Inside an Airbnb tucked behind 39th Street in Manhattan, where Chinese rap sensation Higher Brothers have taken up residence, the kitchen is littered with empty 2 Bros. pizza boxes and a nearly finished family-sized pack of spicy instant ramen. Melo, a thin and quiet guy with blonde dreads, sits at the dining room table engrossed in his phone, while Masiwei and Psy.P look on from the couch. Dzknow, who’s wearing shorts that say “Fuck It,” is still asleep. The rappers, who all hail from Chengdu, the capital city of China's southwestern Sichuan province, are just coming off of their Journey to the West tour, which marked their first time on American soil. Although these rappers are certainly the main event of the messy kitchen, the subject of thousands of adoring fans’ interests, they’re held together with the help of a young woman staying in a separate room upstairs. Her name is Lana Larkin, and she’s their translator, videographer, and the person they lovingly refer to as “higher sister.” She’s known them for six years, and has worked with them for just as long.
Before she officially met Higher Brothers, Larkin was a contestant on a dating show that’s the Chinese version of The Bachelorette, called If You Are the One. Unbeknownst to her, Dzknow was once in the audience for a live taping. When Larkin and Dzknow met in person months later, he recognized her from television and cried out the signature tagline from the show, “You are my goddess!” Since then, she’s gone from an intern who bought beats for the guys and updated their Facebook page, to their travel companion and somewhat of a wrangler. She attends all interviews, translates their lyrics for music videos, and helps them write — especially when they’re looking for an English word to rhyme. But Larkin also acts as the go-between in the middle of the Higher Brothers and, well, anyone else. She’s constantly making sure things are going smoothly, the guys, their business, and their label 88Rising.
Larkin is also a graduate student at UC Berkeley, where she studies anthropology. She’s using footage from her experiences with the Higher Brothers as part of her documentary thesis. Splitting her days between her home in Oakland, Los Angeles (where she’s increasingly spending more time as Higher Brothers becomes a household name among Americans), and China, Lana’s schedule is packed. But she recently found time to sit down with The FADER to explain how she met the rappers, and what’s next: after finishing her degree, she’ll join the 88Rising team to manage the group with the label’s founder, Sean Miyashiro.
How did you first meet the Higher Brothers?
I double majored in Chinese and Japanese as an undergrad at Arizona State University. For my Chinese degree, I was in a special program called Flagship, where the capstone of your degree is spending a year in China. You do six months of grad school at Nanjing University and six months of an internship. I was in Nanjing, and I’d just finished the first six months of school, and I really hated Nanjing, so much. I didn’t have any Chinese friends even though I’d been studying Chinese for four years.
So I took my backpack and decided to travel China by myself and see what I could find. I went to Beijing and became friends with MC Dawei, who was a rapper. He introduced me to some other rappers, including J Fever. Literally three days later, they were like, “We’re going on tour, do you want to come with us?” They took me on tour to Yunan, which is on the other side of China. It was a big tour with all these rappers from all over China. There was this rapper Ka Fei, from Chengdu, and he took me to Chengdu, which is where I met all of these guys. I told them, “I need to do an internship, can I be your intern?” I loved Chengdu so much that I didn’t leave for four or five years.
While I was interning with them, I was also in the underground party scene. We threw these parties called Dojo. I also worked in the mobile gaming industry. I made video game worlds: I wrote the whole story, developed the characters, made sure that the UX was cool and fit with the style of the game. Meanwhile, I was doing this rap stuff with them, helping them translate and buying beats off the Internet, doing pretty much anything they needed, all as a side project. It went from an official internship that I needed to do for school to, “I’ll do what you guys need to get done because I fuck with the vision.” I taught myself how to VJ and made all the live visuals for their shows and parties by downloading Resolume and figuring out how to use it, with the help of some YouTube tutorials.
I notice in their music videos, there are both English and Chinese subtitles. Are you doing those translations?
Yeah, I do. I’ve always helped them with their lyrics. Whenever they write English lyrics they’re like, “Does this make sense? Is this how you say it?”
When you first started studying Chinese, did you have aspirations to become a translator?
No, I never thought I would be a translator. Translation is still something that has just helped me get here, to do something no one else can do. But I do a lot more than translation that’s also very valuable, like videography, and making sure that they’re happy, everything is running smoothly, and that communication is going on. It’s more of an interpreter’s role.
Can you tell me more about your studies at UC Berkeley?
I’m getting my master’s in anthropology, mostly linguistic anthropology and anthropology of the media. Part of my studies includes making documentary pieces. The four doc pieces I made for the Higher Brothers six months ago were very much informed by linguistic anthropology. Each video was about one word in Chinese that I think is important for each person’s personality. I lined up the words with the person and then asked them how they interpret this word and what it means to them, and how it relates to hip-hop.
How do you split your time? Are you based in the Bay Area?
Yes, I live in Oakland. When I’m there, I’m doing school all the time. We’ve been in L.A. a lot, and I’ve been with them for the past two months for their first trip to America. They don’t have Visas, they only have Chinese Union Pay cards that they can’t buy anything with. They don’t know how to order food, they don’t have Uber on their phones. I went back to Chengdu last summer for their Black Cab tour, their first big tour in China. That was two months. Then I had the fall semester, and when that was over, I went on the Asia tour with them. We went to Chengdu for a couple days during that time. Then I had a few months when I was back in the Bay writing papers.
In a recent New Yorker piece about 88Rising, the author Hua Hsu says the artists under your umbrella: "celebrate the free flow of the Internet, in which cultural crossovers should be...shorn of historical context." What are your thoughts on that statement?
I think, given the way the Internet is changing context, this is absolutely true. In America, hip-hop very much has all these entanglements with the United States’ history. But hip-hop for people in Indonesia or China is a totally different thing — it’s just about the music. The context is completely different and the conversation is different. For them, it’s something cool and new. It’s a feeling of, this is cool, it’s rebellious, but it sounds good. It’s really about the emotion more than anything else.
Walk me through a typical day when you’re at work with the Higher Brothers.
While we were in L.A., a typical day started late. We’d eat food. They really love to shop, so I’ve been driving them to the mall. I drive them everywhere. We’ve been getting rental cars: an Escalade, a Mercedes GLS, a Yukon XL, Suburban, Maserati, a Corvette. They love cars because you can’t really rent cars in China. And only one of them has a car and a driver’s license. So the whole car thing is really new for them. Now they’re like, “We need to get our licenses, we need to buy cars!” In the evening, we eat and we watch movies a lot. But we never make it to the end of a movie. We all just start talking and people lose interest. We listen to music all the time. They have a Nintendo Switch that they play constantly, along with a lot of other video games. We try not to make the workday too long, because everyone will get too tired and grumpy.
Was there ever a time when you were interpreting and something got lost in translation?
There’s one thing that people love to ask that always fails. People ask them, “What does this mean to you?” And so I say that in Chinese: “What does this mean? What is the meaning?” They’ll just be like, “What are you talking about? This is just life! What do you want me to say?” A lot of reporters also like to ask them big questions that are open-ended, and they actually don’t respond well to that. They respond well to specific questions, not ones that surround meaning or feeling.
You guys recently met Nardwuar. Was there any footage from that interview that didn't make the cut? What happened off-camera?
Nardwuar didn’t take a lot out. He’s so funny, he’s great. Originally, Sean [Miyashiro, 88Rising founder] was like, “Lana, you should not be in the piece. Don’t get on camera.” I told Nardwuar that and he was like, I don’t care, you’re going to stand there and we’re going to have you on here.”
Have you had a funny or crazy run-in with a fan?
We had some fans in the Toronto airport come meet us. I don’t know how they knew what time we were getting in, because we also got stuck at immigration. It took us way longer to get out. They must have been waiting all day for us. They brought gifts for them. They gave Melo an OVO hat with his name on it, they gave them a love letter. Another part of my job is to tell people they can’t take pictures with the Higher Brothers. Walking down the street, we run into fans all the time. They don’t like to take photos on the street because it’ll never stop. So, sometimes, my job is to say, “It’s not a good time.”