Exploring Japan's Secluded Grime Scene
It's hard to progress when radio won't play your music and clubs won't let you dance.
Pakin (bottom right) with some Japanese grime fans
Grime’s never been something that exported particularly well. Rooms full of young men shouting at each other isn’t exactly marketable, and Americans and Europeans don’t tend to understand crucial phrases like “E3”, “move to you” and “your mum’s got athlete’s foot.” However, that’s not to say the genre doesn’t have its overseas fans. In Japan, for example, DJs and MCs have taken parts the British sound – the bass hooks, bloopy synths and aggy, rapid-fire bars – and put their own spin on it, AKA MCing in Japanese rather than a dodgy faux London accent.
I got in touch with Pakin, an MC from Tokyo – and one of the biggest names in the small but growing scene – to see what he had to say about Japanese grime.
Pakin with Devilman and the Dark Elements crew in the UK
VICE: How popular is grime in Japan?
Pakin: The scene in Japan is very much still developing, although there's recently been a large increase in the number of DJs who play the danceable grime you might hear on Rinse or on the Butterz label. In terms of producers, there's a deejay called DJ Prettybwoy, who's been following UK garage and grime for over ten years. He's also had releases on Big Dada, remixed many of my tracks and has a very unique production style. Another DJ crew is Double Clapperz, who recently had one of their songs played on Rinse FM.
Nice. And which MCs should I look out for?
There's Duff and Kitakanto Skillz, Dekishi and Soaku Beats, Beyond, Onnen, Catarrh Nisin, Rittzzz, Taquilacci, F-lager, MC Snow and MC Marimo Head.
Yeah. Dekishi and Soaku Beats’ "Makenai (Never Lose)" was released in 2012 and has been played on Japanese rap radio stations. Kitakanto Skills, led by Duff, also released a compilation album called Grime City. I have no idea where the Japanese grime scene will go from here, but there are a large number of people who are active in the scene and have the enthusiasm to make things happen. If these producers, DJs and MCS can link up, I'm sure the scene can become something really great.
How did you first become familiar with the genre?
Through a magazine called BMR. In 2004, there was a special article on Dizzee Rascal, and that got me into grime. This was pretty much straight after I got into hip-hop – I'd read about US rap, so I was interested in the idea of UK rap. BMR mainly focused on R&B, soul and funk, so the only real way to learn about grime in Japan was via the internet. I didn’t have an internet connection at home at the time, so I'd use a PC at school. I Googled "grime" and "Dizzee Rascal", which brought up Juno Records. This was the beginning for me.
What was it exactly that got you and your friends into it?
What most interested me was that grime was the product of a number of different genres, such as garage and dubstep, and was intertwined with them. I learned this through Juno Records and a couple of bass music bloggers. Having been accustomed to US rap I was blown away by the UK sound – the unique flow of the rappers and the rough beats and bass. I had no idea what the lyrics meant, but the raw energy really appealed to me. It wasn’t long before I realised that this was the sound I'd been looking for.
(Left to Right) Logan Sama, Pakin, DJ Prettybwoy
Are there many events or clubs that cater for Japanese grime fans?
Most grime nights are fairly small, DIY events, although extremely good. There's an organiser called Eri who runs a crew called Goodweather. They have booked Champion, Swindle and Logan Sama to perform in Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka. P Money and Royal T also played at a festival called Outlook Japan 2014, for which we are very much indebted to Eri. Another DJ and blogger, Chelsea JP, organised an event called the Wardub Japan Cup, which was inspired by Lord of the Beats. Prettybwoy has been running a UK garage and grime night called Golly Gosh for many years, and a number of young Japanese and British artists – the Void crew – have recently started a new night called Swims.
Do any Japanese radio stations play grime?
Not many. Japanese radio culture is nowhere near as developed as the UK. There are a few major radio stations that play J-pop, rock and a bit of party rap, and that’s it. However, there are a number of internet radio stations that run grime specials. There's a famous Ustream channel, Dommune, that featured Visionist and Logan Sama. More recently, Glacial Sound performed on Block FM, another internet radio show. I think there's a growing demand for this sort of radio show, but this is very much a developing scene.
Pakin and DJ Frankly$ick
In the UK, grime started out in deprived, inner-city areas. Is the same true in Japan?
The reality is quite different in Japan. While there are rappers from poor backgrounds, there are plenty of MCs with money, as well as students. I myself am working. However, it's certainly very much an inner-city scene. Japan has its own developed rap scene, which definitely pays less attention to class and background than the UK or the US. I think there are probably many reasons for this, but one of the major reasons is that rap is originally an imported sound, so it would be hard to claim any sort of legitimacy or realness. There are tracks that deal with criminal activities, but the majority of lyrics are personal boasts, attacks on MCS or political content. Most rappers aren't from a genuine "ghetto" background, so people tend to rap about the things they're interested in.
Makes sense. What would you say are the main differences between grime in the UK and grime in Japan?
The lyrics. Also, while the UK scene focuses on MCs, the Japanese scene is more focused on DJs. There are a large number of Japanese MCs who only listen to US rap. Japanese DJs, on the other hand, are always looking for fresh, new music, and finding grime along the way. Therefore, rather than an increase in rappers there's an increase in DJs, who mainly focus upon the more palatable sound that's pushed by labels like Butterz or Rinse. I'd like to see an increase in rappers interested in the harder side of grime. Most MCs aren't used to the continuous adrenaline rush style of rapping that you find in in grime. Japanese MCs could benefit from more energy.
Pakin's collaboration with Devilman
You’ve collaborated with Devilman, right? How did that come about?
This was thanks to DJ Frankly$ick. He's a British DJ who studied in Japan. He's a great DJ, but he's also completely fluent in Japanese, which made it very easy for the collaboration to happen. I originally got in contact with Frankly$ick around two or three years ago via a Ustream channel called 241FM, which was one of the very few radio channels focusing on grime. When he moved to Tokyo, we became friends. He sent my material to the producers Mac Real and Darx from Birmingham, and I went on holiday to England and made sure to meet Darx, Devilman and DJ Big Mikee. While I was extremely excited to do the video with Devilman, I was also extremely nervous about the whole thing. Even though I couldn’t speak much English, the crew were extremely hospitable. The filming itself was extremely professional and quick. There is no SB:TV or Rap City in Japan. Occasionally rappers will make a video for their new release, but there's not YouTube culture like England's, which I think gives major momentum to the UK scene.
What would say is holding grime back in Japan?
In Japan, clubbing isn't a major pastime for young people. I've heard that, in England, it's extremely standard for uni students to go clubbing on their first night at uni, but this is completely unthinkable in Japan. In Japan, clubs are seen as somewhat dangerous places. While there have been some movements in recent months to change the current legal situation, there is a law called the "Fueihou" that actually makes it illegal to dance in many situations. This makes it incredibly difficult for club owners and performers. In Osaka, most of the clubs have to finish all events by 1AM or face legal action.
Okay, yeah, I can see why that's a problem. Finally, what do you think the future holds for the Japanese grime scene?
I have no idea, but there are a decent number of diehard fans. I want nothing more than for Japanese artists to continue to link up at home and abroad and have our original productions and rappers recognised and respected abroad.
Translation by DJ Frankly$ick