Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Back to Basics

Giant Robot

Teriyaki Boyz - "Kamikaze 108" (Swisha House Remix) (mp3)
(purchase here)

The other day, I tried Googling "hip hop lyrics" and "appropriation." I thought I had actually heard some joint that used the a-word. And, no, it wasn't in a backpacker anthem, but rather a Killa Cam or B. Mack song, which was what made it stand out. Needless to say, I found mostly academic papers and no undiscovered Dipset dissertations. However, even aside from the Google search, I can say with fair certainty that in spite of hip hop's revolutionary frankness about cultural and musical appropriation, it doesn't really namecheck the concept too often.

All the better because I have always felt the onus of analyzing the process should fall on... the listener! Really, I would hate to listen to music that just maps everything out for me; gimme a lil' something to chew on, right?

Which is perhaps why I am endlessly fascinated with hip hop (and numerous other popular music forms) in Japan. The meeting of a country rooted in flipping the script with a culture that coined the phrase itself? C'mon, you know it's gotta make for a mind-bender. The first problem in attempting this via stateside is the lack of actual knowledge of J-Hip Hop over here. Remembering those Scha Dara Parr verses on that De la cut or that Beasties live track isn't enough; that's like telling South Africa it's ok to base their idea of jazz on that one Chuck Mangione record. Additionally, there actually seems to be a perception that J-Hip Hop (and numerous other things Japanese): a) bites; b) bites openly; and c) bites hard.

Before I go any further, I will preface by saying that the following comments are based mostly on observations from my week and a half of consuming. I am in no way an expert in Japanese popular culture. I spent a bit of time growing up over there and I frequently draw upon that perspective, so one can take that for what it is worth.

From a purely musical standpoint, I don't like a lot of the J-Hip Hop or J-Pop that I have heard... however, for different reasons from the aforementioned. First, a fair amount of hip hop (and pop) that makes it onto Japanese MTV (or, in general, what catches heat on radio, TV, clubs, or stores) is just like what you would expect from our MTV: simple, catchy pop. That said, if you're still tuning into MTV to get some sort of litmus on "the realness," well, I will remind you of the network's 13-year old target demographic. It is what it is, A? So, in short: I tend to veer away from pop music, regardless of national origin.

Second, even in the examples cited above, I wouldn't necessarily call them "biting" because that seems to forget the idea of appropriation. Here's a handy bit on musical appropriation, courtesy of Wikipedia:
    "Gino Stefani makes appropriation the chief criterion for his 'popular' definition of melody (Stefani 1987a). Melody, he argues, is music 'at hand'; it is that dimension which the common musical competence extracts (often with little respect for the integrity of the source), appropriates and uses for a variety of purposes: singing, whistling, dancing, and so on." (Middleton, Richard. Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press. 1990/2002. p.96)
My spin on this? The idea that art, or anything, can be created from a vacuum or from nothing is a bit naïve. How does this apply to these samples of Japanese pop and hip hop? That they are logical and natural interpretations of appropriation. Style, dress, appearance, samples, song structure, melody, etc. provide form to hip hop definitions of: what makes a starlet look hot, or what defines a classic hip hop LP sleeve, or how to flip an Ahmad Jamal piano loop. However, is that blonde in the see-through briefs Beyoncé? Did Guru and Primo lose some melanin over the years? Is Jigga attempting a takeover of Tokyo? No, no and, well, I'm not so sure about the last one, but I'll wager no. Inversions, perhaps, but certainly something else entirely. So, to equate these acts with a kid spitting Rakim lines on the schoolyard and claiming them for his own seems a little meh to me.

Fortunately for the sake of time, I did not have to dig too much to find some nuggets. And, with that, I finally turn to our feature of the day: The Teriyaki Boyz. A super-group of J-Hip Hop headz -- Ilmari and Ryo-Z of Rip Slyme, Verbal of m-Flo, and Wise and Nigo of hipster illuminati A Bathing Ape -- the group has caught some nice press and spins on MTV with the recent release of their album. What I like about them is that they have nailed and completely flipped the idea of Japanese hip hop for both their native and international audience. Everything from the name to the promo images feels like a direct comment on Western perceptions of both the East and how the East consumes Western culture. Yes, this is what you think we're about: small silly men in oversized clothes and grills filled with both 14K and a garlic-based sauce that wasn't even popular in Japan until it blew up in the States. Certainly, they are dealing with obvious stereotypes... but it is that obviousness which catches attention. And, fortunately, they have some skills to back it up... along with Def Jam-backing and an A-list production team that even Jeezy couldn't muster: Mark Ronson, Daft Punk, Automater, Cut Chemist, the Neptunes... and those are just the first five cuts.

Now, before American heads catch a bit of the post-Iraqi acid reflux and start hollerin' about why the U.S. doesn't look out for its own first (Just Blaze, Primo, Shadow and Adrock round out the bunch; now, take yer Tums), I'll admit that a lot of these cuts sound like leftovers: DP's "Heartbreaker" is more of that Human After All metallic mouthwash, Ronson's "Takeover" could easily be a To the Five Boroughs ghost prodo and the Neptunes' "超 Large" is just a plain ol' break plus synth... oh, and of course Skatey P on the hook. However, the Boyz drop flourishes like sexy ladies cooing "Teriyaki, baby" against Lick Lips' "Go ahead, baby," or, better, an entire tongue-deeply-in-cheek ode to the loose look [Just Blaze's "今夜はバギーパンツ" (Tonight, it's the Baggy Pants)]. In other words, we have a popular Japanese hip hop group with a clever take on hip hop image. Plus, as a whole, they keep the album consistent, which is more than can be said about the bulk of rent-a-producer albums released over here.

My great concern is that this record will not be heard widely in the West -- Spine got a hold of the Shadow-produced "Kamikaze 108 (酉年 mix)" a while back, but that was the last word I heard -- which is where this record could and should make a difference. However, even the idea of this record being spun alongside the nonsense feels positively subversive.

Ok, I'd love to write more, but my browser has already crashed on me three times and I've lost a lot of content in the process, so time to Wrap This Isht Up:

A quick word about the cut above. Yes, it is indeed a Swishahouse prodo. And, yes, I know I am getting older because when I first heard house prodo Michael Watts' name, I got a lil' mad thinking, "Dude, Mike Watt isn't even dead yet!" By the way, have you heard the Minuteman? That's another name that's gettin' me steamed... Anyway. What I find hilariously good and bad about this bonus track is that it both misses and gets the subtlety of American hip hop. It misses the point because, well, do you really want to drink your drank to this? I mean, I liked the idea of Shadow producing Keak Da Sneak, but I didn't really spill my drink when I first heard that cut. Now, we've got someone trying to chop and screw a "Holy Calamity" (The Lost Sessions) breakstravaganza? No, danks. That said, the TB get the sublety by, well, staying up on what's hot and C&S'g something few Americans have begun to thought about C&S'g. To jack a phrase from The Most Brilliantest Site In The World, is it it a certfied H.A.M.? Maybe not, because it's not all that bad, but it is endlessly fascinating to me...


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