Shingo Nishinari “Osaka’s Shingo Nishinari may look the part of a thug, but he brings an empathy and artistry that elevates the role far above cliche.”

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.

Note: [My column about Zeebra has generated a fair amount of attention, including an email from Zeebra himself. I ended up getting to talk to him face to face, so stay tuned for more on the conflicted politics of Japan's number one rapper.]

They're only about three hours apart by way of the famous bullet train, but Osaka takes its difference from Tokyo very seriously. The nationwide reputation is that Osakans, compared to their buttoned-down, nose-to-the-grindstone Tokyo neighbors, are wild, emotional, and most of all, funny. This idea is so widespread that most of the characters in Japanese cartoons who are supposed to be ‘funny' speak in Osaka dialect, or kansai-ben, even if they're actually supposed to be from Sapporo or Nagoya. In an earlier column, I hinted how this division might extend to rap. Lots of my friends in Tokyo are determinedly pushing hip-hop in weird directions, more or less self-serious and ‘artistic'. My impression of Osaka, by contrast, is of a unified front of comfortable imagery and sounds whose purpose is to entertain more than to surprise or challenge.

But being traditional and fun-loving doesn't mean you can't be skilled. Shingo Nishinari is easily the best example I've found in Japan of a certain straightahead hip-hop sensibility, grounded on an ear for hot beats and a flow tight enough to take the head off a charging bull elephant. His Welcome to Ghetto EP and Seed full-length (Libra Records) are infectious -- as much as I love the more experimental albums from Origami or CIAZoo, Welcome To Ghetto, particularly thanks to the three tracks produced by Evis Beats, has earned more repeat spins from me than any other Japanese hip-hop.

But what's most interesting is the way Shingo addresses his roots in Kamagasaki, Nishinari, a dirt-poor laborer's district of Osaka from which he takes his rap name. Certain Japanese ‘gangusutaa' rappers are happy to project an aggressive, tough street image -- but Nishinari, closer to that life than most, is surprisingly upbeat and generous. He never forgets where he's from, but he's always working to balance a firm grip on reality with a heavy dose of hope and Osakan good humor.

“A lot of Japanese rappers are too much kaku wo tsukeru – too cool. I'm a gangster, Mercedes, bling-bling. But in reality, they're riding a bicycle. And that's cool, too. Gangsters fall in love too. Jay-Z is a dad, he buys a one-dollar hotdog.” In fact, in terms of style, Jay-Z is an excellent point of comparison to Nishinari, who works at least as hard to complicate the thug image. Probably the funniest example is “Getto no Uta Desu” (It's a Ghetto Song) from Welcome to Ghetto, which has an upbeat, swinging rhythm, not too far from Jay's “Girls,” and a hook sung by a squad of twee ladies. But the lyrics these kewpies are chirping don't fit the goofy mood at all (roughly translated):

People are dying (La la la!)

You can hear the moaning (La la la!) /Around here, they're selling (La la la!)

We're all poor (La la la!)/This town is horrible (La la la!)

La La La, indeed. There's something infectious about the contradiction between tone and content, and when I asked Nishinari, he explained that it matches the lives of the people in Nishinari. They may be poor, but, he says, they don't let that get them down. “If I have a hundred yen and buy a beer, I'll give you half, and we'll enjoy it together.”

This same empathy, an ability to connect deeply to other people, seems to drive everything NIshinari does. He's well-known throughout Osaka and beyond for participating in demonstrations for the rights of the struggling day-laborers who make up much of Kamagasaki's population. He has also performed for these workers, as part of a charitable music festival where acts have normally been limited to enka torch-singers of the type popular 40 years ago. He tells me he's also volunteered at middle schools, talking to students about working in the arts, and emphasized the importance of drawing on one's own experience and background.

But that doesn't mean he's closed off to the experience of others. Kamagasaki has become known in recent years among the international community of low-budget backpackers as a cheap place to find housing when passing through Osaka, and Nishinari tells me he takes every opportunity to chat with these global travelers. Thanks to this, his English is unusually good, which he takes full advantage of on his records, full of catchphrases and punchlines that mix and rhyme English and Japanese with exciting creativity. He'll big up the importance of “Roots and kalucha/ Tousan Kaachan” (Roots and Culture, Mom and Dad), or encourage a girl -- “Don kurai tsurai, baby don't cry!” (No matter how dark, baby don't cry). This wasei-eigo (Made in Japan English) embraces Japanese culture's straddling of East and West, but goes beyond the simple imitation of a rapper like Zeebra to make Nishinari's music entirely his own.

The perspective gained from Kamagasaki's surprising contingent of international travelers may have also helped Nishinari leave behind any shame about his background. On the absolutely blazing track “I'm Still,” he flips the script of Japan's often shame-driven culture, declaring: “Retto kan janaku, getto kan!” (ot an inferiority complex, a ghetto complex). He's less into “Hello Work” -- an effort to train supposedly disaffected urban youth back into the Japanese workforce -- than Ghetto Work, and the Rocky-like triumphalism of the track makes it seem like the most obvious decision in the world.

But there's a difference between affirming who you are and just inflating your own ego: “Talking just about how great you are, that's masturbation. And masturbation can make you feel good, but you do it at home. You can't do it onstage, in front of a crowd.” So, he's more interested in telling the stories of the people around him than bigging himself up. “If you have 10 people, you have 10 opinions.” This often includes, in Kamagasaki, the outlooks of drug dealers, gun runners, and other criminals who make up such a strong contingent that the police feel powerless to take action against them. But Nishinari has no interest in glorifying that lifestyle; they're just rich sources of narrative and energy.

When we started talking about the kind of music he liked himself, he emphasized the importance of emotion over polish, his desire to hear something from the heart. A Japanese friend told me that she appreciated his willingness to be direct, against the country's prevailing tendency to restrain. But in a crucial difference to many rappers who throw around words like “ghetto,” what Shingo is most direct about isn't his own toughness, but the opposite. On tracks like “Kimi no Tonari” (By Your Side), Nishinari adopts a certain tough-guy veneer -- ‘kimi' is a slangy, informal address that could be considered a bit overfamiliar. But beneath that bluntness what he's talking about is something too many rappers think is for saps -- the need to have one person who'll stick by you through good and bad. It's a simple thing to wish for, and more heartfelt than what's spouted by most thug rappers, so busy playing it cool.

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