Yurufuwa Gang are one of the latest Japanese hip-hop acts to be getting attention from both domestic media and overseas players. As the nation’s rap scene experiences something of a modest boom, the pair of Ryugo Ishida and Sophiee seem poised to be part of it.
Just don’t expect them to offer analysis of the native rap scene.
“We don’t really listen to Japanese hip-hop,” Ishida says from his label’s office in Shibuya. He and Sophiee say they are more likely to play video games or binge on Netflix series.
This detachment from Japan’s hip-hop community helps explain what makes Yurufuwa Gang’s debut album “Mars Ice House” such a radiant listen. Whereas other Japanese rappers lean too hard on imitating their American counterparts, Ishida, Sophiee and producer Automatic revel in their own colorful corner, coming up with Auto-tune-drenched numbers overflowing with glee.
“It has ‘gangster’ in the name and we play around with that, but it is also positive and fun,” Ishida says.
Both MCs in Yurufuwa Gang developed an interest in rap when they were young, inspired by older local artists they knew along with America’s Eminem. The 22-year-old Sophiee, growing up in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward, says she initially approached rapping as just a hobby. The 23-year-old Ishida, meanwhile, dove in as a teen. He organized parties at the age of 15 in Tsuchiura, Ibaraki Prefecture.
“Our producer, Automatic, is also from the same town as me,” Ishida says. “There was a rumor about this awesome beatmaker in the city, so I went and met him.”
Ishida has been working as a solo artist for the past few years, and met Sophiee at a hip-hop event in Tokyo. “We both had sort of the same tattoos,” she says. “It was like we were similar.”
The two started hanging out and eventually began writing songs. “When I was on my own, the people around me were just doing things that, really, anyone can do,” Spohiee says. “But when I met Ryugo … he was talking about something only he could express in his music. I realized I wanted to become better.”
Their first song together as Yurufuwa Gang, “F——- Car,” is a twinkling number that finds the pair repeating the titular phrase, broken up by raps referencing Mario Kart. It’s repetitive nature and earworm hook earned attention from media at home and abroad, and even got a tweet from U.S. producer Diplo.
“Mars Ice House,” Yurufuwa Gang’s debut album, initally came out late last year as part of a crowdfunding drive. It will get wider distribution this April.
It’s a joyful set, featuring lots of synths and Auto-tune (an idea suggested by producer Automatic), and comes from what Sophiee describes as a “kid’s mind.” Fittingly, songs revolve around video games (the gleeful “Grand Theft Auto”), Disneyland rides (“Hunny Hunt”) and fast food (“Dippin’ Shake”).
The pair want their music to connect with listeners abroad — “We want to win a Grammy,” Ishida says with slight laugh, although he repeats the phrase in a more serious tone — but say they don’t base what they do on any one artist. Rather, “Mars Ice House” was more influenced by the films of Quentin Tarantino and the Netflix sci-fi show “Stranger Things.”
“In the show, there are adults chasing the kids, especially the character 11. It’s kids vs. adults. I kind of see our position as similar to that of the kids,” Ishida says. Sophiee, meanwhile, adds: “It’s like a crushing of young talent, in the TV show. That’s what we felt.”
It’s that youthfulness that comes out in their music, and what makes Yurufuwa Gang so intriguing and, ultimately, approachable. “It comes from a generation of people raised on the internet, of using SNS, all of that,” Sophiee says. “We wanted to give off a wavy, soft and tender kind of feel.”
Yurufuwa Gang’s debut album “Mars Ice House” comes out April 5. The group plays at Tsuchiura Gold on April 22, and at Tokyo’s Shibuya WWW on April 28.