Turntablist DJ Krush and his wild style introduce hip-hop to an entire country

Imagine the Japanese before the arrival of hip-hop: an island of people staring at The Great Wave off Kanagawa, listening to cursed J-Pop and entertaining themselves with musical instruments like the koto or the shamisen. That, of course, is an over simplification, but really — a country without hip-hop?! That was obviously the era before the birth of Hideaki Ishi, aka DJ Krush.

The first DJ to bring hip-hop to the Japanese while also incorporating turntable scratching, jazz and traditional instrumentation, DJ Krush is revered in the Pacific Rim and the world over. Like fellow travelers DJ Shadow and DJ Cam, Krush's nocturnal atmospheres and surreal themes are driven by sleekly composed (and occasionally deranged) beats. Though his music is experimental and largely instrumental, albums like Krush (Shadow, 1995), Meiso (Mo' Wax, 1996) and Kakusei (Columbia, 1999) have captured a global audience. Krush's 13-year career is celebrated in the recently released three-DVD set, History of DJ Krush/Suimou Tsunenimasu (Red Ink/Sony Japan, 2007). The DVDs include Krush's ample video catalog, photos and highlights from his 2006 world tour.

Early on, influenced by the classic 1982 hip-hop documentary, Wild Style, Krush's DJ dreams quickly encountered resistance. “When I started DJing, there was no one else pursuing it,” Krush explains from Sony headquarters in Manhattan. “Nowadays, you can just buy turntables anywhere, but back then I had to buy them at the audio store. When I said ‘Give me two turntables,’ the store clerk said ‘Why do you need two?’ The only source of information was video, and most importantly Wild Style. I kept watching the DJ segment again and again until the tape wore out. That is how I learned.”

With only Wild Style and hero Grandmaster Flash to inspire him, Krush discovered his own methods to maneuver vinyl. Trial and error was the only way.

“Now everyone uses Technics,” Krush says, “but I could only get a Yamaha semiautomatic turntable. When the song was finished, the arm would lift up by itself. That made it very hard to scratch! And my [Sony] mixer was not a crossfader model, but a vertical fader.”

Krush entered one of Tokyo's earliest DJ competitions and promptly won first place, which led to the city's first DJ parties, held in the popular Harajuku Street district. Soon he formed Krush Posse, which would become one of Japan's most popular hip-hop acts. “People would gather and watch, and they were so surprised,” Krush says. “Keith Haring even showed up once and signed my baby's stroller.”

Coinciding with the release of his solo debut, Strictly Turntablized (Mo' Wax, 1994), Krush achieved another Japanese first, performing live with an instrumental ensemble, Jazzy Upper Cut. The DJ-assisted 12-piece group would eventually perform live and record together, but initially, Krush faced skepticism.

“Back then, musicians looked down on DJs,” he says. “But I showed them what I got! I proved myself. And I got huge inspiration from them, as well. As a DJ playing with instruments, it was so free and new.

Strictly Turntablized is one of my favorites,” Krush adds, “not so much for my skills, but the way the scratching develops during the songs — I can never do that again. I was inspired in the moment by that landscape and that atmosphere, back when everything was new.”

Krush, whose current gear includes an Apple laptop, Ableton Live, Digidesign Pro Tools, Technics headphones and tables, Yamaha NS10s, a Vestax VMC-002 XL mixer and an E-mu SP-1200, consistently stretched international hip-hop boundaries with albums like Zen (Red Ink, 2001) and Jaku (Red Ink, 2004), the latter combining hip-hop with traditional Japanese instruments.

“I didn't have goals,” he says regarding the groundbreaking album. “I just realized that I had never played with a traditional instrument from my country. It was time I did. I didn't grow up listening to those instruments; they were foreign to me. As I got older and traveled around the country, I realized the beauty of my own country's traditions.”

An elder statesman of Japanese hip-hop and a forward thinker uninhibited by any one musical style, DJ Krush is a global bridge between past, present and future. But like most humble artists, he is unsure of his contributions.

“I don't even know if I can make a contribution to the Japanese music industry, but for those young aspiring DJs, I think I have left my mark. From me they know you can do DJ work as a living. You don't have to have a high education to be a DJ. That is what I can show to the young DJs.”