The Acid Panda Cafe, an underground hip-hop club in Tokyo, is packed. The show is sold out. The racial makeup of the crowd is virtually all Japanese, except for the four African-Americans who hit the stage at 1 a.m. and launch into spirited rhyme. The words, inexplicably, are Japanese.
The song “Abarero” is the call to “get wild.” “Waruguchi Sensei” is an astute primer on cuss words. “Ketsutobi” is . . . well, more about “Ketsutobi” later.
The leader and songwriter of the group is 22-year-old Eric Koffi, better known to his Japanese fans as Kokujin Tensai — “Black Genius.” This is Tensai’s first time in Japan, and he’s already a hip-hop sensation. Says his manager, Katoman: “I believe (Eric) is a very special artist in Japanese music history. I don’t know anyone else like him. He is the first Japanese rapper from Memphis.”
Back in the U.S., Koffi reflects on the big trip. “I didn’t really know what to expect from Japan,” he says. “It was real different from being in America. Everywhere you go, there are people walking everywhere. Walking and walking! Also, I didn’t see any overweight people, but that might have been just where I was.”
Either way, Tokyo isn’t much like the south side of Memphis where Koffi goes to college and works at a DVD-packaging company. “It was kind of rough where I grew up. There were a bunch of pawnshops and fast-food restaurants. And there was only one school that everybody went to.”
Everybody indeed, which explains Koffi’s motivation for studying Japanese. One day, a Japanese exchange student showed up on campus. “She was the best-looking girl at school, but she only really knew how to speak Japanese. Everyone was trying to talk to her, so I figured I had to come up with something different. I learned a few Japanese phrases to say, and she wound up giving me her number. By the time I was able to conversate [sic] with her, she had to go back to Japan.”
Still in his exchange-student afterglow, Koffi signed up for Japanese-language classes at the University of Memphis.
“I looked at the books, and there were a whole bunch of definitions I didn’t know. I realized in order to learn Japanese, I had to go back and master English first. So I went back and learned how to ‘diagram’ a sentence, learned about subjects, direct objects, adverbs, positives and all that stuff. Then I transferred it to Japanese, and it all began to make sense.” He also credits his Japanese teacher: “She was around 31 — had a nice-shaped body and long brown hair. I never missed a day in class and always studied, but I just wanted to see the teacher really.” The nickname she gave her diligent pupil was “Tensai.” “I added the ‘Kokujin’ part by myself,” he says humbly.
Since “it’s hard to find a Japanese girl in Memphis,” Koffi needed an outlet for his burgeoning language skills. “Most of my friends were experimenting with making music and coming up with beats. I figured I could try it in Japanese. That was about a year ago. In October 2006, I put my first couple of songs on MySpace.”
The early Kokujin Tensai tracks were lo-fi affairs, recorded by Koffi in his bedroom on a laptop computer with a microphone bought from Wal Mart. He never expected more than a few people to listen to them, but, instead, Kokujin Tensai became an overnight sensation — at least in bedroom-rapper terms. “I remember one day coming home from work and I had gotten 2,000 song plays (on MySpace) in a single day. I kind of knew something was happening then.”
On both sides of the Pacific, word began to spread via e-mail and instant messaging about this guy from the U.S. who rapped about the usual hip-hop concerns (getting drunk, hitting on girls, etc.), but in Japanese, and very unique Japanese at that.
Take the song “Ketsutobi,” for example, which exemplifies the Kokujin Tensai aesthetic. Inspired by, as Eric puts it, “the way girls shake it . . . it bounces up and down when they dance . . . and it kind of looks like wings flapping,” Koffi created a new word by combining “ass” (ketsu) with “flying” (tobi). By the end of 2007, word of Kokujin Tensai had spread to the Japanese social-networking site Mixi, and “more and more Japanese people started showing up on my page. I started reading what people were saying about me, and this one guy said I was like the underground king of Japan.” Eventually, an indie label out of Tokyo made contact. “They sent me a message over MySpace and said they wanted to try out some things. I went and got my songs mastered on CD and they started setting up some tour dates for Japan.”
Now under Japanese management, Koffi had expanded his solo act into a full-blown group of bilingual rappers — comprised of schoolmates from Memphis who took “one semester of Japanese each so they could get the sounds right.” The group recorded increasingly professional sounding tracks and began adding YouTube videos to their Internet arsenal.
The stage was set for a whirlwind tour of Tokyo. The five-day trip to Japan in March was not without incident. Recalls Koffi: “Over at this one club, (band member) Mr. Tokyo started talking to this one girl, but I guess she already belonged to someone else. Her boyfriend got kind of upset and started screaming all kinds of stuff. . . . Then security came in and we had to go. And after another show, we went outside to sign some autographs and we got kind of loud. I guess someone called the cops, so we got kind of a police escort on our way to our next show.” In between sightseeing at temples and sampling the local cuisine, the group was interviewed by R25, one of Japan’s biggest-selling free weeklies, and Web portal Excite.com Japan.
June saw the release of “Clubz Thugz Sex Drugz,” the band’s first widely distributed CD in Japan. Containing new songs like “Love Hotel,” alongside MySpace “classics” like the autobiographical “Jikoshokai (Self-introduction),” Koffi claims “it sold 1,000 copies in the first week of release.”
While his label hawks “Abarero” T-shirts and Kokujin Tensai buttons, the future is wide open for Koffi. “I’m going back to school and trying to find the time to go back to Japan. We’re going to be making a music video there and collaborating with some Japanese rappers like K Dub Shine and DJ Oasis. But I also really want to make international hip-hop with all kinds of languages. I’m trying out rapping in Spanish now to see how it would sound. But I always want to put Japan first. I like Japan and I learned the language, and now I just want to share it. Most Americans who hear my stuff want me to remake my songs in English, but I don’t really feel like doing that. I’d rather rap in all other languages except English. You know, try something different.”
“Clubz Thugz Sex Drugz” is on sale now. To listen to Kokujin Tensai, visit www.myspace.com/kokujintensai Patrick Macias, author of “Otaku in USA” and “Japanese Schoolgirl Inferno: Tokyo Teen Fashion Subculture Handbook,” can be found online at www.patrickmacias.blogs.com
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