Monday, September 24, 2007

The Enigma Of J-Hip Hop & Lantern Parade

Japanese hip hop is an enigma.

The first mystery is why it became big in the first place. When listening to U.S. hip hop records, most Japanese listeners probably understand little of the rapid, slang-filled, rapped English words. They are missing out on a lot of the poetry of rap. Yet, in spite of this, the music inspired some guys enough to rap themselves, and to create a scene. Why was that? Was it just the sound, beat, attitude, fashion, etc.?

Then there's the question of what they want to achieve with the music. They need to rap in Japanese, because you can't handle rap's verbal, poetic acrobatics in any language other than your own. But that means most people abroad won't know what the Japanese words are about, and they won't listen, because, again, understanding the poetry is key. So, Japanese rappers won't ever really be able to go back to the U.S. artists that inspired them and pay homage by saying, listen, this rap was inspired by you.

Japanese hip hop artists are internationalists, in that they absorb music and fashion from all over the world. But they are domestically-oriented in that they can only hope to have Japanese audiences for their music (assuming there's rap involved, and it's not just DJ music).

Probably someone out there can explain these issues, though I assume the answers to what motivates these guys will be murky and complicated, as questions of motivations often are in Japan.

In any case, hip hop is big in Japan, as you see when walking through the streets of Shibuya and witness the unending stream of kids in over-sized, primary-colored tanktops, baseball caps, and sagging jeans. I've been wanting to check it out more, but haven't had much chance to, partly because the hip hop scene occupies a different part of Tokyo life than the rock and pop scene that I frequent. Hip hop events are at dance clubs and are all-night affairs, whereas the rock shows I go to are are live houses and end by around 10PM. (One time, however, I did go to an event that was billed as a female rap battle and was called Kokudo No Onnatachi—a pun on the movie series, Gokudo No Onnatachi, about the wives, Onnatachi, of the yakuza, a.k.a. Gokudo. 'Kokudo' was rendered as 'the way of the Black'. It didn't quite live up to my expectations, and I left after a couple of hours, because there was little rapping, and mostly DJing.)

I haven't been that into the J-hip-hop tunes I've listened to, but then, on a recent visit to Tower Record Shibuya, I ran into an album that excited me: it's by a one-guy unit called Lantern Parade, and is named Zessan Zessennchyu (translated to something like 'The Praiseworthy Battle of Tongues').

Lantern Parade isn't in the Japanese hip hop mainstream, and the music has an independent feel (and indeed, the album is released by Rose Records, Shimokitazawa luminary Keiichi Sokabe's label, rather than a hip hop label). The sound is different from 'normal' J-hip-hop's sampled R&B, reggae, etc.: there's some of that in Zessan, but the sound sources seem more eclectic (using acoustic guitar and strings, for example), and dark. And whereas the typical Japanese rapper imitates the delivery of his American counterparts, Lantern Parade's rapper doesn't so much rap as chant poetry without an excess of emotion. But what's really striking about Zessan are the lyrics—vivid, disturbing, nihilistic and, yet, at the same time, life-affirming (or, at least, life-exploring).

Here, for example, are some of the words to the song “Hana” ('Flower') [translated by me]:

People who come up to you at train stations and offer to tell your fortunes
People who get friends into network marketing schemes
People who cut off their arms and legs for fashion
People who drink golden 'holy water' with delight
School principals who give girls enemas
Ambulances that run over people

Yes, each of us is a single flower in the world

That last line is a reference to a saccharine but hugely popular pop song by the unavoidable SMAP. In Lantern Parade's case, however, the individuals who are extolled as flowers are involved in cults (the part about train stations is talking about the obsessed-eyed cultists who come up to you outside of big stations and offer to read your hand-fortunes) or have sociopathic fetishes.

In that first part of the song, Lantern Parade sounds cynical about optimists who paint the world in colors of goodness; but then in the second part, the lyrics turn more introspective, and the rapper sounds unsure about who he is and what he wants to do.

Not many can say, “I have nothing to lose”
I know I can't

He concludes this part of the song again with the declaration that each person is a flower, but this time the meaning changes: he seems to be saying there's beauty in the fact that we're uncertain beings, who might very well become degenerates rather than respected citizens.

And so go all 15 songs in Zessan, combining dark, dreamy, adventurous music tracks with the rapper's word-play, rhyme and vivid poetry that explores unlit corners of the psyche and society. It's an exhilarating ride, but, to return to the original topic, the words are in Japanese, so I'm not sure how much a non-speaker will get out of it. Another sad consequence of the destruction of the Tower of Babel...

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Yuyake Lamp, At The Bank And On The Train

One wish I have about the Tokyo music scene: I'd like more events to be organized at unusual venues, rather than at the same old live houses and clubs, and in that regard, this weekend was ideal—I saw shows at an old bank in Kyoto and aboard the Arakawa-sen streetcar in Tokyo. Both were events featuring piano pop trio Yuyake Lamp.

The first was Friday night at the Museum of Kyoto's performance hall, which used to be the Bank of Japan's Kyoto branch. In creating this hall, the museum moved the entire Bank of Japan structure from wherever it was before to a space next to the main museum building. The ceiling was high, causing natural reverb during the performances, and there were tall pillars and a 2nd story balcony; it was a majestic hall, named an Important Cultural Asset, where bankers and businessmen of old must have met to mull important affairs of the day. Now, a few decades later, this sanctum of Finance had been taken over by a couple of dozen amplified-music playing young adults.

In the audience, though, were a good number of the middle-aged and seniors, maybe relatives and family friends of Quesa, the Kyoto-based female singer/pianist who organized the event. I wasn't sure what the older folks thought of the evening—they were mostly motionless and expressionless. This wasn't their music. To their credit, Yuyake Lamp were able to rouse even the elders through their music and interaction with the audience. A lady in front of me turned to her partner and said what a pretty voice the singer has. Which is true, but vocalist Yunn also has a way of filling every phrase and word and syllable of her songs with meaning and emotion, and I'd like to think the crowd responded to that. The last act of the night, Quesa, was a vocalist with a strong, beautiful voice too, who sang vivid, imagistic pop tunes. (I thought 'quesa' was Spanish for 'cheese', but it's actually 'queso', and the unit name doesn't actually mean anything. So much for five years of Spanish in school...)


On Sunday was Yuyake Lamp's Arakawa-sen live. Arakawa-sen is Tokyo's only surviving public streetcar line, traveling from the college-town of Waseda on the west to Minowa in northeastern Tokyo, a neighborhood that is like a time-warp to pre-1980's Japan. Yuyake Lamp set up a couple of small amps in the one-car train, connected those to a keyboard on one end of the train and to an acoustic guitar, while the drummer tapped on a cajon, and a flutist joined them. They played and talked during the whole fifty-five minute trip.

There were lots of smiles on board: smiles in response to the music, to the friendly, intimate atmosphere of the train, and the strange sensation of listening to wonderful live music on a commuter train that traveled through everyday scenes of a Tokyo Sunday afternoon. I saw outside the car window a crowd of revelers carrying a mikoshi; a guy riding a bicycle heading for kendo practice with a bamboo sword and a bag filled with armor; and lots of people of all ages on the streets and on train platforms doing a double-take after realizing that live music is coming from a streetcar.

This was the opposite of the live house experience, where, walking the stairs to a dark hall, you remove yourself from everyday life to focus on the music. The street car live WAS everyday life, but with live music in the background blending with the everyday scenes, and lending them an artistic feel (like something in a movie). Although by the end of the trip I was a bit dizzy due to the motion, I found I enjoyed the streetcar live much more and in a much different way than I expected.

Yuyake Lamp said they want to continue doing unusual events, and one idea they've floated is to do a show on board a hot-air balloon. If it happens, I may have to overcome my fear of heights just to be able to say I once saw a rock show in a balloon...

Friday, September 07, 2007

No Mo' Mono

Went to the Mono and Envy show at the Ebisu Liquid Room last night to try to expand my musical horizons a bit... but my effort flopped. Both bands are popular with the alternative Japan music crowd, Mono playing instrumental post-rock and Envy, an artistic hard-core. Unfortunately, I just couldn't make it through Mono's set and left before Envy started.

I know Mono has lots of foreign fans, especially in the U.S., where they tour constantly (Rock of Japan has several years' worth of praising gig reviews, for example), and I could see at the show that they have their brilliant instrumental moments, but, heaven help me, their songs are SO predictable. Start quietly and slow. Gradually build up in intensity and speed. Climax! Return to quiet and slow. Repeat this 10-minute cycle 5 or 6 times. By the 2nd or 3rd cycle, I was nodding off. If, just once, they varied things a little by, say, doing a straightforward 5-minute tune, it might have broken my monotony, encouraging me to stay. But that didn't happen.

It also didn't help that Mono was one of those bands that say NOTHING on stage, not even their band name. They didn't even have a mike on stage! Call me old-fashioned, but I want to at least hear a few words from the band I came to see. I'm not expecting rakugo here: just a brief greeting is all I ask for. Otherwise, without any interaction between the band and the audience, what's the point of a live show? Why not just stay home and listen to your i-Pod?

Having watched so many shows over the past few years, I think my supply of patience is running low. There is one upside to leaving a show early, though, and that is the feeling of freedom you get when you step out of the live house into the streets of a Tokyo night that is still young. But I do wonder what the Envy show was like...

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Humming Parlour Event At Cyclone

At an event organized by my friends, the guitar pop group humming parlour, I met Patrick of, who's since written a nice review of the show here. He was at the event to see the first performers, solange et delphine (pictured above), whereas I was there to see humming parlour and Caraway (guitarist Shimada pictured below), so it was a happy coincidence that we ended up in the same live house (Shibuya Cyclone) on a Saturday night.

I enjoyed Patrick's favorites, solange et delphine, a stylish sampled-music unit who, I was surprised to find out, usually plays as a jazz ensemble (which I'd be very interested in seeing).

It was fun to see guitar pop groups like humming parlour and Caraway and mellow, well-behaved guitar pop audiences in a hard rock hell-hole like the Cyclone, with graffiti everywhere, artfully sticker-covered toilets and snarling, attitude-overflowing staffers (the Cyclone's relatively low rental fee was a main reason it was chosen as the event's venue). When I bitched about the staffers' attitude to my friend Dr. I, who was in the audience, he said, "Oh, well, this is a live house for furyou (juvenile delinquents). What did you expect?"