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Japan has produced so many great hip-hop DJs, like Krush and Kensei, that it is easy to overlook the dearth of equally great MCs. No surprise then that most of the intriguing artists at this weekend’s underground hip-hop confab, sponsored by hybrid metal rap group Koinu, are turntablists such as DJs Kensei, Quietstorm and Yas.

Tha Blue Herb is the one exception in this showcase. So many hopes have been pinned on Tha Blue Herb that it’s no wonder the group periodically disappears into the mountains of Nepal or the forests of Thailand. Since their 1998 debut album “Stilling, Still Dreaming” the Sapporo unit has been hailed as the saviors of Japanese hip-hop.

With MC the Boss, Japanese hip-hop has found a voice that pushes the lyrical boundaries of hip-hop as much as his partner, DJ Ono, pushes its musical ones. Boss is hip-hop’s Rimbaud. Each rap is a poetic, personal odyssey into the far out. Equally fluent in street jargon and high literature, Boss makes Japanese his instrument without relying on hip-hop’s usual cliches.

The audience at the pair’s infrequent (and packed) shows outside of Sapporo are testament to Tha Blue Herb’s unique position in the underground hip-hop scene. As the duo mount the stage, conversation stops, the nervous energy of the crowd dissipates, and an attentive mood, rather like the opening minutes of a sermon, takes over. The stillness remains throughout their set — there isn’t any dancing usually, or partying — and it’s tempting to think that the audience is bored. They aren’t; they are just listening.

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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