One of hiphop culture's most important assets has always been its bullshit detector. From trendsetters like Fab Five Freddy to the neighborhood head with all the dope mix tapes, hiphop's numerous gatekeepers have protected the scene from over 25 years of industry tripe. But if you come correct, crafting an angle both rooted in sincerity and invention, then you can earn some real respect. Few embody this ethos better than Japan's DJ Krush, who since 1994 has won over the U.S. hiphop underground—gaining a reputation for churning out some of the genre's most caliginous-sounding beats.
In the early '80s, although American pop culture had great influence in Japan, hiphop had yet to make an impact. "When I was young, you turn on the radio and you hear a lot of music from America: funk, soul, rock. There was little Japanese influence," Krush explains through an interpreter as he prepares for the first leg of his U.S. tour. "When I started out, hiphop was just a very small scene."
Like most teens geographically disconnected from hiphop's New York epicenter, Krush (born Hideaki Ishii) discovered this distinctly black subculture through the 1982 film Wild Style. A high-school dropout, unemployed, and running with a street gang, Krush went on to forge a trademark blunted sound that was perhaps aptly birthed under bleak circumstances.
After a brief stint in the late '80s as a DJ with his own crew, the Krush Posse, Krush first gained international notoriety with his 1994 Mo'Wax debut Strictly Turntablized. Emblazoned with the infamous graf work of Mo'Wax resident artist Futura 2000, and riddled with some of the sludgiest beats of the day, Strictly Turntablized sold extremely well. His first proper stateside LP, 1995's Krush, represented the producer/DJ's first foray into the American hiphop scene. Exemplified by the opium-den haze of tracks like "Underneath the System," the album's cinematic soundscapes earned him the respect of peers like DJ Shadow, ?uestlove, and Guru. But even with these highly precocious records, Krush continued to tread with caution and reverence so as not to disturb the culture that he held in such high esteem.
"When I started out, of course I was hesitant because hiphop was a foreign culture to me," Krush states. "I was afraid that I would not be accepted." To stave off the rambunctious zeal that often ruins the careers of many hiphop neophytes, Krush set out to develop his own musical identity, effectively rediscovering his own Japanese heritage.
From the furious shamisen (a three-stringed lute) plucking and dramatic taiko drumming featured on "Beyond Raging Waves" from 2004's Jaku album to Krush's 1998 collaboration with avant-garde trumpeter Toshinori Kondo titled Ki-Oku, Krush's use of Japanese instruments and musicians has increased steadily since Strictly Turntablized. Even his album art has drifted from a distinct hiphop aesthetic rooted in graffiti to a Zen-like minimalism most clearly evidenced in the sparse, steely braid work featured on the cover of his new remix record, Stepping Stones: The Self-Remixed Best.
"It's not like any particular artist inspired me in this way. When I travel the world, I am able to also look in at my own culture and discover my own Japanese traditions within," Krush says. "Maybe it's also because I'm old and I feel the need to revisit my own culture," he continues with mild jest.
Stepping Stones actually finds Krush doubly revisiting his heritage; by exploring his oeuvre, the album serves as a glimpse at both his career and the musical traditions of his homeland. Rather than simply rerelease what he already had, Krush decided to update and rebirth some of his favorite "children." The result is a spine-tingling visit with revenants like "Meiso," which features the verbal assault of the Roots' Black Thought and Malik B recooked against a burbling rhythm that stutters and gulps with even more seething intensity than it did back in 1996. Even if it's not a work of all new studio cuts, Stepping Stones proves that as Krush reaches his mid-40s, he has not lost one bit of piercing fervor in that icy glare of his.
"At this point, I am not tired of making music at all. Ideally, I want to keep doing this until I can no longer stand up. Music is the only way to express myself."