An introduction to recent Japanese Hip Hop – 20 choice tracks by 20 different Japanese artists
Hip hop has been popular in Japan since at least the early 90s, first with American imports and then with home grown Japanese artists taking the stage. For those with an interest in Japanese hip hop, I’ve compiled a list of 20 must-listen-to recent Japanese tracks, with Youtube videos imbedded. So start your new Japanese hip hop obsession here!
1. MC 唾奇 (Tsubaki) x Sweet William / Made my Day
First up, we have a track from the breakout album Jasmine (2017), featuring smooth, expertly-crafted beats and head-nodding lyrical wordplay. Okinawa-born Tsubaki teams up with producer and beatmaker Sweet William from Aichi, to create a track and an album that will put you in a nostalgic mood, and help you chill after a long day.
2. Bad Hop / Kawasaki Drift
One of the most popular hip hop acts in Japan, Bad Hop reps Kawasaki (a gritty industrial city on the outskirts of Tokyo) kind of like how 90s American rappers would rep Compton or LBC. Formed organically rather than through some producer’s spreadsheet, this 8 person crew have been friends since childhood, and are about as street as they come in Japan.
3. Awich feat. Young Juju / Remember
This female rapper grew up in Okinawa, which is strongly represented on the Japanese hip hop scene because of the heavy American military presence and hip hop clubs catering to American G.I.s. As a child, her parents would take her to protests outside of the military bases, which got her interested in the culture of the force she was protesting. Learning English from Tupac lyrics and exploring the American club scene, she broke out locally and then throughout Japan. Famous for an authentic Okinawa-focused sound and great live stage shows, here is a track from the album 8 (2017).
4. Salu / Rap Game
Born and raised in Sapporo Hokkaido, Salu has been making hits since 2011, and is an established artist on the Japanese hip hop scene. Featuring a more Japanese and Asian sensibility, he is famous for his wide audience and clear, easy to understand lyrics. Here we have Rap Game from the album Gifted (2019).
5. AKLO feat. Salu / RGTO
Born in Tokyo to a Japanese mother and a Mexican father, AKLO grew up between Mexico and Japan, also spending time in NY. Known for a West Coast sensibility, smooth flow, and an easy switching between Japanese and English, here is AKLO’s breakout hit RGTO from the album The Arrival (2014).
6. KOHH / Hikoki (Airplane)
Born in Tokyo, KOHH had a hard luck childhood, with his father committing suicide by jumping off a building while high on drugs, and his mother a methamphetamine addict. He took those hard beginnings and turned them into inspiration, being one of the few Japanese hip hop acts to achieve success overseas. Controversial in Japan for criticizing the media for ignoring the local hip hop scene, and dealing directly with drug abuse and domestic violence, KOHH is currently one of Japan’s biggest hip hop stars.
7. Punpee / Oyomenioide 2015
Popular for his smooth, staggering flow in Japanese, Punpee is one of Japan’s longest running rappers, first gaining widespread recognition in 2006, and still a player in the hip hop world today, not only making his own music, but also producing hits for other big names.
8. Zorn / My Life
Zorn is unusual because he raps about topics untouched by other Japanese rappers. Instead of drugs or the street, he focuses on an everyday blue collar life, being a father, and topics that relate to many regular Japanese. The language is unusual in its normality, and the tone melancholy but touching. Here is one of his most popular tracks, My Life, from the album The Downtown (2015).
9. Anarchy feat. T-Pablow / Where we From
Representing Kyoto, but far from the temples and tourist spots, Anarchy had a tough life and he wants you to know about it. Since passing out mix tapes by hand, he has climbed the rap world in Japan, and his perseverance is nothing short of amazing. Here is the track Where we From, from the album The King (2019).
10. kZm feat. BIM / Dream Chaser
With an emotion-laden singing voice and trap-infused sounds, kZm calls himself a conceptual artist instead of a rapper, and takes an approach to hip hop as art. Included here is the sad but whimsical track Dream Chaser from the album Dimension (2018).
11. Tohji / Higher
One of the most promising new hip hop artists in Japan, Tohji mixes rap with other musical influences to create his own unique, idiosyncratic aesthetic, and has a dynamic stage presence, swagger and physicality that make him a favorite with Japanese young audiences. You can be sure that the energy will spike whenever he takes the stage.
12. Miyachi / Wakarimasen
Maybe my personal favorite on this list, Miyachi is a Japanese-American from New York City who riffs off his background, has a great sense of humor, boasts a seamless flow between English and Japanese, and constantly drops hints of the Japanese- and Asian-American milieu he grew up in in NYC. For anyone who is from or who spent any significant amount of time in NY, and who also has an interest in Japanese hip hop and culture in general, Miyachi is a great find who is now making waves in his parents’ homeland of Japan.
13. BASI feat. Tsubaki / Ai no mama
Smooth as anything, BASI is who you listen to if you want to chill in Japanese. For those who understand the language, BASI’s lyrics are beautiful, poetic, and point to the ephemeral emotions we all experience in life.
14. Jinmenusagi / so goo
Starting off on the internet, and then going mainstream, Jinmenusagi used to have a fast flow but has recently slowed it down. This hip hop artist raps explicit, but at the same time melancholic and poetic lyrics. If you don’t get put off at first, there is actually a depth of feeling and emotion, as in this track so goo from the album la blanka (2018).
15. Suzuki Mamiko / Blue
With the look of a Jpop star instead of a hip hop artist, and a rap style that is very pop-infused and feminine, Suzuki Mamiko will make you feel like you are not listening to hip hop at all. This may be good or bad depending on your taste. This track, Blue, is loungy and laid-back, is from the album Deep Green (2017).
16. Brian Channel
Brian isn’t a professional hip hop artist, but his video was the most talked about thing in Japanese hip hop this year 2020, featuring a surprisingly well done extended dis of the Japanese hip hop scene. Now viewed more than 8 million times on youtube.
17. Takabo / Suiyoru
This tongue-in-cheek artist likes to blur his eyes, but you can’t miss him in this entertaining video that includes snakes, big yakuza-looking guys smoking what looks like weed in a theater (not gonna happen in Japan), and just everything over the top and larger than life. I once heard a criticism of Japanese rap, saying that it was really just cosplay, and in this case it may be true, but it’s also really fun cosplay.
18. Kandytown / Local Area
Kandytown is a 16 member group of friends from Setagaya in Tokyo, that takes an artistic approach to hip hop, creating smooth beats reminiscent of the best of American 90s rap. I also personally get reminded of the late great Nujabes, and have this track Local Area from the album Kandytown Life (2019) right next to tracks by Nujabes in my playlist.
19. ralph / Selfish
Continuing the explosion of mixed-race (hafu) people onto the Japanese national stage, ralph is one of the breakout hip hop hits of 2020, with his track Selfish featuring a solemn hypnotic voice, smooth fast flow, and mysterious church hymn background. This track jumped straight into Japan’s Viral 50 playlist.
20. Red Eye / Thug Life
The youngest rapper on this list, Red Eye just won the 16th High School Rap Championship in Japan, and teamed up with producer OVER KILL to drop the single Thug Life to an excellent critical reception and strong interest. The video has strong visuals, a quick, confident, youthful flow, and cameos by a string of older hip hoppers that shows that Red Eye is part of a chain, and bringing Japanese hip hop into this new decade.
These 20 tracks by 20 different artists only scratch the surface when it comes to Japanese hip hop, but I hope they will be a good introduction to what is happening in this raw, dynamic genre, and help spark further exploration by music fans all over the world on YouTube, Spotify, and elsewhere! Thank you for reading this far, and please check out my other blog posts on a wide variety of topics related to all things Japanese.