KRACKING THE CODE
hacker. jeff liu
virtual realist. nino
Hideaki Ishi was more than a gangbanger, he was a former member of the yakuza, Japan's infamous don't-fuck-wit-'ems. (These mafiosos, if you screw up, you give up a finger to your boss, *voluntarily*.) He changed his tune, though, after a revelation in the form of breakdancing and scratching--brought to him by the classic flick "Wild Style"--and somehow managed to walk away with all digits intact. At a time when the "mixer" was unheard of even by Tokyo's electronic store salesmen, he fashioned his own set-up and taught himself to mix. So yeah, you might say DJ Krush is OG like that.
In 1986, at breakdancing's height in Japan, he spun at Yoyogi Park for the dance crews and competed with other DJs. Together with MC Muro and DJ Go, he formed the Krush Posse a year later. They recorded two tracks together, but as Hip-Hop declined, his group disbanded and he went solo. Frustrated when no one would show him or Hip-Hop love up in the club (and the studio), he took his slow, jazzy, beat-heavy sound to Europe.
After countless albums, this Japanese Hip-Hop pioneer has managed to keep true to himself and his music. With the help of an interpreter, we caught up with him while he was on tour promoting his latest album, Code 4109.
KRON: So what's the premise of this album? What was the thinking behind it?KRUSH: I didn't mean anything deep before I had decided anything. I played a song and I was thinking, 'OK, how about this song ... the songs flowed out one after the other, nice and smooth, in a jazzy kind of way. By the time I noticed, that was the album.
KRON: Was it recorded all at one time?
KRUSH: Yeah, basically. Usually I play in front of an audience, but in the recording, I had to spin in front of engineers. It's not so easy to do. I had to raise my tension. I had to motivate myself and create the mood by dimming the lights and drinking beer. Then in maybe the second take, I did everything.
KRON: I noticed that every so often, between every couple of albums, you come up with a mix CD. There was the Ninjatune one, then "Holonic," and now "Code 4109." Is that intentional?
KRUSH: I really didn't do it intentionally. I'm a DJ and a lot of DJs do mix tapes and mix CDs. When I finished my album, the timing was right and talk of making a mix album came up. Some people don't get to see me spin, but are curious to see what I do. So if my mix albums can show them, then that's cool. [Waiting for the translator] It was also very difficult to get the music rights for this album. I got them cleared, but it was really hard.
KRON: The reason I asked that was because your music is very abstract sometimes, especially with the instrumentals. Do you feel that every so often you have to do a mix CD, throw your tracks in, and show people how it fits into Hip-Hop?
KRUSH: I didn't think that way when I started out making the album. But if the listener, after listening to it, thinks that way, if Hip-Hop fans are really into it and my audience grows, then that's great.
KRON: Do you think that in order to gain acceptance by American audiences, you have to incorporate American rappers?
KRUSH: I choose certain artists because of their music and ability. That's what appeals to me. Either I like them, I like their music, or I always wanted to play with them. So I didn't intentionally choose them just for the American audience. I picked them because their music was interesting. Let me ask you, is that what Americans think--'Oh Krush, he uses American artists, that's why I want to listen to it.'?"
KRON: Well, I think American Hip-Hop is very self-centered.
KRUSH: [Laughs hard for a second] **So-so-so**. I spin with people from all over. And everytime I'm in the studio with them, I get something from them that I don't have. So I learn a lot. That's a process which I really enjoy. So it doesn't matter to me who's American, who's European, who's from anywhere. It's really interesting that American people think that way.
KRON: I mean, if you can understand, it's like the whole East Coast-West Coast, who's more Hip-Hop than the other, ya know what I mean?
KRUSH: I have a question: Is there still a West Coast vs. East Coast rivalry? Because even in Japan, some people will say I'm 'Eastside' or 'Westside.'
KRON: Not so much as before. I think there's still a little bit of that. Pretty much, in the underground, people don't really care. But in popular music, the radio stations kind of promote that.
KRUSH: I really wish that people don't pick sides in music because it's really universal. At least in music, we shouldn't be saying, 'West Coast, Japan, or Europe.' Sure, I understand that the flava will be different on the West Coast because of the nice weather and blue skies, and that the East Coast will have their own flava, but why do we have to be claiming sides?
KRON: Now it's known that you got started DJing when you watched 'Wild Style' in Tokyo. What I would like to know is, how did you even consider going to watch 'Wild Style'?
KRUSH: It's a long story, so I'll give you the short version: When I was younger, I was doing a lot of really bad things. I dropped out of school, I didn't work and all I did was goof around. So that path led me to be in a gang. There was a guy in a rival gang who got involved with this woman and he had to have his finger cut off. He went back to his hometown and after he left, I didn't have anything to do. I always gave him dirty looks, always fought with him. So after he left, I felt, 'Oh, he's gone. Now what am I going to do?' I had a really hard time. I started to think about what I was doing in this life. All I did was graduate from junior high and get involved in a criminal organization. I didn't know what to do. I was a lot different back then. I wore really nice gangster suits, I didn't even wear Nike's at the time.
So there was this movie theater, and I went to go watch a movie with a girl that I was with. Because I had a lot of questions inside me, I thought it would be cool to see something different. After watching 'Wild Style,' I was like, 'Yeah, that's it. That's what I'm going to do.' People were shocked and asked, 'How can you do a 180-degree change like that?' So, I thought about how I turned into a gangster.
Because I really loved music when I was a kid, I just went back to that. I put the gangster suit in the closet and put on the Kangol and Adidas. [he laughs] But I had a hard time finding those things because we didn't have the [Hip-Hop] Movement at that time. I used my connections to help me look for them.
KRON: What are some of your favorite films?
KRUSH: "Fight Without Rules."
KRON: Who's the director?
KRUSH: Kinji Fukusaku.
KRON: Now you've done a soundtrack piece for Yamamoto Musashi's Junk Food. It matched really well with the subject matter. Has there been any prospects for any other film scores?
KRUSH: Yeah, the theme of the movie is weird and dark. I've never made very bright music. So yeah, I think it fit really well, too. Someone used a previously-recorded track of mine in 'Blade.' But, other than that, I haven't done any other soundtracks. I'm looking forward to another chance. I really hope that someday, I could do the entire soundtrack for a film.
KRON: Back to your Hip-Hop roots, you've been with Hip-Hop in Japan since the seeds were first planted. How have you seen it grow?
KRUSH: As a parent, I'm always worried. I was worried that Hip-Hop wasn't going to be exciting. After it blew up, I was wondering where it was going to go--if the underground would break through or if anyone was going to keep it going at all. So I'm always concerned.
KRON: But how have you seen it develop over the years?
KRUSH: In the beginning, there were no role models to look at, so everyone just copied Americans--they imitated their style and translated lyrics from English to Japanese. But there were no real hardcore messages for Japanese society. Nowadays, a lot of young artists are thinking, 'OK, how can we talk about our life in Japanese, how can we describe it ourselves?'
In Japan, we get records from all over--I think we release more records in Japan than any other country. If you want to buy an American album in Japan, it's the same release date as in the States. We can get everything. So when I was younger, it was all about American rap. But nowadays, young people don't necessarily think that way. Their first record might be by a Japanese rapper. So I think their consciousness is different.
KRON: What about when people say, no matter how small of a rap group you are here in the U.S., you can always make it big in Japan?
[INTERPRETER: How do small underground groups in the U.S. happen to make it big in Japan?]
KRUSH: I really think Japanese listeners take the time to check artists out before they go to their show. They're always studying who's blowing up in the underground in San Francisco, L.A. and New York. They take music very seriously. So yeah, they come to Japan and are popular because the audience already knows about them.
KRON: So they understand it despite the language difference?
KRUSH: Sometimes I let American artists listen to Japanese Hip-Hop. Of course they don't understand Japanese, but I'll ask them if they get it. They usually say, 'I don't understand what they're saying, but I understand their flow.' So even though we have a different language, we can still feel and relate to the flow. It's the same thing; if an American artist comes to Japan, even though a Japanese audience may not understand English, they can still relate.
At the same time, I do feel a problem with the language. I'm really trying to spread Japanese Hip-Hop to other countries. But in Hip-Hop, the lyrics are important. So if you listen to [Japanese rap] and you don't understand the lyrics, you're going to listen to what you understand instead. You're going to listen to American rap. So there's a wall between Japanese and other languages. And that wall has to be broken if Japanese Hip-Hop is going to reach other countries.
I also strongly feel that Hip-Hop is not only from America. There's French rap and in all languages. All the countries, all the languages, are on the same level.
KRON: Back to being a parent of two daughters, how do you feel about American gangsta rap or an artist like Sisqo being brought into the home?
KRUSH: That's a difficult question to answer. In Japan, we still don't have those kind of lyrics, so my daughters don't hear it, but they listen to every song that I make. I'm split, because I'm in that business.
As a parent, I really wish that my two daughters are strong, independent and can think for themselves. When they're at the point where they can decide for themselves what's right or wrong, then they can listen to it. But until then, I won't let them listen to it. And that's why I'm working really hard. Even though I don't have the educational background or a degree, I've built myself up as a musician. I want my daughters to see I'm doing my best to support my family.
KRON: How old are your daughters?
KRUSH: One's 15, the other is seven. Yeah, two daughters, so I'm really worried because one of them's starting to date ... I'm worried that one day she'll bring home a DJ. [He laughs] What if he's better than me?
KRON: What do they listen to?
KRUSH: When I compose a song, I start at midnight and finish early in the morning. By the time they get up, I start playing really hard, heavy beats. They're used to listening to the stuff I play. When they're at their friend's house, they listen to Hip-Hop. My younger daughter is into Japanese idols and pop music [raises his hand up like a cheering groupie and chuckles].
KRON: Your culture seems to always come out in your music, whether it's from Toshinori Kondo's trumpet or use of the *shakuhachi*. But it seems that now it's being incorporated more in your music--like in your last album, taiko and *shamisen*. Can you speak on that?
KRUSH: People are sampling so many things these days, but they're all very familiar. After being to so many different countries and being exposed to their music, I realized how refreshing traditional Japanese music is. In the future, I want to do an album where I sample all the different traditional Japanese instruments.
KRON: You didn't feel like that before, though, right?
KRUSH: It's not like that, really. I just didn't think that Japanese instruments were cool back then. As a child, did you listen to traditional instruments? I didn't. We didn't grow up with those instruments, we never thought they were cool to play with.
KRON: Do you consider yourself a conscious DJ?
KRUSH: It depends on the song. On the album 'Meiso', I first had a picture in my mind when I was composing the song 'OCE 9504'--one of kids going to the amusement park with their parents and riding on the ferris wheel. I wanted to give a warm, kind of nostalgic feeling. But then when I came to the U.S. to do the track, I opened up the newspaper and on the front page there was this picture of burned children from the Oklahoma terrorist bombing.
KRON: I ask that, because a lot of the artists in 'Milight,' for example, they talk about how 'righteousness will prevail.' And your music also talks about some of the social problems within Japan. I mean, a few years ago, there was a lot of youth violence in Japan in the headlines, where a young boy--a third grader or something--he was chopping off kids' heads.
KRUSH: **Hai-hai**. Some songs I really push to represent what's reality in society. Like for example, 'OCE' and those on 'Milight'. But if it's all about that, it would be all dark. Living in Tokyo, there really isn't any good news. It's really dark and underground. It's so depressing. 'Kakusei' is one of those albums that has that imagery, that depression. So if you listen to those albums, it's really heavy. But I don't want to make albums that are all dark and heavy. I want to put a little bit of sunshine in each. So yeah, a lot of the songs I compose have a consciousness and those themes. But sometimes I want to lift my spirits up too.
KRON: So what's next?
KRUSH: On my next album, I'm collaborating with DJ Disk and also Company Flow. There are some other artists, but we're still in negotiations and it hasn't been finalized yet.
KRON: Last question: Do you consider yourself a romantic?
KRUSH: Yeah, I do. [laughs] There are a lot of different things I would like to do. And that's the romantic side of me. In the future, it might be a good idea to put all those songs ["Big City Lover," "Skin Against Skin," "Final Home"] together on an album.
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