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.
Tokyo's MSC can be compared to Staten Island's Wu-Tang clan for a few reasons. One will be obvious to anyone: although produced a decade later, the dusty, minor-key loops that drive tracks like “Mugon no Chikuseki [Accumulation of Silence]” are deeply evocative of the earliest work of the RZA. Second, the MCs -- Kan, Primal, and others make up the large crew -- hew to a deadpan, vaguely menacing style that will remind you of darker-spirited members of the Wu such as Raekwon and Inspectah Deck. And finally, MSC's rhythmic inventiveness could even be compared to a toned-down, early Ghostface -- they're all around the beat, sometimes seeming to outright ignore it, but it always works.
The common ground that's less obvious, particularly to the non-Japanese speaking, is that, like Wu-Tang, MSC come from the street. I recently spoke with one of their DJs, and when I asked him what sort of work the crew did to support their music (they're not million-sellers by a longshot), he casually acknowledged that some of them had “regular” jobs, and some had “illegal” jobs. Apparently, the group has incurred the wrath of their label by making these sorts of open statements to journalists before. I've also got it on good third-party authority that they're closely tied to the Yakuza (organized crime in Japan).
Now, you'd be right to take this sort of claim with a grain of salt; as I've mentioned before in this column, Japan's hip-hop scene, like most, has its share of fake thugs marketing a regurgitated version of African-American “gangsta” imagery. At first glance, there might seem little to differentiate MSC, in their oversize throwback jerseys and hoodies, from plastic-uzi actors like Dabo or Mars Manie. But what ultimately makes it easy to take MSC seriously as gangsters (aside from the fact that, in person, 300-pound Kan is the most terrifying Japanese person I've ever met) is that, again like the Wu-Tang, they're way too smart to glorify the cartoonish, one-dimensional version of street life that so often comes across in hip-hop, from whatever country.
Instead, the lyrics on Matador, MSC's first full-length, show us a poetic, almost Gothic Japanese underworld, full not of climactic battles and honorable gunplay, but where violence is always shadowed, subtle, and all the more genuinely grim for that.
West Shinjuku is an unsleeping terminal
My city - Kabukicho's sleepless criminals
Shokuan Street, 893 turns dark
Making a killing in the Ookubo alley
Such oblique, fragmented imagery; the claustrophobic, grimy sounds of the album; and the suppressed, near-mumbled lyrics are strikingly appropriate to the situation of Japanese organized crime. While American gangsterism remains defined by memories of the hyperviolent drug wars of the 1980s, Japan's Yakuza have long held an oddly comfortable, quiet place within the social structure -- a place from which they parasitize Japan's wealth through extortion, bid-rigging, and other high-level, low-profile corruption that until recently was widely accepted by Japanese society.
What's fascinating about Matador is that, assuming MSC really have Yakuza ties, they've made an album fiercely critical of the social shortcomings that have made their own line of work possible. The record is less about criminality as a character trait than as a social condition -- there's no Jesse James here, no John Dillinger -- and is unsparing in its skewering of what they see as Japanese society's hypocrisy, and even sickness. This isn't some bloodless ‘social comment' record; it's got too much swagger and muscle for that. Like El-P, you can tell MSC get their rage at the system not out of textbooks, but from their own lives -- the picture that emerges is absolutely uncompromising. On “Kaishou [Ability],” MC 02 shows us a laborer whose “Flesh is simply exhausted/ But his face is a cry for reform.” He then draws stunning comparisons between Japanese society and a bloated, cancerous swan, mocking recent token reforms as nothing more than the foul methane gas that keeps its corpse floating.
This kind of criticism may be surprising to American readers -- it's common in the States to think of Japan as a complacent nation of undifferentiated robots. Japan's “Lost Decade” of the 1990s is now getting widespread media attention as a point of comparison for the collapse of America's own, much longer Second Gilded Age. But what's not so widely known is that, for Japan, the end of extreme wealth has led to a society-wide questioning of many of the social standards once held sacrosanct. MSC are just one small part of a national awakening that, though triggered by a disastrous financial and economic meltdown, has left Japan a more humane society than it was for much of the 20th century. They, like many other Japanese, have come into the new millennium ready to speak truth to power.