Thanks to a mix of language barriers and cultural stereotypes, most 'heads think Japanese hip-hop is derivative, silly, or downright racist. But the emerging Japanese underground is pumping out excellent, innovative tracks that deserve to be heard around the world. Japan The Beats highlights the best of these releases and tells the stories behind them. Click here to access the archive.
Japan is, undeniably, the beaten dog of global hip-hop. In Brazil, Mexico, England, France, etc., folks with little direct connection to hip-hop's roots have nonetheless hitched their wagon and produced great art. If you're a TMT reader, you've probably heard of MC Solaar, Dizzee Rascal, Funkstorung, or any of another hundred-odd international hip-hop acts who have made a mark. And what does Japan get? Girls tanning themselves black, surreally precise mimicry of Cali lowrider culture, and Shing02 rapping in not-so-great English (sorry). Once you get to Japan, you see the stuff they're, I guess, too embarrassed to export -- Japanese rappers in fitted caps and throwbacks, brandishing fake guns on their album covers, and rapping about bitches, weed, and bustin' caps. DJ Krush, untouchable though he is, may not be able to defend the honor of his homeland alone.
Luckily, there are other bright spots. They haven't landed stateside with the splash of Krush or Japanese indie bands like Cibo Matto, Guitar Wolf, or Acid Mother's Temple, but plenty of Japanese hip-hop acts are turning out music that's creative and even, in a few cases, radically innovative. They rap about matters of greater local concern than gats and crack -- for example, the rising pressure for social change now visibly rippling under Japan's famously calm façade.
First up is the recent debut full-length from Tokyo’s Kochitola Haguretic MCs. The Japanese-English name translates roughly to We Wandering MCs, and therein hangs a tale. Unwelcome in Tokyo’s famously brutal live scene (where, get this, bands pay clubs for the privilege of playing), they instead honed their craft in parks and playgrounds. If the story sounds familiar to you students of hip-hop history, so will Hagulife’s restless energy — while the squelchy electro-reggae beats are at some distance from “The Message,” the schoolyard chemistry between three hungry MCs whose irreverence verges on insurgency puts it square in the realm of hip-hop righteousness.
One thing Haguretic have in common with the best current Japanese hip-hop is that they fold classical tradition into hip-hop forms, without excessive reverence for either: the short title track that opens Hagulife chops a shamisen under yardie stutters, while the Haguretics throw goofy harmonies in Japanese semitones and still manage to swing. After that, the music takes on a more international tone at the intersection of reggae, techno, and hip-hop, much of it understated and loose — the deep synth bass on “Ojamashimasu” (“Excuse me!”) moves forward under a sneaky electric shuffle, while “Kukku” is almost straight-up roots reggae. Except for the three MCs flowing over it, it’s a frozen drink with an umbrella balanced on a white piano.
For my money, though, the record hits biggest when it hits hardest on the tracks that get closest to the insistence of grime and dubstep. On “Suppaki Omohi Kuchi” (something like “Mouth of Sour Thoughts”), the melody is played (it seems) by buzzing robotic bees, their zooming whines propelled by a spare kick-clap and a jerky bassline that turns insistent on the curves. “Funk Skunk” layers braying elephant horns, snakey middle-eastern melody, and a whole zoo of pulsing electronics onto a thumping pulse, until it finds itself in a neon-lit tunnel moving 200 miles an hour. It’s the best track on the album, and a showcase for the crazy skills of the Haguretics themselves.
Katomaira, Sabo, and Chinza are all three technically thrilling, chopping through the Blade Runner landscape of their tracks like robotic surgeons. But the truly amazing thing is that, in a scene not known for its mastery of that mysterious quality called “flow,” they also hang off the beat with reckless freedom, rhythmic tricksters who flaunt their high-speed antics. They switch voices, over-emote, go into triplets, and throw in split-second sound effects, chants, and bits of song as they swap the mic like jugglers. In fact, you’re less likely to notice three individual styles than a sense of constant one-upmanship.
A winner does emerge, though: on “Freestyle Fuu,” Chinza Dopeness laces the melody of “Turkey in the Straw/Ears Hang Low” at breakneck speed, then switches to Yellowman’s “Mad Mad/Zungguzung” melody (you may know it as “Grab your dick if you love hip-hop/ Rub your tits if you love Big Pop!”), and throws in a few I can’t quite identify for good measure. While this doesn’t quite capture the sheer insanity of The Greatest Freestyle of All-Time, it still shows why Chinza is set to be the first of the Haguretics to drop a solo album. (Seriously, don’t miss that video).
This sonic creativity might be what matters most to listeners in the West — in fact, Haguretic have professed their affection for French rappers TTC, who get past the language barrier by a similarly pure insanity of style. But in fact, all that furious sound does signify something — Haguretic are frequently if subtly political, poking fun at the particular failings of Japanese society, from chaotic and soul-killing schools to the insane demands of Japan’s work culture. When Chinza apologetically declines to work overtime because he’s way too busy rapping (“Rappa-Kun wa Ooisogashii” – “Rapper’s Really Busy”), he’s speaking up for generations, if not centuries, of Japanese workers who have been fed to the nation’s industrial ambition and had their individuality squelched. It’s gentle satire, and Japanese salarymen aren’t quite equitable with, say, Brazilian slum-dwellers. But Hagulife takes an admirable step forward from adopting some other country’s problems, while, of course, continuing a proud tradition of borrowing sounds with impunity.