Rap music may have been born on the streets of the South Bronx, but it didn't take long for the music to become a global phenomenon. Various regions and nations put their own spin on rap music, and Japan is no different. In fact, Japan was one of the first countries outside of the US to fully embrace hip hop culture.
Japanese Rap Music Is Born
In Japan, hip hop was not introduced through music but through dance. In the late 1970s, emulating American dances was all the rage in Japan, thanks to the international syndication of Soul Train. The popularity of the dances on Soul Train helped create a market in Japan for the soul and disco music featured on the show.
In 1983, the movie Flashdance did the same thing for rap music in Japan. Though Flashdance doesn't focus on rap music or hip hop culture, the movie features scenes of breakdancing on the streets of New York. These scenes sparked a wave of curiosity in Japan. Around that time, early hip hop records, by artists like the Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash, began to trickle into Japanese clubs.
Subsequent rap-related movie releases, like Wild Style, Breakin' and Beat Street, sealed the deal and opened the flood gates for American hip hop to infiltrate Japanese music culture.
Japanese Rap Music Styles
In the early days of Japanese hip hop, the music and surrounding culture closely mirrored American rap culture. B-boys, DJs, breakdancing and graffiti art combined with party-themed rhymes in the 80s - all things synonymous with what is now considered "old school rap."
In the 90s, rap music in Japan emulated the New Jack Swing style of rap and R&B that ruled the US charts at the start of the decade.
In the early to mid-90s, American rap music evolved from the party-oriented lyrics to the new genre of gangsta rap. Gangsta rap's lyrics involved much more realism and tackled issues of drugs and violence. Musically, this style of rap became popular with Japanese fans, but Japanese rappers tended to stick closer to the old school rap format. With a few exceptions, that formula remains in place today.
Rhyming in Japanese
One of the biggest challenges faced by Japanese rappers is language. Japanese does not lend itself well to rhyming. Grammatically, Japanese sentences end on auxiliary verbs, which leaves few options for rhyming. Japanese words also have few stresses on syllables. These stresses are what gives English poetry - and rap - its lyrical beat.
When Japanese rappers started out in the 80s, they simply rhymed in English. Change happened when rappers tried directly translating American rap songs into Japanese. From there, they began toying around with rhymes in Japanese by skipping grammatically correct sentences in favor of sentences that rhymed and by mixing in English words and phrases to help keep the beat of the song in place.
Major Japanese Rappers
Japan has a large hip hop community with many popular rappers. Some of the best known artists are:
- Rhymester - A rap group featuring Utamaru, DJ Jin and Mummy-D
- King Giddra - This major label rap group, signed to Sony Japan, features K-Dub Shine, Zeebra and DJ Oasis
- Dabo - One of Japan's first rappers
- Hime - A popular female rap artist who fights against rap lyrics that are derogatory to women
- Toshinobu Kubota - One of the leading stars of the New Jack Swing brand of hip hop in Japan. He has worked with many American musicians, including Al B. Sure!, Mos Def and Bootsy Collins.
- Yuya Matsushita - This major label artist is one of the few Japanese rappers signed to a US-based major label (Epic Records).
- Hifana - Hifana is an old school turntablist group featuring Keizo Fukuda and Jun Miyata
- M-Flo - This rap group, featuring Verbal and Taku Takahashi, has been releasing albums since 1997 and is one of Asia's biggest hip hop acts.
Listen to Japanese Rap
Ready to get a taste of Japanese rap for yourself? Visit Last.fm's Japanese rap station.