Interview: Meet Philadelphia’s Ionika – Self-made Rapper, Producer and Label Boss

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Trying to make it as an independent artist in 2020 means being familiar with the in-and-outs of the music industry, navigating the very murky and confusing waters of a field that chews and spits out artists at a pretty depressing rate.

Ionika – an Asian-American rapper, producer, music engineer, songwriter, manager and label owner; knows this and in a bid to achieve his dream of a career within that same industry, he’s taken it upon himself to learn the ropes of everything and anything that could take him one step closer to that goal.

Real name Edward Cai, Ionika begun producing at the age of 12, before officially picking up his stage name a year later; saying it was “just a random sound off an EDM loop pack that I thought just sounded cool”.

Since then, he debuted with 2014’s The Meltdown – an EDM-focused album that served as the building blocks for his skills as a producer. Following that, dropped 2016’s Reality before doing a complete genre-shift with 2019’s XXXTentacion and Scarlxrd-inspired MONSTER. A change that, oddly enough, was a recommendation from global pop superstar Lauv (during his teaching assistant days).

‘You have a pretty good understanding of how to make a song, so you should try making something in hip-hop or pop,’ he told Ionika.

Fast forward to 2020, Ionika has an album, ROYALTY, on the way and a bevy of artists on his label – Generation Wavy, that he hopes could inspire more Asian Americans to take the plunge into a music career.

Read on for his full interview with Turntable Thoughts.


Turntable Thoughts:

As Ionika, you’ve been releasing music since 2014 with The Meltdown. How much has your sound evolved since?

Ionika:

Oh, man. The Meltdown was the first release I’ve ever done solo and my style has done a complete 180-degree change since. I had a background in music theory and piano so I used that to my advantage during my EDM phase, while also learning sound design and arrangements. 

Then when it came to doing hip-hop, I found it easier cause I already knew the basics of making a song. So, it became natural for me to evolve and make whatever music I wanted to do. My early EDM stuff was a good starting point for me to explore other genres. 


Turntable Thoughts:

What made you jump from EDM to hip-hop?

Ionika:

I attended the NYU Steinhardt’s Summer Electronic Music Institute in 2015 and the funny thing is, I was mentored by Lauv. 

He was a teaching assistant at NYU at the time, and after listening to my music, he said ‘You could totally take this in a different direction. You have a pretty good understanding of how to make a song, so you should try making something in hip-hop or pop.’ It wasn’t really my lane but I tried to explore it.

Soon, I began dabbling in electronic hip-hop. After that, I slowly got more and more into trap production and then just hip-hop in general.

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Turntable Thoughts:

Since we’re on the topic of trap music, let’s talk about your latest single “CHINA SQUAD”. I love how much you rep for Asian representation on it. What made you decide on the message for the song?

Ionika:

Throughout middle and high school, I was a minority among a majority of Caucasians. I’d get bullied and they made me feel like I’m less than them because, you know, discrimination still exists. I’d always feel weak, like I couldn’t stand up to anybody above me.

When I got to college, I was exposed to the huge Asian community in Philadelphia. My confidence slowly got boosted back up and it made me realise that I can take pride in who I am – that Asians can be creative, rap, be cool and eventually rise to the top.

Turntable Thoughts:

Could you also tell me about your upcoming album – ROYALTY?

Ionika:

My family comes from the Cai Dynasty in China, so I didn’t know I was from a royal bloodline until my parents told me. 

I think that people who are in royalty – kings and queens; they sit at the top but they can also be humble. They inspire their empire to stand up, and that’s what I wanted ROYALTY to be about.

I wanted others to be proud of who they are while, at the same time, also showcasing my skills as a rapper and producer. I would say it’s my best work yet.


Turntable Thoughts:

There’s a very aggressive sound in your hip-hop output. Who and what were your influences?

Ionika:

One of my biggest influences was XXXTentacion. When I was a junior in high school, his music saved my life and from doing…bad things. 

I was close to ending it all one day but hearing his music made me realise he was someone I could relate to, that I wasn’t going through the struggle alone. His style was aggressive where you could hear the pain and agony in his voice. 

So on MONSTER, I made my sound aggressive – very rock and edgy, kinda grunge almost. I also wanted people to know what I was going through during that time, especially through my own voice. Even on “CHINA SQUAD”, I used X’s way of pitching his vocals up-and-down to enunciate myself.  

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Turntable Thoughts:

In your press release, you mentioned that you were initially influenced by Skrillex and Monstercat, then Flume and Dr Dre before moving onto trap. How much influence do they still have over your music?

Ionika:

A really good example you brought up was Skrillex. I started making music because of him. As a kid, I always thought his sound was super cool and wanted to make something like it.

So as I grew with my music, I watched him evolve as well – how he blossomed out of his dubstep shell and experimented with Diplo and Jack U. After that he started producing in hip-hop for A$AP Rocky, The Game and Rick Ross. It opened my eyes that it’s possible for EDM producers to do hip-hop.


Turntable Thoughts:

Moving on from your own music, why don’t you tell me about your record label – Generation Wavy?

Ionika:

I started Generation Wavy in August 2019. Initially, I wanted to do something similar to Majestic Casual or Proximity – a music promotion channel/outlet for people to discover new music. 

However, after freshman year, I decided to start my own record company. I was already working with a lot of artists, but I had the thought of wanting to house them all under one label. Then, I thought: ‘Why not use Generation Wavy?’

I wanted to inspire kids in my generation to be creative and not conform to what their parents want them to do. In Generation Wavy, we hope to influence others so that they can also rise and create something amazing, especially for underrepresented Asian Americans.


Turntable Thoughts:

Could you tell me about the artists in Generation Wavy?

Ionika:

Right now, we have a roster of 5 artists. There’s me, 808 Carter – the co-founder, Ashley Claire – a Filipino singer, Sera Selin – an indie songwriter, and MATCHA – a Korean rapper. 

Turntable Thoughts:

I want to talk about Sera Selin, given that both of you multiple collaborations under your belts. Could you tell me about your work with her?

Ionika:

I actually met her through my piano teacher in high school. She told me that she wrote original music but didn’t know how to make a full song, so I told her: ‘Lucky for you, I do production. I can help you out.’ 

She would FaceTime me with a song idea, then I’d go produce the beat while she sent me the recorded vocals. We started out making really bad pop music at first but we eventually improved over time.

Sera’s the second oldest member on Generation Wavy that I’ve worked with. Her growth from when I first met her til now is incredible. She just got 300k streams on her song “Ocean Drive”, it’s getting to 400k soon and I hope to take her further. 

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Turntable Thoughts:

What about your other members? Do you record music with them in a similar fashion to Sera? Or do they mostly work on their own stuff?

Ionika:

With Carter, I’m able to work more directly cause we’re both Philly-based. I’m actually at his place right now, where we usually spend all night recording and making content. 

Ashley Claire goes to Drexel, she’s a pop singer and songwriter. Her first debut with Generation Wavy got hit with 1000+ streams, which she had never reached before as a completely new artist. A lot of it was due to the marketing we did on our social media platforms and playlists.

Next, we have MATCHA. He’s the oldest client I worked with, who I met at a party where I was DJ-ing when I was 14. He sent me this really rough demo of him rapping into a Guitar Hero microphone. Still, his lyrical content back then was already insane – the way he would wordplay and rhyme. Ever since then, I’ve been producing for him.


Turntable Thoughts:

What goals do you have for Generation Wavy? Both long-term and short-term.

Ionika:

Short-term wise, we just want to put out as much music as possible right now. 

Long-term wise, I want all our artists to get big, obviously. To the point where they gain their own fanbase. Hopefully one day, I can have the label merge with one of the majors so we’ll have a backed-up arsenal to oversee Generation Wavy; to maintain our creative control while using their budget to expand our artists further. 


Turntable Thoughts:

Coming back to you, what are your goals for Ionika?

Ionika:

Honestly, Ionika is just a side project. I’m studying music business at Drexel and my goal in life is to work in a major label, with a day-to-day job and normal salary; to be working in the music industry and doing what I love. It’s the reason why I started Ionika, cause it’s a good way for me to learn how artists operate. 

That way in the future when I help other artists, I’ll be able to see where they’re coming from. It doesn’t matter where I end up in the music industry, as long as I end up doing something in it, I’ll be happy.  

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Based in Melbourne and Malaysia. Jensen is a part-time journalist and full-time music fan.

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