Original gangster

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 July, 2012, 12:00am


Hideaki Ishi, better known as DJ Krush, is one of the very few artists from Asia who has commanded two decades of cred in the global hip hop scene. The 49-year-old Japanese producer and DJ got his first big international break in the mid-1990s from the Mo' Wax label with a series of genre-defining instrumental hip hop albums. Now he is something of an elder statesman for the beat-loving, bleary-eyed backpacker set who continue to turn up en masse for his gigs worldwide.

Over the years, Ishi has lent his boundary-defying production palette to collaborations with artists as various as CL Smooth, The Roots, Mos Def, Toshinori Kondo, Herbie Hancock and K.D. Lang. His nine albums have all sold far better abroad than in his native Japan.

This ascension to international hip hop-fixture status is as unlikely as it is rare for an artist of Ishi's origins. His upbringing was rough: his father was a day labourer and his mother a mama-san in a local nightclub. By all accounts, the family was largely left behind by the 'golden sixties' of postwar Japan. An indifferent student, Ishi dropped out of junior high school and kicked around with local street gangs throughout his teens, lifting car stereos, racing stolen motorcycles and partying the nights away.

Eventually, Ishi says, he exhibited enough street hustle to earn a low-level job with the yakuza.

There are two turning points in the DJ Krush back story - episodes that Ishi's sneaker-head devotees can generally recite offhand. You might call them the founding myths of this enduring counter-cultural tribe of the 1990s.

As Ishi revealed in an interview with The New York Times in 2002, not long after he joined the yakuza as an apprentice he discovered a severed finger neatly wrapped in a handkerchief in his office. The removal of digits by blade is a common ritualistic punishment for misdeeds in the yakuza, but when he learned the finger belonged to his best friend and fellow gang member, Ishi was shaken - and scared straight.

He resolved to leave the crime world behind, he says.

While looking for an escape Ishi discovered hip hop - a trajectory typical of more than just a few rap greats, but a hip hop archetype that he didn't even know about yet.

In 1983 Ishi happened on a Tokyo cinema playing Wild Style, the world's first hip hop motion picture, featuring the music of Grandmaster Flash and the art of graffiti writer Lee Quinones. It's tempting to try to imagine what it might have felt like for a young, disaffected Japanese catching a surprise glimpse of the vibrant, exotic world of early New York City hip hop culture.

In its particulars, hard-knock '80s New York City couldn't have been more different from Ishi's experience, but it's easy to see how the ethos of early East Coast hip hop - defiant creative flare in the face of oppressive power - might have appealed to a broke young outsider who hadn't found a place in boom-era Japanese society, with its wealth, decadence, and rigid social conservatism.

Whatever the case, the movie struck a deep chord. Ishi says he went to a music shop the very next day and picked up his first set of turntables. He spent several years as a bedroom DJ, collecting records, learning the craft of mixing, and playing occasionally for friends in small cafes and bars in the then underground, back-alley hip hop scene of Harajuku.

In 1987 he formed one of Japan's first hip hop outfits, Krush Posse, which achieved moderate success at home. Ishi left the group in 1992 to go solo as DJ Krush, and released his first self-titled album in 1994 - a downbeat, menacing mix of acid jazz, soul and hip hop samples, with a drugged-out trip hop sensibility. The record caught the notice of Britain's Mo' Wax label, which delivered him to the world.

Ishi's sound defies easy summary. It's invariably driven by mid-tempo hip hop beats, but from there the samples and associations vary wildly from track to track. Ishi often uses visual metaphors to describe his sound and there is indeed a synesthetic quality to his richly textured, collage-like approach. 'I normally start with an image and work to transform it into sound,' he says. 'Sometimes a track takes two to three hours, sometimes weeks.'

The rhythm is trip hop, the attitude is hip hop, but the meticulous layering of naturalistic sounds, esoteric jazz samples, and moody shifts of tone always ring vaguely Japanese.

In recent years, Ishi has toured relentlessly - 282 cities and still counting, according to his management - but he's on a prolonged break from production. The last full-length DJ Krush release was Jaku in 2004. He says he enjoys spending the downtime between tours with his wife and two daughters in Tokyo, instead of in the studio.

But 2012 is Ishi's 20th year as DJ Krush, and he's marking the occasion with a sudden flurry of creative activity. Last month he wrapped a gruelling five-month anniversary tour, which took him to 60 cities in 19 countries. Next up: Volar in Central on Thursday.

During the same period, he launched an anniversary 'Monthly Single Series', releasing a new track each month for 10 months in a row. The project concluded this month. Looking back, Ishi says he owed his fans something fresh after so long away from the studio. At the same time, he wasn't ready to tackle a project of such conceptual scope as a full album.

'I didn't want to set any limitations on what I would release,' he says. 'Because I didn't set any boundaries, I was able to play with my ideas in many new ways.'

The serial nature of the project allowed him to incorporate immediate feedback from fans into his creative process - something he describes as 'a big experience'.

A new DJ Krush album is now in the works, due out at the end of the year. Ishi says it will be different from both the singles series and everything he's done before. Asked to elaborate on the direction of his new work, Ishi is characteristically opaque and evocative.

'Regardless of the genre or form, I just want to go face to face with real, serious sound. I'm greedy for music. That's what I do.'

DJ Krush, Thu, 11pm, Volar, Basement, 38-44 D'Aguilar St, Central, HK$200. (includes two drinks). Inquiries: 2810 1510