Slow on the uptake, But Quick on Understanding
Words by Dexter Thomas.
It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago, the Japanese hip-hop scene—made and created by Japanese artists— was almost unimaginable. These days mixtapes, free and commercial albums, and single tracks are being released at an impossibly blinding pace. Kids as young as 16 and adults well into their late thirties are rapping about everything from drugs to cartoons, shoes and the dangers of nuclear energy. And it’s all happening online.
I’ve often heard old heads in the area say that Japanese hip-hop’s golden age was back in the mid ’90s, but I’d have to respectfully disagree. Japan’s true golden age is just getting started… And this is pretty amazing, especially considering that it was once almost impossible to find Japanese rap online at all. There are probably a few reasons for this, but it probably has something to do with the fact that historically, Japanese kids aren’t particularly great with computers.
I know, I know. It sounds crazy, but I’m serious.
THE DIGITAL DIVIDE
A big part of this is the cell phone factor. For example, in 2001, while those of us in the States were running around with monochrome Nokia brick phones that could barely play Snake, Japanese teenagers were snapping pictures, emailing, watching videos and playing Dance Dance Revolution – all on their sleek, streamlined cell phones. Most of the basic functions of the internet for young people – sending emails, reading message boards and connecting with friends via social networking services – could all be handled in the palm of your hand.
But unfortunately, these cell phones weren’t particularly good at handling indie-oriented music sites like MySpace, so when the online DIY music revolution came, the Japanese music market was fairly slow on the uptake. There’s also the difference in rental policies. Where American kids had honed their PC skills by searching online and suffering through slow 56k Napster downloads to bootleg new music, Japanese kids simply walked into music rental shops like Tsutaya, rent new CDs and copy them (Tsutaya still sells blank CD-Rs at the front counter, no questions asked). So for the average music fan, there was never a need to learn how to use a PC.
Because of this (and other miscellaneous factors), the Japanese market has traditionally been a bit lukewarm when it comes to online music sales, and very cautious about using the internet for viral music promotion. Combine that with the fact that hip-hop has always been a limited market within Japan, meaning that there were very few hip-hop fans checking for new artists online, at least Japanese hip-hop.
All of that changed around 2009, when a small group of relatively unknown rappers, frustrated with an industry that wasn’t moving quickly enough for them, started releasing their songs online in mixtape form. At first it was a slow trickle – one release one month, then another, the next – as if rappers were feeling each other out, trying to figure out whether people would accept this strange form of expression and promotion. Soon, however, the pace quickened – one mixtape a week, two a week, twenty. Since—literally, over the past two years—online radio stations, websites, magazines and labels were developed to meet Japan’s growing demand for domestic hip-hop.
THE KEY PLAYERS
Cherry Brown, who is now in his twenties, was born on a US military base in Yokosuka (his twitter claims that he’s a “KAWAII-ASS BLACKANESE”… he also goes by the alias Lil’ Yukichi) and is completely bilingual, though he generally raps in Japanese. Unlike a lot of the old school, who tend to idolize the East-Coast boom-bap generation, Cherry’s music is very heavily Southern- influenced. When you listen to him, it’s pretty obviously pulling influence from Three 6 Mafia and Soulja Boy catalogs, though he leans toward Odd Future in his more recent material. Lyrically, he’s fairly bizarre by most standards, rapping about anything from sneaking into girls’ pajama parties to highlighting his favorite (female) anime characters. The
video below should give you a pretty good idea of what to expect from Cherry:
Then, we have Aklo, whose parents are Mexican and Japanese (he’s trilingual, but I’ve never heard him rap in Spanish). His history itself is pretty unusual – as a high school student, he studied abroad at a small school in Oregon, and started hanging out with a circle of suburban kids that were obsessed with Master P (yes, that Master P), and had his mind blown. His first raps were more or less modeled after the No Limit roster, and when he returned to Japan, he worked on his craft and continued to monitor the US scene. After his first commercial effort posted dissapointing sales, he went quietly to work on a mixtape, A Day On The Way. As soon as it dropped, the Japanese internets went insane. Looking back, there are some rough spots, but the production values did rival anything being released in the US. No one had heard anything like it, and it was pretty clear that Aklo had created a game changer.
While both Cherry Brown and Aklo are equally important figures in the scene, they differ in their approaches to music. Cherry Brown has at least two aliases (Yuuyuu Aensland and Lil’ Yukichi) under which he both produces and DJs, and as mentioned above, his styles are pretty strange. He’s easily the more prolific of the two, and an absolutely relentless remixer. He’s turned Lady Gaga songs into off-the-wall anthems about himself, and remixed the little jingle that plays when you walk into a Ministop convenience store into some sort of graveyard horrorcore track. And because he’s got a dual following among both anime fans and hardcore hip-hop heads, Cherry is pretty comfortable with (and good at) being weird.
Aklo, on the other hand, has always positioned himself as a commercial artist. He’s not particularly uninterested in remaining underground, but instead has his sights set on the majors, and almost seems to feel as though bringing Japanese hip-hop as an art form into the mainstream spotlight is his personal calling. Since the original success of his first mixtape, Aklo has since been picked up for fashion editorials, while he regularly appears on internet radio. He is also now working with Bach Logic, arguably the hottest producer in Japan. Just two months ago, Aklo had never released a solo project. These days he’s batting first on one of the strongest mic relays we’ve heard in a minute from that side of the globe:
THE BEST IS YET TO COME
There are countless other rappers that have released some really great music over the past couple of years, and the scene continues to expand. Though the mixtape boom hasn’t exactly added up to any real commercial success yet (Japan’s economic slump isn’t helping any), most artists are still fighting to get respect (and sales) outside of their own niche markets. Things are beginning to look promising though. Thanks to the birth of the Japanese hip-hop mixtape, a number of artists are starting to release LPs, while the quality of their music videos continues to get better and better (they’re pretty amazing actually).
Our two cents: It must be a pretty exciting time to be a J-rap fan.