Beneath Japan’s cookie-cutter mainstream rap, there’s a progressive underground scene. It’s where lesser-known producers and beat makers construct audio sculptures. Rappers are arguably for better for worse, an afterthought. Down here, mountains crumble into dusty-hitting drums and soulful textures flourish outside the confines of language. If beat makers like BudaMunk, Green Dollar Assassin and Pigeondust are the inheritors of this underworld then the following producers are its high priests.
In 1987 Krush formed the rap crew Krush Posse, which included DJ Muro. Later when Krush went solo, his debut self-titled album (1994) and his sophomore record, Strictly Turntablized (1994), broadened the perception of what one could do with sparse layered sampled-based music and two turntables. Krush and his Mo’ Wax Records label-mate DJ Shadow produced narrative collages of brooding sounds that stood alone. Krush’s instrumentals were alive despite the absence of rappers who at one time dominated the genre. His third album, Meiso (1995), brought him to the world stage. Rappers Black Thought and Malik B of The Roots killed their verses on the record’s title track. Still, Krush’s ominous production was more idiosyncratic than an arbitrary backdrop. Like the smoldering rivers of tectonic plates beneath Japan, Krush’s pondering beats erupt through subtle transitions and syncopated meditations. They awaken the uninspired to emerge from their disrupted slumber.
While J-Dilla was stretching sampled bits of records and programming off-kilter drum patterns, Nujabes was doing something very similar. Adding to that, with fellow collaborator Uyama Hiroto, he was incorporating live instrumentation and fusing it with Japan’s long affinity for jazz. Nujabes worked with numerous American rappers like Apani B, C.L. Smooth, Five Deez and other international acts. With Japanese rapper Shingo2, they produced the popular series, Luv (sic) Parts 1-6. Nujabes also scored Adult Swim’s acclaimed anime show, Samurai Champloo. Globally, Nujabes was recognized for his original sound that expanded hip-hop’s musical palette. Sadly, he died in a fatal car crash on February 26, 2010. Due to a blood disease, J-Dilla passed away on February 10, 2006. Coincidentally, they both share the same birthday, February 7, 1974.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H_Wi2_rnfOY
His approach to making music is comparable to American drummer and producer Karriem Riggins. They’re both multi-instrumentalists that compose hip-hop from a jazz musician’s perspective. Acoustic playing and sampled textures are intertwined. Songs are born out of chaos. Over head-nodding drums, Hiroto opens the floodgates to meandering discussions. Piano, flute, saxophone and other instruments converse through a call-and-response. The effect is a whirlwind of melodic dialogue. Hiroto has developed a monster of lush sounds that apply a Japanese aesthetics to popular black American music. His third album, Freeform Jazz (2016), is a juggernaut of expansive sounds that went virtually unnoticed by the Western media. Despite standing in the long shadow of his late friend, Nujabes, Hiroto has overwhelmingly established himself in his own right.
Of all the names on this list, turntablist and producer dj honda is probably the most underrated. Like DJ Premier, his beats epitomize boom bap. His compilation album dj honda’s remixes (1995) was a neon sign calling for street poets. Back in the early ‘90s when New York rap was king, Honda was in the mix of it. From Tokyo, he moved to New York and worked with a slew of hip-hop’s most respected artists: Kool G Rap, Gangstarr, Redman, Sadat X and Grand Puba (from Brand Nubian), Fat Joe and others. Tracks like “Out For The Ca$h” from his debut album, h (1996), and even “D.R.E.A.M. ft Sean Price,” off of honda IV (2009), are rap standards. Some fans may only know him for the hit single “Travelin’ Man ft. Yasiin Bey (Mos Def),” but Honda’s large catalogue is mighty healthy.
DJ Muro aka King of Diggin’
Under the tutelage of DJ Krush, Muro got his start rapping in Krush Posse. DJing, recording compilations and producing beats was inevitable. Not to mention that he’s also an active designer. Internationally, Muro is known as the King of Diggin’ for his massive record collection. With an encyclopedic knowledge of records, Muro’s name is easily synonymous with other music scholars like Jazzy Jay, DJ Evil D and Lord Finesse. Because his compilations of rare grooves are held in such high esteem, Muro’s production is often overlooked. His style is akin to Da Beatminerz, Rza and Diggin In The Crates. Though he’s mostly credited for working with producer and rapper Lord Finesse and O.C., check out Muro’s Tokyo Tribes 2 (2006) soundtrack. “Roosevelt ft. Ghostface, Raekwon, & Trife Da God” and “The Extravaganza ft. Kool G Rap & Young Chris (from Young Gunz)” are dark horses. Catch Muro on the airwaves spinning every Wednesday at midnight on Tokyo FM.
Feature image: DJ Muro