Taigen Kawabe is still a little jet-lagged after spending the better part of January in Japan.
“I did something like 17 shows,” he says from his home in the U.K., before detailing how this jaunt took him from Sendai to Okinawa. “It’s kind of weird coming back to London, being in one place.”
A handful of those Japan gigs were with Bo Ningen, the rock group Kawabe helped form in 2006 as bassist and vocalist. More performances, however, were for his new solo project, Ill Japonia, which pushes the 33-year-old out of his comfort zone. Under this guise he raps, trading in guitars and vocals buried in feedback for chilly trap beats that put the spotlight on his words. Ill Japonia’s debut EP, “Ill,” served as the maiden release for London label Eastern Margins on Feb. 7. That same month, he opened for British rock group Black Midi on its tour of the U.K. and Ireland.
Ill Japonia serves as a creative rebirth of sorts for Kawabe. In the past few years, he says he has become fascinated by a rising community of Japanese trap rappers who are a decade his junior. These artists, like Tokyo-based Mall Boyz or Shaka Bose, draw influence from American acts, particularly a subset of hip-hop dubbed “SoundCloud rap” by music journalists to refer to a melodic, sing-rap style that proliferated on the titular platform.
“Some of them really speak about just doing whatever you want, which I feel like teenagers used to say 20 years ago in Japan,” Kawabe says. “Then all the middle-aged people and commenters on TV really criticized them. Nowadays, time has caught up with that healthy thought of living in the moment.”
“Ill” finds Kawabe barring his soul via rap, resulting in a set of tracks he says are among his most direct to date.
“I mean, I’m not a teenager or a 20-something — I’m 33 now,” he says. “But at this age, I can finally say from my point of view that you have to enjoy things rather than struggle. I need to enjoy the moment and say something I want to say.”
His songs range from celebrations of the spiritual benefits of visiting a sauna to meditations on his first nights out alone as a teenager and warnings to the new generation.
“Overall, there’s a real sense of optimism and hope that pervades the EP,” David Zhou, better known as Lumi and co-founder of Eastern Margins, says. “Taigen is someone who hasn’t let life’s trials and tribulations wear him down; there’s a childlike wonder to his outlook on life that’s beautifully reflected in his music.”
Kawabe says this change came thanks to two other Japanese artists. The first was electronic musician Takahide Higuchi, better known as Foodman, whom he met in 2014.
“He’d always start freestyling. Like, when we’d go to drinks or even walking on the street on the way to the club, he’d always play a tune from his iPhone and he’d start rapping,” Kawabe says. This nudged the bassist toward freestyling himself, which he flirted with on the opening song of Foodman’s 2016 album “Ez Minzoku” and which he explored further via a project with Foodman called Kiseki.
However, it was encountering another Japanese artist, Germany-based creator Teppei Ozawa (better known creatively as Miss Hawaii), really pushed him to give rap a shot.
“It was when Bo Ningen was on tour in Hamburg,” he recalls. “He came to a show and we started to freestyle, and he freestyled in German. Then, I went to his house and recorded raps.” This partnership evolved into Akadama Bros, a hip-hop project involving Kawabe, Ozawa and rapper Chinza Dopeness.
None of this was entirely new territory for Kawabe, though. In Bo Ningen, he frequently changes the lyrics to songs while performing live, a practice not far off from the freestyle rapping he’s begun exploring.
“When I make songs with the guys, I improvise with them, too,” he says. “I want to interact with the sound rather than having something to say. Rather than prepare lyrics and ask them to play music, I’d prefer to interact with the guitar playing or what kind of beat the drummer is playing.”
What Ill Japonia really allows Kawabe to do is get personal.
“For Bo Ningen, whenever I sing in the studio, the vibes are different and my energy is different,” he says. “(For ‘Ill’) I recorded everything in my room with a mic. Everything by myself as well. Nobody else was in the same room. I believe it gave it intimate vibes.” Coupled with rap’s emphasis on the voice, the atmosphere of “Ill” spurs Kawabe to be more direct than he has ever been.
“The duality of the music really struck me,” Eastern Margins’ Zhou says. “The rawness and abrasive textures of tracks like ‘Sauna Mizuburuo’ and ‘Social Alien Riot’ are offset by the gentleness and romance of tracks like ‘Lounge Muzak’ and ‘Haconiwa.'”
The Eastern Margins label, which helped Kawabe to develop Ill Japonia into what it is, started as a series of parties in London focused on making space for artists from East and Southeast Asia, along with a wider Asian diaspora, to share their music. A friend introduced Kawabe to the event and it didn’t take long for him to reach out to Zhou, hoping to perform at Eastern Margins. Ill Japonia debuted live last summer.
“I’ve been (in the U.K.) 15 years, but after meeting people in Eastern Margins, I feel like I have a crew,” Kawabe says. “It was really nice to get to know all the people, and now London feels more like home.”
Zhou highlights Kawabe’s eagerness to try something different, going from psych-rock to trap as a 33-year-old and “turning his hand to a completely new sound despite cynicism from some peers.” It’s this openness to youthful ideas that makes Ill Japonia such an intriguing prospect. Kawabe displays an earnest curiosity regarding what those a generation younger than him are doing.
Whereas plenty in the rock community have expressed disdain for smartphones at concerts, Kawabe thinks it’s amazing, especially after a January show in Fukuoka where a sea of iPhone flashlights illuminated the stage. “I don’t have anything against that anymore, people recording everything … they look really happy.”
He’s eager to learn from a new wave of rappers too, including Tohji, half of Mall Boyz, who performed at an Eastern Margins party last August. Kawabe says he picked up a lot from the MC and his crew, ranging from the importance of dynamics in delivery to the physicality of performance, which is more important than singing every single line of a show. He wants to incorporate these elements into Bo Ningen, too, to make the band more attractive to younger listeners.
Kawabe refuses to dig into the old ways, and Ill Japonia is helping him grow gracefully.
“Everything is changing really quickly … way too fast. I think it’s better to do something before you feel regret or you die,” he says. “If I say this out loud, it sounds obvious, but I need to repeat it to myself to do it right.”
For more information, follow Taigen Kawabe on Twitter: @TaigenKawabe.
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