Contemporary Japanese music features many artists creating some of the most exciting songs going, from burgeoning rappers putting their spin on the genre to electronic creators pushing down sonic boundaries. It isn’t always easy to get familiar with them, though, thanks to a combination of label-born internet shyness that cuts them off from potential fans alongside the general noise of daily life on the internet.
In this new feature, Otaquest aims to help introduce some of Japan’s best musicians to the world. Today, a rapper who finds a balance between the genre’s roots and personal wonkiness, who has managed to become such a success story in the country that he can collab with top-tier pop acts and have his personal life trend.
Twitter trends aren’t always the best way of taking stock of real popularity. Have you seen some of the stuff that crashes those rankings? Yet they can oftentimes reveal a lot…like a couple weeks back, when “PUNPEE” trended nationally in Japan. That refers to the rapper of the same name, an MC who had been chipping away in the country’s hip-hop scene since the early 2000s, having recently enjoyed newfound critical and commercial popularity.
Was this SNS shine thanks to a new EP release? One of his recent collaborations with top-level J-pop stars or celebrated old-school rappers? Nope, this was for his personal life — he revealed he and former AKB48 member Sayaka Akimoto had married, via a post riffing on his album art. PUNPEE had reached a very rarified place few musicians — let alone rappers — arrive; his personal life was just as interesting to folks as his work.
Thanks a lottttttt!!!!!!!P pic.twitter.com/m09IAMXrOk
— PUNPEE (@PUNPEE) June 22, 2020
How did a scrapper from Tokyo end up being tabloid targeted? Well, it’s because of his skill and creativity, whether in groups or by himself. By the time he released his breakout album MODERN TIMES in 2017, he already had a rap following, and this ambitious set pushed him over into the mainstream consciousness. He remains one of the country’s most exciting MCs, and one worth getting familiar with.
PUNPEE grew up in Tokyo, and started rapping early in the 2000s, primarily as a member of hip-hop groups. His first solo shine came in 2006, when he represented Tokyo in the nationwide Ultimate MC Battle, but his initial time in the spotlight came as a member of the trio PSG. Alongside childhood friends Gapper and S.L.A.C.K., that trio caught attention for effortless rhymes over an assortment of beats, flexing a wide variety of skills along the way. Just spend some time with 2009 album David (above) to get a sense of where PUNPEE came from. The big takeaway from it? He’s a confident, locked in artist who also isn’t afraid to get a little wonky with his flow, hinting at more experimentation lurking in his approach.
On His Own
While PSG carried on, PUNPEE started branching out on his own. He released his own music (one example above), while also appearing on songs by other rappers, electronic artists such as tofubeats and more. His production work also started popping up on albums and other releases in Japan’s hip-hop world, expanding his reach even further.
For a while, he developed into a creator working to enhance other artists’ work, offering up plenty of solid solo material but nothing breaking him up to the next level. Think of PUNPEE as a rapper’s rapper — plenty of respected names called on him for guest verses or production work, but he wasn’t getting the spotlight for himself quite yet. He was moving that way though — just check this collaboration (of sorts…it uses a sample from his work) with legendary ‘60s rocker Kayama Yuzo. That racked up millions of views, and helped introduce PUNPEE to a wider audience. He was about to capitalize on that.
Time Will Tell
Looking back on PUNPEE’s 2017 is pretty wild, especially when you consider that getting the reigns to remix a bunch of Hikaru Utada’s songs officially isn’t the high point of your 12 months. He did do that, though, getting the chance to flex his production skills on an EP of reworks of older songs from the J-pop heavyweight. Yet as the end of that year came into view, he managed something even bigger.
MODERN TIMES, PUNPEE’s first official full-length album, starts off with a high-concept skit featuring samples of news broadcasts reporting on Donald Trump’s 2016 U.S. Presidential Election win. Heavy stuff! Yet from there, PUNPEE’s magnum opus showcases every side of his art, ranging from speedy experiments (“Happy Meal”) to straight-ahead boom-bap (“Pride”) to soulful freestyles (“Rain (Freestyle)”). Critics fawned over this one when it came out, and it even performed well commercially, beating out J-pop regulars on the then physical-only Oricon Charts.
MODERN TIMES gave PUNPEE, an artist already boasting cred within the creative community, even greater cache. He became more prominent across Japanese entertainment — this is where interest in his dating life takes off — and worked with J-pop artist Hoshino Gen on a song in 2019 (above). He’s kept busy, and in 2020 he dropped a new EP titled The Sofakingdom. This check-in reminds of PUNPEE’s dexterity and his creative approach to the style. Listen to it below.
Five Essential Songs
PSG “Nerenai!!” (2011)
This number from the rap trio PUNPEE first started catching attention with offered, what for many, was their introduction to the MC. It’s also a hell of a first impression, showing his laid-back flow at its most confident.
“Oyasumi Own Time” Featuring Sugbabe (2012)
A softer side of PUNPEE early on in his solo career.
“Happy Meal” (2017)
One of the more frantic beats PUNPEE dashed over on MODERN TIMES also makes for one of his best backdrops ever.
“Scenario (Film)” (2017)
For all of the eclectic choices on MODERN TIMES, some of the best moments find PUNPEE leaning into more populist modes. Here’s the most come-together moment in his discography to date.
“Yume Ou Hito” Featuring KREVA (2020)
The highlight from his latest EP finds him matching one of the most celebrated rappers in Japanese history.