Inside Legendary Japanese Producer DJ Krush's First Album in 11 Years
How the digital age and world catastrophe inspired the hip-hop turntablism pioneer's 'Butterfly Effect.'
Courtesy of artist
When Hideaki Ishi found the severed finger of his best friend wrapped in a handkerchief in his office, another victim of the Japanese mafia, the yakuza, he knew it was time to consider a career change.
A viewing of the 1983 American hip-hop documentary Wild Style inspired him to leave the crime organization in pursuit of a career in DJing—which raised eyebrows when he first went hunting for gear in Tokyo.
"I asked the store's staff if I could get two turntables," he recalls, speaking through a translator on Skype. "They argued, 'you only need one.' They didn't understand."
Over three decades later, Ishi is known to the world as DJ Krush. Despite his lack of English, Ishi's music first gained traction in the United States and Europe. He didn't take off in Japan until the country's vinyl pressing industry developed in the 1990s. Now, he is widely regarded as the pioneer of Japanese turntablism, drawing from ambient, jazz, and trip-hop influences to create his distinct melancholic sound.
He's played shows around the world, collaborated with artists such as CL Smooth, Mos Def, The Roots, and Japanese film composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (who recently soundtracked The Revenant) and released eleven albums — including last year's Butterfly Effect (his first since 2004's Jaku). "Language was never an issue with him," recalls American producer DJ Shadow to THUMP over email of the New York City session that lead to their collaboration "Duality" (which appeared on Krush's 1995 album Meiso).
"I suggested working on our halves separately. It was kind of funny, both of us sitting next to each other with headphones on, kind of in our own world. I checked with Krush often to make sure he was comfortable with how we were doing things. I was keenly aware that his people had gone to great trouble and expense for me to be there, and I didn't want to disappoint."
Regardless of his more recent triumphs, the 53-year-old husband and father of two is understandably reluctant to talk about his colourful past (in a 2002 interview with the New York Times, he recounted how he quit high school and stole motorcycles for joyrides). In our interview, his manager and translator Tetsu immediately shuts down any questions he deems unacceptable.
Besides, the DJ and producer seems far more interested in talking about the world's history than his own.
"We were touring France during the  terrorist attacks," he reveals completely unprompted. At the time, Ishi was playing a show in Lyon and had been in Paris only three days earlier. "As a Japanese man in a different country, it's hard to imagine a terrorist attack," says the producer. "That's why it's important to appreciate every day."
Ishi's optimism has been tailored by catastrophe, having experienced firsthand the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, which killed almost 16,000 people and left more than four million homes without water or electricity. "You hear crazy stories about disaster, but you don't usually face them," he says. "You never know what's going to happen. You have to appreciate day-by-day."
He claims that he explores the abruptness of these unexpected historical moments in his music. This is evident on Butterfly Effect, which features songs depicting themes of fate, power, and the future, and includes guest vocalists Lebanese singer-songwriter Yasmine Hamdan, New York rapper (and former member of Ice-T's collective Rhyme Syndicate) Divine Styler, and South African MC Crosby Bolani.
Even though these collaborations were completed across great distances via the Internet, Ishi still experienced trepidation towards recording in the new digital age.
"I was concerned about what would be the best way to release an album," he admits. "It's very important to make your own style of music. Now with computer software, you can produce music so easily. It's difficult to survive as a musician in this era."
Wrapping up the Australian leg of a world tour, and content with the role he has worked hard to pave for himself in the music industry, Ishi remains optimistic about the future, though he questions whether certain transgressions can be forgiven in the afterlife.
"It would be cool to go to heaven and play with Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis," he says. "But I don't know if I'm going to heaven, maybe hell."
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