Hip-hop in Japan is an interesting topic, both in its origins and its subsequent growth. The genre is in a healthier state than ever before as a quick glance at the local street magazines would indicate, but in some respects it’s still on the musical fringes at least in terms of domestic artists. Major media outlets and labels are still a little bit reluctant to associate themselves with Japanese hip-hop, driving artists to rely on grass roots support. This in turn has helped spawn a passionate new generation of fans. On the fashion side of things the genre’s influence in Tokyo cannot be understated either, as a quick stroll through Harajuku reveals an abundance of vintage sports jackets, ball caps, basketball jerseys, baggy pants and various other remnants of ’90s hip-hop culture. This nostalgic element also holds true for many of the artists today, whose sounds reflect a more laid-back demeanor rather than a quick turn up. The country’s vibrant beat scene only reinforces this even more, making it a potent location for artists and producers to link up within Japan rather than looking overseas for ideas. Look no further than the influential Jazzy Sport label in case this is of any interest.
Before we can begin to talk about the new wave of exciting talent we should briefly examine the early beginnings of the genre and the subsequent growth of it throughout the mid ‘90s and early ‘00s. Very early hints of hip-hop lyricism could be heard in musical acts such as Yellow Magic Orchestra, The Drifters and Snakeman Show, but overall the experimentation of it was still quite limited at this time. The actual cultural breakthrough came about as an indirect outcome of the breakdancing wave rather than being transplanted directly by large record labels. Back in the ‘80s a film depicting early hip-hop innovators from the United States, Wild Style, hit theaters in Tokyo and proved to be a big hit, prompting some performers from the movie to fly over and show off their moves in person. A maverick of sorts, breakdancing’s freedom of movement helped spark individualistic and liberal expression amongst the youth in Japan, which in turn, increased hip-hop music’s popularity and along with DJing and freestyling. At this time the influx of records from the United States was beginning to increase too, with Hiroshi Fujiwara, aka the “Godfather of Streetwear” as we know him today, being one of the key individuals in this movement.
The mid ‘90s was really when hip-hop began to gain commercial traction in Japan, both in music and fashion terms. Notable names such as DJ Krush, Scha Dara Parr, Ozawa Kenji, King Giddra, and Lamp Eye helped bring the genre to a bigger stage and break down some of the cultural boundaries that stood in the way. This was also about the time when the intertwining with fashion became more apparent, with many popular brands beginning to work with hip-hop artists. By the start of the ’00s the country’s scene really began to thrive and diversify on its own feet, as artists began to focus on Japanese matters rather than trying to emulate themes from the U.S. Given the vast differences in language structure, the lyrical development took some time but nevertheless marked the true arrival of hip-hop in Japan and its intention to stay for good.
Fast forward to today, we find a new generation of rappers who are known for their musical endeavors but also for their sense of fashion. The two scenes are more connected than ever, bringing forth more individualistic expression through their songs and clothing. Social media has only helped accelerate this development even more, marking a unique time when artists are only really limited by their own imagination, rather than cultural boundaries. For our latest Japan focused feature we have rounded up a list of 10 hip-hop artists who have impacted the scene in recent years. Some more established and others just on the come up, we hope these names will give you a sense of what the local hip-hop scene is like in 2017.