Kreva keeps Japan’s hip-hop heart beating

by Sarah Noorbakhsh

The last thing anyone expects one of the country’s leading hip-hop artists to say about the scene he’s part of is that it’s uninspired. But for Japanese hip-hop veteran Kreva, that’s the unfortunate truth. “There’s not really anyone I’m excited to listen to right now,” explained the artist offhandedly at his office and studio hidden on an unassuming side street in Tokyo.

The 34-year-old rapper has watched the genre grow and change from underground phenomenon to commercially viable in the 15 years since he first picked up the mic in 1995 with fellow MC Cue, now Cuezero, and formed the underground group By Phar the Dopest. Although best known for his role as MC and producer in the popular mainstream hip-hop group Kick the Can Crew, since the group became inactive in 2004 the artist has become a powerhouse on the domestic scene and the closest thing it has to a household name.

Since starting his solo career, Kreva has done much to put hip-hop on the radar of the Japanese public. Picked up by Pony Canyon, he released his first major single “Neiro” in 2004 and never looked back. His second album, “Ai Jibun Haku” in 2006 made him the first solo hip-hop artist to hit No. 1 on the Oricon Weekly charts. In the same year, he became the first solo Japanese hip-hop artist to play at the Budokan.

His biggest claim to fame thus far has been his award-winning video for the single “Shunkan Speechless.” The 4 1/2-minute clip features the mellow and catchy track set to an almost eerie video of a party frozen in time. As the camera pans around the dark room, Kreva himself moves between suspended animation and full, head-bobbing life. Director Masaki Ohkita reportedly approached him with the idea, and Kreva joked that, “While we were making it we thought, if we don’t get an award for this here, we’d really hate Japan.”

But win they did, capturing Best Hip Hop Video at the MTV Music Video Awards 2010 and Best Male Video at the Space Shower TV Music Video Awards. Just this past month, the clip was also screened overseas at the Los Angeles Film Festival during the Japanese Music Video Showcase.

The single itself is, oddly enough, not Kreva’s favorite off his latest album “Shinzo.”

“Personally, I like the song ‘Seiko.’ During my last tour, I was sitting in my room at night thinking. On tour, there’s a point where you’re watching your friends and fellow artists get up on stage and get all this applause, and you feel a little jealous. I wrote the song kind of toward myself, for this insecure person who has a hard time watching others succeed,” he explained. “In Japan there’s not a lot of songs about the theme of success, and I’ve got a lot of compliments from other musicians.”

For an artist touted as being at the forefront of the pop-hip-hop scene the theme seems to be appropriate, but Kreva remains modest. “I’ve never been the ‘leader’ or ‘center’ of the Japanese hip-hop scene. But over time it hit me that I was the only one left still working hard doing my thing. I’m not sure how it happened, but right now it’s kind of like, ‘come on you guys, try harder!’ ” he says, kidding about the way the scene is shaping up now.

Hoping to further propel his own success and that of others, Kreva began his own K-Label in 2005, and is currently working with new talent such as J-pop and hip-hop singer Sonomi. He’s still on the hunt for fresh sounds, however, asking fans to send in their own songs for a chance to be scouted. But while the first round of recruits produced 1,000 hopeful tracks, the artist was admittedly uninspired by the potential.

“There weren’t any that really hit me, but I plan to keep trying to do the same thing and hopefully meet some good talent,” he said. “It would be great if they’d just come out by themselves, but I think they’re out there. I’ve got high expectations.”

Summer promises to be a big season for Kreva, with a performance schedule slotting him in the lineups of seasonal events such as the Rising Sun Rock Festival, Rock In Japan and Summer Sonic.

“Yeah, there’s a lot of big rock events,” he smirked. “And while I don’t think rock fans will suddenly get into hip-hop, I’m hoping to open their minds at least a little bit.”

He remains most hopeful about Summer Sonic, the massive two-day, two-city festival that boasts an eclectic lineup of foreign and domestic artists including Jay-Z, Stevie Wonder, Dream Theater, Beat Crusaders and Anna Tsuchiya. “In a nutshell, Summer Sonic is a place where music fans gather, and there’s so many different kinds of music being played there that I expect people to feel something, even if they’ve never heard my songs.”

Ultimately, Kreva hopes the hip-hop and soul scene itself will develop enough to get its own large-scale event organized. “I think right now there’s no huge festivals because artists just don’t respect each other,” he says, grimacing. “And if you’re going to go through the work of organizing something on that scale, you want it to be a success on the first go. In the end, it’s all about timing, and it just doesn’t seem like the time is now.”

But are things going to change? “That’s the question I’d like to ask!” he laughed. “The technology makes it so easy to produce your own stuff and print cheap CDs, and right now it seems like everyone is operating on an amateur level. There’s too many people making music just because they can. I hope aspiring musicians realize someday they’ve got to buckle down.”

Kreva plays Rock In Japan on Aug. 6, Summer Sonic in Tokyo on Aug. 7 and Osaka on Aug. 8, and Rising Sun Rock Festival on Aug. 13. For more information, visit www.kreva.biz Sonomi’s Kreva-produced debut album, S.O.N.O.M, will be out Sept. 8.