Representing Japan: Japanese hip-hop DJs, the global stage, and defining a "national" style

As non-Americans, Japanese musicians from jazz composer Toshiko Akiyoshi to the psychedelic Flower Travelin' Band have often felt the need to prove their originality and authenticity to non-Japanese—an issue with which Japanese hip-hop DJs and producers, who often perform overseas, have also wrestled. Studies to date on Japanese hip-hop from Condry to Kimoto have focused more on rappers, to the neglect of DJ/producers.

Based on personal interviews with artists including DJs Krush, Kentaro, Ono, and Shing02, as well as fieldwork and analysis, this paper explores how Japanese DJs have sought to create a "national" style and position themselves overseas. First, I consider the incorporation of the Japanese soundscape in hip-hop tracks and its intended meanings. These references include not only Japanese instruments such as shakuhachi or quotes of Japanese melodies, but also Buddhist chants, street sounds, "traditional" remixes of anime songs, and wholesale replication of traditional genres such as biwa narrative. Furthermore, DJs like Krush consciously integrate Japanese aesthetic preferences, e.g., ma (space) or heterophonic textures.

Second, I relate the reception of Japanese DJs at the DMC World Championships, which DJ Kentaro won in 2002 with the highest score in the history of the competition. Since Kentaro's victory, Japanese DJs have won team and battle championships at DMC but not the singles championship. Among other issues, the Japanese value originality and eclecticism, while European DJs are seen as opting for current musical fashions. Hence, I examine the interpretation of "originality" and the assumption of "imitation" imposed on non-western musicians.