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Utamaru -- the idol-crazy, socially-conscious hip hop MC
We talk with the MC from acclaimed Japanese hip hop group Rhymester about the nature of local B-boy style and contemporary idol culture
MC and lyricist Utamaru is a founding member of Rhymester, one of the oldest and most beloved groups active in the Japanese hip hop scene. Their latest CD, "Manifesto," is available now from Ki/oon Records.
Rhymester have been an influential force in pioneering Japanese language rap. And in criticizing the nation's foreign policy and articulating the frustrations of working class youth, their music has displayed a keen social awareness.
Utamaru is also a pop culture critic for TBS Radio and other media outlets where he covers movies, music, and one of his unlikely pet obsessions, idol singers.
CNNGo: How has Japanese hip-hop changed since Rhymester debuted in the early 1990s?
Utamaru: It's been over ten years since Rhymester collaborated with (U.S. hip-hoppers) the Beatnuts and Buckwild. Back then, a lot of people wanted to emulate American hip hop, so it was a big deal that we got to work with them. But soon afterwards, I started thinking that Japanese hip hop needed to start developing its own style by itself. That feeling became stronger and stronger, and I started moving more in that direction.
CNNGo: After the 1990s, were Japanese kids becoming less interested in Western culture?
Utamaru: That happened too, but it wasn't necessarily the case with hip hop. There are still a lot of people who like American hip hop, myself included. But we needed to stop trying to copy it and compete with it. My generation thought hard about the problem of "How can we, as Japanese people, make rap music?" But the young kids today don't have that kind of issue. Some of them are much more influenced by the Japanese hip hop than American hip hop. Some of the artists in the underground scene, like SEEDA, sell lots of records even though they're not on major labels and don't get much promotion.
CNNGo: Are any of them thinking about targeting the foreign market?
Utamaru: There are some hip hop musicians in Japan have ambitions like that, but they're looking more towards the rest of Asia. To do Japanese hip-hop in America… maybe that's impossible.
CNNGo: Do you think hip-hop made by Japanese people isn't 'real' enough for Americans?
Utamaru: Well, we have to define what's real. Does being real just mean being really poor? If that's what's real, do I need to travel all the way to Rwanda just to rap? (laughs)
Back when I was starting out, I decided to make lyrics that were a reflection of my life and the people who listen to them. After all, that's what hip hop is all about.
Recently, Japan has changed. It's become much poorer than before, and poverty itself is increasing. There are people who live in places with no way to survive and with no hope or expectation for the future. So it's possible to experience a hard life like an American hip-hopper. Of course, there have always been people like that, but society denied their existence. Even poor people would deny that they were actually poor. But now, it's getting harder and harder to ignore. Look at the kind of crime (idol singer) Maki Goto's younger brother committed. He got arrested for stealing electric cables from a construction site to resell them. That's so ghetto! And he himself used to be an idol too!
CNNGo: What's your impression of the current idol scene?
Utamaru: You can't really say "I like idols" out loud in Japan. The only time you could was during the 1980s when idols were popular. But after the 1990s, it became real outsider culture. Now, there's probably more train otaku in Japan than idol otaku. Hardcore male fans are only interested in unpopular idols. They want to feel like, "I'm the only one supporting this girl or this group. Nobody else. Just me." Idol groups like AKB48 and Perfume have gotten so big recently. Their fans are now ordinary schoolgirls. So their original fans have had moved on to try to find even more niche, unpopular idols to follow. So it's impossible for this scene to become mainstream.
CNNGo: What do your fans think when you talk about idols?
Utamaru: Basically, I have two kinds of fans: Those that support me because of my music, and others who know me as someone who talks about pop culture. The two groups don't really mix. Even so, it's not normal in Japan for a musician to follow idols. Everyone thinks I'm weird. One time, I tried DJ-ing some idol music as a pre-show at a Rhymester concert. That was the coldest reception I've ever gotten on stage. I was thinking, "Hey! You guys are supposed to be my fans! Can you at least try a little bit to understand where I'm coming from"?