Hip-hop instrumentals were just backing tracks in search of a rapper until DJ Krush and his Mo’ Wax label mate DJ Shadow showed how much you could do when you ditched the vocals and focused on the breaks. Although Shadow’s 1996 “Endtroducing…..” is the album most people remember now, it was Krush’s “Strictly Turntablized,” released two years earlier, that carved a space for instrumental hip-hop as a distinct genre.
Krush — real name Hideaki Ishi — was already a well-known figure on the Japanese hip-hop scene when he launched his solo career in the early 1990s, following the dissolution of the short-lived but influential Krush Posse. While he has retained a lingering affection for old-school boom-bap and continues to use turntables as his principal instrument, his productions have grown increasingly refined over the years, and not always in a good way.
A video released last year of Krush performing from the steps of Tokyo’s Zojoji Temple was typical of his more recent exploits: tasteful, meticulously composed, and indistinguishable from the kind of music you’d expect to hear in an upmarket yoga studio.
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All of which makes “Kiseki” (“Locus”) a welcome surprise. Released to mark the 25th anniversary of Krush’s solo career, it’s his first straight-up rap album, and features an eclectic roster of Japanese MCs. Rino Latina II, who guests on the trap-inflected “Dust Stream,” is an old collaborator from the ’90s, but most of the assembled rappers are considerably younger. They bring an undeniable energy to the proceedings, and Krush responds with some of his grittiest productions since the “Strictly Turntablized” days.
“Romuromu no Taki” sets the tone, with its minor-key shamisen riff and chunky drum loop clad in a patina of vinyl crackle. When rapper OMSB quotes the refrain from A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It?” Krush cheekily flips the Lou Reed sample used in the original track. It’s hard to remember the last time he sounded like he was having so much fun.
“Kiseki” benefits from a varied lineup of guests, each with their own distinctive flow; even listeners who can’t understand the content of the lyrics should be able to appreciate the panache with which they’re delivered.
The album title provides Krush’s posse with an overarching theme, but lyrically they’re all over the place. 5lack calls out unoriginal rappers on “Dare mo Shiranai,” an album highlight; “Romuromu no Taki” finds OMSB daydreaming while riding the train into Tokyo; Tipleso uses “Back to the Future” to deliver his potted bio in the form of Dadaist cutups; while in “Yufukuna Kuni,” Meiso ponders a range of societal ills with the earnestness of Talib Kweli.
Krush wisely saves the most accomplished performance for last. The meditative aura of closing track “Yui” may be typical of the producer’s latter-day, temple-friendly incarnation, but it’s jolted to life by poet-MC Sibitt, who delivers a head-spinning treatise on space and time with a literary flourish that verges on the Shakespearean.
In a recent interview, Krush said that “Kiseki” would only be released domestically, and it’s tempting to imagine the album as his way of reasserting his relevance to a younger generation of Japanese hip-hop fans, without having to wonder about how it plays with international audiences. But it would be a shame if listeners overseas didn’t get a chance to hear this. Simply put, it’s the most vital DJ Krush album since the 1990s.