Music Quarterly

Longing for Night

Meet the Producers

What Remains

Armstrong's Revenge


Highway Ambition

Riding the Fader

The Past Takes It Back

Riding the Line


Behind a Glowing Television

Forget the Producer

Allan Steed's Little Boom Box

When She Backs Up She Beeps


Let's Get Ready to Rumble

The Two Together Couldn't Ruin It

TV Without Pictures

Prank #3: Fan vs. Band Vengeance

One Hundred Shades of Blue

Loud Motherfucker

Same Shade of Blue

Touch That Dial

Prank #4: Band vs. Audience Vengeance


CD Review Revue

Prank #5: Intra-Band Vengeance

Que venga la noche

Movie Review Revue

Fan Mail: An End to the Discussion

If you're looking for DJ Krush, you'll find him among the ghosts. It wasn't always that way--not long ago he spent most of his time with us, the living. His first CD, DJ Krush, which introduced the Japanese hiphop producer to America, addressed human concerns: romance, big-city excitement, sunlight, and summer flesh. Agreed, his 1996 CD Meiso (meaning meditation or contemplation) was not as lively as DJ Krush, but it still communicated with the human world; it spoke to our suffering, our frustrations, our restless dreams. But on Kakusei (1999) the sunsets got longer, the shadows multiplied, the vapors thickened, and suddenly we realized that Krush was no longer attending to our needs but those of the flickering ghosts who had gathered around his turntables.Earlier this year, DJ Krush released a 68-minute mix called Code 4109. At first it seemed that he wanted to reconcile with the living, to return to our obsessions: sun, skin, speed. His beats were brighter and bouncier, and though there were moody swathes in the middle of mix, the general atmosphere was positive. But as the end of the CD neared, things started to get murky: The pace decelerated, the spaces expanded, and the gloom deepened. When the final track--"Kemuri" (smoke or fumes)--arrived, the CD entered the region of "kwaidan," that weird world where sorrow rules. And not just our regular brand of sorrow (human sorrow), but supernatural sorrow, sorrow that is infinite and ineffable.

The one thing that separates the living from the dead is that we have hope; there's always a chance (even a slim chance) that things might get better, our luck could improve. Succinctly, to be alive is to be open to possibilities. Take for example this crepuscular passage in Lady Murasaki's A.D. 1000 novel The Tale of Genji: "It seemed as though the waves were at Genji's door. Night after night he lay listening to that melancholy sound and wondering whether in all the world there could be any place where the sadness of autumn was more overwhelming." What's human about Genji's sorrow is that it occurs at a specific place and time. This means (1) that Genji is free to rise from his pillow and move to a less melancholy room or home, and (2) it's also possible that Genji's sorrow may pass during the night, and upon waking the following morning he'll be greeted by cheerful and reassuring waves.

Ultimately, human sorrow is impermanent. It's not total or boundless, but, like dread or happiness, is one of the various modes of being. This is why sorrow is in some ways beautiful: It never lasts, but fades and changes colors like autumn trees. As the Japanese scholar Haruo Shirane put it: "The notion of impermanence is an extremely salient characteristic of The Tale of Genji. The notion that all things are ephemeral, that things must change. The aesthetics of [the book] are based on the beauty of impermanence, the scattering of the cherry blossoms, the dew disappearing before the sun rises. Even though it reminds us of the futility of the world, it's precisely that. It's the sorrow in the impermanence that brings us aesthetic pleasure." So for us, sorrow is a phase, a place, a moment in time. For ghosts, however, there is no respite from sorrow. And whatever beauty there is in their sorrow, it's always a thin illusion that barely veils their great pain and wretchedness! This is why so many Japanese ghost stories ("Ugetsu Monogatari," "The Peony Lantern") start with a beautiful woman who, when exposed as a shrewd ghost, immediately turns into a pile of putrid bones. This is the ghost's only truth: decay, corruption, worms, the negative body. And the type of sorrow this truth produces, the permanent sorrow of the underworld, is what DJ Krush's music, particularly "Kemuri," expresses.

DJ Krush's mastery of dead sorrow, eternal sorrow, immediately brings to mind the story of the famous biwa-hoshi (biwa-priest) Hoichi. It goes something like this: Hoichi was a blind but brilliant biwa player who lived in ancient Japan (a biwa is a four-stringed lute). Though his mastery over the instrument was unquestioned, it was his recitation of the Heike-Monogatari (a historical tragedy) that made him famous. The scholar and collector of Japanese ghost stories Yakumo Koizumi (Lafcadio Hearn) writes: "It is said when he sang the battle of Dan-no-ura [which is the most sorrowful song in the historical tragedy] that even the goblins could not refrain from tears."

One night Hoichi, who worked at a temple, was summoned by a nobleman to play the sorrowful song of the battle of Dan-no-ura for his court. Hoichi was a little uneasy about playing for this particular court because he had never heard of it before. But the court implored and implored and finally he obliged. "Then," writes Yakumo Koizumi, "Hoichi lifted up his voice and chanted the chant of the fight on the bitter sea, wonderfully making his biwa to sound like straining of oars, and the rushing of ships, the hissing of arrows, the crushing steel upon helmets, the plunging of the slain." In the pauses of his playing, Hoichi could hear voices murmuring praise, and this pleased him enormously. "But when at last it came to tell the fate of the fair and helpless [the women and children caught in the middle of this battle] all the listeners uttered together one long shuddering cry of anguish; and so wildly that [Hoichi] was frightened by the violence of the grief that he had made." Hoichi stopped playing, and the sobbing and wailing went on for some time until a great stillness settled on the court. Hoichi was then asked to return the following night to perform that song for the court again. He promised that he would and left.

Unbeknownst to blind Hoichi, this was not a living court but a dead court, and his performance did not take place in a great hall but a graveyard. Blind Hoichi started to visit the graveyard regularly and performed for the ghosts who, again and again, wildly wailed at the peak of the sorrowful song. Meanwhile, the head priest of the temple became curious about Hoichi's late-night absences and investigated the matter. The priest soon realized what was going on, and informed blind Hoichi that he was playing for the dead. At first, Hoichi did not mind this, so the priest warned him that the dead were going to "tear him to pieces" very soon. Recognizing the danger he was in, Hoichi stopped playing for the dead court.

Like Hoichi, DJ Krush's music is for the dead; it speaks their language, tells their sad stories. "Kemuri," his most ghostly song ever, literally spirals into a void where phantoms scream and bemoan their impossible fate. Nothing escapes the void at the center of this song; all of Krush's scratches and sound effects are drawn and lost in the deep sorrow. At the end of "Kemuri," which doesn't so much end as vanish, one wonders if DJ Krush knows that he is playing for the dead. Does he see the mountain of skulls, the supernatural foxes by the Shinto shrines, the vague and menacing forms that surround him when he plays? Maybe he doesn't, and it's up to one of us to inform him of the terrible truth, so that, like Hoichi, he returns to our turning world.