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Hip-hop commentators talk a lot about roots: about old school roots and neighborhood roots and ultimately roots in Africa. Though hip-hop has flourished in Japan, much of it is distinctly rootless, imitating the goofy antics of The Beastie Boys or the street-savvy poses of gangsta rappers.

Sapporo’s Tha Blue Herb are in a different tradition entirely. MC Ill Bosstino and his partner DJ Ono have created music that harkens back to hip-hop’s legacy as urban poetry, closer to the Last Poets or Gil Scott Heron. But hip-hop’s old old school isn’t their only inspiration. They are also distinctly Japanese and, beyond that, distinctly northern, their roots firmly planted in Hokkaido.

Asked to comment on mainstream Japanese hip-hop, Ill Bosstino (or Boss, as he is usually called) leans back in his chair and casually flips the bird.

He can afford to be a little arrogant. With only two full-length albums over the past five years and a handful of shows outside of Hokkaido, Tha Blue Herb have been hailed by aficionados as the most vital Japanese hip-hop act since DJ Krush.

“The big problem with a lot of Japanese hip-hop is that it uses Japanese in an English way,” says Boss, recovering from the Tokyo record release party the previous evening. “Hip-hop is about lyricism at its very root. It is truly an oral tradition, and this is the one that I work in.”

Boss speaks in a compelling mixture of hipster slang and the educated nuances of someone steeped in Japanese literature. Often dark and deeply personal, his words are thick with metaphors that elude fixed meaning.

The name of Tha Blue Herb’s new album, “Sell Our Soul,” is a case in point. It is at once an ironic jab at mainstream hip-hop, an allusion to the temptations of fame and a reference to Faust, Goethe’s hero who sells his soul to the devil for universal knowledge.

“A twentysomething is thinking about fun, about women, but its not enough anymore when you get older,” says Boss who will turn 31 this year. “You start to think about life and its mechanisms . . . like what happens to your spirit after you die. The questions that plague me are, ‘Where am I going?’ and ‘What is going to change by the time I’m 40 or 50?’ “

Like Faust, Boss’ demons are ultimately personal ones. And like so many writers before him, from the French Symbolists to the Beats, he embraces them.

“When writing lyrics, I have to give everything, all of myself to it,” says Boss. “You hit the bottom, and as you keep writing, the bottom gets further and further down. It is a bottomless pit. This devil seems like something that is negative, but for me it is extremely positive.

“All the angst that is hidden inside you, the ugly competitiveness and pride, comes to be revealed in writing. It surfaces, and you begin to learn about this part of yourself.”

As the group’s name suggests, he gets a little help in his quest the Rastafarian way (“My wife,” he says with a wry smile). It also explains somewhat the group’s frequent shows with dub- and reggae-derived groups such as Dry and Heavy and Audio Active, not to mention the legions of fans wandering around their last Tokyo show wearing “Run-THC” T-shirts.

Despite sold-out shows and increasing hype, Tha Blue Herb remain steadfastly loyal to Sapporo and the independent music scene there. They are also acutely aware of the artistic price to be paid for abandoning one’s roots.

“That’s basically why I don’t want to live [in Tokyo]. The community [in Sapporo] protects me,” Boss explains.

It might also explain why, after the cult success of the Tha Blue Herb’s first album, “Stilling, Still Dreaming,” the group took a surprising hiatus. For the next 11 months, Boss traveled through Southeast Asia, Europe and the United States.

“I’ve decided I’m going to do music for the next 20 years, and I’m only in my third year or so. I’ve only scratched the surface, so I need to undergo change to continue to develop.”

But, he says with a characteristic smile, after 11 months on the road, “Nothing changed. I am I!”

If Boss’ lyrics have more in common with literature, then his partner DJ Ono’s beats are equally challenging.

Unlike many hip-hop records that seek an almost a seamless fit between MC and DJ, Ono’s turntable is often at right angles to Boss’ rhymes. The music is spare, owing more to abstract electronica and the surreal ethnic sounds of the gamelan or shamisen than the usual funk or dance hip-hop staples. Like two separate voices, the convergence of words and music form a dialogue, the double helix that creates Tha Blue Herb’s special DNA.

This is music that quite literally demands your full attention. Nowhere is this clearer than at the group’s live shows. At first the crowd seems apathetic, adrift in the deluge of words coming from the stage. But closer observation reveals just the opposite. At key moments, the audience bursts into dizzying applause. They are actually listening so intently that there is no energy left for the usual grooving or partying. The beefy security contingent, de rigueur at hip-hop shows, is totally unnecessary.

“It’s funny about hip-hop, because the rapper is rapping about himself,” says Boss. “It is terrifically self-centered, but what I am looking for when I am writing lyrics, when searching the bottom of the pit, is something that sparkles, something that shines and is a conduit to something higher. My wish is for people watching our shows or listening to our lyrics to be taken to a higher level with me.”

The group encourages this vibe by featuring almost exclusively instrumental music for the rest of the evening after their performance.

“For me, hip-hop is basically head music,” says Boss. “An hour and a half seeped with metaphor is enough.”

If it is difficult for the audience to remain alert for such a long time, it is equally wondrous that Boss is able to maintain a continuous, energetic flow of words.

“I’m a rapper,” he says grinning. “That is the root. The basic.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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