Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Pre-History of Japanese Hip Hop 1: Jagatara


As I work on synergizing my blog writing with the long-term goals for my book, there's one project in particular I think I can process in sufficiently tiny chunks - the survey of the variety of acts that laid the groundwork in music for the emergence of hip hop.  It's a long history - urban Japan was consuming Jazz en mass as early as the 1920s, and there are reports (which I'll be working to substantiate) that Admiral Perry brought a troupe of blackface minstrels with his port-opening Black Ships (an association that I don't want to forget).

But a more immediate cause was the string of funk, reggae and soul bands stretching from the 1960s to the 1980s, introducing 'black music' in a more explicit, and often more politicized, form than had been the case back in the 1920s (and translating - literally - the extreme politicization of funk and jazz during the AMPO protests of the 1960s.

One of the most important immediate inspirations for the direction taken by Japanese hip hop - specifically, the politicized hip hop underground - was the band Jagatara.  In fact, right now I'm watching the documentary/concert film Jagatara - この~!!(もうがまんできない)[We Can't Take It Anymore!].  The band, and particularly leader Edo Akemi, are recurring cult figures in Japanese hip hop.  Jinno Toshifumi made the band the focus of a huge tome, and Akemi gets a shout out at the beginning of ECD's seminal album Big Youth, stacked up with Malcolm X, Bob Marley, and other luminaries of rebellion for justice.  I've heard a couple of their albums, but I never quite got it - they always seemed way too slick for me.

A live recording will almost always correct any problems of slickness, and this one is particularly grimy, since the first segment was recorded in 1989 on equipment that was not particularly sterling even for the era.  But the other misperception it's helping me correct is one of genre - I've faulted Jagatara for being a too-slick funk band, but what they really were was a reggae band, with a heavy debt to hard rock.

Here's a taste of what they're like (with more videos available if you click through):

But the reason this guy could transcend genres to live on as a symbol for later artists is pretty clear.  In an interview segment in the middle of this video, recorded sometime in the 1980s (he died in 1990), he calls the 1980s a "failure," a stance that would have made him the definition of an iconoclast at the time.  He predicts that in the 1990s, music is going to get wider, brighter, and more open to "world music," which kind of turned out to be true (reggae and hip hop only kept getting bigger) and sort of didn't (if anything, lame idols and J-pop became even more dominant in the 1990s before R & B came on in the 2000s).

Following the interview, there's a really electric performance of a hard dub/reggae song with Mute Beat (another candidate for prehistorical importance).  What comes across in all these performances is a great deal of passion, and Akemi knows perfectly well that's what he's got to offer - as he says in the interstitial interview, it's easy enough to understand where Jagatara are coming from in terms of genre.  What's not so easy to understand, and what most other Japanese bands at the time couldn't capture, was their expressive energy.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Against Greatness: Tim Ferriss and the Ideology of Achievement

Two days ago I managed to grab the last copy of The 4-Hour Body on display at Kinokuniya in Shinjuku.  I can't lie - I'm a devoted follower of Ferriss, which started about two years ago when I adopted a simplified, catch-as-catch-can version of the "slow carb" diet that he endorsed on his blog.  By following the eminently sensible advice to cut white carbs almost entirely from my diet, I lost about fifteen pounds in something like three or four months.  I've since plateaued at a very respectable 181 lbs (at 5'11"), and I picked up the book in hopes of following some of the more detailed advice in it, and getting past that plateau. I'll be writing at least a little bit about that process at my other blog, Flexy Beast.

So, I'm a fan, and I believe in his program - I've seen for myself that at least part of it works.  But at the same time, I find myself questioning the whole premise of his project (I'm like that scorpion - it's in my nature).  Should we, as the tagline for the new book puts it, be interested in "becoming superhuman"? Achievement, excellence, and overcoming are the foundations of Ferriss' empire, in a very concrete sense -  his financial success was initially built on selling vitamins, which (true or not) promise miraculous personal advancement. His first book, "The 4-Hour Workweek," is intended to help you 'have it all' - to have both the money provided by a successful career, and the time to enjoy it.

In my own work and life, I constantly encounter people for whom this model simply doesn't hold.  Musicians, writers, artists, and activists have measures of success that don't map to how much you can deadlift or how much money you make.  Last week I talked with DJ Muta, the producer and turntablist for the group Juswanna, and he couldn't have been more explicit: "If your aim as a musician is just to make a living off your music, you're setting your sights too low.  I make music so I can help people, give them the inspiration to go out there and make it through their struggles.  That's the top of the mountain.  Money is only halfway up the mountain."  We were talking about this while sitting in the closet-sized space of his studio, which is actually the 'living room' of his tiny apartment in western Tokyo.  Muta, despite something that's probably closer to a 70-hour workweek, seems like a pretty happy guy.

But he wouldn't be considered a 'success' by Ferriss' standards, which, though they often remain implied, are only slight modifications on the Anthony Robbins "achieving greatness" vibe.  Though Ferriss clearly has a (narrow) creative streak, and a hunger for new experiences, what he doesn't seem to have much of is capacity for or interest in reflection, either on himself or on society.  Most obviously, he has no apparent use for art or culture.  More subtly, his entire approach to life - scheduled and strategized to the nth degree - leaves no room for real leisure, aimless laziness, even boredom, all of which actually leave the space for new things to emerge.

It's not surprising, then, that Ferriss' books are both bestsellers - he appeals directly to the way our culture already works, to the values of the ruling class, basically defined by the desire to both live a materially rich life (iPad in one hand, four-dollar latte in the other), and also to be "fulfilled," whether that means climbing mountains or doing aikido in your free time.  This "fulfillment" is rarely associated with, say, writing poetry or other creative pursuits, but instead by more quantifiable achievements - a fact Ferris has capitalized on, quantifying everything from his world-record in Tango to, in The 4-Hour Body, his utilitarian, mechanistic guide to the sex.

Now, like I said, I've drunk the kool-aid on much of this. There's a part of my brain that's very competitive, and I take pride in all of my accomplishments.  Particularly, I'm proud my current situation, which, while temporary, is a version of Ferriss' own globe-trotting lifestyle, earned by doing what I love (you can see even there how much I, like Ferriss, love not-so-subtly touting my own achievements).  Every success I have gives me a little jolt of endorphins - but as I get older, I've started to register just how quickly those doses wear off and every "achievement" begins to look like the new normal.  It takes something far more profound and deep than success to get to that most elusive achievement of all - happiness.  From reading Ferriss' book and seeing how he presents himself, he seems like a genuinely happy guy, and I'm sure that has fueled his success.

But I wonder what the relationship is between Ferriss' relentless achievement-orientation and his apparently genuine happiness.  In The 4-Hour Body, he explicitly lays out his belief that achievement leads to confidence and from there, to happiness.  But as others have pointed out, "achievement" can also become a framework for hilarious and pathetic self-delusion, and a distraction from the real substance of life.  I can't yet say I'm practicing this - I pulled a ten-hour workday yesterday, followed by yoga - but even as I pursue some of the tips Ferriss provides in 4HB, I also want to recommitt to indolence, to aimlessness, to self-abandonment.  I think they might be where the real joys of life lie.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Hip-Hop Connection: Sumo, Drugs, and Those Darn Rappers.

Last Thursday I was talking to my friend Terada of Deep Throat X, and the subject of marijuana came up.  Despite the notorious severity of laws against marijuana possession in Japan (supposedly, a third of a gram can net you five years hard labor), it's nearly as much a part of hip hop culture here as it is in the States.  What Terada told me, though, is that this nefarious influence is spreading throughout Japanese culture - most notoriously, into the world of sumo.  Even non-Japanophiles might remember the round of 2009 busts that brought down a handful of Russian and Mongolian sumos - but what you might not have heard about if you, like me, weren't reading Japanese papers at the time, is that it was hip-hop that brought low these proud scions of Japan's national sport.

We must preserve the dignity of sumo . . . whatever the cost.

This article (Japanese, but I recommend the useful/hilarious/surreal Google translations provided by Chrome) recounts the claim of Shinichi Kirin, one of the low-ranking sumo arrested in 2009, that he got interested in ganja because he started listening to hip hop and, moreover, spending a lot of time in a hip hop store in Shibuya. The article has a passage worth quoting because it says so much about Japanese perceptions/knowledge of pot:


Regarding the investigation thus far into the circumstances of the suspect's involvement, [the police] explained, "[The suspects stated] they emptied out the contents of a cigar, then mixed those contents with pot leaves and put them back into the cigar."  The police have said that because "it is impossible to inhale marijuana and cigars in the same way," they believe this affidavit to be false.

Yes, we all have a lot to learn from the Japanese police.

Triune Gods - Canada-Japan-America Rap Collaboration

Correction: As Otona-san from Granma was kind enough to point out, Bleubird is actually American, not Canadian.  My bad!

I spent last Friday talking with Sibitt, of Origami, and the two guys who run Granma Music, who were down for the weekend from Saga, a smallish city nextdoor to Fukuoka.  They were all here because of the release about a week ago of "Six Days, Seven Nights," an interesting new collaboration between Sibitt, the Canadian producer Scott Da Ross, and the American rapper Bleubird.  They have some of the cooler cover art I've seen in a minute, and it should give you a good idea what they're about - weird, surreal, edginess.

If you're more into hearing actual music (what?) here's one of the two preview videos available:

(This video is in itself interesting - these super-condensed mixes are a pretty typical way for Japanese labels to promote new releases.  When I asked the Granma guys if I could post a full track from the album, they did the rather patented Japanese hem-and-haw "I'm actually saying no but I won't say no" routine. Obviously there are good rationales for both of these methods, but I do think the 'megamix' actually cuts out audience participation in a kind of unfortunate way - for instance, I couldn't include the above music in a mix I was making myself.)

I was surprised to find out that Granma, based in what is pretty much a backwater of Japan, hasn't released any music from a Japanese artist before working with Sibbit - they've been very focused, it seems, on underground releases, many from Canadians.  They've released records from Pip Skid and Skyrider (I believe this is The Skyrider Band minus Sole) - so, keeping the flame of indie-rap alive in dark times.

On the way to some delicious food at an izakaya called Iseya, which is completely filthy and sublimely delicious, we also stopped by Jar-Beat Records, a small shop that is, not unlike Saga and Granma, essentially in the middle of nowhere - Kichijoji is pretty far out there.  I would guess Asa-san (the owner) does most of his business online, but they have frequent, pretty cool events that I'm hoping to keep on top of.

You can get "Six Days, Seven Nights" on the American iTunes store - just search "Triune Gods" and you'll find it for $6.93.  That price becomes even more amazing when you realize the physical album will cost Japanese fans about Y2800, or more than thirty-five bucks.  No, that's not a joke, except in a sort of cosmic sense.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Trash Humpers and Chill Waves: On The Way To The End

"Just look around at this world, at the grisly facts of what so-called civilization has done to us . . . we are the slime and the goop."

Sitting here watching Harmony Korine's Trash Humpers, and it's amazing how much it has in common with the lo-fi psychedelic music I'm working with.  It's an experimental film with no narrative structure, and in every sense it's a continuation of Kids - a depiction of the limits of human awfulness . . . but with something that is, if not heart, at least some seductive joy.  The three central figures are three elderly people who run around drinking, destroying televisions, smashing the walls of old houses, mocking children, shouting their ignorance to the sky, putting razors in apples, and generally celebrating in the wreckage of capitalism (and yes, humping some trash).

What makes it so much like lo-fi psych is the difficulty of its causal loop, the impossibility of untangling base from superstrucuture.  The malevolence of Korine's three central figures is the result of the desolation of the culture they're in the midst of - but the essential joy they take after having thrown off the limits of that culture prefigures a better future, if in some hideously deviant form.  (The best representation of this comes early, when the three are rampaging through a parking lot gleefully smashing TVs and radios).

In much the same way, the likes of Washed Out and Neon Indian make lo-fi music at least in part because they're underemployed twentysomethings facing a bleak future - but that same cheapness helps prefigure a future that's better than the present, one in which we're moving away, backwards towards the acceptable cheapness and imperfection of a future past.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Lacan and Jonathan Zerzan: Alienation and Psycho-Normalization

I'm reading the Mirror Stage essay again in preparation for teaching it today, and as often occurs (particularly with Lacan) I'm grasping it much more deeply this time around (and will likely grasp it even better the next time around).  In particuar, I'm finding it very productive to go back to that essay after my first venture into the work of Jonathan Zerzan, who at first blush seems to have put into very clear terms many of the concerns and questions that have been driving me for years now, without my quite being able to articulate them.

The question that has dogged my reading of psychoanalysis is that of the political - when we read Freud's famous quotes that (paraphrasing) the goal of psychoanalysis is to change dysfunctional mental illness back into everyday human misery, or that the universality of civilization will mean the omnipresence of neurosis, are we hearing a lament, or a sanguine acceptance?  Are the processes of repression, civilization, and symbolization described by Freud and Lacan universal constants to whose pains we must resign ourselves in exchange for greater benefits, or are they open to challenge?

Zerzan himself has some very clear positions on all of this (and is clearly strongly influenced by psychoanalysis, particularly Freud), but for now I just want to stick to the "Mirror Stage" as I warm up to class.  I think that (despite Lacan's notorious opacity) there are points where it is clear he is quite critical of the process of socialization he's describing - certainly, more clearly critical than Freud ever was.  Some of these are subtle, almost poetic - for instance, the description of the assumption of the specular self-image (that is, the leap to figuring out that thing in the mirror is me) in terms of putting on armor, or of a quest to enter "a lofty, remote inner castle" - martial imagery that doesn't bespeak a happy life.

Lacan occasionally suggests the situation might be constitutive and unavoidable, but even then he's quite clear that it's unpleasant.  As he puts it, "the mirror stage is a drama whose internal thrust is precipitated from insufficiency to anticipation" - that is, from the fragmentation of the infant's experience to the adult's constant desire for a return to "wholeness" that will someday be achieved.  But in that same passage, Lacan uses a crucial term - alienation, which he uses to characterize the assumption of the body in the mirror as one's own.  Particularly given the essay's genesis after Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Englightenment, it seems safe to guess that Lacan used this term quite knowingly.

Perhaps Lacan's perspective shifted by the time of May 1968, when he would be accused of being a counterrevolutionary.  But at least in this essay, it seems he was doing work that was, more than most people tend to grant, well athwart the progress of history, capital, and the mediatized world we now live in.

Bun - "Yurelu"

During our chat on Monday, Yamaan insisted I check out a producer named Bun, affiliated with Oilworks Records. He doesn't seem to have a ton of stuff available online at the moment, but this short clip is really great.  The music is extra abstract and melancholy, and I particularly love the video - a long shot of a completely shuttered shopping avenue, a site sure to become increasingly familiar in Japan in the coming years.

Yamaan - 12 Seasonal Music

I sat down for a few minutes yesterday to talk with Yamaan, a producer affiliated with the Temple-ATS experimental hip hop crew, about his new album, 12 Seasonal Music.  Yamaan has produced tracks for several Temple artists, as well as friendly artists Juswanna and Chiyori, a reggae/soul singer affiliated with the Mary Joy label.  Chiyori actually joined us, as she did a couple of years ago when I first talked to Yamaan, partly because she's on the new album, and partly because she happens to be his girlfriend.  There's  going to be a more polished version of all of this going up at Tinymixtapes sooner or later, but I wanted to pass along some of the interesting tidbits from the interview, including info on Temple's history, the similarities between blues and ambient music, what draws a Japanese teenager from Yamanashi-Ken to Tokyo, and what it's like to grow up in a city built from the ground up for scientific research.

But first, here's "Sea," the album's summery 7th track:

The track reflects Yamaan's nostalgic, generally pretty sound - which is frankly a little strange considering where he comes from.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Taboo1 and Shibito - Gindan no Wakusei [Forbidden Planet]

This is the lead single from Taboo1's Lifestyle Masta LP, which came out in October.  I hadn't seen this before, but between the mind-bending video and great track, including some super-advanced style from Shibito, it's a must-check.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

I'll Give You Something to Remember Like the Alamo.

I've been on a crude version of it for over a year now, but to celebrate the release of the book (and its treasure trove of new detailed tips), I'm renewing my commitment to Tim Ferris's 4 Hour Body/Slow Carb eating program.  Maybe I'll post more about that sometime, but today is my favorite part - the "eat whatever the hell you feel like" day.  I've had a crepe, two sodas, a donut, a Zats burger, a Snickers, and now, before I hit the sack, the piece de resistance - a grab bag of burgers from McDonald's.

Don't look at me like that.

Anyway, McDonald's Japan has just revived its "Big America" campaign, featuring four different regional flavors.  First up is the Texas Burger, and it's an unmitigated disaster.  (A few years ago this would have been predictable, but McDonald's food has been getting much better).  Sadly the Texas2 Burger is ruined by the Japanese influence.  Rather than Jalapenos, I think the spiciness comes mainly from horseradish mustard, the chili-esque substance slathered on it is nuclear red, and there's what is, I think, a piece of ham on it?  But it's supposed to be bacon?  I don't know.  But it does not even remotely remind me of home.

P.S. - Testing out some Amazon linking options here . . . 

Friday, January 14, 2011

Minds in Bodies and Bodies in Mind

I've spent the last three or four years in a strange sort of denial.  I can't remember exactly when it started, because it was an experience I didn't have much frame of reference for, but every fall recently has brought a set of subtle but insidious symptoms, worst of which was a fatigue that cut my energy levels to about 70% - enough to slow me down severely, but not, it turned out, enough to stop me in my tracks long enough to seriously reflect on what was going on.  What I ended up doing was confusing my physical state for a mental condition - I thought, during these stretches, that I was 'coming down with' depression, after years of being pretty much an Energizer Bunny of positivity and accomplishment.  Last year in particular, the fall involved juggling two or three different jobs while trying to finish my dissertation and searching for a job, and fatigue and anxiety seemed only natural.

This fall was a different story, but also the same story.  As some of you know I'm currently a research fellow, which leaves me with a lot of time - but this fall I found it desperately difficult to make use of it, even after my initial settling-in period here in Tokyo had passed.  I was unfocused, and didn't set about getting interviews and other ethnographic work together with my usual single-mindedness.  I started, again, feeling bad about myself as a person, berating myself for running out of energy before my usual late-night fieldwork got underway.  At the same time, I was aware that at least part of the problem was that I was physically not at my best.  The one thing I had been able to be objective about the previous falls was a series of sinus infections and colds, and again, this time around, I took some cold pills and antihistamines, but they didn't really do the trick.  I basically soldiered on, and fell further and further out of touch with a sense of myself as capable of accomplishing anything with the huge gift of time I'd been given.

Then, two weeks ago, I learned the hard way that antihistamines and pseudoephedrine didn't mix well with even moderate drinking.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Superdeluxe: Tokyo's Experimental Music Heaven

Last night I got out to Superdeluxe, Tokyo's biggest venue for experimental/progressive music, for what was unbelievably the first time.  Remember, I moved here from Iowa City, where there is a healthy, but still quite small and institutionally homeless experimental music scene.  In Tokyo, what you get is this:

superdeluxe 009

The various spazzy bands last night played in front of a triple-projector setup, between two sweet-sounding stacks.  The video, moreover, was being produced and mixed live by this great trio of performers:

superdeluxe 004

There was also great, live-control lighting, great seating, friendly crowd . . . and this is a free monthly event.  I loved the tight-knitness of Iowa City, and there were some really gifted musicians there, but this is on a whole other level.  I have honestly gotten a little jaded about Tokyo a bit too quickly, probably because I've been so purely focused on my research that I've not seen quite enough of what the city has to offer - but this was a real mind-bender. Remember, I'm used to seeing weird music in people's basements, standing next to old paint cans, drinking forties out of paper bags.

But man, this is Tokyo.

(Oh, and the bands were great too.  Stephane Shibatsuji-Perrin really showed up on the hacked light-sensor toy guitar.)

Saturday, January 8, 2011

"Transformation" at Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art: Bio-Viewing

I spent about four hours yesterday cruising through the TMOCA exhibit "Transformations," which is ending a the end of this month. It's absolutely essential for anyone with an interest in art, and likely important for anyone who thinks seriously about the show's particular themes - the status of humans in an era of advancing biotechnology. The exhibit deals with things like genetic engineering and artificial limbs, but also more abstract ideas of transformation. It's so full of amazing stuff I didn't have time to fully absorb all of it, much less the energy to keep going to the current display from the permanent collection, so I plan to go again soon.

It's an amazing museum and this exhibit is not to be missed - but there are definitely some problems. The biggest head-scratcher was that Matthew Barney's Cremaster 3 is being shown in its entirety on two small LCD screens suspended above an installation, in a gallery room full of film stills. Since the film is still impossible to legally see outside of a museum, this leaves the option of standing for an hour and a half, or sitting against a wall. On top of that, since it's showing in a fully lit gallery instead of a screening room, parts of the occasionally very dark film are just hard to see. Especially since so much space was given to other films, this seems crazy. I can only think of two explanations - either there was an assumption that people have already seen Cremaster 3 and only needed a refresher, or Barney didn't agree to a full-scale screening as part of his broader tendency to limit access to the work.

Masakatsu Takagi
More generally, though, there were just too many films, which led both to viewing fatigue and, worst of all, some sound bleed - particularly in one section where Sputniko!'s techno-pumping installation threatened to break the suspension of disbelief fostered by Masakatsu Takagi's enthralling Ymene.  That work still managed to be the show's greatest discovery for me - conceived as a "bird's-eye-view" video, it uses video manipulation techniques that are completely impossible to describe, and has the visceral impact of a roller coaster ride.  It's mind-bending in the best possible way, and absolutely worth experiencing even in somewhat compromised conditions.

Other highlights included Jan Fabre's amazing self-portrait busts, in which he molds horns of real-life species onto his own head, Lee Bul's somehow acutely Asian robots, and Patricia Piccini's deeply uncanny short about a mermaid.  I'm late enough getting to this show I can't justify a full writeup, but suffice it to say, if you live in Tokyo or will be here in the next few weeks, you owe it to yourself to go.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Gridiron Japan: Rice Bowl 2011

On Monday, I got out to the Rice Bowl - the final match in Japan's American Football season.  It's a pretty odd setup, pitting the champions of the professional, company-sponsored X-League (Japanese) against the collegiate champions.  This year, the Obic Seagulls won the X-Bowl, and with it the right to face off against the Ritsumeikan University Panthers.  Despite this weird setup, the Rice Bowl is referred to as the Japanese national championship in American Football.

Rice Bowl 2010

The history of American football (Japanese) in Japan is surprisingly long, going back to the 1936 founding of three university teams.  The game is now amazingly vital at the university level here, with particular strength at the most elite universities, including Tokyo, Meiji, and Waseda Universities.  I can't really speak for the country as a whole, but Tokyo has quite a few sports bars that broadcast NFL games (though on delay), and various clubs and groups, including alums of American Universities, that get together to watch games.  Supposedly, the Superbowl is broadcast live, which I'm looking forward to.