KRACKING THE CODE
hacker. jeff liu
virtual realist. nino
Hideaki Ishi was more than a gangbanger, he was a former member of the
yakuza, Japan's infamous don't-fuck-wit-'ems. (These mafiosos, if you
screw up, you give up a finger to your boss, *voluntarily*.) He changed
his tune, though, after a revelation in the form of breakdancing and
scratching--brought to him by the classic flick "Wild Style"--and
somehow managed to walk away with all digits intact. At a time when the
"mixer" was unheard of even by Tokyo's electronic store salesmen, he
fashioned his own set-up and taught himself to mix. So yeah, you might
say DJ Krush is OG like that.
In 1986, at breakdancing's height in Japan, he spun at Yoyogi Park for
the dance crews and competed with other DJs. Together with MC Muro and
DJ Go, he formed the Krush Posse a year later. They recorded two tracks
together, but as Hip-Hop declined, his group disbanded and he went
solo. Frustrated when no one would show him or Hip-Hop love up in the
club (and the studio), he took his slow, jazzy, beat-heavy sound to
After countless albums, this Japanese Hip-Hop pioneer has managed to
keep true to himself and his music. With the help of an interpreter, we
caught up with him while he was on tour promoting his latest album,
KRON: So what's the premise of this album? What was the thinking behind
KRUSH: I didn't mean anything deep before I had decided anything. I
played a song and I was thinking, 'OK, how about this song ... the
songs flowed out one after the other, nice and smooth, in a jazzy kind
of way. By the time I noticed, that was the album.
KRON: Was it recorded all at one time?
KRUSH: Yeah, basically. Usually I play in front of an audience, but in
the recording, I had to spin in front of engineers. It's not so easy to
do. I had to raise my tension. I had to motivate myself and create the
mood by dimming the lights and drinking beer. Then in maybe the second
take, I did everything.
KRON: I noticed that every so often, between every couple of albums,
you come up with a mix CD. There was the Ninjatune one, then "Holonic,"
and now "Code 4109." Is that intentional?
KRUSH: I really didn't do it intentionally. I'm a DJ and a lot of DJs
do mix tapes and mix CDs. When I finished my album, the timing was
right and talk of making a mix album came up. Some people don't get to
see me spin, but are curious to see what I do. So if my mix albums can
show them, then that's cool. [Waiting for the translator] It was also
very difficult to get the music rights for this album. I got them
cleared, but it was really hard.
KRON: The reason I asked that was because your music is very abstract
sometimes, especially with the instrumentals. Do you feel that every so
often you have to do a mix CD, throw your tracks in, and show people
how it fits into Hip-Hop?
KRUSH: I didn't think that way when I started out making the album. But
if the listener, after listening to it, thinks that way, if Hip-Hop
fans are really into it and my audience grows, then that's great.
KRON: Do you think that in order to gain acceptance by American
audiences, you have to incorporate American rappers?
KRUSH: I choose certain artists because of their music and ability.
That's what appeals to me. Either I like them, I like their music, or I
always wanted to play with them. So I didn't intentionally choose them
just for the American audience. I picked them because their music was
interesting. Let me ask you, is that what Americans think--'Oh Krush,
he uses American artists, that's why I want to listen to it.'?"
KRON: Well, I think American Hip-Hop is very self-centered.
KRUSH: [Laughs hard for a second] **So-so-so**. I spin with people from
all over. And everytime I'm in the studio with them, I get something
from them that I don't have. So I learn a lot. That's a process which I
really enjoy. So it doesn't matter to me who's American, who's
European, who's from anywhere. It's really interesting that American
people think that way.
KRON: I mean, if you can understand, it's like the whole East
Coast-West Coast, who's more Hip-Hop than the other, ya know what I
KRUSH: I have a question: Is there still a West Coast vs. East Coast
rivalry? Because even in Japan, some people will say I'm 'Eastside' or
KRON: Not so much as before. I think there's still a little bit of
that. Pretty much, in the underground, people don't really care. But in
popular music, the radio stations kind of promote that.
KRUSH: I really wish that people don't pick sides in music because it's
really universal. At least in music, we shouldn't be saying, 'West
Coast, Japan, or Europe.' Sure, I understand that the flava will be
different on the West Coast because of the nice weather and blue skies,
and that the East Coast will have their own flava, but why do we have
to be claiming sides?
KRON: Now it's known that you got started DJing when you watched 'Wild
Style' in Tokyo. What I would like to know is, how did you even
consider going to watch 'Wild Style'?
KRUSH: It's a long story, so I'll give you the short version: When I
was younger, I was doing a lot of really bad things. I dropped out of
school, I didn't work and all I did was goof around. So that path led
me to be in a gang. There was a guy in a rival gang who got involved
with this woman and he had to have his finger cut off. He went back to
his hometown and after he left, I didn't have anything to do. I always
gave him dirty looks, always fought with him. So after he left, I felt,
'Oh, he's gone. Now what am I going to do?' I had a really hard time. I
started to think about what I was doing in this life. All I did was
graduate from junior high and get involved in a criminal organization.
I didn't know what to do. I was a lot different back then. I wore
really nice gangster suits, I didn't even wear Nike's at the time.
So there was this movie theater, and I went to go watch a movie with a
girl that I was with. Because I had a lot of questions inside me, I
thought it would be cool to see something different. After watching
'Wild Style,' I was like, 'Yeah, that's it. That's what I'm going to
do.' People were shocked and asked, 'How can you do a 180-degree change
like that?' So, I thought about how I turned into a gangster.
Because I really loved music when I was a kid, I just went back to
that. I put the gangster suit in the closet and put on the Kangol and
Adidas. [he laughs] But I had a hard time finding those things because
we didn't have the [Hip-Hop] Movement at that time. I used my
connections to help me look for them.
KRON: What are some of your favorite films?
KRUSH: "Fight Without Rules."
KRON: Who's the director?
KRUSH: Kinji Fukusaku.
KRON: Now you've done a soundtrack piece for Yamamoto Musashi's Junk
Food. It matched really well with the subject matter. Has there been
any prospects for any other film scores?
KRUSH: Yeah, the theme of the movie is weird and dark. I've never made
very bright music. So yeah, I think it fit really well, too. Someone
used a previously-recorded track of mine in 'Blade.' But, other than
that, I haven't done any other soundtracks. I'm looking forward to
another chance. I really hope that someday, I could do the entire
soundtrack for a film.
KRON: Back to your Hip-Hop roots, you've been with Hip-Hop in Japan
since the seeds were first planted. How have you seen it grow?
KRUSH: As a parent, I'm always worried. I was worried that Hip-Hop
wasn't going to be exciting. After it blew up, I was wondering where it
was going to go--if the underground would break through or if anyone
was going to keep it going at all. So I'm always concerned.
KRON: But how have you seen it develop over the years?
KRUSH: In the beginning, there were no role models to look at, so
everyone just copied Americans--they imitated their style and
translated lyrics from English to Japanese. But there were no real
hardcore messages for Japanese society. Nowadays, a lot of young
artists are thinking, 'OK, how can we talk about our life in Japanese,
how can we describe it ourselves?'
In Japan, we get records from all over--I think we release more records
in Japan than any other country. If you want to buy an American album
in Japan, it's the same release date as in the States. We can get
everything. So when I was younger, it was all about American rap. But
nowadays, young people don't necessarily think that way. Their first
record might be by a Japanese rapper. So I think their consciousness is
KRON: What about when people say, no matter how small of a rap group
you are here in the U.S., you can always make it big in Japan?
[INTERPRETER: How do small underground groups in the U.S. happen to
make it big in Japan?]
KRUSH: I really think Japanese listeners take the time to check artists
out before they go to their show. They're always studying who's blowing
up in the underground in San Francisco, L.A. and New York. They take
music very seriously. So yeah, they come to Japan and are popular
because the audience already knows about them.
KRON: So they understand it despite the language difference?
KRUSH: Sometimes I let American artists listen to Japanese Hip-Hop. Of
course they don't understand Japanese, but I'll ask them if they get
it. They usually say, 'I don't understand what they're saying, but I
understand their flow.' So even though we have a different language, we
can still feel and relate to the flow. It's the same thing; if an
American artist comes to Japan, even though a Japanese audience may not
understand English, they can still relate.
At the same time, I do feel a problem with the language. I'm really
trying to spread Japanese Hip-Hop to other countries. But in Hip-Hop,
the lyrics are important. So if you listen to [Japanese rap] and you
don't understand the lyrics, you're going to listen to what you
understand instead. You're going to listen to American rap. So there's
a wall between Japanese and other languages. And that wall has to be
broken if Japanese Hip-Hop is going to reach other countries.
I also strongly feel that Hip-Hop is not only from America. There's
French rap and in all languages. All the countries, all the languages,
are on the same level.
KRON: Back to being a parent of two daughters, how do you feel about
American gangsta rap or an artist like Sisqo being brought into the
KRUSH: That's a difficult question to answer. In Japan, we still don't
have those kind of lyrics, so my daughters don't hear it, but they
listen to every song that I make. I'm split, because I'm in that
As a parent, I really wish that my two daughters are strong,
independent and can think for themselves. When they're at the point
where they can decide for themselves what's right or wrong, then they
can listen to it. But until then, I won't let them listen to it. And
that's why I'm working really hard. Even though I don't have the
educational background or a degree, I've built myself up as a musician.
I want my daughters to see I'm doing my best to support my family.
KRON: How old are your daughters?
KRUSH: One's 15, the other is seven. Yeah, two daughters, so I'm really
worried because one of them's starting to date ... I'm worried that one
day she'll bring home a DJ. [He laughs] What if he's better than me?
KRON: What do they listen to?
KRUSH: When I compose a song, I start at midnight and finish early in
the morning. By the time they get up, I start playing really hard,
heavy beats. They're used to listening to the stuff I play. When
they're at their friend's house, they listen to Hip-Hop. My younger
daughter is into Japanese idols and pop music [raises his hand up like
a cheering groupie and chuckles].
KRON: Your culture seems to always come out in your music, whether it's
from Toshinori Kondo's trumpet or use of the *shakuhachi*. But it seems
that now it's being incorporated more in your music--like in your last
album, taiko and *shamisen*. Can you speak on that?
KRUSH: People are sampling so many things these days, but they're all
very familiar. After being to so many different countries and being
exposed to their music, I realized how refreshing traditional Japanese
music is. In the future, I want to do an album where I sample all the
different traditional Japanese instruments.
KRON: You didn't feel like that before, though, right?
KRUSH: It's not like that, really. I just didn't think that Japanese
instruments were cool back then. As a child, did you listen to
traditional instruments? I didn't. We didn't grow up with those
instruments, we never thought they were cool to play with.
KRON: Do you consider yourself a conscious DJ?
KRUSH: It depends on the song. On the album 'Meiso', I first had a
picture in my mind when I was composing the song 'OCE 9504'--one of
kids going to the amusement park with their parents and riding on the
ferris wheel. I wanted to give a warm, kind of nostalgic feeling. But
then when I came to the U.S. to do the track, I opened up the newspaper
and on the front page there was this picture of burned children from
the Oklahoma terrorist bombing.
KRON: I ask that, because a lot of the artists in 'Milight,' for
example, they talk about how 'righteousness will prevail.' And your
music also talks about some of the social problems within Japan. I
mean, a few years ago, there was a lot of youth violence in Japan in
the headlines, where a young boy--a third grader or something--he was
chopping off kids' heads.
KRUSH: **Hai-hai**. Some songs I really push to represent what's
reality in society. Like for example, 'OCE' and those on 'Milight'. But
if it's all about that, it would be all dark. Living in Tokyo, there
really isn't any good news. It's really dark and underground. It's so
depressing. 'Kakusei' is one of those albums that has that imagery,
that depression. So if you listen to those albums, it's really heavy.
But I don't want to make albums that are all dark and heavy. I want to
put a little bit of sunshine in each. So yeah, a lot of the songs I
compose have a consciousness and those themes. But sometimes I want to
lift my spirits up too.
KRON: So what's next?
KRUSH: On my next album, I'm collaborating with DJ Disk and also
Company Flow. There are some other artists, but we're still in
negotiations and it hasn't been finalized yet.
KRON: Last question: Do you consider yourself a romantic?
KRUSH: Yeah, I do. [laughs] There are a lot of different things I would
like to do. And that's the romantic side of me. In the future, it might
be a good idea to put all those songs ["Big City Lover," "Skin Against
Skin," "Final Home"] together on an album.
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