Daichi Yamamoto believes Japanese rap has been enjoying a particularly good half-decade.
“I just think the music itself has gotten better, to be honest,” the 28-year-old rapper says. “I feel like Japanese rappers have become more comfortable rapping about their own experiences.”
He’s coincidentally describing the very attributes that have made him one of the most exciting new voices to emerge in the genre. The Kyoto native has become a fixture in the domestic hip-hop scene by turning stories from his own life — the usual stuff like breakups to more specific experiences stemming from his life as a biracial kid — into songs that are backed by catchy beats that reference everything from golden-age U.S. hip-hop to modern electronic sounds.
Yamamoto is a great representative of contemporary rap in Japan, and now he’s getting more attention from overseas. His latest single, “Kill Me,” is a collaboration with Chicago rapper Mick Jenkins put out by Frank Renaissance, a new label and production studio based in New York and Tokyo. To celebrate the release of the song Yamamoto took part in a virtual event that also included a selection of on-trend non-fungible tokens (NFTs), including special virtual clothes, geared toward Western fans.
“I was more focused on making music,” Yamamoto says from record store Jazzy Sport in Meguro Ward a day before the event. He’s making his monthly trip to Tokyo from Kyoto, this time to take part in the digital event aimed at helping introduce him to a wider audience. “I had no idea (about NFTs), actually. Sounds cool,” he says with a laugh. His attention is now focused on “Whitecube” (stylized in all-caps) his new full-length due out later this year, previewed recently via the laid-back song “Maybe.”
Born to a Japanese father and Jamaican mother, Yamamoto says his early life was relatively idyllic, albeit with tough periods popping up from time to time.
“I didn’t know I was mixed race. Like, I didn’t get that idea. I thought, ‘I’m the same,’” he says. “But some people would point out the difference, ‘Your skin is a lot darker than mine.’ I had this thought that maybe I’m not Japanese, but I got used to it.”
Music was a constant in Yamamoto’s home. Part of this was just thanks to his parents’ shared love of reggae and rocksteady, leading to a house filled with songs. It also helped that his father owned Club Metro, one of Kyoto’s premier live venues and clubs, though Yamamoto doesn’t have the best memories from the space.
“I hate it,” he says with a laugh. “When I was about 5, (Dad) would put me and my brother in costumes for a Halloween event, like a weird puppet or something. He would sit me there and everyone would be like, ‘Oh, cute,’ but the music was blasting. It was uncomfortable.”
Though those early brushes with music weren’t always positive, they mainly left Yamamoto with a dislike for Halloween. His true gateway into hip-hop came as an early teenager. His older brother listened to a wide mix of American rappers such as Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Eminem, and played their albums loudly at home.
“I thought it was violent and not really to my taste,” he says. Then he found himself humming Dr. Dre’s “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” constantly at school.
Still not totally on board with his brother’s tastes, his sibling pointed him toward more American rap groups, such as Run DMC and A Tribe Called Quest, and his interest in Japanese rappers developed soon after.
“I was watching the anime ‘Samurai Champloo,’ and Shing02 made the theme song for that alongside Nujabes,” he recalls. “They were the ones who introduced me to Japanese hip-hop.”
Yamamoto and some school friends bonded over the genre, playing rap over their school’s PA system during lunch. His entry into creating music came at age 18, after having seen Shing02 live multiple times and finally feeling motivated to try writing rhymes of his own in Japanese. This is when his Club Metro connection came in handy, as he was able to meet Shing02 at the family venue, allowing him to strike up a relationship with the MC.
“I used to send him demos on Facebook and he would give me advice, such as on how I should prepare the equipment,” Yamamoto says. “I learned a lot from that.”
Initially, Yamamoto wanted to make political rap similar to Kendrick Lamar, but quickly realized that wasn’t so easy to pull off. He was going to need some time to figure out his own style. His early output highlights a talent for swift delivery and fondness for jazzy beats, and by gradually taking his personal experiences and turning them into social commentary, Yamamoto was able to deliver his own form of socially conscious rap.
His 2019 album “Andless” starts to showcase these themes, particularly with the track “Be Good,” which features a line inspired by a real-life encounter in which a girl told Yamamoto she didn’t want to touch him because of his dark skin. However, his performance on last year’s “Elephant in My Room” EP really shows how he has honed his style as an artist. The break-up track “Blueberry” features lines about an ex’s mother rejecting him because of his biracial background, while exploring the challenges of going through one’s 20s over a dusty soul sample on “Ajisai.”
Whenever the talk approaches anything near praise for Yamamoto, he quickly deflects adding that he still has a ways to go. He allows for the idea that his lyrics might have an impact, though. “I thought I could change (those) experiences into a positive. … Maybe not a positive, but at least convert them into a different energy.”
This seems to be Yamamoto’s general approach to songwriting: take from his own experiences and use them to connect with listeners who may not have experienced the same things. It’s the same approach he’s referring to when he talks about the renaissance of rap in Japan, and what’s getting artists here some buzz overseas. Yamamoto, via the Jenkins collaboration, is one of the first artists taking a stab at shining a brighter light on the country’s hip-hop scene for listeners abroad, and he represents what Japanese rappers are capable of.
Yamamoto won’t sign on to the idea that he’s a bit of a standout. He’s just focused on creating music, including wrapping up “Whitecube,” and pushes all the other stuff to the side (such as live performances, which he admits he isn’t totally keen on). Maybe that’s all we need from him, though. Let someone else handle the promotion, and let the creator create.
Daichi Yamamoto’s new track, “Kill Me,” is out now. For more information on his upcoming release, “Whitecube,” visit daichibarnett.com.
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