It was thanks to two NBA icons that Shuhei Nogae, now known by his stage name of Sway, first became interested in rap music. Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant, with 29 All-Star appearances between them, have inspired many kids to take up basketball, however, in Sway’s case, their influence spread even further.
“I was crazy about the sport growing up and would always get this magazine called Hoop,” Sway tells TW. “There was an article about Iverson and Bryant doing some rapping, which intrigued me. They were two of my heroes when I was at junior high school so naturally I wanted to give it a go too. I started singing and then did some DJ’ing but at the time it was nothing too serious.”
Things changed after he watched 8 Mile, Curtis Hanson’s powerful drama film about a young man attempting to launch a rapping career despite facing many challenges. “I was 16 at that point, so was beginning to think about my future,” recalls Sway. “Seeing Eminem’s character [B-Rabbit] and everything he went through had a big impact on me. I knew there and then that rapping was my calling, but I would have to do it properly. It was no longer just about having fun.”
The teenager’s first task was to decide on a new name. In his mind, Shuhei Nogae just didn’t sound right for a rapper. He looked through an English-Japanese dictionary to see if he could find something more apt and stumbled across the word sway. Liking both the sound and meaning, he decided to go with it and the name stuck.
“The problem was I felt I had nothing to say”
“Once that had been decided I was eager to start writing,” says Sway. “The problem was I felt I had nothing to say. The rappers and hip-hop artists I was listening to sang about growing up in poverty, joining gangs, the dangers of being on the streets, things like that, and here I was, this young guy from Hokkaido. I’d lived quite a sheltered life and therefore believed I couldn’t write like them.”
One songwriter Sway felt he could relate to in some ways was Kanye West. “He wasn’t a gangster [and although] he had dropped out of college, he seemed to rap about fairly normal things,” says the Japanese artist. “It made me realize you don’t have to be from a certain background to create meaningful lyrics as a rapper. It’s okay to speak about your own life even if it isn’t so dramatic. I thought to myself, I can do this!”
At 17, Sway and his close friend Shokichi (now a vocalist for the popular boy band Exile) formed the group Wild Style. They performed together during their late teens before Sway moved to Toronto, Canada where he lived for two years doing various part-time jobs including waiting tables at a Japanese restaurant. After returning to Hokkaido, he worked at a clothing store while rapping in the evenings. Despite enjoying both jobs, it was not how he envisaged his career panning out.
“In my mid-twenties I decided I had to move to Tokyo,” says Sway. “Performing at clubs with some of my seniors who were in their forties, I started to think they had probably missed out on their dreams. I didn’t want that to happen to me. Then Shokichi called and said he wanted to make music together again. The timing was just right. We wrote three songs and he presented them to Exile leader Hiro [Igarashi] who liked what he heard.”
Sway subsequently signed with LDH, a Japanese management and entertainment company founded by the six original members of Exile. He joined the group’s gekidan (theater company) where he performed as a singer and actor. In 2014, the Sapporo native became the fifth member of the hip-hop outfit Doberman Infinity with whom he’s garnered six top 10 albums (including mini-albums and a compilation) and seven top 10 singles.
As well as Doberman Infinity, Sway also sings for Honest Boyz, a hip-hop group consisting of a DJ and four MCs, including Nigo (Tomoaki Nagao) founder of the clothing brand A Bathing Ape. Earlier this year they teamed up with Grammy-nominated rapper Lil Uzi Vert for the song “Electricity.” Produced by Pharrell Williams, it was chosen as the ending track of the live-action Hollywood movie Pokémon Detective Pikachu.
“Collaborating with such a legend still feels like I was in a dream”
“I would say more people know me from Doberman [Infinity] but that might be changing,” says Sway. “[American rapper] Lupe Fiasco came up to me recently and said he recognized me from Honest Boyz. To hear that from such a legendary figure was pretty special. Of course, it helps a lot when you work with someone like Pharrell Williams. We met him when he came to Tokyo then corresponded electronically. What a guy! Collaborating with such a legend still feels like I was in a dream.”
While it’s evident he is passionate about being part of the two groups, Sway is also determined to make a name for himself as a solo artist. Last year, he released his debut album, Unchained, featuring the single “Manzana,” which peaked at number five on the charts, “Never Say Goodbye” with Shokichi and Salu, and his personal favorite, “Camouflage U,” about a couple having a secret fling in the concrete jungle of Tokyo.
Sway is currently working on his second album, while also keeping busy with other projects. As well as being a musician, he dabbles in fashion design and has worked with brands such as Reebok. He also acts and has appeared in a number of films including the box office hit High & Low The Movie. His latest role is in Yasuhiko Shimizu’s artistic flick Manriki starring Takumi Saitoh. “It’s about a psychopathic surgeon who uses a deadly vise to correct the appearances of his patients based on his own concept of beauty,” says Sway. “It’s quite an unusual story. I play a bad guy who pretends to be in love with a woman so he can take advantage of her. It’s fun to be a villain. I love acting, just as I love designing and making music. My goal is to become a big name in all three categories. I’ve always dreamed big and that isn’t going to change now.”
Photographs: Allan Abani
Photographic Assistant: Tatsuro Kimura
Hair & Makeup: Toshiyasu Oki
Stylist: Soichiro Kobayashi
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