‘Maybe they can smell something on us!” says Halca, 18, one half of hip-hop- meets-J-pop duo HalCali.
The “they” in question is the gaggle of high-profile artists and producers who have fallen over themselves to work with the girls, including Yuki, Fantastic Plastic Machine, Nomiya Maki from Pizzicato 5, Takkyu Ishino and members of Rip Slyme, m-flo and Supercar.
“I think maybe it’s because we’re pretty open to new styles and ideas,” says Yucali, 19, the duo’s other half, as they speak with The Japan Times in their first-ever interview with English-language press. “Anything goes. So if someone collaborates with us they can add their taste to HalCali.”
It might also be because HalCali are incredible.
Launched into the public eye aged just 15 and 16 after forming at an audition held by Ryo-z and DJ Fumiya of Rip Slyme, Halca and Yucali proved immediately that they were more than just pubescent eye-candy in the vein of the mighty-morphin’ Morning Musume.
These girls have raw talent, evidenced in their fast and fresh flow as rappers, quirky dance routines and singing voices that, if not spectacular, are at least passable. Fusing old-skool hip-hop beats with full-on J-pop melodies and plenty of genre-hopping, they — and their producers, of course — create a sound that is always unpredictable.
2003’s debut album “HalCali Bacon” was produced by Ryo-z and Fumiya (under the moniker OTF) and carried a near-flawless laid-back party style. The following year’s “Ongaku no Susume” diversified this “pop-hop” sound with high-NRG dance, melancholic-sounding guitars and even a country number. And the most recent singles have taken in Eurobeat (“Look”), jungle breaks (“Twinkle Star”) and Shibuya-kei (“Girl! Girl! Girl!” — one of three download-only singles released over the last few months).
This all makes for some very exciting pop music. But the downside is that diverse bands are harder to market, and this has been reflected in HalCali’s freestyling chart performance. Sometimes they chart highly, sometimes not, seemingly without a predictable pattern. Could it be that the average music listener is confused by the duo’s unusual approach?
“Well, we want people to understand and accept our way of doing things,” says Yucali. “We don’t mind if they have songs they don’t like. It can be frustrating when a single doesn’t chart well, but there’s not much we can do about it. We still love every song.”
“I wouldn’t say we don’t care about getting a No. 1,” says Halca. “It’s an important part of the business. But then again, the song at No. 1 isn’t always necessarily a good song!”
HalCali’s latest tilt at the top of the charts is “Togenkyo,” a poppy post-punk song with a couple of rap parts, produced by Kimura Kaela cohorts Honesty. Shunning their usual electronic backing, it features a living, breathing backing band for the first time in HalCali history.
” ‘Togenkyo’ was a stock song,” explains Yucali, referring to tracks that are bought from a songwriter’s stockpile rather than written especially for the artist. “But recording it was so cool, because the band had all these instruments that we’re not used to. I even took photos of the drums and guitars! And it sounds cool rapping over rock music.”
“I don’t know if people can hear how much we enjoyed it when they listen to the CD,” says Halca, “but I hope so.”
Despite its rock influence, the song somehow fits HalCali’s back catalog. It’s lively and fun, and the girls tailored the original lyrics to suit their skewed sense of humor.
“It’s quite a sad song,” says Yucali. “It’s about trying to convince yourself that you’re happy on your own, when actually you’re waiting for your boyfriend’s phone call. But we didn’t want to be too serious, so we wrote a rap part to make it funnier.”
The obvious question arises: How much choice do Halca and Yucali have in which songs they release and when? Nervous laughter aside, their answer is surprisingly candid.
“The older people pick!” bursts Yucali, pointing at the girls’ A&R staff. “But not every time. We do have some input. We call it Team HalCali.”
“Luckily we all have very similar taste,” says Halca. “So when we’re choosing a song, everyone usually agrees. Also, if we say something’s not quite right they’ll usually agree. It’s kind of a feeling, it’s difficult to explain. We always agree in the end.”
The track also recalls the last couple of albums by Puffy, who’ve evolved from a cute pop duo into a ballsier punk-pop affair. Critics often refer to HalCali as “the hip-hop Puffy,” and “Togenkyo” is sure to encourage this comparison even more.
“It can’t be helped. We’re a female duo, and we have so many things in common with Puffy,” says Halca. “But we want to be HalCali. If some other band was told they were their genre’s HalCali, they probably wouldn’t like it either.”
HalCali are currently preparing their third album for release “around rainy season” (early summer), which will be their first since leaving For Life Music Entertainment and joining Sony’s Epic imprint. (Yucali playfully fields the “Why did you change labels?” question thus: “That’s another one for the older people. Please make sure you write ‘laughs’ after that in brackets!”)
Given the difference between HalCali’s first two albums, and between each of their recent singles, there’s no way of guessing how record three will sound. Halca and Yucali, for their part, are keeping it under their baseball caps.
“We have some ideas but we’ll keep it a secret!” giggles Yucali. “We like to keep secrets.”
“But I’m sure it’s gonna be really good,” adds Halca, helpfully.
She’s almost certainly wrong of course; it’s bound to be incredible.
Guilty pleasures: three of J-pop’s ‘best’
HalCali are super-cool, obviously. But when it comes to tacky tunes that you can’t help but love, Japan does it best. Here are three prime exponents. Pass the karaoke mic!
Obviously rubbish yet delightfully addictive ska-punk popsters in the vein of Shakalabbits.
Cheese factor: 7/10
Lyrics don’t come much tackier than “Shake your body! Boogie-woogie dance tonight, baby!”
Dressing up as cheeky cat burglars wins major points.
Derivative, yes, but YYO boast choruses bigger than Kanye West’s head.
This J-pop superstar from Okinawa turned to R&B with her 2005 album “Queen of Hip-Pop.” Definitely a change for the better.
Some horrific ballads, but nothing too tasteless recently.
Among Tokyo’s “it girls,” she’s a right proper trendsetter.
Tracks such as “Want Me, Want Me” and “WoWa” incinerate the dancefloor.
Shamelessly fantastic ’80s pop pastiche by one Tomoko Kawase.
Cheese factor: 10
Check out those synths! It’s like Madonna mainlining icing sugar.
How saucy does she look in those glasses?
Proof positive that pure pop needs only be skin-deep.
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