To celebrate the launch of Highsnobiety Japan (hs.jp), we’re exhibiting the numerous ways in which Japanese culture intersects with our publication’s points of interest. This piece is a continuation of Highsnobiety Music’s series spotlighting international hip-hop scenes, read onward for the 10 Japanese Rappers You Need to Know.
Despite being steeped in traditions that date back thousands of years, Japanese culture is in a continual state of flux, constantly pushing the boundaries of what’s possible while incorporating both Eastern and Western influences into the country’s national identity. J-Pop may have shimmied its way to the forefront of Japanese radio over the past three decades, but the commercialization of American hip-hop has begun to bleed into the Japanese music scene too, providing an alternative voice that’s now blossoming on the fringes of the mainstream.
Following the arrival of cult movie Wild Style in 1983, elements of rap and breakdancing culture began to resonate with Japanese music lovers, and it wasn’t long before hip-hop streetwear dominated Tokyo runways and teen fashion alike in the ‘90s. Initially inspired by old-school American hip-hop, Japanese rap evolved by the early 2000s to the point where performers no longer sought to emulate Western stars. Instead, pioneers of this growing scene developed their own lyrical style and flow that connected with the kind of issues that directly affect the country’s youth, helping to distinguish Japanese rap from anything else out there today.
Now that native rappers are finding success in Japan, their influence is starting to be felt in Western rap circles too thanks to collaborations between the likes of Travis Scott and KOHH, a breakout star of the Japanese rap scene. While we’re a long way off from seeing Japanese rappers ride high on top of the American hip-hop charts, growing connections between the two cultures mean that such a thing could be possible in the years to come. But for now, jump ahead of the curve and join us here as we point you in the direction of 10 Japanese rappers you need to know right now.
On his second studio album, Japanese rapper Aklo compares himself to Bob Dylan on a track named after the legendary folk icon. While this is wildly misleading in terms of his musical style, the grandeur of these ambitions is more than apt for this up and coming star.
Half-Japanese and half-Mexican, Aklo incorporates English into his songs a bit more than most of his peers, which may be one of the reasons why MTV shone the spotlight on him a few years back following the release of “RGTO”, a song that effortlessly flows with a calm bravado befitting one of the industry’s most promising talents.
A relative newcomer to the scene, Daoko first grabbed the attention of fans with the release of her 2013 record, Ututu, at the tender age of 17. Since then, the young star found mainstream success in 2017 with a ballad called “Uchiage Hanabi” that she sang in collaboration with Kenshi Yonezu for the animated movie Fireworks, Should We See It From the Side or the Bottom?.
Inspired by the eccentricities of J-Pop and Nicki Minaj alike, Daoko blurs the boundaries of hip-hop and mainstream electronica with her own unique brand of weirdness that catapulted her to stardom in Japan. Given her ability to veer between rapping and singing with ease, Daoko is destined for crossover appeal that extends beyond even the hip-hop scene in Japan.
Miss the good old days? While trap continues to dominate hip-hop in America, rising rap group KANDYTOWN are taking fans back to a simpler time with their ‘90s throwback style. Not every member of the 15-strong group is a rapper as some also work as producers or video makers, but together, the KANDYTOWN collective retain complete creative control over everything they record, something which is all too rare in music today.
Tragically, the group’s founder passed away in February, 2015, yet YUSHI’s death hasn’t held the group back from world domination having since collaborated with Rebook Classics on a special project in conjunction with their own music.
Given that Kid Fresino didn’t even start rapping until the age of 19, the success he’s found just a few years later is astonishing to say the least. Just ten months passed between his first attempt at spitting bars on the track “Come In” and the creation of his entire debut album, 2013’s Horseman’s Scheme.
Notoriously shy on social media, Kid Fresino instead pours his heart into the laid-back style of his music, capturing the best of ’90s backpack rap to the sound of cutting-edge beats. Widespread acclaim soon followed thanks to the raw, exhilarating energy of his first few recordings, and now, Kid Fresino stands tall among the very best rappers in the game. Not bad for someone who just started out DJ-ing for another rap group called Fla$hBackS.
Hailing from Tokyo, rap crew kiLLa gained international exposure thanks to their unique amalgamation of streetwise grime and heavy trap influences that share as much in common with the UK and US hip-hop scenes as they do with their fellow countrymen in Japan. Drawing parallels with the likes of Tyler, the Creator and Odd Future, kiLLa is full of breakout stars like kZm, KEPHA, and Blaise who each hit hard with their extreme wordplay and underground sensibilities.
Just like KANDYTOWN, the crew are also self-sustaining for the most part, taking on the production and engineering for each of their tracks too. Noisey recently threw the spotlight on kiLLA’s track “Posey”, but that only scratches the surface of what this rap clique has to offer beyond the borders of Japan.
Raised by his grandmother and drug-addict mother after his father committed suicide, KOHH has embraced the poverty and hardship of his upbringing in his lyrics, shining a spotlight on a sub-section of Japanese society rarely acknowledged in the mainstream. This authenticity struck a chord with the hip-hop community, cementing him as a key player – and it wasn’t long until KOHH broke international barriers too.
Frank Ocean personally invited him to drop a verse on the remix to his track “Nikes” and Travis Scott has collaborated with KOHH too, something which shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise given that both stars share the same kind of menacing yet poignant flow. More than any other rapper on this list, KOHH has what it takes to break out from the Japanese hip-hop scene and become a global superstar, breaking boundaries in the worlds of both music and fashion.
Successful female rappers are still few and far between in her native country, which is exactly why MCpero’s upbeat flow is a breath of fresh air among the grimier male talents vying for airtime on Japanese radios.
Rhyming about her everyday experiences of love and sex, the Saitama born MC is fully aware that women remain underrepresented in hip-hop, telling the Japan Times that “female rappers of any sort getting attention is good,” although she hopes that more people will start rapping like her in the future. Whether MCpero succeeds to influence others to this extent or not, fans of super chilled yet positive performers like Chance the Rapper will find a lot to like on her records too.
Despite being in their early 20’s, The OTOGIBANASHI’S have already cultivated the kind of reputation in Japan that few other groups can match, alternating between humorous parody videos and eclectic tracks that are reminiscent of Gorillaz at their most mellow. The trio first formed in high school, and their playful love of hip-hop remains evident in their music even now.
Like the best rap crews, each member of The OTOGIBANASHI’S contributes something different to the group’s overall sound and together, bim, in-d, and PalBedStock explore hip-hop culture to its fullest extent, creating fashion for their own clothing label as well as their own unique style of music.
Although most of the rappers mentioned so far are relative newcomers to the game, Japanese hip-hop has been around in one form or another for over two decades now, so it’s vital we recognize more seasoned performers like PUNPEE who continue to release incredible music too.
While he started out as far back as 2002, it wasn’t until PUNPEE won the 2006 Ultimate MC Battle that he’d receive widespread recognition for his staggering flow. Since then, PUNPEE formed a trio with fellow MC Gapper and his own brother, S.L.A.C.K., as well as producing hits for other stars and even trying his hand at advertisement jingles. With the release of his latest album, Modern Times in late 2017, PUNPEE solidified his place as a key player on the Japanese hip-hop scene.
YDizzy might be a member of the aforementioned group kiLLa, but his solo career is worthy of being honored in its own right, much like the Korean star G-Dragon who also found success as both a solo artist and a key member of his own collective.
With a melodic drawl reminiscent of A$AP Rocky and the nightmarish qualities of Travis Scott’s best work, YDizzy is one of the most cocky rappers in the game right now, claiming to have put Japan on the map with his brash delivery. To be honest, it’s hard to argue against that when you listen to tracks like “BMW” and “DAMARE”, both of which have drawn the attention of fans outside of his native country. Japanese hip-hop doesn’t get much darker than this.
For more of our international spotlights, take a look at 10 Icelandic rappers to put on your radar right here.