Japan’s DJ Krush and the wages of spin
DJ Krush was among the first to make hip hop palatable to Japanese ears, but as the pioneering producer tells Richard Lord, he's never stopped learning
Rap is such a central part of hip hop that the two terms are often mistakenly used synonymously. Strip away the rapping and it can be quite hard to define hip hop musically - instrumental hip hop, in fact, is a contested category, with recordings often blending into breakbeat, trip hop, funk, jazz and grime.
Fitting perfectly into that genre-hopping non-genre is Hideaki Ishi, aka DJ Krush, a veteran Japanese hip hop DJ and producer whose work takes in a lot of jazz, a lot of soul, a bit of dub, a bit of drum and bass and a fair quantity of hippie-whale-noise-nature sounds. "To break the format with other approaches and create styles that have never been heard, not worrying what people say - it's not easy, but your will to move forward will be respected forever," he says.
While DJ Shadow's 1996 album Endtroducing is generally seen as the pioneering instrumental hip hop recording, Krush's eponymous debut album came two years earlier. Since then he's produced seven more, as well as numerous collaborations, working with and remixing artists as diverse as Herbie Hancock, Pete Rock, k.d. lang and Black Thought from The Roots. He's also played to more than five million people in more than 300 cities in more than 50 countries and he'll be playing again at Kee Club in Central on March 8.
Born in Tokyo in 1962, Krush dropped out of school and, with few prospects, ended up drifting into a life of crime. He was shocked out of it by two things, one good and one bad: the latter was his discovery of the severed finger of his best friend; the former was going to see, more or less by accident, Wild Style, director Charlie Ahearn's seminal 1983 hip hop film which starred many of the scene's founding figures.
He immediately decided he wanted to be a hip hop DJ and went out the next day to buy a mixer but found that no one in Tokyo's music shops knew what he was talking about. Krush still describes himself as "a very analogue person", adding that he struggled when he recently moved his production to a computer.
Over the years, Krush gradually became a figure of massive underground influence, one of the key people who helped localise hip hop in Japan as it moved away from an early tendency to mimic US artists and also moved away from rapping. If nothing else, the language's small range of possible sounds that are allowed to end a phrase makes rhyming quite a challenge, while the lyrical emphasis of much rap, particularly the relatively small but wildly over-exposed drugs, pimps and guns element of it, didn't make much sense in the context of Japanese society.
The country's genius for effortless cultural assimilation, however, soon created a distinctly Japanese style. And while hip hop has been popular in Japan for about three decades, it really took off around the turn of the millennium, ramping up the party element and becoming more or less indistinguishable from mainstream pop music. At that point, says Krush, it started to have very little relation to what he does.
"It was more important for me to make my own sounds than to be successful in the industry. I totally understand that I have to work for my crew and my family, but I thought it would be better for me just to spit out my sounds and let audiences listen. I wouldn't be here if I'd been chasing money and trends. Over these 20 years, I have been putting all my soul into my music. I have been fighting against my negatives, and I am still learning."
DJ Krush, March 8, 10pm, Kee Club, 6/F, 32 Wellington Street, Central, HK$200 (advance), HK$300 (door). Inquiries: 2810 9000