It only makes sense that an authentically Japanese reaction to hip-hop would bear only cosmetic resemblance to the American genus. The notion of hip-hop has proven surprisingly elastic, based as it is not around specific sounds as much as specific attitudes: hip-hop is built on a foundation of authenticity. Outsiders, be they white suburban wiggas or foreign carpetbaggers, have consistently failed in hip-hop when they have tried merely to approximate black American youth culture. But contrary to the conventional wisdom of the early-and-mid-‘90s, hip-hop has ultimately had little problem adapting to different cultures, be it different strains of American experience or different nationalities altogether. Be it Eminem, Dizzy Rascal, reggaeton or baile funk, hip-hop has proven remarkably elastic. As long as those who adapt and hybridize hip-hop remember to respect both the cultural distinctiveness of the original genre and their own unique cultural context, they will thrive. It’s a simple matter of not frontin’— pay respect to what came before you, don’t pretend to be anything other than what you are, and you will be embraced. If you try to play like you’re a gangsta from Compton when you live in suburban Milwaukee, well, expect to get laughed off the stage.
DJ Krush—known to his mother as Hideaki Ishi—faced a particularly interesting challenge at the beginning of his career. As a Japanese DJ trying to make hip-hop music, influenced by the old-school but not necessarily beholden to it, he needed to discover a middle-ground between outright appropriation and cultural dissonance—stealing just enough so that the end result was both true to hip-hop culture but also the product of a distinctively Japanese temperament. In much the same way that the Streets’ Mike Skinner has managed to synthesize a balance between rap orthodoxy and British electronic music to become one of the most unique storytellers in the rap game, Krush has appropriated the role of the DJ in American hip-hop, changing and amplifying the role of producer to create an expansive and cinematic musical identity—an intimately familiar idiom to any hip-hop connoisseur, but also informed by something definitively foreign.
The results, as we have seen over Krush’s decade-plus career, have been nothing short of astounding. Far from being a backwater in the international hip-hop community, Krush’s sound has garnered respect from the highest levels of rap aristocracy. Stepping Stones presents a tidy overview of Krush’s long career, and as such the track listing reads like a “who’s who” of modern true-school hip-hop: Black Thought and ?uestlove of the Roots, Mos Def, DJ Shadow, practically the entire Def Jux starting lineup, and even CL Smooth (of Pete Rock and CL Smooth—remember them?)
Stepping Stones is split into two discs. The first, “Lyricism”, is devoted into Krush’s collaborations with various lyricists, while the second, “Soundscapes”, is composed of instrumental compositions. Unfortunately, while Krush’s sound is never less than interesting, some of his collaborations with foreign MCs are imperfect creations. Quite often when primarily instrumental producers collaborate on one-off tracks with MCs the results can seem comparatively staid. This probably has as much to do with circumstances as anything else—oftentimes neither side of the collaboration brings what appears to be their best game. Oftentimes this isn’t really intentional, simply a byproduct of two artists without a real history of cooperation attempting to amend their styles to fit the other.
Which is not to imply that any of these collaborations are bad—quite the contrary. Merely that, for instance, Black Thought’s contribution to “Zen Approach” seems uncharacteristically sedate. It also seems to be a problem that, whereas Krush’s production is usually front and center, he has to accommodate the music to fit the MC’s prominence. (To Black Thought’s credit, he comes off better on “Meiso”, which also features a significantly more adventurous beat.) A track like “Nosferatu” comes off as unfortunately restrained. It sounds interesting, and one would like to hear Krush develop it further, but he’s essentially limited by the fact that Mr. Lif is rapping over the beats. Mos Def doesn’t seem to have any problems on “Shinjiro”, however, attacking the beat with more than enough enthusiasm to make himself heard over the jungle-influenced din. It’s also worth noting that Krush’s work with Japanese MCs like KAN and Twigy & Rino escape these pirfalls to a large degree. Perhaps its a function of the exoticism of Japanese-language rapping, but it makes for a good fit with Krush’s style—perhaps as a result of a cozier working relationship?
In any event, the first disc is mainly a pleasant diversion compared to the feast of riches on the second. At his best, Krush is one of the foremost producers of instrumental hip-hop in the world, and as much as he may enjoy working with famous MCs, his real strengths can only be assessed unfettered by lyrical compliment. From the very first track the disc sets a high standard: “Stormy Cloud” puts Krush’s proto-crunk Southern-style bounce against Ken Shima’s frenetic piano work, and the result is simply gorgeous, a synthesis of attitude and atmosphere that manages to convey whimsy and menace in equal measure. “Elapse” is far more dense, with Meat Beat Manifesto-style breakbeats placed against ominous synthesizer flourishes. It’s a concise composition that nonetheless manages to impress with its epic stature. When most westerners think of traditional Japanese music, what we imagine is the sparseness and precision of (deceptively) simple flute and drum compositions. You detect in Krush’s best work a feel for atmosphere and space that seems directly influenced by his cultural patrimony.
Krush has a distinct taste for cinematic gestures, as evidenced by the preponderance of Japanese flutes and orchestral flourishes on tracks such as “Still Island”, which also features Shuuzan Morita’s Noh-influenced flute work. ?uestlove drops in for “Endless Railway”, a loose exercise in noirish funk built atop an effortlessly solid breakbeat that somehow manages the neat trick of sounding laid back and tense at the exact same moment (someone needs to find that ?uestlove character a band to play with). The real highlight, however, is “Duality”, produced in collaboration with DJ Shadow. It’s a rare collaboration that actually manages to accentuate the best features of both party, with Shadow’s sly, expressive beats set against Krush’s twisted, at times menacing sense of mood. Those with a penchant for a more pure form of breakbeat madness would be advised to check out the aptly titled “Drum” for proof positive of Krush’s easy facility with a funky rhythm.
As I said, there is little doubt that Krush is one of the most proficient and consistent beatmakers in the instrumental hip-hop game. He may lack the songwriting precision of some of his western colleagues, preferring to craft atmospheric sketches as opposed to full-blown songs, but in any event just about everything sounds wonderful—and that’s the point, isn’t it? He has yet to craft a truly essential album-length statement, unfortunately, but the nooks and crannies of his large catalog are filled with both modest triumphs and surprising revelations. This is as good a place to start as any to start your investigations.