Japanese rap is having a moment. From Awich, who headlined the Nippon Budokan, to Tohji, whose videos garner huge viewing figures and is pioneering a new era of Japanese rap, people are taking notice. Last year even saw the launch of Pop Yours, a rap festival with a 10,000-capacity featuring only local artists.
Japanese Rap and American Influence
For many years, rap was more of an underground pursuit in Japan. Japanese rappers, in the shadow of their US counterparts, would often be ignored altogether. But in recent years, this has started to change. With the advent of global streaming services from Spotify to YouTube, Japanese rap has become more accessible to all.
Access to streaming services and online content from across the globe has seen a boom in multilingual rap. From Rosalía to Bad Bunny, languages other than English have become acceptable and even popular. The Korean influence in this regard cannot be downplayed either. The popularity of K-dramas and K-pop has boosted the demand for foreign language content and global interest in Asian culture.
After World War II and America’s occupation of Japan, US movies and music became increasingly popular among the youth of this country. From Disney to hip-hop, the ‘American way’ was seen as cool. With regard to music, US hip-hop, and in turn, rap, reigned supreme for the younger generation. Most aspiring rappers simply followed America’s lead. But that generation has come of age, and now millennials and zoomers have started to lead the culture wars.
Take Awich, a member of Yentown crew who Tokyo Weekender interviewed last year. The Okinawa-native is one of the most popular Japanese rappers today. She notes that when she started, her “focus was on America rather than Japan.” Now she realizes that Japan is ready to accept her. Last year, she realised one of her ambitions by performing at Nippon Budokan. After the concert she said her next goal was to take on the likes of Cardi B and Niki Minaj.
Other noteworthy rappers include JP the Wavy, considered Japan’s hottest breakout star, King Tomoro, the first Japanese rapper to top the Billboard World Digital Song Sales Chart, and respected veteran Chinza Dopeness, beloved in the rap scene and no stranger to a genre crossover.
Mixing Rap and Hyperpop
Another big name in the industry is Tohji, a rapper with attitude, who started the Mall Boyz outfit with Gummyboy. The pair became the talk of Tokyo after releasing “Higher,” which had a hyperpop-inspired sound. In contrast to US-style hip-hop and rap songs, which were organic, Mall Boyz tracks borrowed heavily from auto-tune and overly processed vocals.
Other songs such as “Goku Vibes,” by DJ Chari and DJ Tatsuki, which featured Tohji alongside fellow rappers including Elle Teresa, were an extension of this. With super-pitched beats and earworm hooks, the tracks took inspiration from the newly popularized hyperpop genre. Other rappers in this vein include Cyber Rui, Vividboooy, kZm and (Sic)boy.
The songs created by Tohji and his peers, however, are distinctly different from your typical hyperpop fare. With defined lyrics, it’s more like a crossover between rap and hyperpop. Even the graphics are different, leaning heavily onto 3D modelling and y2k aesthetics.
Mamy, a graphic designer who has designed for the likes of Tohji, Cyber Rui, Ajah and Ralph, told TW that she feels rap has become “genreless” in recent years.
New Era of Rappers
Rappers such as Valknee and Peterparker69 are prime examples of the “new Japanese rap” sound, painting rap as a bubble-gum-colored embodiment of what it would look like if it was in the colors of y2k.
Valknee heads up the rap crew Zoomgals, with members including Namichie and Haruko Tajima. They play at underground venues across Tokyo. Valknee’s EP was picked up by Pitchfork randomly, which she told TW was completely unexpected. Peterparker69 is a duo known for its cloud rap, combining trap into a vaporwave-style bliss out.
The duo is set to perform at the sophomore edition of Pop Yours on the ‘Newcomer’ stage. The event, which started in 2022 to showcase the best of Japanese rap, would have been unthinkable a few years back. At the time of writing, the two-day festival announced that nearly 95% of tickets were sold out. Impressive for an event boasting an exclusively Japanese lineup. Artists performing include headliner Awich, Ralph and Starkids.