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☆Taku Takahashi holding hip-hop records

Japanese Hip-Hop: A History (feat. ☆Taku Takahashi)

There’s been something of a rising fascination with Japanese hip-hop in a lot of places lately. The genre itself has seen a resurgence in Japan, with a new generation of artists bringing a fresh sound to the previously diminished stature in the country. Couple that with the breakout success of the Hypnosis Mic franchise, which features music from legendary acts from the scene, and you’ve got a recipe for a globally newfound interest amongst a completely different audience than those who were listening in the genre’s heyday in the 2000s.

The history of hip-hop in Japan is something of a curiosity. As an art form that was developed in the 70s in The Bronx, its birth in America is intrinsically linked to the experiences of inner-city communities and their culture. In Japan though, its birth is similar to that of the new music/city-pop wave in the 80s, born out of American influence but molded into something wholly its own. While bits and pieces of this history are documented in the west, it’s often only a small sampling of the surprisingly complicated rise in Japan, so I reached out to OTAQUEST co-founder and 1/3rd of iconic hip-hop/dance group m-flo, ☆Taku Takahashi, for more insight. His first-hand experiences and notes will be included throughout as I attempt to pull back the curtain on this on-again/off-again genre in the Japanese music landscape.

Before we get into the real meat of Japanese hip-hop history, which truly begins in the 90s, I want to touch real quickly on its pre-history in the 80s. It’s fair to say that this was the decade where hip-hop really started making strides in the west towards the global dominance it now has, but in those early days, there were already seeds being planted in the Japanese cultural landscape. Japanese electronic music legends Yellow Magic Orchestra, who were known for experimenting with different sounds, included a Haruomi Hosono composed whisper rap track titled Rap Phenomena on their 1981 album BGM, which some point to as the first example of hip-hop permeating Japan. Despite this, it’s hard to point at it as an influence due to the album’s poor reception among fans, and the lower sales from previous albums like Solid State Survivor and Zoshoku.

The first real example of hip-hop influence in Japan is the release of the film Wild Style in 1983. While still a cult film at the time, it introduced the concept of hip-hop culture to those who had seen it with its depictions of MCing, turntablism, and breakdancing. Legendary Japanese turntablist who broke through to the US, DJ Krush, points to this film as the influence that inspired him to start his activities. Around this same time, other icons who contributed to the rise of the genre in Japan such as designer Hiroshi Fujiwara and Toshio Nakanishi were experiencing the culture at its roots in New York City. This led to the formation of the label Major Force in 1988, an effort by Fujiwara, Nakanishi, and other early Japanese hip-hop luminaries and was the home to early releases from the group that would bring hip-hop to the mainstream, SCHA DARA PARR (or SDP).

‘The first essential hip-hop hit was SDP, SCHA DARA PARR, and their song ‘Kon’ya wa Boogie Back’ featuring Kenji Ozawa from Flipper’s Guitar. That was the first hip-hop hit, and it became very well known across Japan and popular at karaoke.’ Taku tells me about their initial breakthrough. Scha Dara Parr were an example of a group influenced by the mainstream emergence of the genre in the west, their name being a tribute of sorts to Boogie Down Productions and their style often being compared to the Beastie Boys. ‘After that it was East End and Yuri with DA.YO.NE which became a nationwide hit. But with SDP’s Kon’ya wa Boogie Back they weren’t really rhyming, and DA.YO.NE became too commercial in a way, which led to the evolution of a different underground scene.’ This is something that mirrors the early days of hip-hop in the west in some ways, as early resistance to mainstream popularity and radio play amongst hip-hop purists of the 80s is well documented.

‘These underground acts were acts like King Giddra, Twigy, Lamp Eye, and Shakkazombie. Those artists were the pure Japanese underground, they were creating that underground scene of hip-hop.’ This underground scene resisted what was happening with the newfound mainstream success of groups like SDP, and ended up influencing a whole new side of the culture in Japan itself. ‘There were basically 3 different major parties at the time, the first was LB Nation or Little Bird Nation. SDP was like the main group amongst a lot of different artists at this one. Thumping Camp was another one, this was Twigy, King Giddra, and so on. And then F.G., Funky Grammar, RHYMESTER was the main group here, and it also featured groups like RIP SLYME. So it was these three different parties at different clubs in Tokyo. Thumping Camp and LB Nation were big events, and they helped to make hip-hop huge in the late 90s/early 2000s.’ These three camps would go on to create some of the most successful groups in the Japanese hip-hop scene during its original peak, many of which are still active and fans may even recognize from the soundtrack to the recent game/anime/manga franchise Hypnosis Mic.

So at the beginning of the millennium, hip-hop is becoming mainstream in Japan in general. Even in the west fans are starting to take notice with groups like RIP SLYME, m-flo, KICK THE CAN CREW and others being discussed on early English message boards for Japanese music. ‘A lot of DJs were making beats, for example, DJ Watarai, DJ Hasabe, these were very influential artists at that time really.’ Taku says before reflecting on his early time with m-flo at the start of their success. ‘When m-flo started it was right as things got big in the early 2000s, we started in 1999. Honestly, a lot of people from the hip-hop scene in Japan didn’t like us. A lot of Japanese people were very uptight about how hip-hop “should be” or how it “should sound” because they had to stick to the bible. But there were acts like US-based Japanese rappers BUDDHA BRAND, or more internationally-minded people like DJ Hasabe and even Nujabes, they were the ones who supported us. Nujabes was one of the first people who helped us promote and grow at the time, he thought we were really cool.’

Of course, you can’t talk about the history of hip-hop in Japan without mentioning Nujabes. Out of all of the artists from the 2000s era of hip-hop, his name has remained the most iconic to the point of even inspiring a whole new generation of artists who are creating what they call lo-fi hip-hop. ‘He owned a record store called Guinness Records, he started selling his own vinyls there. What he was doing was really East-coast hip-hop, it sounded very original because the way he was doing it, but what he was making was a lot like what A Tribe Called Quest or J Dilla were doing at the time.’ Taku says reflecting on his friend and contemporary. ‘He liked East-coast rap, he put some essence of jazz and was just making pure hip-hop. He became an underground hit in Japan, but he wasn’t really discovered until later on. Samurai Champloo was really influential to a lot of the US audience, and really he got much bigger after he passed away. People might consider him now to be ‘lo-fi hip-hop’ but honestly speaking, this is my personal opinion, but knowing him I don’t think he would consider what he made as lo-fi hip-hop, he was really making just natural hip-hop.’ While unrelated to the history, I couldn’t help but ask to clarify the persistent rumor about his artist name at this point too. ‘Jun Seba was a name he created, just a pseudonym. He never told me why even if I asked him about it.’ (A quick google search in Japanese turns up different results across a number of publications related to his passing.)

‘Hip-hop was already big but not quite as big as it could have been, and right when it was about to blow up it just kind of shrunk instead. This was in the 2010s.’ This is something that anyone looking at the sales history in Japan can immediately identify. ‘One thing I have to mention regarding Japanese hip-hop before I get into this is that it’s very different from US hip-hop simply because it was born in the US. Japanese hip-hop was just borrowing the culture from US hip-hop, which was really born from innovation. Japanese people looked at this creation in the US as “the bible”, they didn’t really come up with something wholly original. Japanese hip-hop is kind of original of course, but they still had to stick with how things were in the US and the idea of keeping it underground. That’s one of the reasons why the genre started to shrink in the 2010s.’

‘A lot of hip-hop artists in the US are very hungry, they want to become successful with their work. In America minorities have a more difficult path to success, and that’s just a fact, it’s harder for them to go to college, get good jobs, etc. Using music was seen as a way to get that success and make their way out of the tougher inner-city areas. In Japan it’s not really like that, hip-hop artists here didn’t have that same kind of experience. They weren’t gangsters or anything, but they felt they had to act like it, and at the same time they didn’t have the craving to become really huge and wanted to stay underground. There were obviously exceptions, but that was a prevailing feeling in the scene here. Those people were kind of like pulling each other’s legs, like crabs in a bucket, pulling them back down from the mainstream’, Taku says about the cultural differences behind the rise of the genre in the US and Japan. ‘Also, the Japanese pop scene has a very specific formula to what works, and at that time the underground hip-hop scene didn’t match that. In the 2010s a lot of music was very commercial and very Japanese-y, which is another reason why it probably didn’t grow.’

Hip-hop remained an underground thing for much of the 2010s, with very few of the acts that saw major success in the early 2000s remaining viable in the mainstream market. But in the late 2010s, there was something of a resurgence led by a new generation of rappers such as KOHH, and this resurgence came from an unlikely source. ‘I think the real catalyst was a show called Freestyle Dungeon hosted by Zeebra. They would have different artists appear, and they would have freestyle battles on the show. It became really popular, and I think was one of the reasons hip-hop started growing again.’ So this program brought the genre back into the public consciousness, but what of this new generation of artists? ‘A lot of the old generation of artists don’t really see these younger artists as how hip-hop ‘should be’. It doesn’t have the spirit of graffiti, breakdancing, or just rap like old-school hip-hop that became popular did, which is what drove hip-hop as a culture. Well these young artists, they respect the history but they just do whatever they feel like. They have more of a US mindset about it. They have the desire to become successful and make it big, so in a way, they don’t really care about the old ways.’

‘These kids are really interesting. Back in the days, artists would reject doing things in the overground, but these new artists are totally up for it. They’re really open-minded.’ This younger generation is made up of rising acts like JP THE WAVY, Miyachi, and others who have seen some major success in the last year. ‘Punpee is kind of like middle-school hip-hop, like an east-coast flavor. Or acts like Sky-Hi who is a rapper but was also a member of a boys group, but remains respected in the scene which is totally not how it was back in the day.’ Other acts worth noting include WILYWNKA, Vigorman, Tohji, Awich, Tsubaki, and Chanmina. ‘It’s more versatile as a scene, and while they’re still competing, none of them are really hating on each other.’ There are so many artists in this rising scene that we can talk about, so rather than going on for another 1000 words, I asked Taku to give us five picks from each generation that he would recommend checking out for those of you who are looking to expand your playlists:

1990s-2000s

SCHA DARA PARR

BUDDHA BRAND

RHYMESTER

RIP SLYME

KICK THE CAN CREW

2020

Awich

JP THE WAVY

Tohji

kZm

HENTAI SHINSHI CLUB

A someone who discovered Japanese hip-hop in the late 90s with groups like m-flo and RIP SLYME, I couldn’t be more pleased with the rise of the genre once again. With so many overground and underground acts breathing fresh life into the hip-hop scene in Japan, there’s an almost nonstop selection of new tracks to listen to week after week. This resurgence isn’t showing any signs of stopping too, so with any luck it’ll become one of the mainstay genres in Japan for good this time around.

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