Several of Sen Morimoto Credit: Photos and collage by Ryan Edmund

In July, Sen Morimoto quit his job as a barback at Big Star with no plans to look for other work—the 24-year-old singer, rapper, producer, and multi-instrumentalist had decided to try supporting himself as a musician. Since moving to Chicago in 2014, he’d been content to hold down restaurant jobs and take opportunities to work on his music—an adventurous blend of hip-hop, jazz, prog rock, and pop—wherever he could find them. He was ambivalent about promoting his songs, and he preferred to work alone: he played every note himself, recorded every track himself, and released all his music himself.

In 2016 a small label put out vinyl and cassette editions of an album Morimoto had self-released digitally, but it wasn’t till late last year that he worked with a label from step one—he agreed to release his album Cannonball! through upstart Chicago indie Sooper Records, where he has friends. That alone would’ve been a big step toward a potential career in music, but soon Morimoto would get the chance to make a giant leap: even before the album dropped, it had attracted the attention of 88 Rising, a fast-growing international entertainment platform dedicated to Asian musicians. But while Cannonball! ended up being coreleased by 88 Rising in May, Morimoto stopped short of joining the company’s roster. The leap, if were going to happen for him, would have to wait.

That’s not to say the association with 88 Rising hasn’t given Morimoto a boost. He hasn’t done much solo touring to support the album—just a few short jaunts around the midwest so far—and in the three months after it dropped, he played only four shows. Nonetheless, the Summer Sonic Festival in Japan reached out to him directly and booked him for a set on August 19 in Chiba, just outside Tokyo—the same day as Chance the Rapper, Thundercat, J Balvin, and Nickelback. The endorsement from 88 Rising was already getting Morimoto gigs he almost certainly wouldn’t have landed without it. He got paid enough to travel with a four-piece band, and he could afford to fly his father to the show from Massachusetts.

His parents weren’t sure what to make of it. “They’re like, ‘You make money doing this?'” Morimoto says. “I was like, ‘No, this one time I do—this is the only one so far.’ My dad got on the phone and was like, ‘So, like, can I retire?’ I was like, ‘No, absolutely not.'”

Launched in 2015 by Sean Miyashiro, formerly of defunct Vice electronic-music site Thump, 88 Rising releases music, but it’s not strictly a label. It also manages artists, produces music videos and video interviews, and handles marketing. In just a few years, it’s tapped into a huge international fan base for pop music made by Asians. So far its biggest success has been Brian Imanuel, a 19-year-old rapper from Jakarta, Indonesia, better known as Rich Brian—this winter 88 Rising released his debut album, Amen, and it peaked at 18 on the Billboard 200.

During the advance promo push for Cannonball!, a publicist working for Sooper pitched 88 Rising about hosting the video for the album’s title track on the company’s YouTube page, which now has more than two million subscribers. Morimoto says that soon after 88 Rising posted his video, Miyashiro offered him a deal.

Credit: Photos and collage by Ryan Edmund

“He was like, ‘We fuck with you, do you wanna be on the roster?'” Morimoto recalls. (Miyashiro wasn’t available to comment for this story.) “I was like, ‘Honestly, no. I’m 24. I’ve been doing this forever myself, and I don’t really feel comfortable. I’m not gonna sign something.’ He was like, ‘That’s OK.'” Miyashiro worked out a plan for 88 Rising to support Morimoto without signing him, which included coreleasing Cannonball!

At the end of September, Morimoto flew to Los Angeles to play at 88 Rising’s inaugural Head in the Clouds Music & Arts Festival. And this week he’ll hit the road as part of the 88 Degrees & Rising Tour, performing solo with a saxophone and an MPC—his leg of the trip ends in Chicago at the Aragon Ballroom on Sunday, October 14. He’ll then fly to Austin to begin a three-week tour with Sooper cofounder Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, which culminates at the Empty Bottle on Friday, November 9.

Though Morimoto chose to keep some distance from 88 Rising, he’s become more involved with Sooper: a couple months ago, he signed a contract to become a co-owner. “I felt honored, honestly,” Morimoto says. “I never thought I would run a record label.”

88 Degrees & Rising Tour: Rich Brian, Joji, Keith Ape, the Higher Brothers, Niki, Kohh, August 08, Sen Morimoto, Krez

Sun 10/14, 6 PM, Aragon Ballroom, 1106 W. Lawrence, $49.50, all-ages

Morimoto’s parents met in the early 80s at a Japanese music store in San Francisco. His father, a Japanese native, was working there when his mother, a white American born in Japan, walked in looking for a job. She didn’t get one—he thought her Japanese was too poor—but a few years later, having separately moved back to Japan, they began a courtship after running into each other by chance in Kyoto. They were living there when they had their third child, Sen, in 1993.

Shortly after he turned one, Morimoto’s family moved to the States, bought a Volkswagen microbus, and hit the road to find a place to settle down. They landed in Wendell, Massachusetts, which had a population of 848 in the 2010 census. “I always talk about how Wendell is like the Shire or something,” Morimoto says. “It’s this amazing untouched thing in the wilderness that is so not affected by the rest of the world.” Unfortunately, that also meant there wasn’t much to do, unless you made it yourself.

Morimoto’s parents enrolled him in the Amherst Japanese Language School, but he struggled to keep up with other students his age. “For the first few years, they all had to speak English to teach me anything,” he says. He proved a quicker learner when it came to music. He picked up the saxophone when he was ten, and a couple years later he began private classes with Charles Neville of the Neville Brothers—every Saturday after Japanese, Morimoto and his friend Kai Matsuda would travel to nearby Huntington to take lessons in a yurt outside Neville’s house.

“Something really cool that he taught us a lot about was understanding a song, or the responsibility that you have when you’re playing a song that you didn’t write—to communicate what it’s supposed to be communicating,” Morimoto says. “It gave me a different kind of appreciation for intention in music.”

At the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School, Morimoto dabbled in piano and played in R&B combos. Outside school he taught himself guitar and drums, and as a teenager he began rapping. He also played in a few bands. He covered the keys in Goat Boy, which made what he calls “sad guitar-guy music.” He drummed in Big Nils, a noise-punk group fronted by Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon’s daughter, Coco Gordon Moore. He played sax in LuxDeluxe, an Americana-tinged outfit that occasionally backed a family friend to play out as a Bruce Springsteen cover band.

YouTube video

Today Morimoto is one of the most promising young artists in Chicago because of the euphoric blend of genres in his music, but as a teen he tended to compartmentalize those interests.

“I was rapping on other peoples’ beats, I was playing in rock bands, I was doing jazz stuff—very minimally, on the side,” he says. At 19 he released a solo hip-hop EP that sneaked in some jazz flavor. He was rapping as Jap (a name he now calls “questionable at best”), and his EP, How to Spot a Jap, took its name from a World War II pamphlet created by the U.S. Army. It was the first time Morimoto had recorded his own rap instrumentals, which drew upon his experience playing jazz. “It’s another thing I can’t listen to now,” he says. “It’s such a specific time, where I was very confused about what all those parts of me were trying to say.” He’s since removed the EP from the Internet.

Morimoto never went to college. He moved to Chicago at 20, at the suggestion of his girlfriend at the time—she was enrolled at the School of the Art Institute. He arrived in January 2014, in the middle of a polar vortex, and shared a Wicker Park loft with strangers.

“I got here and I was like, ‘Oh, fuck, I made a mistake,'” he says. “Not really. It wasn’t that bad—because I had no friends, I never had to go outside.” He got a job as a server at a sushi restaurant, and when the owners found out he rapped, they asked him to perform at one of their favorite bars—one of the line cooks was enlisted as his DJ. He didn’t know anybody else there, and he left after the DJ puked on himself. “That was my first show,” he says.

Credit: Photos and collage by Ryan Edmund

Morimoto’s fortunes changed when he played at East Room in February 2015—he says maybe five people were there, but one of them was rapper and singer Rich Jones, who knows just about everybody. Morimoto made a good first impression on his future friend: “I see this little tiny guy in a Darth Maul shirt and a white baseball cap, and he’s rapping, he’s singing, and he’s playing off of a sampler—this person was controlling everything and doing everything really well,” Jones says. “I had to know who this guy was.”

Jones booked Morimoto for his monthly hip-hop series at Tonic Room, All Smiles, in July 2015. “That was kind of a weird moment for me,” Morimoto says. “I met some people that ended up being a part of my life.” One of them was Nnamdi Ogbonnaya. “His voice was amazing,” Ogbonnaya says. “Everyone was like, ‘Who is this kid?’ I don’t think anyone really knew who he was.”

Morimoto wrote and recorded his music in his bedroom. “It was a ‘room,'” he says, pronouncing it in scare quotes. “It was one of those bedrooms that’s just pieces of wood and cardboard.” In November 2015, he dropped For Me & Ladie, an engrossing, effervescent album that highlights his skill as a vocalist—he frequently swerves from honeyed R&B cooing to blustery, rapid rapping. He released it as simply “Morimoto,” and every note is his except for a guest verse from rapper-producer Tree, whom he’d contacted via Twitter.

“I didn’t have anyone to collaborate with, really,” he says. “I think that’s why I don’t like a lot of it now. I think feedback is a really important part of editing an album.” Transatlantic indie label Tip Top Recordings rereleased the entire album on vinyl and cassette in 2016, but Morimoto only has half its 12 songs up on Bandcamp.

Morimoto slowly made connections to local musicians, who then became collaborators. In 2016, rapper Qari of Hurt Everybody moved into Morimoto’s loft, and they quickly grew close. “Living with Qari really helped,” Morimoto says. “He would show me things he was working on. He’d be like, ‘I made this,’ and it would be a tiny vocal idea, a four-bar thing and a beat. I’d be like, ‘This is amazing—this is so good.’ He’d be like, ‘Yeah, I don’t know.’ I’d be like, ‘Oh word, that’s normal. OK, I can show you this thing.’ But even to this day I’m not that good at sharing work before it’s done.”

In December 2016, the roommates dropped a collaborative EP, Don’t Buy That, where Qari handled the vocals and Morimoto produced the music. On the EP It’s Late, which Morimoto released in May 2017, Qari provides the lone outside contribution. “It’s called It’s Late ’cause I recorded it all between the hours of three and six in the morning,” Morimoto says. “I recorded the vocals in bed, lying down, like, trying to sleep.” It was the first solo release he still liked after it came out.

Morimoto wasn’t happy about what he saw as the sorry state of the music business, though, and he was far from sure he wanted a place in it. “I was feeling really jaded about how music works and what even my intention is behind putting out music on social media, or the things you do to make that a possibility for your life—to be a musician,” he says. “I felt like it was all really ugly.”

He did, however, trust Ogbonnaya and Sooper Records. Morimoto wrote and played a saxophone arrangement on Sooper’s breakthrough release, the 2017 Ogbonnaya solo album Drool, and when Ogbonnaya and fellow Sooper founder Glenn Curran asked to work with Morimoto on his own music, he listened. “Sen’s really one of the few people that Nnamdi was like, ‘Yo, we have to work with this guy—I don’t know too many other people like him,'” Curran says.

Curran and Ogbonnaya broached the subject last summer. “Sooper hit me up,” Morimoto says. “They were like, ‘Hey, I know you make a million songs—do you have a record?’ And I was like, no, but I’m gonna tell them yes so that I make it.”

For a couple months, he spent his nights at a Humboldt Park practice space he shares, working out new material between naps till the morning. “I would just go and play saxophone as fast as I could for a while as kind of a meditation thing, and then try to write a song, and try to be more honest—or more expressive in general,” he says. With the exception of a couple tracks he’d previously written (“People Watching” and “Picture of a Painting”), he made all of Cannonball! in those months.

Credit: Photos and collage by Ryan Edmund

As usual, Morimoto controlled every aspect of the music on Cannonball!, which features just two outside contributors—local soul singer Kaina and Massachusetts rapper Reason Being. Kaina has been collaborating with Morimoto since January 2017, when she sang backup at a Lincoln Hall show where he first played with a live band. They’ve since become friends, and Kaina sees similarities in their approaches. “I have a hard time allowing myself to be in a space where I can trust people with my feelings,” she says. “I think that was part of the way we generally started making music together—he understood my feelings of being nervous about it.”

Generally labels hear demos or rough mixes long before an album is done, but Morimoto, in keeping with his borderline-reclusive work habits, didn’t share anything with Sooper till he’d finished mixing and mastering the entirety of Cannonball! this past winter. Immediately Ogbonnaya and Curran knew they had their next flagship release. “I saw a funny, rare side of Nnamdi in response to the music—in totally a joyous, happy way, there was almost this sense of friendly competition,” Curran says. “I feel like he heard the record, and Nnamdi was just like, ‘Damn, that’s better than my album.’ The bar was just risen. I think he said something like, ‘That fucked me up. Shit.'”

When it came to promoting the record, though, Morimoto seemed determined to take the path of most resistance. “When I showed them the record, they were like, ‘What do you want to be the single?'” he says. “I was like, ‘Oh, you know, the longest, hardest one to listen to, the six-minute complete shit-storm track.’ Which was so funny—at the time they were like, ‘Yeah, I feel like there are some really catchy songs on here. You sure?’ I was like, ‘I think it’s really the right vibe.'”

Morimoto made a video for that song, “Cannonball,” while his family was visiting his sister in Hawaii; his brother directed it, and his parents make an appearance too.

YouTube video

Sooper struggled to find an outlet to premiere the video, and it felt like forever before the publicist they’d hired to promote the album, Ryan Cunningham at Biz3, finally got a bite. “As soon as 88 Rising got behind the first video, we had a lot more success,” Curran says. “When 88 Rising dropped the video, all of a sudden all these other outlets who weren’t interested in it before were like, ‘Oh wait, this is cool.'”

Morimoto didn’t know much about 88 Rising, but when the company expressed an interest in working with him, he did some research and looked at what fans had to say on Reddit. “There’s a bunch of people who were like, ‘This feels so good to have an entity that is expressing what I’m feeling, and engaging with new music, and someone I can relate to,'” Morimoto says.

Sooper had been ready to drop Cannonball! in March, but when 88 Rising got involved everyone agreed to push it back till May. The relationship with 88 Rising has helped Sooper get meetings with labels that aren’t quite as tiny as it is. “We’ve taken any meeting we can,” Ogbonnaya says. “It’s been to the advantage of the label, because I think we’re gonna work with some cool folks that have the same ideas we have. Hopefully, next year we can do something bigger.” And having Morimoto involved in planning Sooper’s future helps. “I think that he could possibly be, for lack of a better word, a tastemaker,” Ogbonnaya says.

While in Japan for the Summer Sonic Festival, Morimoto played a separate headlining show at Space Odd in Tokyo. His brother, his father, and several members of his extended family were in the crowd, where they got to hear dozens of strangers singing along to his songs; onstage he was joined by some of his closest friends from Chicago. “I was like, ‘This is not real—this is what happens at the end of Gossip Girl,'” Morimoto says. “I got back and I was like, ‘Holy fuck, life is really different all of a sudden.’ Then I had all of September to just not do shit. I was like, ‘Oh, wait a minute. I’m still making songs in my room and being bad at buying groceries.'”  v