This month, artists from 34 countries will congregate in Tokyo for the latest edition of the Red Bull Music Academy (RBMA), a caffeine-fueled creative hothouse organized by the world’s most ubiquitous energy drink brand. For participants, the event offers a chance to attend closed-door lectures with a host of well-known musicians and DJs, and to collaborate with each other at a newly built studio complex in Shibuya.
However, there’s reason for the rest of us to get excited, too: In the course of the RBMA’s two fortnight-long sessions, Tokyo will be treated to a generous serving of concerts, club nights, talks and art exhibitions — and everyone’s invited. Kicking off with a party featuring deep house pioneer Kerri Chandler at Daikanyama club Air this Sunday, the lineup offers some rich pickings, ranging from a multiroom takeover at the Karaoke Kan complex in Shinjuku to a geek-tastic concert at Shibuya’s Womb in which contemporary laptop musicians will wrangle with vintage video game soundtracks.
There may only be a couple of Japanese musicians enrolled in this year’s academy, but homegrown artists feature heavily in the program of events. Acclaimed sound and visual artist Ryoji Ikeda will transform Omotesando’s Spiral Hall into an immersive installation; psychedelic voyager Keiji Haino will preside over a combo noise gig and ambient slumber party at Roppongi’s SuperDeluxe; avant-garde icons Otomo Yoshihide and Eye will conduct a group improv session at the Shinseiki dance hall in Uguisudani. And then there’s one of the most intriguing offerings: a live collaboration between underground hip-hop producer DJ Krush and a quartet of traditional Japanese musicians, held in front of the Yoshio Taniguchi-designed Gallery of Horyuji Treasures in Ueno.
These artists may not have much in common stylistically, but according to Krush, they all share a certain ethos.
“Everyone’s pretty individual,” says the 52-year-old turntable maestro (real name Hideaki Ishi), when we meet after his sound-check at a club in the Ebisu district. “They aren’t copying someone else — they’re being fiercely original.”
Krush knows a thing or two about originality. Having grown up listening to Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, he became an early adopter in Japan’s hip-hop scene, honing his craft with party-rap crew Krush Posse in the late 1980s and early ’90s before going it alone as a solo artist. But while hip-hop was still considered an MC’s music, Krush’s moody, low-slung tracks ditched the rap altogether. It was an approach that would become far more popular as the decade wore on — think trip-hop and downtempo — but he initially struggled to find an audience for his music at home.
“At the time, people in Japan still thought that ‘hip-hop’ meant ‘American,’ ” he says. “Everyone would be mimicking American hip-hop, wearing the same clothes, but that’s not where I was coming from. I didn’t just want to copy something. That’s why I decided to make music without any rap — I thought you could still express hip-hop just with the rhythms, just with the sounds. The way that Japanese people in Japan understood hip-hop and the way that I understood it were different.”
He was better received in the U.K., where he signed to Mo’ Wax, at the time one of the country’s most trend-setting labels. The American producer DJ Shadow, another key exponent of instrumental hip-hop, was also on the label roster, and the pair collaborated for a track on Krush’s third album, “Meiso.”
Released in 1995, the record gave an early indication of where its creator would be heading next. Lead track “Only the Strong Survive” was notable for featuring a vocal contribution from CL Smooth, but also for its use of shakuhachi — the first time that Krush had incorporated traditional Japanese music into his work.
“I didn’t want to do it at first,” he says. “It’s just unnatural, you know? I didn’t listen to music like that when I was a kid: I just listened to rock all the time.” Touring overseas inspired a gradual change of heart, as he began to cast around for distinctively Japanese music that he could introduce to an international audience.
“When I did that, I realized that there were all these traditional forms of music: shakuhachi, gagaku, shamisen, taiko,” Krush says. “I was Japanese myself, so why not try to use them?”
This creative process would find its fullest expression on 2004’s “Jaku” album, which featured collaborations with Japanese musicians ranging from taiko drummer Tetsuro Naito to jazz saxophonist and minyō folk singer Akira Sakata. Shakuhachi player Shuzan Morita, who appeared on the track “Still Life,” ended up joining Krush on his subsequent European tour.
“I think it was the first time he’d played in a club,” he says.
Morita will be returning for the upcoming performance at the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures, alongside gagaku (court music) players Takazumi Shimomiya and Ryuuichi Kaneko, and taiko drummer Yosuke Oda, from the prestigious Kodo ensemble. At the time of our conversation, Krush had yet to rehearse with the musicians, and he seemed downright philosophical about how things might turn out.
“It’s like everyone’s swimming in a pool,” he says, miming a succession of different styles: front crawl, backstroke and breaststroke. “You’ve got the taiko swimming like this, the shakuhachi like this, the gagaku like this. But I’m not building an ordinary-shaped pool, and I’m not filling it with regular water. There’ll be brown water, black water, red water — that’s the kind of pool I plan to throw them into.”
He laughs, as I flash him a quizzical look.
“I’m not thinking about hip-hop at all.”
DJ Krush performs “The Garden Beyond” at the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures at Tokyo National Museum in Taito-ku, Tokyo, on Oct. 20 (7:30 p.m. start; ¥2,500 in advance). Red Bull Music Academy Tokyo 2014 runs from Oct. 12 to Nov. 14. For more information, visit www.redbullmusicacademy.com.