Jaku is Japanese for “tranquility”. Considering that DJ Krush is representin’ for the hip-hop nation by way of his native land of Japan, it is interesting to reflect on the unique cross-cultural currents that define his work. The vast majority of American hip-hop couldn’t be further removed from the notion of tranquility. Even Krush’s closest Stateside kin—artists such as DJ Shadow, RJD2 and DJ Spooky, who have made careers out of bending and shaping hip-hop and electronic music in general into unfamiliar and exotic shapes—rarely approach the notion of tranquility. It’s a singular preoccupation in Krush’s career, and it makes him one of the more interesting DJs on the planet.
An international tour of the early-80s hip-hop showcase Wild Style inspired Hideaki Ishii to enter the world of hip-hop. He formed the Krush Posse in 1987, and although the group only lasted five years, they quickly established themselves as one of the best (only?) hip-hop crews in Japan. Krush released his first solo album Krush in 1994, and has continued to record, release and tour relentlessly since then, at a staggering rate of just about one album every year for a decade.
Although Krush was initially hesitant to incorporate the music of Japan into his compositions, for fear of it being perceived as a gimmick, he has since rethought his philosophy. Certainly, there is something very explicitly Japanese in the notion of tranquility as Krush applies it to hip-hop, and it is this notion that Krush explores on Jaku.
The use of Japanese instrumentation has become a large facet of Krush’s aesthetic approach. The album begins with “Still Island”, which features a prominent shakuhachi part by Shuuzan Morita (the shakuhachi is a traditional Japanese flute with a hoarse and melancholic sound). The long, sustained tones of the shakuhachi are juxtaposed against the track’s tense orchestral flourishes with a few spry breakbeats running underneath. “Road to Nowhere” is a more conventional track (if such a thing is possible in the strange world of leftfield hip-hop), with dragging, slightly out-of-time snares and heavy upright bass. “The Beginning” features the return of Morita’s shakuhachi, offset against one of the album’s most aggressive beats. There is also a slight hint of the manic, monolithic grandeur of Japan’s Kodo drummers’.
There are two guest MCs on the album, both stalwarts of the Definitive Jux label. Mr. Lif provides the rap for “Nosferatu”, while Aesop Rock does the honors for “Kill Switch”. The former is built atop a sinister instrumental bed similar to Protection-era Massive Attack, while the latter reintroduces the album’s thematic dichotomy, with angry, insistent bass drums juxtaposed against floating atmospheric synthesizer tone. Both collaborations are good, but Aesop Rock comes off as the definite winner.
“Stormy Cloud” is one of the album’s best tracks, with Ken Shima’s aggressively melodic jazz piano offset against dark cello flourishes and a hard sliding beat. “Decks-athron” is another deeply engrossing track, featuring a multitude of frantic, IDM-influenced beats set against Krush and Tatsuki’s expertly staccato scratching.
“Slit of Cloud” reminds me a tiny bit of John Zorn’s Japanese-flavored free-jazz material, albeit with a prominent, valium-dosed trip-hop feel. Akira Sakata provides the track’s wildly expressive saxophone parts, as well as a haunting vocal. The album’s climactic track, “Beyond Raging Waves”, features Shinishi Kinoshita on the tsugaru-jamisen (the tsugaru-jamisen is a variant of Japan’s traditional three-stringed guitar, the taut twang of which has become almost synonymous with Japanese traditional music to Western ears). It is only here that we can finally see the shape of Krush’s massive cross-cultural exchange at work, as the symbolism of Japan—ancient and parochial—is juxtaposed against the threat and opportunity of Western musical expression. The instrumentation is oriental but the effect is starkly occidental: like the best hip-hop, this is a truly magnificent hybrid.
The album concludes with “Song 2”, a sparse and solemn drone with demented toy keyboard sounds and faint flutes in the distance. Jaku finishes as it began, with an expression of contradictory impulses, of solemn tranquility offset against the frenetic pace of modern emotional turmoil. I don’t want to make too much of the fact, to try and convince you that this album is in any way indicative of any larger cultural miasma. This album is merely an indicator that Krush has mastered, as few before him have, the subtle art of true cultural assimilation through the prism of electronic music.