So after my last post comparing the mane or “imitation” faction of Japanese Hip Hop to the recent Rachel Dolezal case, a couple people commented saying they’d like to see a post that offered a good intro to Japanese Hip Hop in general. Now I’m pretty sure that these guys were asking for a list of my favorite artists or a couple good playlists more than anything else, but instead I decided to do the post as a short introduction to the history of Hip Hop in Japan. Of course a huge number of artists are going to come up along the way and I’ll link to all of them when they do, but primarily this is going to be about the spread of global Hip Hop culture to Japan, its idiosyncrasies in the country, and the role Hip Hop has played in Japanese society as a whole.
(I did end up caving though and created a short playlist with some of my favorite tracks, for anyone interested in a soundtrack to accompany their reading)
Please keep in mind that there is a lot of history behind Japanese Hip Hop, and for the sake of space I’ll have to stick more or less to the more general outline of its evolution. If you want to know more, I recommend checking out the work of MIT professor Ian Condry, which you can cop for free in PDF form here. I rely a lot on Condry myself, as you’ll see if you read him!
But first, before I begin talking about Japanese Hip Hop, I want to clarify my terms, as I think the particular meaning I associate with Hip Hop might not be shared by all of my readers.
When the average person thinks of Hip Hop they probably imagine it to be just a genre of music or a fashion style. Of course there is also the corporate perspective, which views Hip Hop as a highly profitable product to be commodified and marketed to the general population. These stereotypes are widespread and not completely without substance, but to characterize Hip Hop in this way is to completely misunderstand its essence and inherent value.
Far from being just a style of music, Hip Hop is a culture–a way of living that is fundamentally socially-critical, anti-mainstream, and profoundly creative. The shared approach to life that is called ‘Hip Hop’ is the origin of a number of artistic forms such as DJing, MCing, breaking, and modern grafitti art (together its ‘core four elements’), but it doesn’t necessarily follow that wherever these elements are found Hip Hop is also present.
The true essence of Hip Hop culture is found in its “unique collective consciousness; the creative, causative force behind Hip Hop’s elements,” prompting many Hip Hoppers to stress that Hip Hop is not something one does, but rather something one lives (krs-one.com).
It never ceases to amaze me that something like Hip Hop, with its very specific modes of expression and even more particular cultural/historical context could take off so quickly universally, but it has exploded onto the world scene in the years since its birth. There is perhaps no country on Earth today without its own, unique Hip Hop culture. But what exactly does Hip Hop look like when separated from its original context in America’s inner cities? For the relatively wealthy, Japanese urban youth with no experience of racial persecution, can Hip Hop really be relevant or understood? These are some of the questions I think we should keep in mind when looking at the history of Hip Hop in Japan.
But now without any more prologue, let’s get into the actual history.
Interestingly enough, Hip Hop first came to Japan not through rap, DJing, or fashion, but instead through breaking. Professor Ian Condry of MIT describes the introduction of Hip Hop to Japan in the following way:
The seminal moment for breakdancing in Japan was 1983, when Wild Style, a low-budget film featuring the first generation of U.S. rappers, DJs, and breakdancers, was shown in Tokyo theaters. Performers who appeared in the movie, such as the breakdance team Rock Steady Crew, came to Japan at the same time and performed in Tokyo discos and department stores. ECD, now a key figure as [a Japanese] rapper and producer, recalls one of these shows: “Actually, when I saw those guys, I didn’t really understand what the rappers and DJs were doing. In terms of what left a lasting impact, I can’t remember a thing except the breakdancing…Another hip-hopper, Crazy-A, relates being reluctantly dragged by his girlfriend to see the movie Flashdance but then [becoming] spellbound by the breakdance scene. [Today, Crazy-A is] the leader of the hip-hop outfit Rock Steady Crew Japan.
(A History of Japanese Hip Hop, 228)
(for anyone interested, here is the trailer for Wild Style as well as the breakdancing scene from Flashdance that Crazy-A was describing. From here on out if a film is referenced I’ll link to it directly the first time its title appears)
I managed to find some somewhat grainy footage of the 1983 tour of the American Rock Steady Crew throughout Japan to promote the release of Wild Style. For those who don’t speak Japanese, the commentator in this video begins by explaining the concept of rapping to an audience that is likely encountering it for the first time. Here’s one more video I managed to find from that tour for anyone interested.
As is clear from ECD’s comment above as well as the commentator’s explanation in the video, Japanese people at this time knew next to nothing about the history of Hip Hop and were merely impressed by its energy and style. Once breakdancing got a foot in the door here though, it would take off almost immediately. The location for its inevitable rise in popularity? Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park, and the “pedestrian’s paradise” [歩行天] area of Harajuku where traffic was shut down every Sunday and people would gather to break. Crazy-A describes this early breakdance scene in his interview with Condry, saying:
“I [Crazy-A] suggested that maybe we should start [breaking]…and from the next week on, every week, we danced. At first we did it with a radio cassette and cardboard laid out on the ground. Sometimes there was a turntable and PA system. It was like a block party, a natural phenomenon [自然現象]. And then people like B-Fresh started up too.”
That began in the winter of 1984. By the next year, Crazy-A was dancing on television on a weekly music show and also as a back-up dancer for a teen idol. This exposure, along with another movie, called Breakdance, released in 1985, is credited with initiating the first of several breakdancing booms [ブーム].
(Condry, A History of Japanese Hip Hop 228-229)
It’s harder to find early videos of the breakers in Yoyogi park/Harajuku, but here is the oldest footage I could find of Rock Steady Japan. In addition, here are a couple videos of the B-Boy “Chino,” a member of Rock Steady Japan and later of the B-Rock Crew, both from the 80s: Chino 1 + Chino 2. These videos give a pretty good glimpse into what the vibe of the early Japanese Hip Hop scene would have been like.
By the late 80s/early 90s, the popularity of breaking in Yoyogi and Harajuku had given birth to some of Japan’s first DJs and rap groups as well. Japanese legend DJ Krush started out playing behind B-Fresh–Japan’s first rap group to record with a major record label–in this same sort of environment (Condry). Krush is still popularly known as the first Japanese artist to use a turntable, and for any of you who speak Japanese there’s a really fascinating interview of him in 1996 talking about his work and approach to music-making. Also really interesting is his explanation of how to DJ from 4:03, targeted at a Japanese audience who overall still knew very little about Hip Hop.
DJ Krush went on to become a respected artist outside of Japan as well, working with a few artists you might have heard of like: Black Thought and Malik B of The Roots, Mos Def, Aesop Rock, and so on. Needless to say he’s collaborated with nearly every major Japanese artist in the game and he’s still going strong today. The story goes that Krush (aka Hideaki Ishi) was originally a yakuza member but left the organization after one day finding a severed finger on his desk that he later learned belonged to a friend.
So what initially got him into Hip Hop after leaving the criminal underground?
You guessed it, Wild Style.
In one interview Krush recalled the sudden popularity of Hip Hop fashion after 1983 saying, “at the time my friends laughed at me because I used to wear stylish suits and nice leather shoes and short hair, but after I saw Wild Style, I started wearing a Kangol hat, an adidas track suit and sneakers” (DJ Krush Interview, Condry).
While artists like Krush and B-Fresh were busy emerging onto the scene from these outdoor/public performances behind Tokyo B-Boys, there was a different strain of rap developing simultaneously in Japan’s club scene. In his interview with Condry, MC Bell of B-Fresh explains that:
When you talk about Japanese hip hop, you definitely have to recognize that there are two streams. One is that of Itō Seiko and Tiny Punx, what might be called the classy [oshare] style that started with the people who frequented clubs, The other stream started with Hokoten (“pedestrian paradise”) in Harajuku. At Harajuku’s Hokoten, it started with break dancing. If you consider that hip-hop culture developed in stages, the first way we [B-Fresh] took up hip hop was in Breakdance. (229-230)
Partly for the sake of space–but also because I tend to think the strain of Hip Hop in Japan associated with breaking is the more authentic one–I’m not going to really talk about this club rap trend. It is important to know the difference between the two, though, as many later artists would refer back to the B-Boy roots of Hip Hop culture in Japan in order to appear more legitimate through their connection with the “true” tradition.
Take for example the 1998 single B-Boyイズム (B-Boyism) by the group Rhymester. The video is shot in much the same sort of spontaneous outdoor breaking environment that characterized early Japanese Hip Hop, and the lyrics stress the connection even further:
Forget the numbers, 数はともかく
we’re a minority at heart 心は少数派
Broadcasting on a special wavelength 俺たちだけに聞こえる
That only we can hear 特殊な電波
How many times I gotta say it? 何度でも言うぞ
My name is Yellow B-BOY 俺の名前は黄色いB-BOY
Number one, not fuckin around ハンパナク、ナンバーワン
From lyrics like this we get the sense that the B-Boy faction of Japanese Hip Hop is not really concerned with making music that’s popular or well received so much as staying true to its roots. The club strain, on the other hand, almost by definition would end up being tailored to what the public wanted to hear.
Like I said, there’s so much more to tell about the history of Japanese Hip Hop and its evolution through the 90s and 2000s, but I’m not trying to write a book about it at the moment. So here I want to kind of change direction and talk about another aspect of Hip Hop in Japan–graffiti.
Up until now we’ve talked about breaking, DJing, and MCing in Japan, but what about graffiti? Does this expression of Hip Hop culture also turn up in Japan?
Just by looking at the sign above we see right away that the answer is, of course, yes, but instead of talking too much about it, I’d rather just show you the Mecca of graffiti art in Japan until 2010 (when it was painted over by the government)– the legendary Yokohama graffiti wall
Pretty amazing right? Just a shame Japanese public opinion has yet to come to that realization, otherwise it might still be around today.
Of course there’s a lot of graffiti around Tokyo as well, as I’m sure there is in any big city in Japan. Here are a couple of photos I took around the Shimokitazawa neighborhood of Tokyo last year
Right now though, some of the most provocative and fascinating graffiti in Japan is coming from a mysterious artist who goes by the name 281_Anti Nuke. A lot of people have called him the Japanese Banksy, and the parallels are apparent almost immediately.
Anti Nuke is eminently camera-shy, and his website description of himself simply states: 281_ Artist, Japan, anti nuclear power plant, born on 3/11/2011
After making an original, Anti Nuke turns his art into stickers that can be put up by anyone all over Japan. Even though he’s received any number of death threats over the years, he remains bold and unafraid in the face of the ultra-conservative elements of Japan’s government.
Now I’m sure some of you at this point are thinking “this guy is cool and all, but does he really have anything to do with Japanese Hip Hop?” My answer is that this guy embodies Hip Hop. Here I want to go back to the words of one of Hip Hop’s original pioneers, KRS-One, who I quoted in the beginning of this article. When talking about “cultural literacy,” one of the necessary traits to any true Hiphoppa, KRS-One says:
Cultural literacy, from a Hiphop perspective, can only be achieved by authentic Hiphoppas; it is a sensitivity toward the further growth and collective well-being of your social group. Such literacy is created by the principles of the culture itself; YOUR culture. This is what you are literate of when you are culturally literate—you are hip to your hop. You understand the ingredients of your social group; you can read its blueprint in an effort to enhance (yourself) it.
Anti Nuke is like a doctor who has diagnosed the many illnesses plaguing Japanese society–in the face of threats on his own life and on his family’s, he remains singularly dedicated to the mission of forcing his fellow citizens to own up to these problems rather than simply pretending they don’t exist. In an attempt to change Japanese society as a whole, Anti Nuke is harnessing his own creativity as a tool to hold the mainstream culture accountable for its actions. In my mind, this is Hip Hop in its most essential form.
Anti Nuke himself describes his work in the following way:
[Japanese people] only vote for the winner; they only think about the winner. They have no concept of real strength. They feel satisfied just knowing that the party they voted for won… Maybe it’s true that there’s no political party you can count on, but it’s more than that. It’s fear. It’s Japanese people never doubting their leaders. Looking out at Shibuya, I’m sure that nobody out there remembers the idea of radiation anymore. People abroad know more about the crisis in Fukushima than the Japanese. The Japanese are trying to forget. I want to make them remember.
Anyone who wants to learn more about 281_Anti Nuke and his art should check out this short documentary about him put out by VICE Japan in 2014, and now I’ll stop trying to convince you of why this guy is, in my opinion, such a great representative of Japanese Hip Hop (he is though)
Graffiti is actually a pretty good place to segway into one of the final areas I want to look at in this article–the relationship between Japanese and other countries’ Hip Hop cultures.
In 2010, Japan lost one of its major Hip Hop leaders in a car crash in Shibuya. After Seba Jun (AKA Nujabes–his name spelt backwards) passed away, there was a worldwide mourning for the artist that took on many different forms. One of those forms was graffiti.
The gif above is a short from a 2010 video uploaded by Indonesian graffiti artists KOMA (INDO) and OLDER+ who paid respect to the fallen legend through their art. Other graffiti artists would show their love for Nujabes by drawing characters from the popular Samurai Champloo anime series that Seba had helped to create the soundtrack for:
Even when it was not graffiti art per se, thousands of Nujabes’ fans worldwide created works of art in tribute to him. Any quick search on google for “Nuajbes art” will turn up hundreds of such drawings:
The music community was quick to pay their respects to Nujabes as well. I personally own four tribute albums to him, but I’m sure that there are at least three times that many floating around out there. Some of those that come to mind right away include Australian producer Taku’s album 25 Nights for Nujabes, as well as compilation albums Tribute to Jun, Tribute to Jun II, and Modal Soul Classics II.
In my opinion one of the coolest tributes to Nujabes after his death came out of South Korea, where one local elementary school teacher organized his students into groups to cover Nujabes’ track Aruarian Dance as a class project (here is the original song for reference)
In November of the same year he passed away, some of the many artists Nujabes collaborated with in his life gathered together to remember him at an event they called Eternal Soul. On the occasion of this gathering, Japanese rapper Shing02 described Nujabes in the following way:
Living in America I’ve had the chance to interact with people from all over the world, and among people in their 20s, the love for Nujabes is so strong it surprises even me. Nujabes was, how can I put this, some sort of phenomenon… Honestly, even now I find it hard to believe that I was there with him…
I think what was most unique about his work was the way he strung sounds together, his sampling methods… Somewhere in his music there’s this sort of intense feeling of nostalgia, like you’re looking back on something, looking back while always keeping your eyes straight ahead…
The Nujabes “phenomenon” that Shing02 is describing here is so strong that you can even find T-shirts online sporting the message “Nujabes Changed My Life”
Basically, Nujabes love runs deep.
One of the most interesting ways that Nujabes embodies the connection between Japanese Hip Hop and the worldwide Hip Hop community is seen in his frequent depiction alongside American Hip Hop legend J Dilla, who shares the same birthday as Seba and also passed away in his 30s from a rare blood disease. The two are often drawn together with the message “Rest in Beats”
Nujabes may be gone, but his legacy only grows stronger as time passes. He is certainly not the first Japanese artist to start a wave of international Hip Hop collaboration/connection (see for example DJ Yutaka, early member of Afrika Bambaataa’s Universal Zulu Nation), but for an ever-increasing number of non-Japanese people, Nujabes continues to serve as a doorway to the much larger community of Japanese Hip Hop. I speak from experience, too, as Nujabes was my both my introduction to and motivation to learn more about the culture.
Anyways, let’s try and wrap things up.
So I already spent a lot of time talking about artists like DJ Krush and Nujabes, but to close this article I want to introduce a few more of my favorite artists/groups in Japanese Hip Hop. Hopefully if anything, they’ll serve as a good springboard off of which anyone interested can start to get to know the greater community as a whole.
First off, I want to talk about my favorite Japanese rapper, Dengaryu 田我流.
Last February I was able to see Dengaryu and his collective Stillichimiya live in Shibuya, and beyond killing the show the dude was nice enough to hang around and talk for about 45 minutes afterwards. We talked a lot about the state of Japanese Hip Hop and society, and I want to just briefly introduce his thoughts on both.
Dengaryu described how leaving Japan for a couple of years to live in the US helped him to realize many of the problems present in Japanese society; he also stressed the point that for those people who never leave Japan–a nearly homogenous country that encourages conformity–it can be almost impossible to become aware of these issues. Dengaryu went on to talk about the role that he felt Hip Hop should play in calling these societal problems to light, and as an example told me how much he was impacted as a kid by listening to the 1998 song Hoo! Ei! Hoo! put out by rapper You the Rock as a social criticism of the law banning dancing after midnight. (This law just got repealed by the way! But more on that in a second)
In his own words, Dengaryu said that he felt Hip Hop to be ‘a global culture not dependent on your skin color or birthplace, but more on your experience of the world.’ For him and other Japanese people living in Japan, it is correspondingly wealth, and not race, that plays the greatest factor in the difference between individuals’ experiences of society.
When I asked him if the Japanese Hip Hop community had a different societal experience than that of the mainstream Japanese culture, he responded: “It depends on the person, same as in the US. One of your friends might be fuckin’ poor, one of your friends might be fuckin’ rich. That’s the difference. The world is like that, same situation.”
Clearly though in Dengaryu’s own life, coming from what he describes as 超田舎 (middle of nowhere) and never having much money, he has felt some discrimination from mainstream Japanese society. In one of his songs, Dengaryu raps:
Hello from the lower classes of society 下流社会からこんにちは
Is it all right if we just exist 俺ら生きてていいっすか、
Mr. Big Shot? お偉いさん?
On this same note, Den commented on the gangster/thug aspect of American Hip Hop music, calling it the music of the those ‘living at the bottom of society’ and saying:
It’s really important. I love gangster music because it’s straight. Our happiness is like this—drinking, making a lot of money, but at the same time we feel a lot of pain. It’s simple… I can see the reality of their lives through their lyrics.
Dengaryu has little sympathy for those Japanese rappers who try and affect an appearance that makes them look more like black American artists, calling them “fucking whack” (again, see the other article I wrote on imitation in Japanese Hip Hop). He explained this further by telling me that “in Japanese we have a saying
(十人十色)– each individual has his/her own mind, originality, identity—ten different people, ten different ways—and we respect that…But most Japanese artists…just wanna be like black people. ” Dengaryu clearly sympathized with and respected the African American struggle without feeling the need to emulate them or even necessarily like their music (though he stressed there are many American artists he listens to regularly).
While I wouldn’t go so far to say that Dengaryu represents most of Japanese Hip Hoppers, he is certainly a member of a large (and always growing) group of conscious, culturally literate Japanese artists. Another member of this group that I definitely want you guys to check out is the artist Shing02, whom I mentioned earlier in connection with Nujabes. These two artists worked together a lot before Seba passed away, and their most famous collaboration is probably the Luv(sic) series–he also sang the theme song for the Samurai Champloo series that I linked to above.
Shing02 never ceases to amaze me in that he is fully bilingual and wraps in both Japanese and English. One great example of his songwriting genius is his song
愛密集 (“Love Concentrated”). The title of this song has a double meaning, as its pronunciation in Japanese is Ai Misshu (i.e. I miss you). You can see the lyrics (with English translation) and grab either the original version or the remix (which I personally prefer) here, if you’re interested.
Beyond just rapping though, Shing02 also has a pretty awesome art career going as well. Last year he came out with a video called Bustin’ to make a statement about the no dancing after midnight law, and he’s also done exhibitions built completely around his old drafts from the songwriting process. When the dancing-ban law finally got repealed a few weeks back, Shing02 posted the following on his Facebook page:
The Japanese “Dance Ban Law” that was in effect since 1948 is officially reformed. The new law will require “clubs” to comply with certain lighting and space restrictions, but knowing only a few years ago dancing after-hours could lead to arrests (see: http://e22.com/bustin) and court cases actually debating over what constitutes a dance, this is a HUGE improvement and a positive step towards recognition of our culture. With freedom comes responsibility.
Shing is a great artist but also just a great dude in general, so I highly recommend checking him out.
The third artist I want to recommend is EVISBEATS (but if you checked out the Dengaryu song I linked to above then you’ve already been introduced to him). When I asked Den about EVISBEATS, his response was “man, that dude is the Buddha!” He told me that their collab had drastically changed his way of thinking about life, and that EVISBEATS had given him a number of books about Buddhism that he still treasured to this day.
If you’ve ever heard anything by EVISBEATS before, this isn’t such a far-fetched story either. He’s all about making relaxing beats, and his lyrics definitely convey his Buddhist worldview as well.
The last intro I have for you guys is actually a group, and full disclosure I owe this recommendation 100% to my conversation with Dengaryu. Still feel a little embarrassed that I didn’t know of them before he mentioned them to me…
In my opinion it’s hard to find anything better than Nitro Microphone Underground out there in Japanese Hip Hop, and their single Still Shinin’ will always remain the single greatest Japanese rap song ever made in my mind.
(Don’t take my word for it though, check it out for yourself and see if you’re not bumping it on repeat for a week.)
The group’s status as one of the classic Hip Hop groups of Japan was set in stone long ago, and many of the members have gone on to have successful solo careers as well (e.g. see Dabo). Calling any one of the Nitro members on stage/album for a performance is a guaranteed way to spike your legitimacy
So anyways, there are a million more artists I could recommend to you, like Tha Blue Herb, 般若, Norikiyo, SD Junksta, or AKLO, but I think it’s probably about time I stopped writing. If you read this far I really appreciate your time and attention! There is just too much to talk about in an article like this and so I inevitably had to skip over a lot of history, but I hope that I did at least an OK job at offering a look into the world of Japanese Hip Hop. Let me know what you think in the comments–
Until next time!
Stephen is a recent college grad heading back to Japan this August to work as a CIR in Kawasaki-shi, Kanagawa. When he's not working, Stephen can be found longboarding one of Tokyo's many bikepaths, backpacking through the Japanese countryside, or just hanging around Shibuya's underground hip-hop scene.