An Introduction To: Japanese Hip-Hop

1994 was a big year for hip hop in America. East coast had the likes of Nas’s Illmatic and Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready To Die coming through, Warren G was debuting Regulate… G Funk Era in the West Coast and Outkast were making headlines from the South with their first album Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. But, across the ocean, in a very different habitat, hip-hop was also evolving.

For in Japan, a beautiful blossom was blooming that same year in the form of ‘Boogie Back Tonight’. The ‘Rapper’s Delight’ of Japan; this care-free, funky beat suddenly brought hip-hop to the spotlight of it’s clubs and, although not the first hip-hop track to emerge from there, this was definitely the game changer.

Its creator was Scha Dara Parr, a 3-man outfit that should by no means just be associated with that one hit. In fact, the very next year they’d go on to release the album 5th WHEEL 2 the COACH which helped in giving rise to the underground movement’s American-flavoured style.

To jump back in time quickly, hip-hop in Japan had its origins in the early 80s. Though at that point it was a very isolated scene with little popularity. In fact it was not so much the music itself but the break dancing that went with it that was it’s main focus. This was mainly because of one influential film called Wild Style. A story set on the streets of New York that’s mostly remembered for its breakdancing and hip hop episodes. The film had too a formidable cast with the likes of Grandmaster Flash and more making appearances throughout. It sparked interest in many as they looked to replicate the cool funky moves that the movie put from and centre and soon after people could be seen trying their own tricks in Yoyogi Park, Tokyo.

It wasn’t just this strange wild style that had turned heads; the inner city setting struck a chord with many. In fact, some of the earlier hip hop pioneers, including DJ Krush, note it as the reason why they started to get involved in the scene. For, like in America, Wild Style represented a way of leading a new lifestyle and leaving behind their dealings in gangs.

As hip-hop grew through it’s breakdancing and DJ-ing draw-ins, it seemed as though rap would’ve emerged too due to its close ties. Still though, it wasn’t until 1994 that major record labels were inclined to start doling out contracts to rap artists and groups.

This was because it had been widely agreed upon that rapping in Japanese was an incredibly difficult feat, owing to the way that its grammar structure complicates the rhyming. However, through originality and the incorporation of English, very quickly these voices were distant memories. This was cemented when the year after, in 1995, the hip-hop group East End combined with the Japanese pop singer Yuri to create two chart hits: ‘Da Yo Ne’ and ‘Maicca.’

At this point, Japanese hip-hop split into two genres: J-rap, a party focused side that was backed by bigger commercial deals and that followed East End X Yuri down a route of public exposure; aiming more at creating fun and energetic sounds for the Japanese crowds. The other was the still underground scene, that kept on with its New York reminiscent style and maintaining that hip-hop was a means of confronting social issues.

After only a couple years though, J-rap was over. Hyped up singles didn’t do as well as they had hoped and the genre was soon swallowed by the monstrous lizard that was J-pop. The underground scene managed to prevail though, largely down to how it was never reliant on the backings of major record companies and so it was able to survive after the fad had passed.

Strong releases from the likes of Soul Scream with The Deep in 1996, King Giddra with Force From The Sky, Tha Blue Herb with Stilling, Still Dreaming and many others also helped in keeping the scene alive.

Hip-hop carried on into the new century and since then has gone down many notable routes. Nujabes was a prime example, until his death, as one of the pioneering hip hop musicians to have come out of Japan in the 21st century. Since then though there have been many other artists like S.L.A.C.K. and EVISBEATS to help in diversifying and spreading this niche, but exciting scene.

Nick McCabe

Follow Impact Music on Facebook and Twitter


Co-Editor of the Music Section at University of Nottingham's IMPACT Magazine.

Leave a Reply