently putting out singles and just make as much music as i can.
Can you just talk about your last minute decision to change into the now-infamous fannypack and pink shirt for “Dat $tick”?
I just wanted to give a certain feeling to the video. I don’t even know where the pink Polo shirt and fanny pack came from, but I was just thinking about a dad look. But the thought of someone who dresses like a dad but just rapping about all kinds of hard stuff was like...I was getting goosebumps. That was the goal. Always, my goal is to give people a certain feeling that they’ve never felt before—a feeling that is very rare.
What else do you want the people to know about Rich Brian?
I was super-obsessed with coming to America since I was 13. I learned English from the internet, and I was the only kid I know that spoke English in Indonesia. I need to be in a country where the people speak English, because I just loved the language. I loved the culture and the people so much.
I've always wanted to go [to America]. I told my parents when I was 13 that I wanted to move there when I was 16 to pursue a filmmaking career. They were like, absolutely not. But then one day I just came to my mom like, "Mom, I think I'm going to go to the U.S. to do a show.” She was just like, “Do it.” Just right away, not even a doubt. She was so supportive.
Coming here was amazing. It was everything that I thought it'd be—especially being on that [tour] bus. It's like every day you're moving. It's been amazing to see the country.
What's been different about America than what you envisioned?
Honestly, nothing. It's absolutely exactly what I thought. I just learned so much about it from the internet. I mean, I guess some things are different. I actually eat a lot more Asian food than I thought.
What do your internet friends think of the Rich Brian phenomenon?
They love it. All of my friends are very supportive people. It's also amazing to finally meet all of my internet friends in real life. I met Noah, my first internet friend, when I was in Boston. I hung out with him. It was amazing. My main friends when I'm in L.A. are people that I met from the internet too.