Ten years ago, it was difficult for American hip-hop audiences to finally accept that strong MCs and DJs were coming out of the West Coast. But as left-coast gangsta’ rap began to dominate headphones and Impala speakers in the late eighties and early nineties, a growing resentment started to build in the New York-based cradle of hip-hop. The bile turned caustic as producers like Dr. Dre rebuilt top-forty radio with a new blueprint called G-Funk. Leaning heavily on hooks from James Brown and George Clinton songs, the West Coast variety proved that rap music could be effectively sold to every demographic in America, from metropolitan roots to the planned communities of suburbia. Sure, there’s a lot more to the entire East Coast/West Coast rap debate than this. Music critics have written entire books on the subject. But it all basically stems from a conflict of styles. That’s why it’s difficult to understand how a turntablist like DJ Krush could be so widely accepted, and even admired. After all, DJ Krush is from way past the West Coast.
Born and raised in Japan, Krush credits the traveling Wild Style tour of the early eighties with introducing him to hip-hop. When he witnessed the infamous break-dancing and turntable crew performing in a Tokyo department store in 1984, he was inspired. The next day he went out and bought a turntable, mixer and sampler, and began scratching immediately. In 1987 he formed the Krush Posse with members of the local hip-hop scene, including his brother. But this early work was more of an imitation of what was happening in America than a distinct style of its own. By the early nineties Krush had broken off from this group and began exploring varieties that were all his own. By then his fascination with international jazz found its way into the music he was mixing. The work attracted the attention of Gangstarr’s Guru, whose 1993 album Jazzmatazz Vol. 1 would try to work the magic with jazz and hip-hop stateside. Krush worked with Guru, as well Black Thought from the Roots, on Meiso, his 1996 album. Meiso also featured a collaboration with DJ Shadow that marked the arrival of the genre we now refer to as trip-hop. In fact, many credit Krush with helping to invent trip-hop. His later ground-breaking work mixing avant garde jazz trumpeter Toshinori Kondo on the album Ki-Oku, is complex and unique. It might be one of the best jazz albums to come out of the last decade.
Krush’s latest album, The Message at the Depth, ignores much of his previous jazz and trip-hop work. Instead, he utilizes the musical platform to question the nature of truth and conflict in the world, as we teeter on the brink of war. The CD feels more electronic than his previous work, leaning on his sampler for much of the sound manipulation to get his point across. The layered fragments are sharp, like freshly cut aluminum. Their resonating tones leave a metallic taste in your mouth as you struggle to make sense of Krush’s new message. In a way, the irritated quality that Krush produces seem like a person who’s drunk way too many cups of coffee, or maybe something even stronger. But all the while you’ll notice that your head is bobbing and your foot is tapping.
Tracks like “Toki No Tabiji (Journey of Time)” and “Sanity Requiem” resonate like a symphony of insects. They’re powerful pieces to throw at the beginning of the album, with “Toki No Tabiji (Journey of Time)” featuring a hard-sounding newcomer Japanese MC named Inden. It’s clear from listening to these two tracks that DJ Krush has moved far beyond the mere art of scratching. The beat is a stuttered amalgamation of bass booms and drum machines, all slowed way down. Krush’s technical skills are amazing, with his ability to build a beat seemingly out of thin air. He’s managed to construct a totally new way of meshing rhythms.
The rest of the album is an interesting pastiche of guest appearances—from the gifted Angelina Esparza, who sings like a more sultry Tori Amos (if that’s possible) to underground hip-hop acts like Opus. In fact, most of the collaborations on the album are with artists known for bridging the gap between genres. Sly and Robbie, for example, whose 1970s and 80s style dub influenced just about every modern musical variety on the planet. Or Anti-Pop Consortium, rap artists who have dabbled in electronica.
The short “Supreme Team” features flow from Anti-Pop Consortium and a plodding, big beat sound, like furniture being moved around on the ceiling. Anti-Pop’s smart rhymes and underground hip-hop sound work well with Krush’s steady beats. The hooks he creates aren’t anything you’ve heard before, but still subtle enough not to compete with the vocals. This is one of the album’s highlights, flowing as though DJ Krush and Anti-Pop Consortium were meant to play together. Krush tends to have that effect on a lot of artists.
He teams up with underground rapper Anticon on the oddball “Song for John Walker”. This ode to the man dubbed “The American Taliban”, captured in Afghanistan during the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, sums up the feeling of the entire album. Anticon’s style is as absurd as the rhymes in this song, and it’s interesting to see the lack of seriousness that Krush devotes to the central idea of the album. “We know John Walker / We know John Walker” is repeated in each chorus, and the song asks us to think about how different this so-called terrorist is from the people we grew up with, or those that lead us.
Krush goes so far as to team up with the world’s most famous rhythm-section. Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare add their trademark to “The Lost Voices”, collaborators who are better known by their first names. Krush uses the track as a good excuse to lighten things up somewhat. Still, the dub only barely masks the ominous feeling that dominates The Message at the Depth. This might be Krush’s first attempt at mixing dub, at least on record, and he proves his skills easily here. The track also sets up the album’s epilogue nicely. “What About Tomorrow”, featuring vocals from reggae singer Ras Abijah, serves Krush’s case against the four horsemen of the apocalypse, and at the same time asks what we’re going to do to make the future better than the present. “What About Tomorrow” sees DJ Krush dipping into the dub realm once again, while maintaining the somber tone of the rest of the album. It’s the lyrics that flicker hopefully, an unusual way for a turntablist to go out. But then, this has always been DJ Krush’s hallmark, and most intriguing quality. He’s not so rooted in a style or scene that he won’t turn on a dime to get his message across, without going coastal.