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Talking Teriyaki with J-hop’s biggest export

Wise and Verbal explain Teriyaki Boyz's journey to the West — with an old-school hip-hop sound that's straight outta Tokyo

by James Hadfield

While attending boarding school in Boston in the mid 1990s, Seiji Kameyama used to play hip-hop CDs that he’d brought back from Japan to his friends.

“Back then, people used to laugh about it,” he recalls. “They’d be like, ‘What the heck is this, Japanese hip-hop?’ “

This year, the Japanese-American rapper, better known by the name Wise, might just get the last laugh. In March, Teriyaki Boyz, the group to which he belongs, will become the first Japanese hip-hop act ever to get a major-label release in the United States when their second album, “Serious Japanese,” comes out on Universal Music subsidiary Star Trak Entertainment.

It will mark the next step in a project that many regard as a litmus test for the international pulling power of Japanese rap. Teriyaki Boyz are something of a supergroup: Wise is joined by rappers Ilmari and Ryo-Z — both of chart-topping hip-hop act Rip Slyme — and Verbal, best known as the MC in dance-rap unit m-flo. Overseeing the proceedings is the group’s DJ and creative brainchild, Nigo — the fashion designer behind internationally renowned streetwear brand A Bathing Ape (aka Bape).

It was Nigo who brought them together initially, and his contact book has proved invaluable, luring a high-profile roster of foreign producers and rappers to work with the group. The first Teriyaki Boyz album, 2005′s “Beef or Chicken,” featured production by artists including Daft Punk, DJ Shadow, The Neptunes and Adrock of the Beastie Boys.

“When we started Teriyaki Boyz, that’s when everybody in the States was wearing (A Bathing) Ape,” says Verbal — who, like Wise, speaks fluent English. “Lil Wayne, Jay-Z — they were talking about it in their rap. Everybody was talking about it. Going to the Ape showroom was like going to Mecca in Tokyo.”

“I think a small group of people would be interested in the music we do anyway,” says Wise. “But obviously, us being presented by Bape is a big, big advantage.”

“Serious Japanese” continues in the star-studded vein of its predecessor. The Neptunes and Adrock each return to produce three tracks, with others coming from high-profile U.S. producers such as Jermain Dupri and Mark Ronson, along with Japanese electronica artists Cornelius and Towa Tei.

Perhaps the biggest coup, however, was getting Kanye West on board. The 10-time Grammy Award-winner produces and raps on two songs, one of which, “I Still Love H.E.R.,” provided the group with their highest-charting single, reaching No. 12 in January 2007.

In keeping with hip-hop tradition, the album also comes laden with guest vocal spots. West, Adrock and The Neptunes’ Pharrell Williams all muck in, while “(Can’t) ‘Bake’ That ‘Fape’ ” hinges around a lengthy history lesson delivered by 1980s Japanese rap pioneer Kan Takagi.

Another high point must be Busta Rhymes’ salacious verse on the bass-heavy “Zock-On!,” which feels a bit like a hip older brother crashing his younger sibling’s birthday party to hand out cigarettes and pornography.

“It’s weird, because these are people we grew up listening to,” says Wise, who also mentions East Coast hip-hop act Gang Starr and Tokyo’s Rhymester as key influences. “To have them on the track already is like — I don’t know what to say. It’s like a present, wrapped in crazy forms of paper and ribbons all over the place.”

Verbal concurs: “It’s almost like a song that you hear on your iPod, except there’s a verse open for you. It’s like, ‘sign your name on the dotted line, it’s yours . . . ‘ “

The group’s own vocals tap into the party-rap tradition that extends all the way back to The Sugarhill Gang’s 1979 single “Rapper’s Delight”: a group of MCs trading licks and goofing around in the studio. On most of the songs, they take turns to drop increasingly ridiculous verses, often joining in for a sing-song refrain.

“What we focus on is trying to make the music fun,” Verbal explains. He and Wise constantly switch between English and Japanese, and it’s fair to say that they manage to be equally inane in either language. “Whatever we talk about. . . . We could talk about getting a perm in a salon. . . We can make it sound fun.”

The album is certainly a more coherent and satisfying listen than “Beef or Chicken,” where too many of the tracks felt half finished or tossed off.

“We were rushed,” admits Wise. “We had to work from 1 in the afternoon until 7 or 8 in the morning, and that was like every day. This time, I guess we had a little more time to work on the whole thing, and we were more comfortable with each other. It was easier to toss ideas around.”

They also learned to trust their instincts more. One of the songs on the album, the lyrically heartfelt “Itsu Mo It’s More,” (“Always It’s More”) threatened at one point to morph into a crossover pop hit in the vein of Orange Range’s 2004 smash “Hana” (“Flower”).

“Everybody was like, ‘This is going to be it,’ ” says Verbal. “So they started arranging it with a Japanese arranger, and obviously it didn’t work. We had all the lyrics down already, and it was perfect for us, but then the people around us decided that they wanted to make it more kitschy or more pop or something. That didn’t work: it just sounded very artificial.”

Rather than bow to industry pressure, the group stuck to their guns. “We learned that instinctive music-making is the best thing for hip-hop,” he says.

For all their clownery, there’s a seriousness of intent underlying what the Teriyaki Boyz do. “I think hip-hop is being true to yourself, to not lie about yourself,” offers Wise. “I think that’s what we do in our music: We joke around, we sometimes act hard, we sometimes act intelligent. (But) whatever we do, we don’t really lie about ourselves.”

That may come as a surprise to Western listeners, for whom “J-hop” is often a source of mirth, if not outright bemusement. There are few sights more ridiculous than that of a group of skinny middle-class kids from Chiba strutting around in baggy clothes and striking “ghetto” poses. Coming from international backgrounds themselves, Wise and Verbal are both aware of this potential for absurdity.

Verbal says he has little time for Japanese rappers who “are basically superimposing the blueprint of American hip-hop and expecting it to work. You can’t do that. It’s like marrying someone from another country. I can’t marry someone from Zimbabwe and expect her to understand my heritage: We’ve got to meet in between.”

Although collaborating with a raft of big-name American producers might suggest otherwise, he says that the aim of Teriyaki Boyz isn’t to imitate U.S. hip-hop. “We don’t wanna be American: We just wanna be from Japan, straight outta Tokyo. Why would someone from New York want some kids from Japan sounding like we’re from New York? They don’t want that. We’re trying to make something different.”

It’s a telling point. By coincidence, “Serious Japanese” is being released in the U.S. in the same month as the latest, as-yet-untitled English-language album by J-pop star Hikaru Utada. But while Utada has taken pains to make her music as accessible as possible to an American audience, the Teriyaki Boyz seem content with the fact that most of their lyrics will be impenetrable to overseas listeners.

“When we first heard ‘La Bamba,’ we didn’t know what the hell they were talking about,” says Verbal. “Everybody knows that song, but I don’t think anybody knows what the song’s about. Ultimately, if people like it, they’ll like it. They don’t know why they like it. It’s like you like some girl but you don’t know why you like the girl, you know? You put reasons in later.”

“Hopefully this will kinda shake some people up,” he concludes, grinning. “It’ll be like the Japanese ‘La Bamba’, you know?”

“Serious Japanese” is out now. Teriyaki Boyz play Feb. 5 at Yokohama Blitz ([03] 3405-9999); Feb. 7 at Zepp Sendai ([022] 222-9999); Feb. 14 at Zepp Nagoya ([052] 320-9100); Feb. 21 at Zepp Osaka ([06] 6344-3326); Feb. 28 at Zepp Fukuoka ([092] 712-4221); March 1 at Hiroshima Club Quattro ([082] 249-3571); and March 5 at Zepp Tokyo ([03] 3405-9999). All shows start at 7 p.m. and tickets are ¥5,800.