The verse that launched Kohh's rise into rap stardom

by Danny Masao Winston

Special To The Japan Times

One of the country’s fastest rising hip-hop artists just might be on his way to becoming the first internationally recognized rap star Japan has produced.

For the past several years, Tokyo’s Kohh has been steadily building buzz in the capital’s hip-hop scene thanks to mixtapes and his debut 2014 full-length, “Monochrome.” In 2015, however, the 25-year-old got the kind of international attention Japanese hip-hop acts don’t usually see after appearing on Korean rapper Keith Ape’s YouTube hit, “It G Ma.”

The intense, dizzying video for the song — a collaboration between three South Korean rappers (Keith Ape, JayAllDay and Okasian) and two Japanese rappers (Kohh and Loota) — was released on New Year’s Day this year and, after getting picked up by Western hip-hop blogs, it went viral.

The initial response, though, included criticism for its obvious resemblance — both song and video — to OG Maco’s “U Guessed It.” Maco himself even took to Twitter to criticize it. But that helped the video rack up a million views on YouTube in one month (it currently stands at more than 17 million), inspired countless “reaction videos” and exposed South Korean and Japanese rap to a new audience.

And judging from the comments, the rapper that impressed most was Kohh. It may be the tattoos, it may be his aggressive-yet-laid-back flow or it may be the way he dropped the universally recognized Japanese phrase for showing appreciation (complete with praying hands) in the middle of his verse. Whatever the reason, the last guy to appear on the track arguably left the biggest impression, leaving new converts begging for more.

And more he gave — this year ended up being Kohh’s most prolific yet. He put out three releases (two full-length albums and a mixtape), numerous videos and scored guest spots on other artists’ tracks. His most recent album, “Dirt,” hit shelves at the end of October and quickly became his most commercially successful effort, peaking at No. 19 on Oricon’s album chart and No. 2 on the indies chart, as well as grabbing the top spot on the iTunes hip-hop chart within 30 minutes of its release.

More so than many of his Japanese peers, Kohh appears to be influenced by U.S. artists like Young Thug, OG Maco and Travis Scott, which is likely why his music appeals to overseas listeners. And while the kind of heavy trap beats he raps over are not exactly the style of music that usually tops the charts domestically, Kohh has an uncanny ability to string together everyday vocabulary and deliberately simplistic rhymes to craft direct, poignant verses that resonate deeply with the domestic audience, resulting in the crossover success the artist is currently enjoying.

“Dirt” saw the rapper take on a darker, harder sound that included rock influences, but a defiant positivity remains at the core of his lyrics. Although it’s hard to imagine Japanese rap being as popular as it is in the United States, it’s probably not such a stretch to suggest Kohh may someday be the first Japanese rapper to make his mark on a global scale.