Saturday, March 9, 2013

Spray Cans Vol. 005: DJ Krush - "Meiso"

DJ Krush - "Meiso" (Mo' Wax, 1996)

In the 1980s, a guy finds himself uninterested in school and frustrated by his financial situation, so he drops out and soon finds himself involved in a major gang. The violence in his life quickly escalates, claiming the life of a close friend and threatening to doom him to an early death himself. And then, some time after its initial release in 1983, he stops by his local movie theater and catches a showing of Wild Style, and everything changes. He severs his ties with the gang and resolves to become a DJ. This story or some variation of it has become so common in hip hop history that it’s basically cliché at this point, but in the case of DJ Krush, arguably the most important DJ in the history of Japanese hip hop, this boilerplate backstory was not simply a means of establishing street cred. Krush, born Hideaki Ishi in Tokyo in 1962, was a member of the Yakuza, one of the most notoriously ruthless gangs on the planet, so removing himself from gang life was not a simple process. Also, when Wild Style initially got limited release in Japan, hip hop and DJ culture were basically unknown in that country, so getting the equipment necessary to follow his new hero Grandmaster Flash took years. His initial trips to buy equipment were met by store owners who were baffled as to why he would ever need two turntables. Turntables with built-in crossfaders were impossible to acquire in Japan so he had to build much of his own equipment. Krush, along with a small community of likeminded musicians, basically built Japanese hip hop culture from scratch.

Unfortunately, Japanese musical pioneers tend to get minimal attention at best in the United States, regardless of genre.[1] The Source barely cared about the Japanese rappers featured on De La Soul’s Buhloone Mindstate, and any Japanese rap artist without a cosign as powerful as the Native Tongues was deemed unworthy of the page space. Krush even struggled to get a deal with an American record company. Thankfully, the United Kingdom, which was in the midst of the most fertile periods for trip-hop, jungle, and drum and bass music, was more than open to Japanese artists. Britain’s Mo’ Wax label, which would be legendary even if they released Endtroducing…, Dr. Octagonecologyst, Psyence Fiction, and nothing else, was much more progressive than most US hip hop labels and saw potential in Krush’s instrumental hip hop excursions. Thanks to Mo’ Wax’s distribution and some favorable attention in the British press, Krush found himself right behind DJ Shadow in defining the new subgenre of instrumental hip hop.

Meiso, Krush’s second album for Mo’ Wax (after 1994’s unremarkable Krush for Shadow Records and Strictly Turntablized for Mo’ Wax) was released in 1995, and the title track featuring Black Thought and Malik B. of the Roots was released as a 12” in the UK in 1995.[2] The b-side of the “Meiso” single is basically a wash, with a radio version of DJ Shadow’s remix and an uninteresting remix by the Danish production duo the Prunes, but the a-side is extremely interesting as it features both the album version of the song as well as a remix by DJ Shadow, who was still defining his sound in the year leading up to the release of Endtroducing… Krush’s album version of the song is the third and last song on side A. The beat recalls DJ Premier’s work on Jeru the Damaja’s 1994 debut album The Sun Rises in the East, with lots of piano dissonance and scratching, and long stretches of drums and reverb-heavy bass with no other instrumental accompaniment. Both Roots MCs show off their developing skills in between two of their band’s best albums, Do You Want More?!!!??! and Illadelph Halflife. The Roots got their start in Europe, where they dealt with much less resistance to their live band hip hop than they initially had in the States. That a Japanese artist on a British label would be one of the first to get them for a guest feature makes a lot of sense, and both rappers are audibly hungry, eager to prove to new audiences that they aren’t just a gimmick. 

DJ Shadow’s remix, which is featured in both vocal and instrumental forms, is the primary reason that this 12” is worth picking up (Krush’s version is readily available on the Meiso album, after all). While Krush’s beat doesn’t change too much throughout the song, DJ Shadow had already developed the ability to move a song along with just a beat. The song sounds out sounding pretty typically, all downbeat bass and occasional keyboard and string accents over a great slowly changing drum beat. When Black Thought finishes his verse, the beat transforms completely with a fuller arrangement in an extended instrumental refrain. The original beat comes back for Malik B.’s verse, but the drums are a little glitchier this time around. The song ends with about a minute and a minute of the refrain beat and a soul outro. The instrumental version works just as well as the vocal version, and would not have been out of place on the b-side of one of the singles from Endtroducing…

DJ Krush and DJ Shadow maintained their relationship through one split 12” later in 1995, but their paths diverged when Shadow released Endtroducing… in 1996. Endtroducing… was rightfully heralded as one of the greatest and most innovative records in hip hop and sampling history, and the success enabled Shadow to explore all kinds of new artistic avenues (and a few dead-ends, like 2007’s The Outsider), while Krush quietly pursued his vision of instrumental hip hop with minimal American exposure. He released one more album on Mo’ Wax, his 1997 masterpiece MiLight, before moving on to other labels. He has remained active on the DJ scene in the eighteen years since Meiso came out, although he hasn’t released an album since 2004’s Jaku


"Meiso (DJ Shadow Klub Mix)"

[1] A few metal bands (such as Boris) and psychedelic rock bands (such as Acid Mothers Temple) get some much deserved attention in the States, but the Japanese rock vanguard of the sixties and seventies, including Flower Traveling Band, Speed, Glue & Shinki, Taj Mahal Travelers, and the Golden Cups, has been all but ignored over here. Also, while many of Europe’s free jazz and free improvisation pioneers have managed to rise in the canon among some American circles, Kaoru Abe, who stands as one of the greatest free saxophonists ever, is unknown to all but a few Americans. Japanese hip hop has suffered a similar fate here.
[2] Multiple versions of this single were released on both vinyl and CD, with different remixes on each version. I’m focusing on the first and best version, catalog number MW042.

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