When I originally planned to speak to Tokyo-based rapper JP The Wavy, I was supposed to be in Japan to do it in person. Thanks to travel restrictions, I had to settle for a video chat instead.
Still, I can’t help but think that an interview done over Zoom is more “of the moment” than one done in the office of JP’s record company, and if there’s one way I would describe JP The Wavy, it would be “of the moment.”
Like many young Japanese entertainers, JP refuses to tell me his real name. This could be because, as a millennial, he’s fiercely selective when it comes to what he shares about his life. Or, as a millennial, he’s fiercely protective of his brand. Either way, he’s been pretty successful at keeping his true persona out of the spotlight.
Also, like many young Japanese entertainers, JP launched his path to stardom via the internet — in his case, a YouTube clip in 2017 titled “Cho Wavy de Gomenne” that currently sits at over a million views. The video was followed by a remix featuring Sapporo-born rapper Salu a month later that went viral and has racked up nearly 16 million views on YouTube at present.
“It was something that I had never experienced before, unparalleled,” JP says. “I always create songs with the intention that they’ll be a hit … but I never expected this song to be the viral sensation that it was.”
He says the sudden success of it, with fans creating their own clips mimicking his dance moves and parodying the lyrics, caught him off-guard. Little did he know, that would be the way the fame game gets played in Japan moving forward.
While hip-hop has risen to become a dominant genre in other parts of the world, this is less the case in Japan. It’s prevalence on social media platforms, however, has made it increasingly available to Japanese youth who spend more and more of their free time online.
“Hip-hop is very popular in Japan among young people,” JP clarifies. “There are also many young rappers, and it’s a growing scene.” He’s right there, too. While J-pop and rock monopolized the playlists of Japanese music fans back in the 2010s, hip-hop, more specifically in Tokyo, has seen a lot of growth. It’s hard not to see its influence when walking the streets of trendy areas like Shibuya.
It’s also a community that has been growing over the past decade across Asia, and JP has been working with a lot of other rappers on the continent to feed this growing scene. That has included collaborations with South Korea’s Sik-K, Taiwan’s Nickthereal, Malaysia’s Sona One and a number of other rappers who show up on JP The Wavy’s debut album, “Life is Wavy,” which was released in April.
The collaborations feature a mix of Japanese rhymes and those done in the language of the rapper joining JP on the track — with some English sprinkled in for good measure.
“I think we’re all taking part in the culture of hip-hop. It’s what unites us,” JP says. “It’s not just the music, but also the fashion, the way of life.”
The collaborations are also notable in that they serve as one of the few bridges linking Japan to the rest of Asia from a musical standpoint, whereas Japan’s gaze had been focused almost primarily on the United States in the past.
“While it’s true that hip-hop has grown in Japan over the past few decades, it’s nowhere near as big as in the U.S. or Europe,” JP says. “The most important thing for hip-hop to grow in Japan would be for the genre to establish a culture here like it has elsewhere.”
Hip-hop scenes have come in waves in Japan, from the breakdancing-heavy old school of the 1980s to ’90s-era rhymes from Scha Dara Parr to the more socially conscious themes put forward by acts such as Rhymester or Zeebra. The major hub for hip-hop in Japan nowadays is predominantly online. Acts such as Bad Hop, Awich and Kzm have each racked up millions of views on YouTube over the past few years, an approach that doesn’t necessarily impact the Oricon charts but may be more relevant to teens and 20-somethings who spend a lot of time on social media. Additionally, many of the fans that find JP’s music on YouTube, in the background of TikTok clips or as part of someone’s Instagram story, weren’t necessarily existing fans of the genre in the first place.
“Young people use YouTube for all sorts of entertainment,” JP says. “The viewers aren’t necessarily part of the culture or know what it’s about, but YouTube could serve as an introduction to the culture, and allow it to grow.”
As hip-hop has grown in popularity in Japan, accusations of cultural appropriation have followed. Japanese youth are learning about issues of social justice, and activism that evolved in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis has helped to increase the amount of information available to them in Japanese. While JP has heard of the concept, he doesn’t really know what to say about it at first. After thinking about it for a while, he likens what he does to one of the building blocks of hip-hop: sampling.
“Sampling is a part of hip-hop culture,” he says. “I like to take the basis of hip-hop culture and put my own personal spin on it. It’s like how a melody from an older song may be used to create a new song.”
His music videos aim to portray a version of Japan that has opened up to immigration, and it’s in this diversity-promoting world that JP feels more confident.
“A lot of the people around me, my friends, those I work with, are from different races and ethnicities,” he says, “I do think it’s good to bring more people from overseas with different cultures to Japan.”
JP puts this idea into action on the track “Louis 8,” which celebrates biracial NBA basketball player Rui Hachimura.
“I have a lot of respect for him and I wanted to support him as a Japanese player going overseas,” JP says.
The current pandemic forced the cancellation of a tour JP The Wavy had planned to promote “Life is Wavy.” The rapper has instead been working on new music while at home during Japan’s stay-at-home measures, and that includes his contribution to 88rising’s “Tokyo Drift” freestyle series. The series began with a clip from Indonesian rapper Rich Brian rhyming over the track “Tokyo Drift” from Teriyaki Boyz. JP The Wavy’s participation came about after he was contacted by 88rising and, as a Teriyaki Boyz fan, he says he was happy to be part of the series.
“The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” came out in 2006 and continues to loom large in terms of Japanese music’s reputation overseas, and that Teriyaki Boyz track was the most listened to Japanese song outside of Japan on Spotify last year. It comes from a time when hip-hop’s biggest names — Kanye West, Pharrell Williams — spoke about Japanese pop culture in particularly glowing terms. JP was a junior high student at the time, but says he was greatly influenced by that scene. During our interview, he’s wearing a T-shirt and baseball cap by Human Made, a brand by A Bathing Ape founder and Teriyaki Boyz member Nigo, and during one part of our chat he shows me his collection of Takashi Murakami goods, the artist who designed the cover for West’s “Graduation” album. Teriyaki Boyz member Verbal also appears on his album. From an aesthetic standpoint, JP is very much planted in the mid-2000s.
That doesn’t mean he’s stuck there, however. He expresses a lot of desire to move outside the boxes that typically constrain Japanese acts, which includes a more international approach rather than focusing on the domestic market. JP The Wavy performed at the SXSW Music Festival in Austin last year, his first time doing a show outside of Japan.
“I really enjoyed it. I was excited but nervous because it was all so new to me,” he recalls. “I would love to do more performances overseas once the pandemic is over.”
As we wrap up our chat, JP surprises me by ending on a positive note about the current situation we all find ourselves in.
“I know that there are a lot of bad things happening in the world right now, but the fact that me and you, people from different countries, different races, are able to talk like this right now on video, I’m happy about that,” he says. “I would like to do more of this connecting with different people in my future activities.”
For more information about JP The Wavy, visit sorrywavy.jp.