With its rapid-fire rapping, lyrics that are often impenetrable to outsiders and raw, synthetic timbres, grime was never an obvious candidate for international success. But from east London’s tower blocks to the stages of California’s Coachella festival, the genre has grown from humble origins to become the U.K.’s latest music export.
However, long before Kanye West and Drake were trying their hardest to attach themselves to the sound — the latter in particular has appropriated the genre and its associated culture in a somewhat cringeworthy fashion — grime had already found small but welcoming communities of fans in Tokyo, the Kansai region and other pockets of Japan. Central to that connection has been the record label Butterz, which this Saturday celebrates its eighth anniversary at Tokyo club Unit alongside promoter DBS, who is marking 22 years in the game.
Going from a blog to radio to eventually becoming a label and club night, the evolution of Butterz reads like that of many present-day electronic music institutions (it began releasing music in 2010, hence this year’s eighth anniversary). And its engagement with the Japanese grime scene reflects the development of the Web 2.0-enabled globalization of U.K. dance music, with producers in Japan initially sending label owners Elijah Thomas and William Eugene — better known as Elijah and Skilliam — beats over MSN Messenger from around 2009 onward after encountering the internet stream of their show on London radio station Rinse FM.
“Half of the people were doing their take on what they’d heard and knew of grime, which is kind of interesting because they might have only known (popular grime acts) Wiley or Dizzee Rascal and they were making things in that mold,” Elijah tells The Japan Times. “And then there were other people that were using the influences but then bringing in their own samples, and I didn’t know what they were.
“If I’d lived in Japan my whole life I’d understand what the references were, so I was mad intrigued. It felt like this bottomless pit of discovery in terms of new music and new people.”
For grime fans in the U.K., the thing that most immediately distinguishes the Japanese take on the genre is the vocals — grime has always been a predominantly MC-led genre — and arguably the first Japanese artists to establish a level of recognition overseas were rappers such as Pakin.
Playing a key role in that were a handful of sets organized by Elijah and Skilliam in Japan that brought out a number of local artists, but most importantly MCs who were rapping in Japanese.
Elijah says he quickly recognized that the music he played would be a challenge for the cadence of the language. Instead of changing what he played, though, the MCs, many of whom come from a hip-hop background, learned how to adapt to his style.
For his part, Pakin notes that grime has a much more overt Jamaican influence than most hip-hop, and that hip-hop MCs need to “feel the vibe” whereas with grime it’s like “crushing a skull in with a hammer.”
Of the current crop of Japanese grime MCs, Elijah picks out Onjuicy as a standout. Despite only getting into grime a few years ago, he is now one of the most active in the scene, keeping up a steady stream of tracks in the past two years, including a vocal of an instrumental produced by Butterz artist Royal-T and a recent collaboration with Maru from the Tokyo label Trekkie Trax.
“He makes me feel like I can understand him, and that’s quite hard to do if you don’t speak the language — the way he’s delivering, I feel like I know what he’s saying,” Elijah says. “There’s something about the way he MCs that’s unique enough to him, but then it sounds familiar in a way.
“I can definitely hear that he’s studied and listened to grime, but then he has a very hip-hop sensibility delivery-wise.”
The connection between Butterz and Japan underpinned the decision to play the label’s sole anniversary show this year in Tokyo and make a point of bringing together its artists in one place — their schedules these days make that a rarity — with Elijah saying he “thought it would be cool to do something in Japan because the love has always been there.” There are also plans to keep up the tradition of smaller events that deepen the exchange between the two countries with a slot at Dommune on Wednesday that includes DJ sets and a talk with photographer Jun Yokoyama, who has documented the grime scene here and in London.
“With this tour and a lot of the shows that we’ve done, it’s not about coming to take, it’s coming to make,” Elijah says. “We leave with something — we leave with new music and we leave music there for people to push. It’s not like this kind of thing where we’re come to play just to get the money and go home or it’s just another show or something. We’re making it a special thing.”
Adding to the appeal of doing the anniversary night in Tokyo was a chance to recognize the work of promoter DBS, who has developed a tight relationship with Butterz over the years. DBS has shown a long-running appreciation for U.K. dance music in Tokyo — its first event took place in November 1996 with drum ‘n’ bass artists Doc Scott, Ed Rush and Randall at the original Liquidroom — and for all the ways the internet has fueled the connection between Butterz and Japan, it is that heritage the label is tapping into too.
“The thing that’s interesting to me with the DBS thing is if you look at its lineups from (1996) till now, it charts a very clear lineage of U.K. music history,” Elijah says. “It’s mad that I’m part of that because that’s what I grew up on, literally. In ’96 I was 9, so the first things that were getting brought out to Japan, I would have been listening to on pirate radio as a kid. To be part of that journey is mad to me as a fan of the music.”
DBS22nd × Butterz8th Birthday Bash!!! takes place at Unit in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, on Nov. 10 (11:30 p.m. open; ¥3,000 in advance; 03-5459-8630). Butterz artists Swindle and Flava D also play Circus in Osaka on Nov. 9 (11 p.m. open; ¥2,500 in advance; 06-6241-3822) For more information, visit www.butterz.co.uk or www.unit-tokyo.com.