Review: DJ Krush at the Tokyo National Museum

by James Hadfield

Special To The Japan Times

It’s all in the location. For his sold-out Red Bull Music Academy show on Monday night, DJ Krush traded his regular clubland haunts for something a little fancier: the courtyard of the Yoshio Taniguchi-designed Gallery of Horyuji Treasures at Tokyo National Museum in Ueno. Entering through an imposing temple gate, the audience took their seats on an island facing the stage, surrounded by water and overlooked by Taniguchi’s striking, minimalist architecture. It was a setting that demanded reverence, and even the occasional cloudburst couldn’t dampen the mood (though the free ponchos distributed to the crowd were definitely appreciated).

Krush has come a long way from his roots in the underground hip-hop scene, but he’d never attempted anything quite like this before. The turntablist took center stage behind a laptop and record decks, flanked by shakuhachi maestro Shuzan Morita, a pair of gagaku (court music) players and taiko drummer Yosuke Oda, of Kodo fame. In the course of an hour-long performance, much of which appeared to be improvised, he blended samples of traditional Japanese music and singing with turntable scratches and sequenced beats that occasionally overpowered the live musicians.

It was a mixed bag. Krush’s predilection for warm synthesizer pad sounds occasionally lent things the slick, cheesy feel of the soundtrack for a long-forgotten action flick starring Steven Segal. Ironically, some of the most effective moments came during the atmospheric lulls, when he pared his contributions back to a minimum — a low drone, a few squiggly scratches — and allowed the musicians more space to breathe.

Morita, the only player here who’d worked with Krush before, was particularly game, weaving fleet, improvised melodies around each piece. Oda was also a commanding presence, though his contributions were sometimes lost in a soupy, bottom-heavy mix. At points, it was hard not to yearn for a little more of the tightly controlled dynamics that Kodo deploy in their own performances. But the final stretch was particularly strong, as Oda soloed on a hefty ōdaiko (big drum) while Krush manipulated a recording of a hypnotic, droning chant that gave way suddenly to the gagaku musicians’ own singing. A few more dramatic moments like that, and this could be an experiment worth repeating.