Ryo the Skywalker’s new hope

Celebrating 10 years, Japanese rapper hopes to tweet the dancehall gospel

by Shawn Despres

Search the music section on social networking website Twitter and you’ll see a long list of known global megastars, including Britney Spears and Kanye West. Directly under Justin Timberlake is Japan’s only representative on the list — Ryo the Skywalker, the stage name of Ryo Yamaguchi.

The Osaka-born, Tokyo-based dancehall MC uses his musical moniker as his Twitter ID. He currently has nearly 263,000 followers, making him a local Twitter celebrity of sorts. But this was not his intention when he first signed up for the service.

“I used to be an official recommended user in Japan,” he says. “I started using Twitter in April of 2009 to try and get information from the U.S. and the Caribbean.

“I like using Twitter because it’s simple and fun. I enjoy communicating with my friends and fans. There are a lot less of them than my Twitter numbers show though.”

Widely recognized as one of Japan’s premier dancehall acts, a subgenre of reggae music that is driven by sparse, fast rhythms and a mix of rapped and sung vocals, it’s not inconceivable that Twitter pegged Yamaguchi as a man its users should watch.

This year marks his 10th anniversary as a major-label recording artist. As Ryo the Skywalker, he has toured throughout Japan and performed in Los Angeles. He operates his own reggae and dancehall imprint called Bush Hunter Music. In 2007, Nike created limited-edition Ryo the Skywalker sneakers. On Oct. 29, a Ryo the Skywalker action figure — armed with its own mic and a backpack speaker — will go on sale.

The cross-marketing is apt; one of Yamaguchi’s main passions is also where he got his name.

“I never got any ‘Star Wars’ followers supporting me when I first started,” he laughs. “I never used the Force during my sets.”

Although he issued his debut EP, “How to Walk in the Sky,” in the fall of 2000, Yamaguchi has been involved in Japan’s reggae and dancehall scenes since the early 1990s.

“I started to listen to dancehall music around 18 years ago,” he says. “At first I just listened to CDs like Shabba Ranks and Maxi Priest. When I first went to a reggae club with my friends I was surprised by dancehall’s big bass sounds and shouting MCs. I started going out more often to learn about the style.”

He was already MCing at dancehall and reggae events when he made his first trip to Jamaica in 1994. Inspired by the experience, he also began working as a DJ after returning home.

“In Japan there’s rock, pop, and hip-hop on the charts,” he says. “In Jamaica, reggae music is considered pop music. Learning that gave me a better understanding of this music’s vibes and made me believe in its power.”

Yamaguchi has been to Jamaica around 20 times since that initial visit and has kept a residence in Kingston for the last four years. Despite having never performed there, he’s excited that the locals are pleased with what he’s doing.

“I only have Japanese lyrics, but I still sing for them,” he says. “I’m always glad when they can catch my vibes and ride upon them.”

In July, Yamaguchi put out his sixth Ryo the Skywalker full-length, “Rhyme-Light.” Packed with energetic, pop-tinged dancehall anthems, the album was partially recorded and mixed in Jamaica. Produced by Jamaican reggae innovators Sly and Robbie, the cut “Samurai Sword” includes elements of more traditional island fare and stands out as a definite highlight.

Having already promoted “Rhyme- Light” for large audiences at outdoor summer fests such as the very popular Yokohama Reggae SAI and Fukuoka’s Sunset Live, Yamaguchi will properly showcase the album at a trio of special 10th-anniversary concerts in November.

“I want to play for over two hours each night,” he says excitedly. “These are going to be really cool shows. All of the guests from ‘Rhyme-Light’ will make appearances and some other dancehall friends will join me too.”

According to Yamaguchi, the menu will also boast selections from October’s “#RSW10th” mix CD alongside old favorites. Kanagawa Prefecture reggae band Home Grown will provide backing instrumentation for all the songs.

A second Ryo the Skywalker Twitter site (RSW10th) touting his 10th- anniversary activities was created earlier this year. Just over 1,500 people have signed up for it — backing Yamaguchi’s claims that the success of his main Twitter account is not a true indication of his fame.

“I don’t know how many of these people are my ‘real’ followers,” he says. “I’m sure some of them can’t understand Japanese or have already quit using Twitter.”

Despite having direct access to a large number of potential supporters, he’s doubtful his Twitter stature has had any positive impact on album or concert ticket sales yet.

Still with his account numbers continuing to steadily rise, the site and his musings about “Daily things: reggae, gadgets, funny things, and serious news,” could help him accomplish his long-term goals as an artist.

“I’m still trying to make this style of music big in Japan,” he says. “Most Japanese people don’t know what real reggae is. I want to make these scenes huge and spread righteous vibes all over Japan. I want to make dancehall as big as karaoke.”

Ryo the Skywalker plays Nov. 2 at Zepp Nagoya ([052] 541-5758); Nov. 16 at Zepp Tokyo ([03] 3599-0710); Nov. 23 at Zepp Osaka ([06] 4703-7760). All shows start at 7 p.m. and tickets are ¥5,000 in advance. For details, visit www.rsw10th.jp or www.bushhunter.jp.