Few genres are as freighted with the politics of authenticity as hip-hop. Just last month, the New Yorker kicked off a fresh round of controversy when it ran a profile of Lord Jamar, a cantankerous middle-aged rapper who rails against what he sees as the softening — and whitening — of modern hip-hop. In between lambasting Le1f’s sexuality and Kanye West’s stylistic and sartorial liberties, Jamar took aim at artists like the white rapper Macklemore: “You are guests in the house of hip-hop. . . . Keep it real with yourselves: you know this is a black man’s thing.”
What, you have to wonder, would the man dubbed “hip-hop’s alpha conservative” make of a group like Simi Lab? Even the more enlightened Western listener can tend to regard Japanese hip-hop with mild condescension: Fun, maybe even sincere, but no substitute for the real thing (whatever that is). Yet there’s enough about this eight-strong, mixed-race crew to give you pause.
Try watching Simi Lab’s latest video — for its riotous, superhero battle-rap anthem “Avengers” — and you’ll probably find yourself asking the same questions many Japanese fans did when the group’s first promo went viral in 2009: Who are these people? And what language are they actually rapping in?
“I used to listen to loads of American hip-hop, to the point that I thought I’d have to rap in English for it to sound good,” says OMSB, 25, the group’s main producer and one of its six MCs. Like the majority of Simi Lab’s members, he’s from a biracial family, born to a Japanese mother and African-American father. Though he professes not to speak much English, his favorite rappers — El-P, The Notorious B.I.G., RZA, Joey Bada$$, R.A. the Rugged Man — are all American.
“At first, I tried to make my flow sound closer to English by modeling it on the rappers I liked and inserting Japanese lyrics that fit,” he continues. “But then I got properly into Japanese hip-hop, and started listening to tunes with really dope lyrics — people like Kan (from MSC) and Boss (from Tha Blue Herb).”
On Simi Lab’s recently released sophomore album, “Page 2: Mind Over Matter,” the group’s MCs trade verses in a range of accents and timbres that are seldom heard in Japanese hip-hop, even from conspicuously “foreign-sounding” rappers such as Rau Def and Tamaki Roy. Core member DyyPride — who like the rest of the group only gives his stage name, which he normally stylizes in capital letters — has Japanese and Ghanaian parentage and likes to joke that he compensated for his lousy English by acquiring a freakish mastery of his mother tongue. But while he’s regarded as one of the group’s most adept lyricists, his delivery on the new album can often serve to mask that fact.
“Up until now, my rapping was all about the content,” he says. “This time, I thought it’d be interesting to try using a flow that didn’t really sound like Japanese.”
The themes aren’t what you’d usually expect from Japanese hip-hop, either. On “Come to the Throne,” DyyPride, 25, recalls coming home after brawling with a racist kid, T-shirt torn and muddy, and asking his mother [in Japanese]: “Why am I the only one who’s different?” In “Roots,” OMSB describes how his own mother became pregnant while she was in Los Angeles, only moving back to Japan with him when he was 3 years old: “Grandpa hated my foreign father / But when he saw me he was all tears and laughter.”
“I think there’s less prejudice now (in Japan), but we’re still a long way off reaching a point where nobody cares about skin color anymore,” he says.
DyyPride agrees. “It’s probably going to take a long time,” he says, “but I hope that one day this becomes a society where the mixed-race kids like us, the handicapped people who tend to get trampled over, and all the other minorities can live without any hassle. And if the stuff we’re doing (with Simi Lab) makes the average person more aware of those problems, and helps them realize how ridiculous they are, that’d be great.”
Simi Lab’s home turf in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture, is probably ahead of the curve in this respect. With the U.S. Army base Camp Zama just down the road, it’s a more cosmopolitan environment than many other parts of Japan.
“Being around foreigners felt normal from an early age,” recalls Hi’Spec, 26, Simi Lab’s backing DJ and sometime producer. “Where we’re from, you don’t think anything about seeing biracial kids. It’s just normal.”
The group emerged from this environment in a haphazard fashion, as its members befriended one another at hip-hop parties or forged connections via social networking services such as MySpace and Mixi. Maria, an army base kid and Simi Lab’s lone female member, first met DyyPride when she tried to chat him up at a club in Yokosuka, Kanagawa; OMSB found him by doing a search for other Afro-Japanese rappers on Mixi.
In Simi Lab’s first missive to the world, a self-produced video called “Walk Man” that was uploaded to YouTube in 2009, the members took turns squeezing in front of the camera in a cramped apartment and loafed around in their local Seven-Eleven. But if the settings were mundane, the music sparked widespread excitement among Japan’s hip-hop cognoscenti. The group’s debut album, “Page 1: Anatomy of Insane,” was released to strong reviews in 2011, and the following year Simi Lab gained further renown when it collaborated with DCPRG, the ensemble led by famed jazz musician Naruyoshi Kikuchi.
The saxophonist makes a guest appearance on “Dawn,” the most abstract track on “Page 2: Mind Over Matter,” and one of the rare moments where Simi Lab permits an outside voice into its ranks. With more full-time members this time around — MCs Usowa and Juma only played support roles in “Page 1: Anatomy of Insane,” while rapper Rikki and scratch turntablist DJ Zai are new recruits — there’s less need for them. “Avengers,” produced by prolific beatmaker Mujo, is the lone track that wasn’t made in-house, and you won’t hear a single guest verse during the album’s exhausting, frequently exhilarating 77-minute running time. As statements of intent go, it’s pretty coherent.
“The first album was made in a rush, and I honestly regret putting it out when there was still a lot of stuff that wasn’t right with it,” says OMSB. “This time around, I really pushed myself as far as I could go: with the raps, the beats, the production, everything.” Nowadays, he doesn’t balk at listing himself among his top five producers. “I’m really confident in my beats.”
“It feels punchier than the last album — it’s like, ‘This is hip-hop,’ ” says Maria, 25. “That kind of hip-hop definitely exists in Japan, but to do it with multiracial members, with men and women, with a scratch DJ, with all these different essences — I don’t think there are many other people here doing it like that.”
“Page 2: Mind Over Matter” is in stores now. Simi Lab plays a headliner show at Unit in Daikanyama, Tokyo, on April 29 (6 p.m. start; ¥2,800 in advance; 03-5459-8630). For more information and tour dates, visit www.summit2011.net.