Briefly maligned, bilingual rappers gain visibility

by Danny Masao Winston

Special To The Japan Times

English words and phrases have been a part of the Japanese MC’s arsenal since hip-hop culture began making inroads here in the early to mid-1980s.

“Bilingual rap,” however, became a more prominent style when seminal rap group Buddha Brand came out in the mid-’90s with lyrics that heavily incorporated American slang.

After spending time in New York, the four-piece made its debut in Japan in 1996 with the single “Ningen Hatsudensho” (“Human Power Plant”). The track’s free-spirited, punchline-heavy lyrics and mellow, jazzy beat made it a bona fide Japanese hip-hop classic. Buddha Brand, whose member Dev Large (aka D.L.) passed away earlier this year, was hugely influential in opening up the domestic scene to more diverse styles.

However, as homegrown hip-hop culture and music continued to prosper throughout the ’90s and 2000s, many of its practitioners sought to find a distinctly Japanese identity. Purists began to shun the excessive use of borrowed foreign words, and rappers who expressed themselves through both Japanese and English were at times seen as inauthentic, labeled gimmicky or brushed off as trying too hard to imitate their American idols.

In an infamous interview published in the August 2004 issue of hip-hop magazine Blast, pioneering rapper K Dub Shine stated, “Anybody who’s doing bilingual rap, anybody who thinks they’re cool because they threw in some English phrases into their lyrics, is lame.” His words sparked a lot of controversy in the scene and major beef with Dev Large — linguistic purists had put the community on notice.

Takuma Kawakami, who raps under the moniker Takuma The Great, admits bilingual rappers have often been put into a box.

“I think until about 10 years ago, bilingual rap was often seen as unorthodox and a novelty,” he says. “Which has always baffled me.”

The multilingual Japanese-Taiwanese Kawakami is known for his slick delivery, which weaves Japanese and English together into an effortless flow, but his style of rapping didn’t always guarantee him an audience here.

“On one hand there were hard-core Japanese rap fans who praised rappers that defiantly stuck to solely using Japanese, and then on the other hand there were hip-hop heads that strictly listened to American hip-hop,” he says. “There was a huge divide.”

However, it looks like the times are changing yet again.

“It seem like the idea that artists who rap solely in Japanese are hard core or superior, is becoming a thing of the past,” Kawakami says. “Maybe the Internet has something to do with it, but I feel like there is a more diverse, open-minded audience in Japan that listens to all kinds of hip-hop. And there are more bilingual rappers at the forefront of the scene than ever before.”

Just over 10 years ago, at the age of 17, Kawakami decided to head to the United States in order to expand his English vocabulary and fully immerse himself in the culture and dialect of hip-hop’s heartland. But for Kevin Hultman, who raps as OYG, being bicultural was a product of circumstance.

“Being picked on in kindergarten (in Japan) was the primary reason why my parents went through a lot to put me in an international school,” says Hultman, who is of both Japanese and American descent. “I guess it just felt natural to use both languages (to rap) being bilingual from a young age. Plus, there weren’t many people that were doing music like that at the time.”

When asked whether he sees being bilingual as an advantage, he describes it as “a blessing and a curse.”

“You are able to access twice the amount of information and culture at a fluency that is only available to a person that is bilingual,” Hultman says. “But as far as dealing with my peers in the Japanese hip-hop community, my ethnicity and linguistic abilities remain an elephant in the room.”

According to Hultman, however, any perceived advantage to being bilingual is slowly disappearing.

“The boundaries that used to exist when I was growing up have been alleviated by a growing mixed-race population as well as a plethora of information translated into Japanese by bilingual fans of the culture,” he explains.

Hultman has a knack for crafting calculated, intricate verses that overflow with unconventional wordplay and imagery. He displays a vast vocabulary in the two languages and often delivers his rhymes in a deadpan, no-nonsense tone that demands listeners pay attention to the details in his lyrics. He emphasizes that “the voice is also an instrument,” though, “not just a vehicle for the expression of ideas.”

One of the most famous and influential bilingual rappers in Japanese hip-hop is Shingo Annen, who is more widely recognized by his moniker, Shing02. Since the late ’90s, Annen has released numerous singles and albums, and made countless guest appearances on tracks by other artists. But what makes him unique as a bilingual MC is that his songs are always written either entirely in Japanese or in English.

“I didn’t want the bilingual style to be a gimmick,” says Annen, explaining his decision to not mix the two languages. “I wanted to make sure I developed the two styles individually. As a result, my Japanese tracks have been more experimental and literary, while my English ones are more universal in theme and approach.”

Annen’s typically conceptual lyrics can range from heartfelt poems of affection to blistering social commentary.

“Usually, I have a good idea if it’s going to be in English or Japanese going in, and sometimes it’s by request,” he says. “I don’t really mind which language it’s in. I try to adjust the tone to make it sound good in either style.”

Many of Annen’s overseas fans likely know him by the six tracks that form the “Luv(sic)” series: beautiful, moving masterpieces rapped in English atop melodic, emotive production handled by the late producer Nujabes. Annen believes the legacy of the series would have been different if the lyrics had been written in Japanese.

“It wouldn’t have reached an international audience,” he says. “Japanese audiences might have preferred it but that’s not what Nujabes wanted when he was running the Hydeout label.”

Kawakami, who writes verses in a mixture of the two languages, makes it a point to combine Japanese and English words in a way that still makes some sense grammatically.

“Any rapper can just randomly place an English word they know into their lyrics. It has to be coherent because rhyming, double meanings and wordplay is what makes rap lyrics fun,” he explains. “I try to keep that in mind, while also making sure it’s something Japanese listeners who might not understand English can also enjoy.”

Hip-hop is definitely a genre of music that allows for a deeper appreciation and connection to the music if the listener understands what the vocalist is trying to convey, but in the end whatever sounds good, sounds good. As Hultman puts it: “If logic and reason were to ever completely overshadow feeling and emotion, the importance of music as a sonic expression is lost.”