DJ KRUSH, a highly regarded artist with fans from Japan and around the world, started out at the dawning of the Japanese hip-hop era. He pioneered a whole new “instrumental hip-hop” genre as a solo artist with his two earliest albums, KRUSH of 1994 and Strictly Turntablized, released the following year. We had a chance to meet with DJ KRUSH and talk about many things, namely, his new March release and 11th album, Cosmic Yard, and hear stories about albums that changed his life.
――First off, may I ask you about the new Cosmic Yard album? What is the meaning of the title?
All of my albums have been planet earth themed, so I wanted to use a less common perspective and go with a more cosmic point of view. But I'm not necessarily trying to look at the whole picture or at a universe which would be too huge to grasp. It's more zoomed in like getting a close-up of a meteor. The album was made with that image. The feel is like the classic Blade Runner movie. I wanted to do something with a near-future setting, some Asian flavor, and texture that is rough to the touch.
――Your previous work Kiseki was mainly with Japanese rap, but this time all songs are instrumental.
For Kiseki, the rappers were the “swimmers.” But on this album, I wanted to show everyone my way of “swimming” once again. My origin is in instrumentals, so I felt like going back to my basics.
――You had mentioned earlier about the album having some Asian flavor. Three out of the four guest musicians on the album are Japanese. Among them are trumpeter Toshinori Kondo, and shakuhachi artist Shuzan Morita, both of whom you have worked with in the past. What is the reason behind having them back again?
Regarding Kondo-san, I get a lot of good feedback from abroad on our collaboration album Ki-Oku (1996), so I wanted to rediscover what each of us have been building over these past years, and express that through sound. With Morita-san, we played together on my Jaku album, but it didn’t end for me there. I wanted to go further by creating an even more dramatic transition or a more airy feel. And I thought it would be riveting to toss Kondo-san into that mix.
――The other two are Japanese guitar player Yukihiro Atsumi and Dutch artist Binkbeats. All of your guests have a very craftsmen-like feel.
Oh yeah, now that you say it! [Laughs.] All of them are very diligent. In the past, I was also a craftsman who wore jikatabi (split-toe construction shoes). My old man was a commercial painter and my wife’s father ran a company, too. Maybe I attract the meticulous type…
――The sound of this album is totally DJ KRUSH: it’s all done in instrumental.
It was breakbeat for me this time. With a less clean-sounding low bit feel with some noise. I didn’t want to do what everyone was doing, and I didn’t see anything like this going around, so it felt right to me.
――Now I want to ask you about the “Life-changing three albums.” Looks like you picked some pretty serious ones.
This one is a soundtrack and I am here today because the movie influenced me to become a DJ, and that changed my life greatly. I happened upon a movie theater when I used to hangout in Shinjuku. I saw this movie and it totally did a number on me. Since I was little I liked to make things. I was that kid that used to get leftover parts of model airplanes and tanks from friends and make robots out of them. But once I hit junior high that all stopped because being reckless and bad was more fun. Around that same time I also had a band, and there was music there, but I was still looking for something I could really sink my teeth into. In this movie, I saw for the first time what two turntables side by side could do, and that brought back a familiar rush from those days of putting plastic pieces together and making something out of it. On top of that, I was attracted to the concept of battling through rapping and breakdancing instead of guns. From there it was like tearing off a fancy tailored suit and putting on Adidas! [Laughter.]
The breakdancing was more impactful, so I tried that for a bit at first. I also tried graffiti, but eventually I decided to go for DJing, which started with the purchase of two semi-automatic turntables at a stereo shop. It didn’t come with a mixer or a crossfader. It just had a vertical fader and I was like, “How do I do this??” [Laughs.] I remember it being so hard at first!
I figured things out through trial and error and I slowly added more gear. Around that time I heard rumors that there was breakdancing happening in Harajuku’s hokoten*. I thought about performing in front of people and I was like, “I wonder how they’ll react. How far can I go?” So I took my gear to the hokoten and played along with the breakdancers.
Around 1988, on his visit to Japan, Keith Haring showed up where the breakdancing was happening. It became a huge fiasco. This record is the one that I had him autograph. He also told me to “Keep at it.” I felt so encouraged by that. So I kept at it since, and now I am here. Therefore, Wild Style got me started, and this record kicked my butt and encouraged me to go further.
Change the Beat is definitely best for scratching. I really used it a lot. I couldn’t stop the grooves from wearing down, so I’d always buy two or three records at a time… I probably didn’t even know how many of these I owned. Also, the scratching parts were at the end of the song and my semi-automatic turntable would decide to lift the needle automatically towards the end, so I couldn’t even get to scratch that part. [Laughs.] I remember stuff like that.
This is also a soundtrack, and there are singles in here like a remix of Monday Michiru’s song and also an instrumental called Just Wanna Touch Her (Stone Jazz Mix). Up until then I thought a DJ’s job was to create tracks for rappers, so I really struggled with making a good instrumental.
The editor of a British magazine called Straight No Chaser, Paul Bradshaw, introduced this album in his magazine. Then it reached the ears of James Lavelle of Mo’ Wax and Gilles Peterson of Talkin’ Loud. On top of that, the demo tape I had sent entered the charts so they started obsessing like, “Who is this DJ KRUSH?” Gilles invited me to join his label, too, but James was younger and super passionate, so we decided to put it out on Mo’ Wax to start. From there we went on to release Kemuri and Strictly Turntablized.
After the breakup of KRUSH POSSE (A group with MURO and others), I was questioning how to continue on my own. This is the album that moved me forward. I was able to say to myself, “I just need to keep making instrumentals. I can compete with rap, as long as I have quality ambience.”
――By the way, back in the hokoten and KRUSH POSSE days, where were you getting information about records?
In those days folks from the Major Force label were putting out magazines with details like that, but we lacked people with that kind of info. So we researched really hard on our own. I would exchange information with MURO and DJ SEIJI, fellow performers from the hokoten, and we would show each other the records we bought and tell each other where we found what where, always exchanging facts like that.
――And of course you frequented record shops, correct?
I used to dig until my hands turned black. I would shop until I used up all of my change to ride the train, and had to walk home from Shinjuku. [Laughs.] I also bought a few expensive records that I didn’t even use much. I had to have the original James Brown and I bought it despite the price.
――In the beginning, what kind of records were you sampling from?
There was a lot of jazz. In my first album KRUSH, there are some pretty recognizable popular tunes in there. But I really didn’t pay much mind to genres and I played things simply because they sounded cool, or I would find a weird record for 100 yen and sample from that. Like records that pregnant women listen to during labor. [Laughs.]
――You still release most of your albums in vinyl, too.
There are a lot of people that look forward to it still, both abroad and in Japan. We grew up with analog so I am nitpicky about it. Back in the day I would even show up for the record cutting. Also, in those days it was my dream to put out vinyl and use my own songs to juggle and scratch. I remember the excitement of putting down two of our original records on the turntables for the first time.
DJ KRUSH is an international artist, sound creator and DJ. He started his solo career in 1992 and got attention for being the first Japanese DJ to use turntables as an instrument. His first album KRUSH was released in 1994, and since then he has put out 10 solo albums, one mix album and two self-remix albums. All of the solo works have ranked at the top of charts worldwide. DJ KRUSH continues to tour over 30 cities worldwide each year.
Originally published in Japanese on April 6, 2018
Interview and article by Kiwamu Omae
Photography by Tomohiro Noritsune
Translation by Mika Anami