Hip-hop is a major force on the American music charts, but its presence has been less prominent in Japan. Elements of the wider culture have found their way into teenage wardrobes and pop-video dance routines, but even Japanese rappers admit they have a hard time grabbing the attention of new fans.
Over the past year, however, a group of female musicians have been experimenting with rap vocals in their songs. It’s being called rap by the Japanese press, but is so far removed from the genre that it may be a new style altogether.
“Our music is completely different from hip-hop,” says Komuai, the lead singer of trio Suiyoubi no Campanella. “My voice really isn’t for rap,” she adds. “I enjoy the uncomfortable feeling it makes when I try to (do it), though.”
Komuai, who wouldn’t disclose her full name, may be part of a trio but she usually takes the spotlight in her group’s videos and performances. She raps over tracks that mix traditional styles of music and techno, and her frantically delivered lyrics won her Twitter shout-outs from Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and ads for Yahoo! Auctions.
She’s not alone. In March, 18-year-old Tokyo vocalist Daoko released her eponymous major label debut after several years of praise for her wise-beyond-her-years lyrics, and her contribution to last year’s viral animated short film “Me! Me! Me!” On the other side of the country, Fukuoka’s Izumi Makura has been slowly building a following. Her third album, “Ai Naraba Shiteru,” came out in April.
Both artists exist on the edge of hip-hop, blurring soft rap vocals with confessional pop and bleepy electronica.
“I’ve always loved Japanese hip-hop and rap music,” says Makura, who won’t reveal her real name and represents herself as a cartoon character in press images. “I really got into it when I borrowed a CD from a boy I had a crush on. I was impressed by how cool rapping sounded in Japanese, and started digging into it deeper.”
It turned out to be the perfect format for her lyrics, which turn insignificant moments into short stories. Take her track “One Room“; it is seemingly about her playing an ex-boyfriend’s abandoned PlayStation but is ultimately a reflection on post-breakup heartache. Some of her tracks are more straightforward pop, but others veer into left field with help from people like juke producer Shokuhin Matsuri aka Foodman (“Lullaby“) and Fukuoka’s Olive Oil (“Love,” “Circus”). Tieing it all together, though, is her hip-hop-inspired delivery.
“If I didn’t rap, I’d probably write instead,” she says. “I can fit more words into rap, and it helps people imagine the scene of a song.”
Bonjour Suzuki, who released her debut album — “Sayonara. Mata Raisei De” (“So Long. See You in the Next Life”) — in April, says she feels the same way.
“I’m not a rapper, but I like the skill and rhythms of those artists. I think of myself more like I’m reading a fairy tale,” she says.
Suzuki (which isn’t her real name — in addition to rapping, these artists also share the desire to hide their identities) creates music best described as dream pop, stuffed with woozy synthesizers and bell chimes that build up to pop choruses. But the verses are rapped, and sometimes delivered in English or French.
None of the women mentioned so far seem to embrace the idea of being a hip-hop artist. Things are a little more black and white for MCpero, however.
“The first hip-hop song I got interested in was by Seamo. I saw it on TV and bought the album,” says Eri Horibe, who raps under the moniker MCpero. “After listening to that CD, I realized hip-hop can make every detail of our lives fun by writing them into lyrics. Like love, sex … anything, really.”
Horibe is an unabashed rapper, who releases music from hip-hop-leaning label Omake Club. She says she avoids creating music that’s “too melodious,” as she wants to stick to sounds that can accommodate flow, something you can hear on her recently released “Kaitei Picnic” EP.
“I think people in Japan have become more open to hip-hop and rap due to idols or artists who have a rap style, but aren’t quite hip-hop,” Horibe says. “I think it’d be cool if everyone started rapping like me in the future, though female rappers of any sort getting attention is good.”
When asked about the challenges of being a woman in the Japanese rap scene, Horibe’s answer hints at why bending pop can work in an artist’s favor.
“I want to sing over more powerful beats, like male rappers,” she says. “I’ve only reached about 2 percent of my ideal rapping power, and I think part of the problem is that I’m a woman. Sometimes, I wish I was a man to rap better, but it’s impossible.”
Japanese hip-hop has mainly been a boys club, but a handful of women have been able to break through since the genre’s commercial boom in the 1990s — mimicking the kind of hip-hop many fans overseas have grown up with (Coma-Chi, Rumi and Simi Lab’s Maria among them).
However, this new wave seem to draw more from duo Halcali, a pair of high school students who in 2003 became the first female rap unit to crack the Oricon top 10. Their music resembled a cartoon twister, sucking up all sorts of disparate styles, sounding wholly its own.
“We were really scared to come to the U.S., because it’s the birthplace of hip-hop,” said Halcali’s Yucali in a 2008 interview. “And what we do, we may call it hip-hop, but they call it ‘sugarcoated hip-hop.’ ”
One duo, who is set to release its major-label debut in early July, may have the best shot at bridging more “authentic” hip-hop with what Daoko and Makura are doing. Charisma.com formed in 2011, and soon caught attention for its aggressive electro sounds and lyrics focusing on daily annoyances (examples include women who say “cute” too much and crowded trains). It can seem petty, but MC Itsuka snarls her vocals with attention-grabbing force. She brings a rap background to the project, having released a hip-hop album as Meriyasu and being part of rap group C.R.E.A.M Sodaz.
“I can sense their aim for perfectionism, and a little masculinity, in their music,” Komuai says. It carries the swagger of rap with pop sensibilities.
What may be one of the biggest draws of these self-professed nonrappers is that they are telling their own stories. Especially after years of idol pop in which young women have acted as fronts for male songwriters, musicians and impresarios.
“My music is about exploring myself,” Makura says. “What I like, or what I’m good at, or what I’m bad at.”