Killer Bong Murder Scene Togashi Dub

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.

Yes, they do have marijuana in Japan. And free jazz. Both, apparently, in mind-destroying quantities.

Killer Bong is the most active member of a Tokyo crew of totally-fucked-in-the-head producers and rappers known as Think Tank. He's also, apparently, on some J.D. Salinger mysterious tip, and doesn't much like giving interviews or talking to anyone. Maybe he's just too busy cranking out music -- his discography consists of dozens of full-length CD-Rs with homemade covers that can be found in the scummier boutiques of underground Tokyo. The instrumental Murder Scene Togashi Dub is at least in part his tribute to free-jazz drummer Togashi Masahiko, who died in 2007. Bong takes sounds from free jazz and turns them into hazy, lurching hip-hop loops, blows them into space on fragments of delay and reverb, and slowly builds them into something like DJ Shadow's most Freudian nightmare of a 1940s noir mystery.

Over its 10-minute length, the opening track transforms from a spare assemblage of mournful chimes, alto runs, and tom fills into a gently head-nodding rhythm of bassy, chugging drums. It's an inviting introduction, suggesting that, as you might guess from its producer's best-ever name, this is an album that rewards listeners for being ridiculously high. The odd nesting of arrhythmic saxophone squalls, ominous drum solos, and the underwater bubbling of 10 layers of studio effects within the pulsing repetitions of long-form hip-hop invites you to sink your whole head into the bubbling warmth. But like a cabbage into soup, it's hard to get it back out -- the minor-key shadows that cover the Murder Scene quickly go from comfortably intriguing to paranoia-inducing, constantly threatening to drag the listener down into a dark corner, where unspeakable psychic acts will be committed.

Murder Scene has a lot in common with Kool Kieth's Dr. Octagonecologyst, both in its bizarre musical sensibility and that it seems to sketch a plot or concept. As an instrumental album, Murder Scene has to rely on its song titles for continuity, but they're more than up to the challenge. They're all in English, and the high-speed crash of Killer Bong's obscurantist sensibility against the language barrier produces malapropisms that are somehow more mind-expanding than ridiculous. Like detectives ourselves, we start from the “Murder Scene” -- but who's the victim? Presumably Togashi -- but in real life he died of heart failure, and then he resurfaces for “Da Encounter With Mr. Togashi,” signaled by epileptic squalls of Sonny Rollins-like reed blowing that fold back in on themselves, propelled by nodding kick drums. Has the putative victim revealed himself as the killer? I for one lose the plot when told that “A Fem Green's Bird Was Thrown Away In The Sky,” my only interpretive aid an insistent bassline and an intricate, pseudo-Arab horn chorus.

Soon everything is spinning out of control, and we're left to wonder why “The Letter Had Not Been Sent for a While.” Those of us who took the green pill may be finding out, amid loping marimbas and tribal tambourines, just what is on “The Side Surface of Weeeeed,” probably to our detriment. Like incompetent Sam Spades, everything leaves us behind -- amid the confusion “It Gets on a Dirty Cab,” and years pass before we hear, from a friend of a friend, that “Someone Sees Mr.Togashi Turns Wall Street Even Now.” The motherfucker got off scot-free on his flip from victim to perp, obscured perhaps by the stomach-sickening off-rhythms and mismatched ukulele trill of that final track. It's a dark world we live in.

Murder Scene Togashi's hideously fabulous jams inscribe the rarely-acknowledged connection between Japanese hip-hop musicians and their forbears in jazz. Japanese fascination (obsession?) with the music of African-America didn't start with hip hop -- in fact, one could even trace its roots back to the 1852 arrival of the American warships, which, in addition to opening Japan's borders with their show of military supremacy, brought along a troupe of blackface minstrels as entertainment. (It's a worthwhile reminder that, when we look at the more outlandish elements of Japanese attitudes towards black people, we're actually looking at a reflection of American values). Since then, of course, there have been Japanese takes on rock, blues, and jazz, which constituted mainstream pop music during the American occupation and, a bit later, became the soundtrack to student revolt during Japan's 1960s.

Musicians in all these adopted traditions have wrestled with the question of their own ability to play such alien music, and Murder Scene Togashi Dub acts out what I think is the only reasonable answer. Killer Bong recycles the music of a man who recycled the music of others, and does it within a recycled genre whose main ethos is that everything can and should be freely recycled. In the confusion of an obscure plot, it's possible to make out the record's indirect message: if having one's music stolen is a kind of death, it's also a kind of life. I've honestly never heard Togashi Masahiko's drumming -- or maybe, thanks to Killer Bong, I have. Togashi's fans in his heyday may not have heard the black drummers who inspired him -- except that, in an indirect way, they did, exactly through his theft. The mysterious Togashi of this album may be a drummer, or he may not, but he walks away from his own murder scene -- and in that, he traces the path of all music, waking from the dead to haunt us once again.

- Black Smoker Records

Materials for review in Japan the Beats can be mailed to:

David Morris


Honcho 3-8-2

Or in America to:

David Morris
4614 Ridge North Road

Fort Worth, Texas 76126

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