Last month it was made public that acclaimed Japanese hip hop DJ and producer Nujabes (Jun Seba) had died in February in a car accident at the age of just 36.
In memory of the musician and his legacy, it seems appropriate to bring up the topic of hip hop culture in Japan, which according to Ian Condry, author of Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization, has surprised many with its enduring presence in Japanese contemporary society throughout the past few decades. We asked Condry, who is also a professor at MIT and heading the innovative ‘Cool Japan’ project there (for which he sometimes gets behind the booth as ‘DJ Ian Condry’), a little bit more about his own ‘hip hop roots’ and thoughts on the music phenomenon in Japan:
On getting into the groove…of Japan’s hip hop
‘I was a PhD at Yale in Cultural Anthropology and was interested in culture and globalisation. Then I started to look at that through rap music in Japan and how Japanese hip hop artists were doing with the culture and how they were using it as a “voice for youth.”
That was my start of getting interested in Japanese popular culture. Later, I wrote a book called “Hip Hop Japan,” which was based on my PhD work and I was struck by how there were a growing number of people interested in Japan’s popular culture.’
Homegrown, or taken from the US?
‘It was a little of both, that was the interesting thing. A lot of the debate hinges on whether the genre is imitation or whether there is an authentic science to it and I would say that there’s a little of both, especially when talking about the whole genre. But the interesting thing for me is how it has developed in a distinctive direction in Japan.’
‘A rap song “911” by the group King Giddra is about 9/11 but using images of “ground zero” in Hiroshima as a way of thinking about using violence against civilians to bring about political change. So it’s an interesting example of both the ways these rappers sympathise with what happened to so many New Yorkers who were killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center, but also saying that it’s an interesting parallel, not so much with Pearl Harbour, which was a surprise attack, but with Hiroshima as an attack on civilians. That is the kind of rap song that I can only imagine coming out of Japan yet also speaking to Americans and the world in a unique way.’
How ‘political’ is Japan’s rap?
‘I think in both the US and Japan the examples of politics can be rare but it certainly goes on. I think hip hop is a really interesting musical genre, like many other genres but interesting because it incorporates ideas of social progress, of challenging the status quo and bring about social change.’
Ian Condry is currently writing a book on Japanese animation called ‘The Soul of Anime’ due out next year. Further information about the MIT/Harvard ‘Cool Japan Project’ can be found here. Interview by Victoria Tuke.