As a fan of hip hop culture since mid-90’s, and a bilingual speaker (both native Japanese and English), I am fascinated by the home grown Japanese hip hop culture, or more specifically Nihongo rap (Japanese rap) culture. This is a huge topic in itself, but I just want to delve into it from a cultural perspective very lightly.
Since the hip hop movement is global, and with the introduction of internet, more people have access to foreign information than ever before. With great power comes responsibility, yet the majority seemed to have gotten dumber rather than smarter. This is also true in the hip hop communities, where people are so frantically dismissive of something that is not real or a copy.
Ok, so if you have read this far, then you would know that this is a bigger-than-rap debate about what is genuine vs fake. This applies to most cultures, but it is more prevalent in hip hop, since the backbone of hip hop is to keep it real and authentic. Many English speakers dismiss non-English speaking rappers (especially Asian rappers), as they tend to think they are copy cats. However, if you look at the US hip hop history, it shows that actually hip hop was kind of founded on copy cats anyway, so shall we just accept this reality? Where do we draw the line?
SUGAR HILL GANG and N.W.A. pops into my mind straight away. SUGAR HILL GANG basically bit other MC’s lyrics and became commercial with other MC’s rhymes, while N.W.A. (aside from EAZY-E), were not really gangstas but bystanders who rapped about what they saw in their neighbourhoods. However, no one ever talks about these critical points in US hip hop history.
Anyway, to bring it back to Japanese hip hop scene, when I see comments on Youtube and such, people saying this artist sounds like this other artist or why are they trying to be black. If it all boils down to it, then why are anyone outside of Bronx trying to be like them? If they were the originators, then anyone outside of that original clique would be imposters and copy cats. So I feel this ‘copy cat’ argument is played out like Jheri curl in 2017. Movements and cultures evolve and transcends countries and ethnicity, and hip hop is a living proof of that.
To give a very simple analogy in food, let’s look at sushi. The sushi we eat today originated in Edo, or current Tokyo, as Edomae sushi. Now, you can eat sushi at any major city, or find it in shopping malls where maybe there are no Japanese living there, but sushi does exist. When people eat sushi, do they go out looking for Japanese owned establishments with Japanese chefs from Tokyo?
Sometimes I want to eat delicious sushi at expensive restaurants with Japanese chefs, but sometimes I don’t mind to get that non-Japanese localised sushi, because it is what it is.
The important thing is to know what you are getting, to have an eye for quality instead, rather than an ear for hype.
My point is that a delicious sushi is delicious regardless of the nationality of the chef or where it is made, just like a dope song is dope, regardless of whether it is from the Bronx or Atlanta or Tokyo or Beijing. Sure, some songs might sound similar to other songs, but hey, there are millions or wack rappers in US who gets no props. Everybody always want to jump onto what’s hot right now, but this is a different topic altogether.
Internet thugs and experts need to take it easy and stay up with the current global hip hop movement.
Being open to new ideas and concepts will be far more positive for the community, instead of quickly dismissing and putting down artists purely from an aesthetical point of view. Look beyond the book cover and a whole new world will open up for sure.
In any culture there are the opinion leaders and those who push the boundaries, and those who follow the leaders. I will try to post Japanese MCs who are pushing the boundaries and are staying true to the ever evolving hip hop culture. Stay tuned here for insights and news on Nihongo rap.
On this note, I want to leave this post with a super ill video that, in my eyes, represents the spirit of Japanese hip hop. This is by far one of my favourite videos to watch when I need some energy and get through long day at work. Watch Chinza Dopeness (鎮座ドープネス) and DJ Uppercut absolutely kill it at BET’s 106 & Park back in 2007. It doesn’t matter that they do not speak English, as they speak the language of hip hop, and the effect of their ill vibes are evident in the video.