Japanese rap has a bad rap. It doesn’t rhyme, not really, it’s almost impossible to follow if you don’t understand Japanese, and most of it is crap. Most of the “gangster rappers” in Japan are about as tough as Vanilla Ice and about as talented. The bravado is show, the source material puerile and the lyrics inane. Some people would argue that this applies to most rap or hip-hop in the world. Could be. I’m not a music critic.
However, in the niche world of Japanese rap, one man stands out. Yamazin, who’s first group, Loop Junktion did some of the most creative mixing and rap music in Japan’s pop history, is in a class by himself. He isn’t pretending to be a tough guy; he is a tough guy. Yamazin is a former yakuza associate, a gang member, a pothead, a feminist and a hustler. And he makes great music. Political, funny, offensive and he samples everything from samba to blues to Pink Floyd to gamelan. (How do I know Yamazin is a former yakuza associate? I know the yakuza boss that beat the crap out of him years ago, immortalised in the song Downtown Boogie. Not to mention spotting him at a yakuza boss funeral, paying his respects. Beat Takeshi also paid his respects at the same funeral—by sending flowers.)
His newest album, Collected Short Stories, isn’t a party album—it’s a small collection of narrative songs and musings. It isn’t rap but the closest thing I’ve heard to a “spoken word rap album” ever. What happens if you strip rap down it’s bare essentials, remove the sampling, the riffs, the clutter and make it minimalist music? Here’s one answer.
Yamazin is now a father, soon to be father to a second child and parenting has mellowed him a bit. If you’re expecting music to dance to you will be disappointed. It’s a collection of spoken word poetry with instrumental backing, a minimal amount of sampling and his ruminations on being a father, a husband, trying to survive in the Japanese rat race. 10 vocals tracks and 10 instrumental tracks. Jazz, blues, acoustic guitar, folk–there is no genre that dominates the album. Which makes the 10 instrumental tracks a joy on their own.
In songs, like “Money Train” he capture the ennui of the salaryman’s morning commute to work while wondering if he’ll still have a job at the end of the year. ROCK STOCK SOUL ATTACK is a lament to the impossibility of making a living as a musician in the iTunes world. 生命の調べ is his recounting of building a family. CHASU is an ode to complete burn-out with a Dylan like guitar riff.
The lyrics on all the songs are punchy, the instrumentation clear, the vocal delivery choppy, and it works.
Yamazin has a great voice, like the Henry Rollins of Rap; it’s not a musical instrument but more like a blunt instrument—deep, rough, and hoarse (男らしい!). The album might not sell as well as previous efforts but if you’d like to hear something entirely new and also brush up on your Japanese language listening skills, give it a spin.
Because of course, it’s also on a CD!
If you’re looking for some more of Yamazin’s traditional work, try Downtown Boogie. The yakuza boss who ran him out of town appears in the video, clad in a wrestler mask. Surreal but real. Time heals all wounds and mellows even the toughest rapper.