New Japanese Vibes (116) – Dony Joint ‘One & Only Thing’

I confess that rap music has never been of great appeal for my musical palette (maybe with the exception of SKY-HI at his most verbal and lyrically confrontational). Having said that, there’s a brooding yet soulful spirit that one feels in ‘One & Only Thing’ by Dony Joint, which makes it such an intriguing and soothing listen. The rapping has a slick quality that glides with ease, and the neo-soul colours from the guitars, electric piano and backing vocals coaxes a feel-good atmosphere. A brief reprimand by Gottz (fellow rapper singing ‘Savoy’) changes the sonic gears before winding back into the nostalgic vibes.

Other Info

  • Dony Joint’s new album A 03 Tale, ¥ella will be released on 24th

© Isaku Takahashi

New Japanese Vibes (99) – SKY-HI アドベンチャー ‘Adventure’ 

SKY-HI cranks up the ‘cool’ カッコイイ ‘kakkoi’ meter up with his new tune アドベンチャー ‘Adventure’. From the opening punchy slap bass, Hidaka Mitsuhiro (real name of SKY-HI) and his musical entourage radiates a rainbow of vibrant brass colours and bubbly vocals. But it’s more than just a rich mix of nimble-footed rapping and funk vibes – SKY-HI also conveys a life-affirming message: “don’t turn your eyes away from negativity – take it, embrace it and move forward”. The sincerity that dances along with the track’s lively beat and melodies makes SKY-HI more than just a hip-hop/rap artist who simply aims for the top of the charts. He speaks closely to his fans and listeners with meaningful words and resonates a buzz that transcends a global audience.

Other Info

  • SKY-HI’s new album OLIVE will be released on January 18th.
  • Find out more about SKY-HI in my blog post here.

© Isaku Takahashi

New Japanese Vibes (12) – SKY-HI ‘Enter The Dungeon’

From one member of avex band AAA to another. SKY-HI, lead rapper in the 7-soul unit continues his solo engagement with ‘Enter The Dungeon’. Its sinister façade parallels the musical interest the track glorifies in, and brings back impressions of previous tunes including ‘Serial’.

The ominous atmosphere is conveyed both in image and sound. What looks like an abandoned building sketched in graffiti, the only aid of sight in the music video is the torch SKY-HI waves about. Punctuating drumbeats and the dexterous rapping of Hidaka Mitsuhiro drives the propulsion of the track, while luminous and squelchy synths in the pre-chorus stir up tension towards the dynamic chorus, and the sporadic deep, warped vocal sample provokes an otherworldly sonic ambience.

Other Info/Context

  • Enter The Dungeon’ is the coupling track to SKY-HI’s new single アイリスライト Iris Light, due to be released 13th Jan 2016.
  • Check out my post on SKY-HI here.

© Isaku Takahashi

Nujabes

The hip-hop world suffered a huge shock in 2010 when the death of Jun Seba (aka Nujabes) was announced. Five years since his death, it would be fitting to reflect on and pay tribute to Nujabes’ sensational musical flair.

His music epitomised hip-hop’s core musical values: tasteful cool-jazz inflections, compelling rhythmic patterns and beautiful melodic riffs soaked through his sonic palette. While his sound is brimming with instantly recognisable styles (from smooth jazz, rap, even a slight hint of Japanese pentatonic flavours), his musical dexterity to blend many styles together to form spellbinding and catchy tunes makes him an eclectic and original figure in the Japanese music scene.

Nujabes launched his career with his debut album Metaphorical Music, introducing audiences to a refreshing sound world that nourishes the spirit of listeners. While retaining a consistent hip-hop beat idiom, he explores different stylistic avenues to create a potpourri of riveting tunes. ‘A Day by Atmosphere Supreme’ sees an elegant silky piano playing alongside a classic hip-hop beat, spiced up with sporadic bursts of glittering percussion that resemble a peaceful starry night. By contrast, ‘The Final View’ is much more lively affair, with a melodious riff from a tangy oboe-like instrument accompanied by a chordal piano line and reverberant woodblocks, not forgetting a surprise Ornette Coleman-like saxophone solo in the distance.

With the help of an entourage of other artists, his 2005 album Modal Soul is a hip-hop universe of a different kind, with tunes such as ‘Modal Soul’ and ‘Horizon’ taking the spotlight in my opinion. ‘Modal Soul’, featuring the close friend of Nujabes and collaborator Uyama Hiroto navigates the listener through a sonic alley that juxtaposes intricate jazz piano and sax ornaments and funky Samba rhythms with a blanket of ambient overtones and resonances. The album concludes with ‘Horizon’, a 7-minute coda led by some bright ‘Alicia Keys-style’ jazz piano playing seasoned with wispy synth pads.

Spiritual State, Nujabes’ posthumous album is a farewell gift sewn up by some of his close collaborators while preserving the spirit of Nujabes. Perhaps this record is the most musically inventive and radical of Jun Seba’s output, as this 14-chapter musical novel delves into genres and styles that have never before been encountered by him. From Eastern European accents in ‘Far Fowls’, classic bebop/cool jazz drum figures in ‘Sky is Tumbling’ and rejuvenating Latin and Mediterranean flavours over a Boyz II Men-esque beat in ‘Island’, Spiritual State is a salute to one of Japan’s most respected artists.

His refined musical craft, and the meticulous attention he gives to every tune has made Nujabes a universally loved figure. His music is life affirming, a voyage, and an experience.

Other Listening:

  • Light on the Land
  • Peaceland
  • Who’s Theme
  • Latitude

© Isaku Takahashi

SKY-HI

SKY-HI is ‘cool’ personified. Mitsuhiro Hidaka is perhaps better known for his engagements with the idol pop band AAA. Now, since his solo debut in 2013, Hidaka has unleashed a fresh expression of his personal ‘rap’ identity.

You could compare SKY-HI to a fusion of Eminem and Justin Timberlake. ‘RULE’ is perhaps a great example (plus, it is my favourite SKY-HI track). This track lives up to a fiery character with a repetitive punchy piano riff, heart-pounding drumbeat, and the unsung hero in this song: the backing vocals. The ‘swagger’ and attitude the backing vocals release lifts the chorus into a new sonic stratosphere.

On one hand he can portray a trendy hip persona. He showcases this in his debut single 愛ブルーム ‘Ai Bloom’ (meaning ‘love bloom’). What makes this different to other kinds of hip-hop and rap is his skill to balance melodious singing with the verbally intricate nature of rapping. Complemented by a 70s/80s disco beat, funky electric guitar licks and a vibrant music video, this groovy number was a fine pick to launch SKY-HI’s solo career.

TOKYO SPOTLIGHT’ is the track that resonated with my inner ‘rave’ soul. Drawing similarities to that hit song by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, it is a pure urban city night-life amplifier: laser-like synths with a slight ‘brassy’ quality, a hammering four-on-the-floor beat and a full spectrum of sonically manipulated vocal phrases.

On the other hand, he can stifle the listener with a much more confrontational, almost disturbing demeanour. ‘Serial’ is the killer record that has the power to cause a sonic and visual shock. The sinister bass and guitar line in the chorus, brass chords in the chorus that resemble a James Bond film and a gradually intensifying vocal rap line are all accompanied by a music video that strikes a threatening character.

SKY-HI is one to watch. He possesses a flawless rapping mastery and an artistic versatility like no one else in the Japanese music scene, acting as a young ambassador of the ‘Cool Japan’ landscape.

Other Listening:

  • ONE BY ONE (featuring other Japanese rap artists)
  • LIMO
  • Blanket
  • スマイルドロップ ‘Smile Drop’
  • SEASIDE BOUND

© Isaku Takahashi