Asia "Musically Inked" Jones
Nov 24, 2022
The Japanese animation culture and the American hip-hop culture have always been secretly in love with each other.
“Hip Hop in America … is freedom,” - acclaimed Japanese DJ/producer DJ Honda
In the Takahiro Shiraishi-directed documentary series ‘Hip Hop Originals’ (https://youtu.be/Br4S50JYyJs), it’s a three-part mini-documentary that traces the genre’s early underground beginnings in Japan to its present mainstream success. Hip hop was introduced by Japanese DJs who visited the United States. They would play popular hip hop records that they brought back from New York with the latest hip hop fashion. In Tokyo, mid 80s, hip-hop arrived at a time when people were just beginning to express themselves freely and artistically. Just like in the United States, Japan began to embrace the musical aspects of the culture while emulating their favorite rappers’ looks. The 1985 film, Krush Groove, starring Run DMC, was responsible for sparking a lifelong interest in American hip hop for enthusiasts like OG Kan Takagi. As Japanese hip-hop progressed, it became more local and later generations had a greater freedom of expression.
“I think there is a stronger sense of individuality,” producer Steelo explains in the second episode, which features the “new school” of Japanese Hip Hop. Kenya of the rap group Bleecker Chrome cites Kid Cudi as an example of an artist who shows that rap “Don’t need to be… about gangs or society.” As classic American hip-hop remains prominent in Japan, today’s rappers and producers are continuing to bend and defy the genre while western hip hop remains at the heart of it all.
Throughout its life, hip hop artists have been inspired by all things social and cultural to include comic books, video games, movies, and of course real-life experiences. Why not add Japanese anime to the list? The appeal of hip hop artists to anime is its dynamic nature, ranging from juvenile curiosity to mortality, identity and what it means to be human. The sometimes-extreme depictions of action and violence attract views from one side of the culture of hip-hop and the well develop characters and storylines attract the newer fans of anime. While we all know that rappers like MF Doom and Ghostface Killah were influential in comics, anime was also an influence on artist like Denzel Curry, Kanye West, and other artists like SahBabii.
When a work of art becomes popular among the genre it can seamlessly blend in with hip hop culture through name drops and allusions. Some of those classic anime arts (or shows) include Naruto, Death Note, Dragon Ball Z, Attack on Titans, and Inuyasha. Noting that Naruto features abilities like the Sharingan or different Clans styles and hand gestures called ninjutsu signs, as well as the narrative of Naruto as an outcast, they run parallel to the inevitable parts of gang culture. One popular talked about anime bar comes from Florida rapper Ski Mask the Slump God in his single Catch Me Outside where he spits a line about Naruto's Kurama - an overpowered tail beast sealed inside Naruto that grants him God like powers. Or “Throw up gang signs, Naruto (Uh)/ Put metal in my nose like Pain (Uh)” from Lil Uzi Vert’s New Patek. RZA of the infamous Wu Tang clan identifies with Dragon Ball Z so much he has gone on to say that the plight of Goku resembles that of a black man in America especially with Goku rediscovering his heritage and his hidden Saiyan powers and wanting to become all that he can be. Xavier Wulf has a song based on Attack on Titan called “Wulf Titan” and other rappers have made references to the show such as UK Drill rapper V9 in Morrison’s “Shots” Remix (3:19) with the bar, “Ching man’s neck and call him Titan,” referring to a Titan’s only weakness being slashes to the neck.
Beyond anime being the inspiration for much of American cinema ( ex. Avatar: The Last Airbender) more obvious anime references are popping up in mainstream media on a regular basis. Doja Cat’s “Like That” music video draws heavily on the transformation sequences in Sailor Moon (and we haven’t even started talking about her e-girl aesthetic, save that for another time). For someone who grew up teased for watching anime, I was very surprised to see how boldly our culture’s most popular icons have shown their love of anime. Other artist like Snoop Dogg, and Pharrell have all revealed themselves as anime fans, watching classics like Akira, Cowboy BeBop, One Piece, Naruto, and Dragon Ball Z.
By the mid 1990’s, Cartoon Network had lit an anime fuse by broadcasting segments like Toonami which pushed Japanese anime into American homes.
” …Rappers who came of age during this period grew up with anime and its aesthetics as a common feature of their artistic diet”
says William H. Bridges IV, an associate professor of Japanese at the University of Rochester. One major factor that helps connect the bridge of hip hop artist and anime is through the underdog stories about rising from humble origins to meet greatness. But not just rising to meet greatness — they’re about how one must evolve to meet greatness. Drake said “Started from the bottom, now we here.”
Written by Asia "Musically Inked" Jones