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 feature, Otaquest aims to help introduce some of Japan’s best musicians to the world. Today, a rap duo from deep Saitama who have gone from the margins to one of the most hyped-up hip-hop projects in the country. It is well-deserved praise, as they offer a unique perspective on the style that makes them stand out in the blossoming Kanto-area rap scene.
Japanese hip-hop is enjoying a boom in creative energy right now. Thanks to the decentralization of distribution networks, anyone can create and share raps, reaching a potential audience in just a few clicks. Nothing is ever that simple — good music simply doesn’t float to the top, even in a digital ecosystem, and all kinds of factors (plus some good ol’ fashioned luck) play into success — but the barrier to entry has at least been limited.
This means all kinds of new perspectives on the genre in Japan have sprung up, from surprising places. The duo SUSHIBOYS offer one great example of this development. Hailing from deep Saitama — Ogose to be exact — the group (originally a trio) play around with what is possible with the style, experimenting with traditional sample-driven cuts to warped-vocal creations to springier pop-accented works. The rising outfit offers one exciting angle on Japanese rap at a time when the greater Kanto area is producing all kinds of thrilling hip-hop. They definitely deserve a deeper dive.
SUSHIBOYS started out in 2016, coming out of Ogose. The then-three-piece sold themselves as a trio of MCs, placing their vocal gymnastics at the center of their work. For the first couple years of their existence, they mostly worked under the radar. Which isn’t to say it wasn’t documented — head into their YouTube vault to find all kinds of early experiments, including tracks expressing respect to India, odes to coin laundry outposts and more. There’s also a lot of goofballery from these friends. They slowly started gaining a following, with new uploads gaining thousands of views and more established acts giving them attention.
They wasted no time making a huge splash. In late 2017, they dropped their debut album Nigiri, which found them approaching music like a sandbox. Few first impressions are this strong — sonic variety proved key to this release, with SUSHIBOYS displaying their tag-team vocal skills and all-together-now hooks over a variety of beats. Trop-house-adjacent beats precede songs sampling ragtime piano numbers, which are only a couple tracks away from the type of high-tension electronic sounds you’d hear out of Maltine Records.
The one constant threading through all these disparate sounds is SUSHIBOYS rapping, which adjusts to whatever is pushing them forward and shines the whole time. Just as important — dudes are funny, never taking any of this too funny (established pretty early on “Yuenchi,” which sports a pretty hype “panda panda panda” scream along). The trio grew into their style across Nigiri, and delivered a complete statement standing as one of Japan’s better hip-hop full-lengths in recent memory.
Not long after that, they released the Wasabi EP, a brief set running from the silly (“KUNG FU”) to the springy (“Ahiru Boat”). It feels more like bonus content to go along Nigiri, with no major shifts in what they were doing musically but rather a reminder, hey, that wasn’t beginner’s luck.
SUSHIBOYS kept on delivering music. Later in 2018 they released the 305 EP, highlighted by the light-hearted “Shopping Cart Racer” (above). Like Wasabi, this one felt like a quick addendum to their debut full-length LP, mostly touching on familiar ideas already expressed in the past, with a few instances of them dipping their toes into new territory. Much more drastic changes, though, were happening. By the end of that year, SUSHIBOYS became a duo. A few months later, they had another EP out.
Shindara Kotsu saw the MCs in SUSHIBOYS playing around with new backdrops — twinkling synth-pop on the title track, jazzy throwbacks on “BAND-AID,” club wooze-outs on “APP STORE.” They also started seeing what their voices were capable of, allowing themself more room to sing, or being more open to slathering effects onto their delivery.
Obviously, plenty of plans went awry in 2020 for…ya know. SUSHIBOYS had live shows scheduled for most of the year, but COIVD-19 derailed that. Still, they dropped a new set of songs just recently — not quite an album or EP — highlighting their vocal delivery over a wide array of beats (including a lot of guitar-based stuff, signaling another potential shift). Listen to that one below.
They’ve also started hooking up with other burgeoning rappers. Most notably, they popped up alongside Sorane for the playful “You GARI,” adding extra flash to the song (and, in my opinion, kind of stealing it with their verses). Listen to that one below.
Five Essential Songs
One of the first big breakout moments from SUSHIBOYS highlights everything great about them — smooth delivery, funny moments, and a clever video to boot.
Here’s SUSHIBOYS at their catchiest to date, using dusty samples as a springboard to one of the most joyful Japanese rap numbers recorded in the last few years.
A great example of how SUSHIBOYS can adapt to anything thrown at them. This fizzy beat threatens to consume the whole song, but they keep up and make it work for them.
Their first great song as a duo, “Drug” spotlights the group’s growing confidence over a similarly feelin-itself beat.
“Hitsuyo Nai” (2020)
A recent cut showing a few new angles on the duo.