Zen Moodism - EMusician

Zen Moodism

Hip-hop may have its original source of creative power rooted in the Bronx, but the music would be nowhere near as influential as it is today without
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Hip-hop may have its original source of creative power rooted in the Bronx, but the music would be nowhere near as influential as it is today without the important contribution of Japan — that's right, Japan. After all, it was Tokyo (and specifically the Matsushita Corporation) that offered the world the Technics SL-1200 turntable, which forever revolutionized the way DJs could approach the manipulation of vinyl. And, of course, this was just the crest of the tsunami: The direct-drive turntable was soon followed by the digital sampler and countless other technological advances that helped usher hip-hop — and electronic media in general — into the future.

Beyond the technology, that future has also taken multiple artistic turns through intriguing and uncharted waters at the hands of Tokyo-born DJ Krush, who got his start behind a set of decks when Wild Style — the legendary hip-hop film that exerted a critical influence on hordes of aspiring DJs, including Krush — was still showing stateside in uptown movie theaters. Starting in the early '90s, Krush established a sound that extended the DJ lexicon of backspins, samples and loops into new areas, and he soon began molding live musicians and a lush, orchestral production style into what could easily be identified as the first real recorded instances of hip-hop composition, almost in the classical sense. Krush's sheer musicality as a DJ and his natural feel for proto-acid jazz and trip-hop elements inspired others outside Japan to take note, particularly James Lavelle and his Mo'Wax label. Strictly Turntablized (Mo'Wax, 1994), the follow-up to Krush's trend-setting debut, Krush (Nippon Columbia, 1993), announced his initiation into the progressive fold.

From there, Krush embarked on a collaborative journey with an A-list of seasoned musicians, producers and hip-hop luminaries, including Guru of Gang Starr, who had appeared on Krush and returned for Meiso (Mo'Wax, 1995), which also featured CL Smooth, The Roots and DJ Shadow; Japanese trumpeter Toshinori Kondo, on Ki-Oku (Sony Japan, 1996); Mos Def and Futura 2000, on the multifaceted breakthrough Milight (Mo'Wax, 1997); Black Thought, Company Flow and N'Dea Davenport, on Zen (Sony Japan/Red Ink, 2001); Sly & Robbie and Anti-Pop Consortium, on Shinsou: The Message at the Depth (Sony Japan/Red Ink, 2002); and scores more. For most of the '90s and into the new millennium, Krush has been at the forefront of innovation in hip-hop, lending his distinctive touch not only to his own albums but also to remixes for Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Bill Laswell, Galliano, Method Man — and the credits continue to stack up.

A painterly sense of moody atmospherics connects just about all of Krush's recorded work, and perhaps no other release makes this more readily apparent than his latest album, Jaku (Sony Japan/Red Ink, 2004). Showing what could be construed as a mellower, more contemplative side, Krush brings many of the musical traditions of his native Japan together with tightly programmed beats for a true hip-hop fusion of live performance and studio artistry. Certainly, the record features some straight-up head-nodders (such as the dark anthems “Nosferatu” and “Kill Switch,” featuring Def Jux label cohorts Mr. Lif and Aesop Rock, respectively, on vocals). But on the whole, Krush opts for a largely meditative — and impeccably recorded and mixed — experience that smacks more of the mature vision of a filmmaker than it does of a road-proven DJ.

WHAT'S THE SCORE?

“I guess you could say I was in soundtrack mode for this album,” Krush explains through an interpreter. He's lounging backstage after a sold-out New York showcase, still alert and focused even after nearly two full days of travel and band rehearsal — on almost no sleep. “I recently did the score for a documentary called Arakimentari about a Japanese photographer named Nobuyoshi Araki, and I guess I was in that mode. Working with the film director was also very interesting because I think it did have an effect on my outlook on this recording to be more visual, in trying to capture the sound in my head as a picture.”

Titled with the Japanese word for serenity — a concept that, as Krush insists, “the world is in deep need of right now” — Jaku opens fittingly enough with “Still Island,” a dreamlike vehicle for Japanese shakuhachi flute maestro Shuuzan Morita. The track opens with a swirling stereo mix of layered strings and Morita's breathy overtones providing a hypnotic intro to the subtle jungle-style rhythm that slowly builds in the background. As Krush describes it, the right sonic atmosphere is critical when recording and playing with live musicians.

“It's like the show we just did,” he says, referring to the night's performance with special guests Morita, jazz pianist Ken Shima, saxophonist Akira Sakata and rhyme surgeons Mr. Lif and Aesop Rock all taking their respective spotlights. “I've done music like this going back to my first album. Every musician has their own personality, so I don't have to push them to come up with ideas. The atmosphere is most important. If you listen to the instrumental backing track, I always try to create an atmosphere for that performance. Technically, I'll do really tight drum programming using Pro Tools and Ableton Live. Tonight, I just used the turntables with an old Vestax PMC-20SL mixer, which has an effects box and a sampler built in so I can get the sound I want.”

Adding to the aural space of Jaku, Shima reprises the string theme developed in “Still Island” for the stunningly jazz-inflected “Stormy Cloud” — one of the centerpieces of the album and endlessly suggestive in its visual imagery. “That again is a little bit from a film perspective,” Krush explains. “The track goes through a few different sections and changes, kind of like a storm cloud would. We recorded the piano in just a few takes and left the sound pretty much untouched.”

TALKIN' ALL THAT JAZZ

Like many of the DJs who came up as part of the Mo'Wax crew, Krush takes many of his musical and improvisational cues from jazz. What sets him apart from the crowd, though, is his real immersion in the art form at an early age and his gradual understanding that jazz techniques could guide his moves as a DJ (or, more accurately, as a turntablist) and later on as a producer. He often cites his father — a devoted fan of Miles Davis, James Brown and other soul-jazz giants — as the person who first pointed him in the right direction.

Pausing to reflect on that jazz aesthetic, Krush approaches it from multiple angles — just as a true jazz cat would. “For one thing, playing with live musicians can be kind of crazy like jazz in that you don't always know what is going to happen,” he says. “Hip-hop was always like that anyway. I never thought of myself as conventional, and to me, hip-hop was just about freedom and expressing yourself. It seems to have gotten away from that, but I think it will come back.” Krush even identifies the leap he made from DJing to producing almost as a “jazz thing,” saying that he “just got bored with spinning. I wanted to express myself more. As a producer, obviously, there's a lot more ‘color’ to work with in the studio, and that helps me to bring out what I have in my head as music.”

Without question, Jaku presents a palette of many different colors, with a strong emphasis on the jazzy, funky hues that have graced Krush's music from the get-go. “Road to Nowhere,” as if true to its name, swings hard over a weirdly syncopated kick-snare-and-bells figure, with a sampled acoustic bass line time-stretched taut over the rhythm like a canvas over a writhing frame. On “Slit of Cloud,” by contrast, sax maven Sakata intones with his voice the operatic vocal style of Okinawan folk songs while emulating with his horn the avant-garde skronk and melodic control of Pharoah Sanders or even John Coltrane. As he does throughout the album, Krush provides the perfect counterbalance, in this instance with a downtempo club beat and ping-ponged sound effects.

TWO SIDES TO EVERY STORY

Krush has always been an artist who oscillates between cultures, his music a constantly evolving manifestation of East and West; light and shadow; and, perhaps most important, yin and yang. Dualities like these emerge even in the way he approaches mixing and remixing. “There are always two ways to remix,” he insists. “You either want to crush it really hard so it sounds nothing like the original, or you want to leave the original sounds alive.” As an example of the latter, Krush cites a recent treatment that he did for a track from Sakata's Fishermans.com (a Japan-only release on the independent Dogtail imprint), in which the live performance of saxophone, guitar, bass and drums is subtly embroidered with synth pads and low-output effects. It's a remix that stands in stark contrast to some of Krush's earlier work, in which he totally reconfigured beat cycles for the likes of, say, acid-jazz guitarist Ronnie Jordan, among others.

Jaku itself is rife with such dualities, though not just from the perspective of simply juxtaposing Japanese musical traditions with the sampladelic circuitry of hip-hop. “Univearth,” which features the cavernous-sounding kodo drums of percussionist Tetsuro Naito, is a sonic adventure in stereo imaging. “This was one of the more difficult tracks to combine and mix,” Krush admits. “Taiko [a form of Japanese drumming] has an awesome power live, but transferring that power to a recording can be difficult. We had to position the mics so that we could get enough of a spread that would help us capture the sound of each individual drum. There is a lot going on there, so all I did was program a very simple beat and let the track [including additional shakuhachi flute by Morita] fill the stereo spectrum naturally.”

“Decks-athron” exploits multiple aspects of the two-way street, beginning first with the dueling turntable licks that Krush trades with UK-based DJ Tatsuki, who also hails from Japan. “Most of the scratches there are Tatsuki, actually,” Krush says. “You can hear mine more in the background. But what I really like about this track is that we were able to make it straight hip-hop and really experimental at the same time. We used multiple effects and changed pitches, throwing the needles on the deck of the turntable without any vinyl — all kinds of experimental stuff was on this one.” The tempo itself is subject to switch gears without warning, moving suddenly but seamlessly between a swinging, funky lilt and a more frenetic drum 'n' bass pattern that comes complete with rapid-repeat snare and sci-fi atmospherics.

PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST

In past interviews, Krush has referred to his composing and recording methods as more analogous to painting than anything else, and although he sees the aural collage of Jaku through a similar prism, he is quick to point out that the creative path is never set in stone or based on any preconceived blueprint. “I've never really been interested in art or music movements, per se,” he explains. “I'm more about the nonmainstream, where the light doesn't hit. Any artists who are pushing the envelope and breaking boundaries in that area are heroes in my book, and I try to emulate that. It's true that I've compared what I do to painting, like you might paint a room with sound and in the way different sounds have different ‘colors.’ But I like to let people interpret my music for themselves.”

If the packed crowd at Krush's New York showcase is any indication, his music obviously has something in it for everybody — a quality that has earned him well-deserved respect and longevity in an industry in which career flameout is an all-too-familiar scenario. Like his idols Grandmaster Flash and Grandmixer DST (aka DXT), Krush has taken turntablism and hip-hop production to new heights. And at age 41, he sees no reason to stop now.

“I think back to when I first started playing for people in Harajuku [a district in Tokyo] and how exciting that felt,” Krush recalls. “It still feels the same way today. Maybe I've gone in a lot of different directions since then, and with this album, I've certainly gotten into more of my Japanese roots. But I wouldn't still be doing this if it weren't satisfying creatively and if there weren't still people out there who seem to enjoy what I'm doing. So I'm grateful for all of that.”

KRUSHING THE COMPETITION

According to the extensive studio notes at DJ Krush's Website (www.mmjp.or.jp/sus/krush), most of the tracking for Jaku began in mid-February 2004 and took place at several studios in and around Tokyo during an eight-day period. Since his 2001 Zen album, Krush has worked closely with engineer Miyoshi and recruited him again to assist in recording and mixing the entirety of Jaku, primarily at HAL Studio in the Mizonokuchi neighborhood of western Tokyo.

Krush has only recently made the leap to working with computers, beginning with Shinsou: The Message at the Depth in 2002. “When I was working on Zen, I was using an Akai S1100 sampler, a Roland MC-50 sequencer with only eight tracks, a MIDI keyboard and some other effects,” he says. “At the time, I didn't feel like computers and software were going to make it any easier for me to get creative. But later on, I started actually using the computer, and I found out pretty quickly how convenient it is.”

With Miyoshi behind the mixing desk, the goal is always to maintain as much of a warm, full-bodied sound as possible using computers, although analog equipment sometimes comes into play — usually when live tracks are recorded onto 2-inch tape and then transferred to Digidesign Pro Tools. Regardless of the signal path, however, these days, Krush is computer-savvy enough to even note distinctions between the sound quality that is achievable through different versions of Apple's operating system. “Mac's sound quality improved drastically with Panther,” he says. “It seems to have a wider range now. I was using OS 9.2.2 before Panther, but the difference between the two is too great. I don't think I could go back. [But in the end], it's not a matter of what you use; it's what you make. That's the most important thing in making music.”

Computer, DAW, recording hardware:

AMS Neve V3 48-channel console
Apple Mac G4/dual 1.25GHz computer
Digidesign Pro Tools|HD
Sony PCM-7030 DAT recorder
Studer A-80 analog stereo ½-inch, A-80 MKII analog 24-track 2-inch tape machines

Plug-ins:

Aphex Aural Exciter, Big Bottom Pro
Bomb Factory Fairchild 660, Fairchild 670 plug-ins; Moogerfooger, Pultec bundles
DUY Max, ReDSPider, Shape, Valve, Wide
Focusrite D2, D3, Forte Suite
Line 6 Amp Farm, Echo Farm
McDSP Analog Channel, CompressorBank, FilterBank, MC2000
SoundToys PitchDoctor, SoundBlender, TimeBlender, FilterFreak, PhaseMistress, Tremolator, Crystallizer
Waves Transform, Restoration bundles

Mics, preamps, EQs, compressors, effects:

AKG C 12, C 24 tube mics
AMS Neve 1066, 1073 mic preamps/EQs
dbx 160X, 165A compressor/limiters
Drawmer 1961 EQ/compressor
GML 8200 parametric EQ
Eventide H3000-SE multi-effects processor
Lexicon PCM80 effects processor
Neumann U 47, U 67 mics
Roland SRV-2000 reverb
Shure SM57, SM58 mics
Tube-Tech CL-1B compressor
UREI 1178 stereo limiter

Monitors:

Genelec 1030As
Yamaha NS10s, NS10Ms

Performance setup (live and studio):

Ableton Live 4 software
Apple Mac G4 PowerBook
Technics SL-1200 turntables (2)
Vestax PMC-20SL mixer