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Japanese hip-hop: from 50 Cent to mirror balls and world peace

Ian Condry has a new book, 'Hip-Hop Japan.'
Ian Condry has a new book, 'Hip-Hop Japan.'
Photo / Stephanie Schorow

Six months of hanging out in smoky, grungy "genbas," or Japanese hip-hop clubs, gave cultural anthropologist Ian Condry insight into how American rap music and attitudes were being transformed by the youth in Japan.

But he couldn't figure out the mirror balls.

Every club, from large to small, had a mirror ball that sent glittering light into the sweaty haze above the Japanese hip-hop fans, artists, music executives and first-timers.

So "I had to develop my own philosophy of the mirror ball," Condry, associate professor of Japanese cultural studies, told an audience on March 1 during a discussion of his new book, "Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization" (2006, Duke University Press). That philosophy highlights the relationships within the hip-hop community, he explained.

The mirror ball illuminated "no single star on stage but rather spotlighting and then passing over all of the participants," Condry said, reading from his book. "The dynamic interaction among all these actors is what brings a club scene to life. Mirror balls evoke this multiplicity, splashing attention on each individual for a moment and then moving on--not unlike the furtive glances of desire between clubbers in a zone of intimate anonymity."

Such details were crucial to Condry's insight into how affluent Japanese youth had transformed the music that came straight out of Compton into something distinctly Japanese.

"The evolution of the Japanese hip-hop scene reveals a path of globalization that differs markedly from the spread of cultural styles driven by major corporations such as Disney, McDonald's and Wal-Mart,'' Condry said. "Indeed hip-hop in Japan is illuminating precisely because it was initially dismissed as a transient fad by major corporations and yet took root as a popular style, nevertheless."

Condry's talk was part of "Cool Japan: Media, Culture, Technology," a Feb. 28-March 3 conference at MIT and Harvard that explored the power and significance of Japanese popular culture.

To illustrate his points, Condry played the video of the song "911" by King Giddra, a Japanese hip-hop group named after a three-headed monster in the Godzilla movie series. The video movingly juxtaposed images of Hiroshima with the destruction of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, as the group rapped about the elusive nature of world peace.

Japanese hip-hop--which Condry sees as having the four basic elements of rapping, deejaying, break dancing and graffiti art--quickly jettisoned the use of English, which had lingered in rock music. Japanese rapping has almost no talk of guns and very little mention of drugs but incorporates images of samurai or uses Kabuki performance style and often focuses on global political issues. Yet bravado remains crucial: One female rapper uses the eighth-century poetry style of waka; "yet she does it to say, 'I'm the number one rapper and I can beat the boys,'" Condry said.

Japanese rappers say they're not into American culture, Condry explained in an interview. "They say they're into black culture. They say, 'I don't care abut America per se. But I love Spike Lee movies and I read the autobiography of Malcolm X … and I appreciate what black Americans have struggled to achieve.'''

In the late 1990s, Japanese rap became more commercialized but a wide underground hip-hop movement also emerged, which spread throughout the country among a wide range of social and economic backgrounds. Only in the last four or five years, have "poor Japanese found a voice in hip-hop," he said.

Condry admitted, with a laugh, that there were moments when hanging out in the genbas when he wondered if this was appropriate field work for a cultural anthropologist. Of course, he loves surveys as much as the next academic, but "You become part of the world. You see what's important to them," he said. "To get into that world, you need to learn a lot."

He also admitted that the Japanese hip-hop fans began to imitate him, although politeness prevented them from showing him how he was copied.

The "Cool Japan" conference was sponsored by the MIT Japan Program, Harvard's Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies, the Harvard Asia Center, MIT Foreign Languages and Literatures and MIT Comparative Media Studies.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 7, 2007 (download PDF).

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