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Hypnosis Mic and the History of Japanese Hip-Hop

by Marc Schulz & Jaylon Martin,

Hypnosis Mic, King Records' multimedia project about crews of anime boys fighting each other in rap battles, made its way onto airwaves this month. While HypMic (as it is more often called by fans) already has a noticeable following in the West thanks to several music and manga releases, it's safe to assume that its following will only expand with the premiere of the TV anime, called Rhyme Anima. The rise of HypMic represents the growing popularity of hip-hop in Japan, and with it the increasing likelihood of foreign fans of Japanese pop culture being exposed to Japan's distinct take on the originally-American music genre and the culture surrounding it. This exposure is due in no small part to hip-hop's increasing use in anime as the medium becomes more and more global, but both HypMic and hip-hop in anime are predictably only a small slice of the Japanese hip-hop pie, and today I'm going to try and give a brief look into what the rest of that pie looks like.

The earliest beginnings of hip-hop in Japan can be traced to the late 1970s, when experimentation within the Japanese pop music scene was widespread, especially with regard to electronic music and international genres. Famed artists like Studio Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi and the father of city pop Tatsuro Yamashita got their start in this era, but it was a now-legendary synth-pop trio called Yellow Magic Orchestra that would not only bring hip-hop to Japan, but contribute to hip-hop's early success in America as well. YMO had a symbiotic relationship with New York hip-hop pioneers Afrika Bambataa and Mantronix, who sampled songs from their 1978 debut album in new tracks and DJ mixes that would be cemented as classics in hip-hop history. As a result, YMO went on to release the song “Rap Phenomena” on their seminal 1981 album BGM, which many credit as the first instance of original Japanese hip-hop.

Despite this early experimentation, hip-hop in Japan didn't fully take off until the fall of 1983 with the worldwide release of the film Wild Style, widely regarded to be the first true hip-hop feature film. As part of the promotional efforts for the film, several artists involved in the production including MCs, DJs, breakdancers and graffiti artists visited Japan and performed in different venues in Tokyo, exposing the Japanese to authentic American hip-hop for the first time. However, despite the early interest spurred by the film, hip-hop remained an obscure and mostly niche subculture in Japan throughout the 1980s, due in no small part to doubts about its viability in Japan. It was feared by some that the Japanese language was incompatible with the standard 4-bar structure used in creating rhymes for rapping in English, and furthermore many both inside and outside Japan believed that hip-hop's firm roots in Black American culture made it impossible to reconcile with Japan's much more ethnically homogenous society. While these fears contributed to Japan's major record labels taking a hands-off approach with hip-hop initially, one of the key figures in the 1980s who helped Japanese hip-hop rise above these doubts in the underground was a producer named Hideaki Ishi, better known as DJ Krush. Like many early hip-hop pioneers in Japan, Krush was inspired to start DJing by Wild Style in 1983, and as a result not only helped maintain hip-hop's steady presence in Tokyo's underground music scene through the end of the 80s, but also contributed to laying the groundwork for a distinctly Japanese hip-hop sound that came back in a big way later in hip-hop's history within Japan. DJ Krush is venerated by hip-hop heads both in and out of Japan because of this early work, and has collaborated with more famous western artists than perhaps any other Japanese hip-hop producer.

While hip-hop was already in full swing in the United States by the 90s, it didn't see commercial success in Japan until 1994 with the release of rap group Scha Dara Parr's collaboration with singer Kenji Ozawa, called “Kon'ya wa Boogie Back”. Along with a track released in the same year by another rap group-singer collaboration, East End X Yuri's “DA.YO.NE.,” “Kon'ya wa Boogie Back” successfully eased Japanese audiences into accepting commercial hip-hop by pairing rappers with a known quantity: in both cases a previously successful and established singer. Other groups would release seminal albums during this era as well, including Rip Slyme and Rhymester, both of whom would go on to become some of Japan's most recognized hip-hop acts that are still active and sought after today. The manner of hip-hop's commercial success in mid-90s Japan would go on to write the formula for further success: Scha Dara Parr and East End X Yuri were so-called “party rap” acts, whose lyrics were light non-political fare about having fun, food and not much else outside the realm of the mundane trappings of life. This struck many in Japan's hip-hop underground as disingenuous and inauthentic, especially during an era where many in Japan were suffering from the effects of severe economic downturn during what is now called the “Lost Decade” (1991-2000). One group went so far as to release what could be Japan's most well-known diss track, Lamp Eye's “Shogen”, which features scathing attacks on the mainstream by seven different rappers in a row imitating a distinctly western, macho style of rapping that ends up sounding like a Japanese version of the Wu-Tang Clan.

Shortly after the turn of the new millennium, while groups like m-flo and the Teriyaki Boyz were increasingly bringing hip-hop to the greater J-Pop landscape, another producer was rising in Japan's hip-hop underground that would help to define a distinctly Japanese style of hip-hop recognized the world over from the early 2000s onward. Nujabes, real name Jun Seba, came to prominence in Japan's hip-hop underground in the late 1990s, founding his independent record label Hydeout Productions in 1998 and followed that with the release of three formative studio albums in the 2000s before his death in 2010. He is perhaps best known by many western anime fans for his prolific contributions to the soundtrack of Shinichiro Watanabe's 2004 anime Samurai Champloo, which introduced many Americans to both his music and Japanese hip-hop for the first time as it aired on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block in 2005. Nujabes' style is atmospheric and introspective, regularly sampling jazz and soul music to create a laid-back sound that would come to define the burgeoning chillhop movement, for which he is considered a founding father. For reference, the popular “lo-fi beats to relax/study to” YouTube music streaming trend is a direct result of Nujabes' influence, and regularly uses his works in playlist rotation. Further, Nujabes' stylistic influence on underground hip-hop in Japan can't be overstated, as his jazzy laid-back style quickly became the prevailing sound of independent hip-hop through the late 2000s and early 2010s, and even continues in certain circles today with younger artists like Evisbeats, Izumi Makura and Eccy clearly showing his influence in their own sound.

While hip-hop still remains somewhat of a niche culture in Japan today, it has also never been more stylistically diverse. A new generation of artists has begun emulating modern American forms of hip-hop including trap and drill, with artists like KOHH collaborating with acts like Frank Ocean and relying on a sound that many American hip-hop fans would recognize, while speaking to his harsh upbringing through unusually frank bars for a mainstream Japanese artist. This trend of importing cutting-edge American sounds can also be seen in acts like Yurufuwa Gang, who has been clearly inspired by the recent Soundcloud rap microgenre and whose “emo rap” sound and heavy use of drug imagery are clear indicators of this inspiration. This is of course but a small slice of where hip-hop in Japan is going in 2020 and beyond, with hip-hop branching off into the dance music world, idol groups, anime openings, video games, commercials and just about every other music genre and type of media one can think of.

Unfortunately, hip-hop's import into Japan has not been entirely seamless. The practice of burapan, the Japanese term for the appropriation of Black fashion, hair and culture by Japanese people, has been rife throughout hip-hop's history in Japan and still is in certain circles. This is in addition to the outright use of blackface, a practice that is still a significant problem in wider Japanese popular culture particularly in comedy and music spaces. Hip-hop's status as a decidedly Black, American art form and culture had a major role in the rise of burapan culture in Japan, as hip-hop culture and by association Black culture in the United States was seen as “cool” and “rebellious” by wider Japanese society. This appealed to an already disenfranchised youth during 1990s “Lost Decade” Japan when hip-hop first became popular there, and without the cultural and historical context to understand the harm of cultural appropriation and the use of blackface, burapan was born. Thankfully, burapan and blackfacing seem to have been mostly weeded out in modern Japanese hip-hop culture as people become more aware of these issues, but it still exists, and even HypMic has brushed up against burapan on occasion with the flippant use of imagery like guns and illicit drugs without any real seriousness or cultural context.

Examples can be found in Joe Wood's 1997 piece The Yellow Negro from Harvard's Transition magazine.

When Hypnosis Mic: Division Rap Battle: Rhyme Anima airs it'll be perhaps the anime industry's biggest vote of confidence in Japanese hip-hop to date, and the latest in a long line of anime's brief brushes with the art form that have only become more frequent in recent years. Whether or not HypMic is the best arbiter for Japan's hip-hop scene and just how authentic it is in the first place is arguable, but if anything it could be the window for many young anime fans into the wide world of Japanese hip-hop in the same way Samurai Champloo was for Millennials back in 2005. Japan's hip-hop scene is diversifying, expanding and globalizing more with every new year, offering something for just about everyone and making this easily the most interesting time to get into Japanese hip-hop in its almost 40-year history.

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