The Sept. 18 worldwide release of “Suimou Tsunenimasu (A History of DJ Krush),” DJ Krush’s three-DVD retrospective, certainly gives fans quite a bit to chew on. Stretching back to the mid-1990s, when the turntablist/producer Krush (real name Hideaki Ishii) first toured overseas, this documentary sews together live clips from Europe, the United States and Japan, while adding layers of perspective through footage of recording sessions, brief interviews with collaborators and admirers, as well as a longer interview with Krush.
Overall, you get a lot for your money.
Last month, the 45-year-old grandfather stretched out on a low-slung sofa in a shadowy bar on the 40th floor of the Cerulean Tower in Shibuya and, speaking through a translator, discussed with surprising frankness his sound, his youth on the streets and the influence his family has had on his music.
“Before I learned how to DJ, I was a drummer in a rock group and did covers of bands like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. But then I left music,” Krush said. “I can’t exactly describe what I was doing because it was outside the law. But basically, I was in an organization and spent a lot of time in Kabukicho [in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district].”
Krush explained that he started working on the fringes of this “organization” when he was still in middle school. Later, when other kids were in high school, he was living in the organization’s compound and resolved “to go all the way to the top.”
Obviously, he didn’t. In fact, a few years after wading into the underworld he began looking for a path back out of it.
“I was lost,” he admitted. “I didn’t really have anyone to look up to at that time, and I didn’t trust adults. I was on good terms with my mother but she couldn’t help me, and I hated my father. He wasn’t able to hold a stable job. In fact, we didn’t always have enough to eat. Whenever my dad gambled and made money he would come home with a stereo and new records but when he lost or ran out of money he would sell this stuff. Even at a young age, everything was on the edge with me.”
Around this time, Krush saw the recently released film “Wild Style” (1983), about New York’s graffiti and hip-hop scenes, at a theater in Shinjuku. He credits the hip-hop DJs, dancers and artists in the movie with showing him how he could use music to get off the streets. But if he sensed that his chance was upon him, his friends and employers certainly didn’t understand why he’d want to become a DJ. Ironically, his father embraced the idea more strongly than anyone and Krush began edging back toward the tenuous family fold.
It took several years for Krush to achieve some stability, musically and otherwise. For the remainder of the ’80s and early ’90s, he played DJ sets in clubs, outdoor events and, often, in his bedroom. He also played with other musicians, but none was particularly noteworthy and few respected the turntable as an instrument. Nonetheless, this variety of settings and attitudes pushed Krush to hone his rhythmic sense and, in time, develop a dark, warm sound that would one day occupy its own niche in international hip-hop.
In the late ’80s, he formed the Krush Posse, but soon disbanded it, declaring he would go solo or bust. When record companies in Japan determined he held no commercial promise, Krush turned and looked to the rest of the world. Within a year, Krush’s determination and unique sound gave him a name in Europe and he began a relentless touring schedule that has yet to cease.
This past spring, Krush squeezed into a tiny rehearsal room in Shinjuku with the peerless drummer Hideo Yamaki and bassist Bill Laswell. They had a gig the following night that would also include Toshinori Kondo on trumpet, and Krush’s contribution was a bit of a wild card, especially since Laswell, Yamaki and Kondo are longtime collaborators and highly evolved improvisers.
Nonetheless, during rehearsal Krush quickly made himself part of Laswell and Yamaki’s intuitive musical flow. His thick, ambient tones seeped into the low end while turntable riffs rose in little eddies and swirled off into the distance. He dropped in occasional samples that gave the music melodic direction but his presence was never overwhelming. The three musicians exchanged no more than a few sentences but it was clear they had made a strong connection. Krush said later that improvising is a mind-set and an approach to music he began working on in the late 1980s, when live musicians scoffed at his turntable.
“I felt very frustrated. I’ve always liked live music and I wanted to show that I could bring something too,” Krush said. “DJs who only DJ in clubs probably don’t have the flexibility to work with a live band, but this is something I was interested in from early on.”
Among the more revealing comments in “Suimou Tsunenimasu” come from a Japanese rapper, Ill Bosstino. He suggests that as Krush gets older he exhibits new traits, among them tolerance and generosity. Krush chuckled over this and explained that part of his burgeoning humanity can be attributed to having kids.
“Well, my father was not much as a parent, and I wanted to be a very different type of father,” he said. “Having children gave me fear but it also made me want to be something they would look up to.”
Krush has two daughters, one in her early 20s and the other in her teens, but it’s been more than having kids that has influenced him. In the past few years he has weathered major experiences with death and life — two years ago his father died from cancer and his father-in-law, with whom he was quite close, also passed away. Krush laments both these deaths but there has also been some welcome news — the birth of his first grandson.
“It was strangely close,” he marveled. “Almost a switching of life.”
Krush feels that this potent mixture of life and death is causing his music to change and keeps him looking to the future, even if he’s not entirely sure how to explain or guide the changes.
“I want to come into the light a bit more with my music,” he says. “To be honest, it isn’t easy, and I’m not really sure how to do it. It’s like I’m in a sewer, or a manhole — I’m under the ground. It’s certainly not happy music that I’ve made in the past but, these days, I feel that I’m going a bit in that direction. At least now I feel like I’m starting to peek out of the sewer. My torso is in the sun, but the rest is still submerged.”
DJ Krush plays: Liquid Room’s “LIQUID 3rd ANNIVERSARY” on Sept. 19 in Ebisu, Tokyo (www.liquidroom.net); Osaka Black Chamber’s “Zettai-Mu 12th Anniversary” on Sept. 22 (www.zettai-mu.net); and Ageha’s “G-Shock presents T.I.M.E — The Individual Music Entertainment Tour Final” on Sept. 23 in Shin-kiba, Tokyo (g-shock.jp/party/)
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