Japanese Hip-Hop

by Ian Condry (MIT)

the story

The Bomb: King Giddra anti-war video (2002) with translation

Is Japanese hip-hop political?

King Giddra's "911" reflects on ground zero and it's aftermath in two eras: August 1945 and September 11, 2001. This clip of the first and third verses of the song appears on their 2002 video Saishu Heiki (Ultimate Weapon) (Defstar Records, Japan, DFVL-8052). In an effort to bring more voices to the call for peace in these troubled times, I added the translation, which captures only some of the subtlety of their lyrics.

CLICK HERE or ON IMAGE TO OPEN VIDEO (Quicktime 6 movie, 6.4MB)

King Giddra is Zeebra, K Dub Shine, and DJ Oasis. Another song of theirs from 1995 is featured below.

Crazy-A (Akira)Where you're at:

This site aims to give a small introduction to the world of Japanese hip-hop, including some of the music with my own translations. The music and lyrics are for educational and research purposes only. I'm an assistant professor of Japanese cultural studies at MIT in Foreign Languages and Literatures, with a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from Yale (1999). I've been studying Japanese hip-hop since the summer of 1994, including intensive fieldwork in Tokyo nightclubs and recording studios for 18 months, from 1995-1997. I have returned to Japan each year since then, and I am currently writing a book about Japanese hip-hop.

A Brief History

A seminal moment for hip-hop in Japan was the showing of the film "Wild Style" (Dir. Charlie Ahearn) in Tokyo in the fall of 1983. The film, which follows a grafitti artist in New York City, features performances by some of the early MCs (Busy Bee, Double Trouble), DJs (Grandmaster Flash), and breakdancers (Rock Steady Crew). Some of these performers came to Japan to promote the film and performed in Tokyo department stores. Shortly thereafter, young Japanese took up breakdancing in Tokyo's Yoyogi Park, where street musicians gather every Sunday to perform. Crazy-A (pictured above with fists) was one of these first breakdancers, and now as the leader of Rock Steady Crew Japan, he organizes the annual "B-Boy Park" which happens every August, and draws upwards of 10,000 fans and dozens of groups. DJ Krush, now one of the leading world-class DJs started out performing behind breakdancers in Yoyogi Park in the mid-1980s.

DJs were the next critical step in the development of Japanese hip-hop, with a variety of DJs were performing on the radio by 1985. In 1986, the first all-hip-hop club opened in the Shibuya section of Tokyo. Rapping was slower to catch on. Why? Many in the music world doubted that it would be possible to rap in Japanese, that is, to be able to perform with the needed flow (rhythmic nuance) and rhymes, because the language itself was viewed as deficient: Japanese does not contain stress accents and sentences must end with one of a few simple verb endings. Nevertheless, from the late 1980s on, a variety of rappers experimented with different flows and rhyming styles, and a slow, but steady stream of CDs was introduced by such artists as Tinnie Punx, Ito Seiko, Vibrastone (led by Chikada Haruo), and Takagi Kan. As the 1990s progressed, a growing number of Japanese youth have been participating in Japanese hip-hop, creating a diverse and vibrant scene, that draws heavily on the music from the U.S. while also trying to make something that is innovative while participating in the global movement that hip-hop has become. Some artists I would recommend include: Rhymester, King Giddra (including Zeebra and K Dub Shine, who also have solo albums), Scha Dara Parr, DJ Krush, Tha Blue Herb, Dabo (and other performers with Def Jam Japan), and there are many others whom I plan to introduce in future updates.

Isn't it just imitation?

In an age when the global flows of media and commodities, particularly from the U.S., are clearly influencing people around the world, an important question concerns what kinds of effects these flows have. For some, the presence of hip-hop implies a "loss of Japanese culture." But what if hip-hop is used to express one's Japaneseness? In this song clip, Kohei Japan plays on the idea of what it means to be Japanese by setting up contrasts with "Western" foods. He proclaims that he eats "rice, not bread, and fish, not meat" and so on, riffing on the notion that being hip-hop and being Japanese are mutually exclusive.

CLICK HERE OR ON IMAGE for third verse of Kohei Japan's "Hungry Strut" (Quicktime, 5MB).

Commercial or Underground?

In 1994, Scha Dara Parr, one of the must-hear groups out of Japan, created a sensation with a hit song called "Kon'ya wa Boogie Back" that featured pop guitarist-songwriter Ozawa Kenji (the nephew of famed orchestra conductor Ozawa Seiji). The next year East End X Yuri broke into mainstream consciousness with a couple of cutesy hits, "Maicca" and "Da.Yo.Ne.". With these million-selling singles, record companies briefly became interested in producing Japanese hip-hop, though there was much debate about what "hip-hop" should mean. Is pop-oriented "J-Rap," with its emphasis on party rap the best style for a Japanese teen audience? Or must hip-hoppers engage in protest as a way of respecting the struggles of African-American artists, and therefore create a "Japanese hip-hop" that is underground and hardcore? Which is more "real"?


King Giddra (1995) "Bullet of Truth"

For King Giddra, the answer was obvious. MCs Zeebra and K Dub Shine, both of whom had lived in the U.S., were convinced of the necessity for hip-hop to be about issues of social opposition. In the following example, KG questions the education system that "crushes the dreams of children" as well as the media overload, especially in terms of advertising, sex and violence, which becomes a kind of mind control.

CLICK HERE or ON IMAGE FOR "Bullet of Truth" (Shinjitsu no Dangan) by King Giddra (Quicktime movie, 4MB)


Please email me with comments, and check back in the coming weeks for more information. Thanks for visiting.


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