Despite its immense popularity in Japan, hip-hop has until recently suffered from poor representation at summer music events. The Fuji Rock Festival seems keen to make up for lost time this year, augmenting the usual legion of club-oriented DJs with a veritable roll call of some of today’s most innovative hip-hop artists. Better yet, the bulk of the roster performs on the fest’s opening day, July 25.
Among the standouts is Talib Kweli, a Brooklynite who cut his teeth during hip-hop’s Golden Age (think De la Soul/Tribe Called Quest-era New York). Collaborations with Hi-Tek (Reflection Eternal) and Mos Def (Black Star) brought out the jazzy turntablist predilections of the East Coast, but Kweli’s solo debut, “Quality,” takes this and bounces it against old-school beats, hand claps, soul/gospel vocals and a seasoned optimism that all prove an MC can still be positive without appearing soft.
Similar things could be said about Michael Franti and his live band, Spearhead, who perform later in the afternoon on the same White Stage. Franti’s early ’90s project, the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, sacrificed hip-hop’s sanguine bravado on the altar of social activism. With Spearhead, however, the Oakland, Calif., native gets back to his roots, both musically and lyrically. With soul and funk as a springboard, Spearhead’s jams — like Franti’s own stage presence — are equal parts Chuck D, Bob Marley and Earth, Wind and Fire. Stunning backup vocalists and rump-shaking revelry never dilute his message, but rather provide the right amount of sugar to help the polemics go down.
Just as Kweli and Franti’s righteous thump flourishes in sunshine, when night falls the shadowy Red Marquee’s late-night lineup will thrive. The spectacle begins around midnight with Pole (aka Stefan Betke), an aural alchemist known for boiling dub down to an amorphous sludge, then sprinkling it with the snap, crackle and pop of a malfunctioning sound processor. Betke’s foil will be Cincinnati, Ohio-based MC/DJ, Fat Jon, whose mike and turntable exploits sound downright baroque compared to Betke’s murky minimalism.
Friday’s crescendo should arrive during the postmodern sampler experiments of Scott Herren, aka Prefuse 73. His slice ‘n’ sampling style fashions droning synths and polished shards of the human voice into shockingly danceable collages that honor old-skool conventions while simultaneously transcending them. (An interview with Prefuse 73 will appear on The Japan Times’ Entertainment page this Sunday.)
The evening’s largest dose of street cred comes from New York’s premier independent hip-hop label, Definitive Jux. Owned and operated by MC/producer El Producto (El-P for short), Def Jux and its artists (which include Aesop Rock, RJD2 and Mr. Lif) mix paranoia and inspiration with a staunchly anticommercial stance and made fans out of everyone from Eminem to Elvis Costello. When El-P and Aesop Rock play Fuji’s Red Marquee, expect obscure references to history and pop culture delivered through breakneck change-ups and beats as thick, dark and sticky as the back of your stove. Often closer to actual poetry than conventional rap, the street prose these two produce often requires repeated listening to get your head around.
The purpose, however, is to challenge listeners, not confuse them, says El-P via e-mail. “I write the way I write because that’s how I like the words to come out,” he notes. “The fun of being an MC, for me, is having my own style and playing with structure and vocabulary. I’m not here to teach you anything, and I don’t intentionally obstruct any meaning.”
With the wheels of steel manned by DJ Big Wiz (described by El-P as a “veteran b-boy, DJ to the core,”), the Def Jux set will include material from El-P’s spellbinding “Fantastic Damage” album, as well as tracks from Aesop Rock’s upcoming release, “Bazooka Tooth.”
While words are their weapon, neither MC seems concerned about the language barrier faced at Fuji Rock. “I’ve performed in Japan before, as well as many other non-English speaking countries,” says Aesop Rock. “I find you really just have to be a bit more animated than usual. Call-and-response routines work well, if they are simple. Otherwise, I just dance around like a circus monkey and hope the crowd feels it.”
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