After 20 years in the DJ game, DJ Krush is widely acclaimed as the king of Japanese hip-hop, and, as a much sought after turntabilist, his impeccable skills have impressed crowds all over world.
But his music is actually genre-defying and vastly experimental. He fuses hip-hop, old techno, house, rock and reggae, and he is particularly fond of jazz, saying that the “freedom that occurs in a (jazz) session is fascinating and exhilarating.”
The story of DJ Krush started humbly — at a Tokyo cinema. There the then-teenage Hideaki Ishi become enamored with hip-hop after watching old-skool godfather Grandmaster Flash in the 1983 film “Wild Style,” with its gritty street aesthetic, fraught with subway shots, break dancing and freestyle MCing, and it was this love affair that saved him from a chimpira (street thug) lifestyle.
In 1987, he formed the Krush Possee, the most successful hip-hop unit in Japan at the time. The outfit disbanded in the early 1990s as Krush concentrated on a solo career, and apart from filling dancefloors the world over, he went on to cement his reputation as a producer and composer.
His debut, “Krush,” was released in 1992, and it was quickly followed by the immensely popular “Strictly Turntabalized” on trip-hop stalwart James Lavelle’s Mo’ Wax label.
This year, Krush is celebrating 20 years as a solo artist and on Feb. 27 will play a six-hour set at Unit in Tokyo’s Daikanyama district.
In the lobby of a hotel near Tokyo Station, Krush is full of downtown humor and his relaxed groove makes you warm to him instantly.
What do you feel has been your greatest achievement over the course of your 20-year career?
There were a lot of difficulties, but I think the greatest achievement is that I’ve actually continued! I’ve never been able to speak English, but using my music there are people all over the world that are waiting for me. That is truly something incredible. In this way, I feel there are no boundaries — that there is a common empathy. And when I go to a country and my fans tell me, “We were waiting!” — when I hear this — I’m really glad that I’m doing this.
What exactly inspired you when you first saw “Wild Style”?
I really liked music, and was in a band in junior high school, but I couldn’t find the type of music I really wanted to do. In “Wild Style,” things are utilized that you can find at home, like a turntable and records, and my father had records, so it seemed like something I could do straight away. And also, I could get a real feeling of the street off it.
How did you “become” a DJ? Obviously you weren’t taught . . .
There was absolutely no information in those days, and now there are things like DJ school! There was nothing like that back then, so I bought the video and watched a DJ scratching on repeat. I tried to figure it out like that and that was how I learned. At the time you couldn’t buy the kind of mixers that they were using in the film, so I ended up buying a totally different mixer, which I remember really struggling with.
And were you doing hip-hop from the start?
I was listening to 1970s and ’80s funk and rock, and then slowly incorporating hip-hop.
How long did it take for you to develop your own DJing style?
I’m still looking for it, even though I’ve been DJing for 20 years now.
How has the Japanese hip-hop scene developed over the years?
I’m not really all that interested in the mainstream scene which is saturated with commercialism, but I really get the impression that there has been an increase in DJs and talented young people who want to manifest their own individuality and who have developed their own originality. Initially, hip-hop was a culture that was born in America, right? So the scene was imitating that. As the years went on, people started developing a sense of originality, an individuality that only they had. Not only DJs, but also rappers who were rapping in Japanese. I saw an increase in young people reflecting on things that were actually happening in their own country, not just copying gangs with guns.
You tour a lot with DJ Kentaro, but who are the other notable up-and-coming DJs in Japan.
Oh, there are many now, but Kentaro won the DMC DJ championships (in 2002, aged 20), so I really think he has a certain groove that only he is capable of. I think Japanese are quite talented, so I really hope from now on that there are young people who want to participate on an international level.
Is your music more popular overseas than locally?
I go overseas a lot, so maybe the level of recognition is higher overseas.
Why is that?
I really feel the way that the crowd that accepts you abroad is slightly different than in Japan. They decide what they like and what they think is good for themselves, whereas in Japan, they don’t make their own decisions; it’s more like someone tells them it’s good. If it’s on TV that a CD is good, or if everyone says that it’s good, they go out and buy it; they don’t make their own selections.
People who meet you say you are really modest. Is it important to keep a humble attitude?
Yeah, I don’t really like the “me, me” attitude, and I can’t really understand it. I wonder why people end up like that? Before that happens, I really think I have so much to do because people are really watching. I just think that I have a long way to go and that I haven’t become the king yet.
Is it necessary to not feel satisfied as an artist?
I really feel grateful to a lot of people that I have been able to come this far. For me to be able to go all over the world is really something I’m happy about, and there is more depth to music — it’s so vast and free. So there is still a lot to pursue.
And how many months of the year are you on tour?
It changes according to the year, but it’s about a third of the year.
What can we expect in your DJ set on the 27th?
Recently, I’ve been playing a lot of different genres, so over the course of the night I want to play a set that reflects a story that only I can make.
UNIT presents “2000” meets DJ Krush: Countdown to 20th Anniversary Special Vol. 1 on Feb. 27 at Unit in Daikanyama, Tokyo. Opens midnight. ¥2,000 before 1 a.m., ¥2,500 after 1 a.m. Krush plays a six-hour set. Guests include Ill Bosstino, Inden and Rino Latina.