Krush Groove

DJ Krush spins the international language of hip-hop.

With pop’s international forces assembling at the U.S. border, American radio programmers have built a wall to make Pat Buchanan xenophobes proud. Aside from Britpop’s nasal ambassadors, the Billboard charts remain purged of un-American accents. Successful imports wouldn’t think of affronting the ears of their American hosts.

Tokyo resident DJ Krush may slip under the protectionist radar, though the turntable whiz speaks little English, relying on his manager to translate during interviews. For one thing, his American debut, Meiso (Mo Wax/ffrr/London), enlists the aid of sympathetic rappers, among them CL Smooth, members of the Roots, and Guru, the latter of GangStarr and Jazzmatazz fame, who give full voice to his finely textured hip-hop tracks. For another, Krush’s instrumentals speak well enough alone. Even given the star power present, the award for best guest appearance goes to fellow turntable manipulator DJ Shadow, who teams with Krush on “Duality.”

“I am hip-hop without a rapper,” says Krush, with two previous, import-only albums to his credit: the lesser acid-jazz of Krush and the expertly abstract Strictly Turntablized. “In order to express what the DJ wants, it’s really the structure of the track and the way he uses samples and selects samples that allows him to ‘say’ something.” Indeed, fully half of Meiso is DJing for DJing’s sake, a rich set of midtempo rhythmic contortions and suggestive sonic isolates. In Krush’s private zone, rap’s penchant for hard-world literalism gives way to the figurative wonders of sampling, beat-box poetry and other forms of electronic expression. In turns peaceful and chilling, this is urban chamber music.

Like most pop musicians outside the U.S., Krush, who is 33, claims a kind of cultural American citizenship. “I didn’t grow up on traditional Japanese music,” he says, by way of explaining why Meiso features nary a native instrument. “I grew up listening to American music. I think this is also true of American hip-hop musicians, that you don’t grow up listening to traditional folk music, either.” Ironically, the Japanese bamboo flute, or shakuhachi, that floats through the album’s opening track was sampled from an avant-garde jazz record.

Krush gladly does away with speech, suggesting in its place the primacy of thoughts and feelings. A former juvenile delinquent who professes to having been set straight by American hip-hop, he admits that his “Tokyo homeboys” tease him about his creative predilection for austerity. “It’s really not an intentional thing,” he says.

In New York a year ago to complete the recording of Meiso, Krush woke the morning of April 19, 1995, to televised images of the Oklahoma explosion. “I had done preproduction on a track in Tokyo, and at first I wanted to make it real warm, nostalgic — a merry-go-round type of thing. Then I saw these kids, all bloody, and firemen getting them out of the building. And I thought to myself, I can’t just make a happy song.”

The result is “OCE 9504,” Meiso‘s centerpiece: A loop of a child’s chuckle is mimicked, giggle for giggle, by Krush’s programming, which then transforms into a funky hip-hop vamp, itself due to fade into a sonic picturesque: the distant laughs of children and the sonic ghost image of a merry-go-round. Says Krush, “One thing I want to express about ‘OCE 9504’ is that it’s not a child-abuse track.” Krush would never produce anything so didactic. Words might disturb “OCE 9504″‘s solemnity. In fact, it’s the relative absence of words that allows Meiso to speak volumes, even at low volume.

Originally published in Pulse! magazine, May 1996.

What follows is the lightly edited transcript of the interview from which the above profile was derived. Please note that DJ Krush speaks very little English, or at least did at the time of this interview. His manager, Mami Ikeda, translated during the interview. She told me that she translated, for the most part, exactly what he said, but for whatever reason opted to transpose the material into the third person. This explains why the quotations attributed to “Krush” speak of him as “he” and “him” instead of “I” and “me.”

Marc Weidenbaum: What would you describe as being Japanese about your music? Aside, for example, from the wooden flute on the opening track?

[She says something to Krush. He responds.]

“Krush”: Basically, he used the sound of the track [“Only the Strong Survive,” off Meiso (Mo Wax/ffrr)] he did with CL [Smooth], and until then he really hated to use Japanese instruments, because he didn’t want to put out his Japanese-ness deliberately. He didn’t want it, because he himself didn’t grow up on traditional Japan music. He grew up listening to American music and stuff like that. But what happened was that while he was recording that track with CL, he just naturally picked a record up with that flute sound and started scratching it. And it just matched so well with the track and CL’s voice, so he was able to use it very naturally. He was really happy about that. He himself doesn’t really know what is very Japanese about his music. Probably, living in Tokyo all these years, it may be something of a production or structural thing about his tracks, or whether it’s the selection of samples that he uses, or the way he uses samples, it may sound like something that is not really what American DJs do.

Weidenbaum: Krush’s music seems very personal, even “philosophical.” This may be because much of it features no vocals — so rather than being buried behind speech, it suggests thought. When I hear most popular American rap music, I often think it is meant to be heard by two people in a car seat, or more likely at a party. Krush’s music sounds as if it is meant to be heard in a room, alone.

[She addresses him, and he responds.]

“Krush”: It’s really not an intentional thing. His homeboys back home tell him the same thing. But he is hip-hop without a rapper, and in order for him to express what he wants to say, it’s really the structure of the track and the way he uses the samples and the way he selects the samples that makes the DJ to be able to make a track say something. And in terms of the instrumental tracks, he does like the plain old break beats that DJs usually make, break beats albums, but for his own music he didn’t want to just make a break beats album; he wants to make something more. And that’s how he makes his instrumental tracks,

Weidenbaum: Well, then, speaking of the samples, I have to comment on one in particular: “OCE 9504,” the track with the children’s voices; it’s far and away my current favorite on the record —

“Krush”: Let me just tell Krush that

[She tells him something briefly, then he goes speaks at length.]

“Krush”: That track has a real interesting episode. He did a preproduction for that track in Tokyo, and at first he wanted to make it a real warm, nostalgic type of track, like a merry-go-round type of thing. But then he came over to do the recording in New York last year, and right in the middle of the recording, one morning he woke up in his hotel room and there was the Oklahoma explosion. It came on the TV, and he saw all these kids, all bloody, and firemen getting them out of the building. And he thought to himself, I can’t just make a happy song. So he went to all the record shops, looking for the records he wanted to use, getting CDs and records that have baby voices. And it turned out to be that type of track.

[He recognizes that she has finished speaking, and talks at length again.]

“Krush”: He was in New York, so he couldn’t really do this, but he has two kids and he really wanted to use his kids’ voices on the track. One thing he says he wants to express about that track is that it’s not a child-abuse track. The reason he put the slashing sound of knifes [at the end], is that he wanted to warn people: You don’t know what’s going to happen next.

[He speaks some more.]

“Krush”: That’s why he felt so much from what he saw on TV, because of his own children.

Weidenbaum: The whole piece is so beautiful: how it opens with the kid’s singing and develops a melody based on the child’s voice, the distant sound of the merry-go-round, the children laughing, the stereoscopic effect, the sound of the music box, then the shears at the end. Now, this may sound somewhat cold given what I’ve just learned about the track, but I thought the shears at the end were a reference to the fact that Krush creates with samples, with pieces of things, with severed sounds. I felt like he was giving us a sense of his “mechanism” for creativity. I felt he was nostalgic for his own memories of his childhood — how we have memories, but slowly they disappear, and then return only in “snippets.” One gets “cut off” from them.

[She addresses him, and he responds.]

“Krush”: He’s glad he’s able to pass on some kind of image or vision [laughs] — from what he wanted to express in that track.

Weidenbaum: Another nostalgia question: Whenever I hear vinyl crackles on music by DJs and ambient-style producers, it sounds to me like someone’s trying to remind me that these snippets are memories, old things. At the risk of pressing this one point, what are you — what is Krush nostalgic for? What are these cues meant to prompt?

[She addresses him, and he responds.]

“Krush”: I mean, he used to be really, really bad. He used to be a juvenille delinquent, going into the ganster world. He was actually in the gangster world before he met hip-hop. And the memories that he can look back on right now are all the bad things that he has experienced. For example, his family has been very very poor, and when other guys were wearing Adidas, he couldn’t afford to buy himself some. So he went to his friend’s house, just to say hi, and then stole them from him.

[He continues.]

“Krush”: And looking back at those times, now he feels that the reason why he was on the street without going to school was because he couldn’t find a place to express himself, and speak for himself. That’s why he was doing all these bad things. And it really was the film Wild Style that got him back to this decent life and get into the hip-hop world. He was able to relate to the hip-hop culture.

Weidenbaum: How old is he?

[She tells him what I’ve asked, and he responds.]

“Krush”: Thirty three.

[He speaks.]

“Krush”: It was more than 10 years ago.

Weidenbaum: In regard to his work on the recent TVT/Nettwerk compilation, Offbeat: A Red Hot Sound Trip, what is the state of AIDS awareness in Japan?

[They have a conversation.]

“Krush”: The awareness — basically, Japanese people are not aware of what AIDS is all about [editorial note: this conversation predated the recent blood-tainting scandal in Japan]. Not compared to America and other countries. That’s one of the reasons he joined the Red Hot project. He wanted to support what they’re doing. In Japan, of course, they have this World AIDS Day, and that’s about the only time they talk about AIDS. Japan does that to a lot of things: They bring up the subject for a short time, and then forget about it. And that’s why he wanted people — not many people have very basic knowledge about AIDS, so he wanted people to be aware.

Weidenbaum: Totally unrelated question: It is said of the French New Wave of filmmakers, such as Truffaut, Goddard and their contemporaries, that they didn’t understand what they heard in American films because they weren’t fluent in the language. This freed them to absorb and interpret the directors’ filmic techniques and concentrate on how the images rather than the words told the story. Is this similar to Krush’s experience? Did he concentrate on the background of American rap because of his not understanding the language?

[She addresses him, and he responds at length.]

“Krush”: Uh, maybe.

[They both laugh, and he speaks some more.]

“Krush”: It’s not an intentional thing for him. Of course, he watched the movie Wild Style, and he was interested in DJing, though he’s not sure why. [Laughs] After a while he started to ask himself, Why do they use two turntables? Why don’t they use an instrument? That’s how he learned what hip-hop culture is all about. Also, at that time, the hip-hop scene was really a baby. There wasn’t any proper equipment for him to work on, and there was no one to teach him how to do it, so he had to learn it himself, listening to hip-hop records, how they make the scratch sounds, stuff like that. And that’s how he got into the sound of hip-hop records.

[He speaks.]

“Krush”: But collaborating with the U.S. rappers, and all the people he has collaborated with in all his albums so far, he really felt that he could communicate with music, even without words. Once he delivered his sounds for them to rap on, they knew what Krush wanted and Krush knew what they wanted, so he able to communicate with them.

Weidenbaum: Question to you, Mami: Did you work with him and the rappers in the studio for this album?

Mami Ikeda: Part of it. There was another translator on the first half of the recording, and I was there for the latter half.

Weidenbaum: What’s his basic set-up now? People might hear this music and wonder what equipment is involed with putting it together.

[She asks him.]

“Krush”: For sequencer, he uses a Roland.

[He speaks, and the word AKAI is the only one I recognize.]

“Krush”: And an AKAI 1000 sampler.

Weidenbaum: The international language of technology.

[They laugh. Then he speaks some more.]

“Krush”: And all the records, especially the crappy records that no one wants to buy, and two turntables and a mixer.

Weidenbaum: What is the sound that opens the record? It sounds almost like avant-garde classical music.

[She asks him. He sings, approximating the album’s opening phrase.]

Weidenbaum: Yeah, that one [I confirm that this is the sound to which I am referring].

[They converse.]

“Krush”: It’s the record that has that wooden flute sound —

[He interjects.]

“Krush”: It’s a record that Japanese people made. They played a jazz track with that flute sound.

Weidenbaum: The shakuhachi?

“Krush”: Yes.

Weidenbaum: I have this John Zorn record with the shakuhachi

“Krush”: John Zorn.

[He says, “Ah, John Zorn,” and starts talking.]

“Krush”: Up until that recording, he has been interviewed and asked — and told — Why don’t you use Japanese traditional instruments? Because you’re a Japanese DJ! So why not?! And he really hated that. So that’s why he didn’t use any of it. As he said before, he didn’t grow up on it, and he thinks this is also true of American hip-hop musicians: that you don’t grow up listening to traditional folk music, either.

Weidenbaum: Yeah, there was an American Jewish hip-hop group called Blood of Abraham, and I believe it was criticized for not using a clarinet.

[They speak.]

“Krush”: There are points where you could use it naturally, the flute. He just waited.

Weidenbaum: Could he talk about Guru, DJ Premiere and GangStarr? From the “thanks” listings in his albums and the material I have read in magazines and on the Internet, I have the impression that, of all the rappers on Meiso, they have the longest relationship with him.

[She addresses him, and he responds.]

“Krush”: It goes way back to when he had his own group, Krush Puppy. He met with Guru and Premiere when they came over with Dream Warriors for the first time to Tokyo, and Krush Puppy did a front [“opening”] act for one of their in-store live performances. Krush happened to use this instrumental break beats album of the Wild Style movie. You’ll see, the Wild Style comes up a lot along the line, really. Um, and, it happened to be a record that Premiere couldn’t find, didn’t have, and Premiere saw Krush using it. And after the performance, Premiere came up to Krush and said, “Where did you get this record? I couldn’t find it anywhere in New York.” Krush got him a copy of it, and that’s how he and Gang Starr’s guys got really close. It’s like back in ’92, ’93. Guru rapped on one of his tracks on his first album, a track that isn’t on the U.S. release. So, this time was really the second time he worked with Guru. So they have been together longer probably more than CL.

Weidenbaum: I don’t want to take up much more of your time.

“Krush”: That’s OK.

[They speak.]

“Krush”: No problem.

Weidenbaum: What does the title to the Meiso track “OCE 9504” mean.

[They speak, then laugh.]

“Krush”: I think we already answered that.

Weidenbaum: Oh, April ’95 Oklahoma.

“Krush”: That’s right: Oklahoma City Explosion.

[They laugh.]

Weidenbaum: DJ Premiere and Pete Rock are among the few DJs to get real attention for their production work. Public Enemy DJ Terminator X, for example, spun records and scratched but, in retrospect, he was never really part of Public Enemy’s production team, the Bomb Squad. And his solo album expressed this: It was him backing up a bunch of different rappers. He doesn’t make music without rappers.

[They speak back and forth. All I understand is the word “DJ.”]

“Krush”: In Japan, before [“early on”] there were a lot of DJ battles, that’s how he started to come up on the scene. He won all those contests. At first it was DJs who came to the forefront. Gradually, people began to pay attention to rap, because of the hip-hop scene getting bigger. So the DJ stepped backward one step. And currently, Krush is trying to figure out what DJs can do by themselves. He’s not trying to bring the existence of the DJ to the forefront again, but he is trying to let people know what the DJ can do.

[He speaks.]

“Krush”: He has to be a solo artist, so he is questing with the instrumental part of music. He also feels that it is challenging to work with a rapper and figure out what kind of track matches what kind of rapper. Now he is thinking — this is for the next album — he is trying to figure out what kind of sound it would be if a DJ like him or a DJ like Premiere, who always works with rapper, what kind of sound they would make together.

Weidenbaum: His music, like DJ Premiere’s, always reminds me of soundtracks.

“Krush”: Yes.

Weidenbaum: Especially Blade Runner.

[He says, Blade Runner. Then they converse briefly, and he launches into a statement.]

“Krush”: That happens to be one of his favorite movies. Five years ago, at a party, he mixed, he did a mix of the Blade Runner soundtrack. He really loved it, but the crowd didn’t. They didn’t understand.

Weidenbaum: That’s what “OCE 9504” reminds me of. In the movie the female lead struggles with these snippets of memories, and the original soundtrack explores her complicated nostalgia.

[They discuss.]

“Krush”: He was surprised how that track came to turn out. It was very different from what he planned in the first place.

Weidenbaum: How did he hook up with these different rappers? Through management?

[She addresses him, and he responds.]

“Krush”: First of all, the Roots. The first time he met them was two years ago at a London jazz festival, where they were in a session band together. During the rehearsal, he was playing with his turntables making beats, and the two rappers happened to hop in and start doing freestyle. So, he wanted to see their happy faces again. They’ve got a real good drummer with them, but he wanted to try and work with them with just beats.

[She addresses him, and he responds.]

“Krush”: He went to see Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s live show when they came over to Tokyo. He wasn’t able to talk with CL in Tokyo, unfortunately. He spoke a little with Pete Rock. Basically, he hooked up with their management, and asked to … because Pete Rock and CL is one of his all time, big names [“favorites”]. CL said, OK, he’d do it. When they got into the studio together he discovered that CL really likes Japan and that CL was really inspired a lot from his visit to Tokyo. He even had a tattoo in Japanese characters on his neck.

Weidenbaum: What’s it say.

“Krush”: It’s his name.

[Krush says something. She replies. He speaks at length.]

“Krush”: It was James Lavelle of Mo’ Wax who introduced him to Hedrush. He gave him the number [of Deflon Sallahr]. That track was just made right here in New York while he was recording; he made that back track. He really wanted a good rapper on it. He remembered James giving him Hedrush’s contact number and he gave him the back track. And we asked him to come over the next day and rap on it. [He laughs.]

Weidenbaum: Who is it who drops the word “ginseng”?

“Krush”: That’s the Roots. [Laughs. They speak, he at length.]

“Krush”: Collaborating with them was really inspiring, and stimulating. He learned a lot of things. He would really like to do more of it in the future.

Weidenbaum: I really like how he doubled Hedrush’s voice.

“Krush”: Ah.

[They speak. He says, “Thank you.”]

Weidenbaum: There haven’t been many Japanese musicians who’ve come to the States and made a huge impression. There’s Toshiko Akioshi, Yoko Ono. And Columbia Records in particular, which is owned by Sony — which publishes Krush’s music in Japan, right?

“Krush”: Yup.

Weidenbaum: Sony in particular has tried to bring Japanese starlettes over here and it hasn’t worked. What does he think of Japanese musicians appealing to Americans.

[They speak. He laughs.]

“Krush”: Up until the last few years or so, a lot of the Japanese acts who have been brought overseas — actually, there’s been a lot of money moving in the background. Lately, with lots of club acts and more Japanese DJs and people like that being able to come overseas and show their performance and bring their music out it, it’s because they’ve got more than that.

Weidenbaum: More than the money.

“Krush”: Right. Krush is basically surprised with himself, how far he was able to come, but he wants more Japanese people to get their own original style, and get over copying other people’s music.

[He speaks.]

“Krush”: And he, how he feels about himself doing hip-hop, is he is basically borrowing the style that is called hip-hop, which was born in America, so he can’t just make a mere copy of it, and show the people in the States. Instead, he filters, no, he takes the hip-hop through himself and brings out his own style of hip-hop. He feels that that’s the only way he can give back to America, who let him borrow his styles.

Weidenbaum: Throughout the album there are moments in which his sense of interpreting American rap is apparent. There’s one track, “Ground,” that has that familiar “yo-ee-yo” sound, but even that seemed warped and mediated from the original type of thing in the States.

[She addresses him, and he responds at length.]

“Krush”: I mean, he really wants to communicate with the people he collaborates with, and the people who listen to his music. He will continue to “quest” for that kind of communication with his music.

Weidenbaum: Our office isn’t far from Davis, where DJ Shadow lives.

“Krush”: Ah.

[They speak.]

“Krush”: He really loves all your questions, when I was explaining them to him. Very interesting. He really loved talking with you.

Weidenbaum: Well, I enjoyed it as well. Thanks.

“Krush”: Thank you.

[He says, “Thank you.”]

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