Category Archives: Rap Culture

Cultural Reasons Behind the T-X Style

It’s important for rappers to make a good first impression. Often, you’ll hear a rapper and instantly think “yeah, he’s the man” or something like that. It’s much easier to gain fans by having an instantly likeable personality than one that grows on people. Other rappers win you over with the quality of their lyrics and the best can do both at the same time. As with all other Japanese rappers, Tokona-X couldn’t impress me with his lyrics as I couldn’t (and still can’t) understand enough to make a decision based on lyrical content only. The first thing I noticed about him was his voice. Tokona has a deep and distinctive voice which is perfectly suited to rapping. He managed to combine this with a great flow and that’s what got me interested. But over time, my interest has moved on from what I first noticed to looking deeper and finding the cultural reasons behind his style.

First Impressions

Tokona-X image from Chain ReactionThe first song I heard him in was Muro’s Chain Reaction. Tokona’s verse was different, exciting and came just before the hook, which he introduced brilliantly. I listened and Listened more to the track, even making it the ring tone on my phone. I enjoyed trying to rap along with other artists trying to memorise their verses, then tried with Tokona’s and realised I could hardly understand anything he was saying. It’s fair to say I didn’t understand much of what any rapper said at that time, but with careful listening and slowing the track down, I could catch the syllables they were using. Frustratingly, all I could hear throughout Tokona’s verse on Chain Reaction was mumbling.

Cultural Influence?

After hearing Bad Wakadanna In Da Club, I thought more about his style. I put this down to him being from Nagoya (perhaps more accurately him being based in Nagoya) and learned that he used the local dialect Nagoya-ben in his rhymes. Thinking about it, I realised that I also couldn’t understand Twigy, another rapper from Nagoya. I hadn’t given much thought to how much I could understand Twigy before that moment, so perhaps he’s just easier on the ear than Tokona-X who has a more abrasive style.

For other rappers, which are mostly from Tokyo, I could understand some words but not really get the complete meaning of what they were trying to say. I could at least try to memorise verses and look up words that I couldn’t understand. Tokona was the opposite of this because often I had no idea when one word finished and the next began. It was like he was mumbling, but I could still hear his flow was good, so I continued listening to him.

East vs West

After living in Japan for several years, I began to learn things about the country which started to explain Tokona’s rapping style. Internally, Japan is separated into east and west. It’s possible to get a train card which allows contact-less payments and it can be used all over the country with many (I think all or almost all) private rail companies as well as Japan Rail. I did say you can use the pass nationally, but actually, the problem is that the national train company is split into east and west (although the reasons for splitting and privatising the Japanese National Railways were not (at)all cultural). Around Kanto and Kansai at least, you can use a single pass throughout that area, but  you need a separate pass for each side of the country. I’ve found that as well as the difference in rail cards, there’s also a difference in culture, names and language. I used to live in the east side of the country and had no problems understanding people throughout Tohoku and Kanto. In fact, I was really confident in my Japanese ability; until I visited west Japan. I found myself feeling lost and had difficulty understanding a lot of the people I met. I can only put this down to an east/west divide.

I feel there’s a noticeable difference in culture and a big part of hip-hop and rap music specifically is reflecting the culture you come from. Because Tokona represented Nagoya, a lot of his persona should also have represented this part of Japan. The first thing I noticed about him was his voice and then I’d say the second thing was his attitude; his persona. I attribute these things to his location and find this part of Japanese rap music culture very interesting. Learning about it is something that will take a long time to understand, but it’s something I look forward to doing.

N.B. The situation regarding rail passes in Japan is a little more complicated than suggested here, but I thought it best to keep things simple to illustrate the point.

Was There Beef With Boss?

I was recently reading a site that mentioned Tokona had beef with Sapporo’s finest, Boss tha Emcee. I have to wonder how a situation like this came about if it’s even true since the two cities of Nagoya and Sapporo are so far apart. But I guess anything is possible in the world of rap music.

I’m not even sure which tracks Tokona used to diss Boss, but I can remember that Tha Blue Herb (TBH) have a song on an album called Rap Wars Donpachi upon which Tokona-X also appears with two members of M.O.S.A.D; Akira and Equal. I’ve listened to TBH’s song which is called Hokubu Sensen Ijō Nashi (北部戦線異常なし) many times and clearly remember Boss saying ‘rap wars’, but didn’t really think anything of it until I came across white sweater’s live door blog. I must question why I didn’t think Tokona had really dissed other artists.

There’s one clear diss track that Tokona-X made before he died which is called ‘Shirazaa Itte Kikaseya Show’ (知らざあ言って聞かせやSHOW), but I thought of this more as a one off. In the song, he talks about someone in the industry; someone who knows nothing about show business at all. The subject of Tokona’s attack is also a ‘playa hater’. Could that really be Boss tha Emcee?

As someone whose Japanese isn’t the most advanced, it’s hard enough to keep up with the general content of each song without paying very close attention most of the time, so it’s possible I’ll miss a lot of complicated wordplay which is just as much a motif of Japanese rap music as it is in English. That makes finding the tracks and specific lines where Tokona-X disses Boss even more difficult. My best option is probably to read as much as possible on blogs to find the clues needed and put the pieces together.

In one way, it’s disappointing to discover that two artists I like had beef, but on the other hand, it’s quite exciting. One of the most exciting things about rap is listening to the diss tracks. If Tokona did beef with Boss, then I aim to find out where they beefed and ultimately the reason for their beef.

Sample Snitching

One issue that I’d like to avoid in my work analysing Tokona’s work is ‘sample snitching’. DJ Premier has previously called out people who put out mixtapes of the original works and pictures of hip-hop artists who ‘sampled’ the original and also given his opinion on bloggers who reveal samples in his music. I’d love to have written about songs I suspect may have been sampled or just sound similar, but I don’t really want to be a ‘snitch’. Though would I really be a snitch? I don’t actually know if those songs (I’d talk about) were sampled or not and sometimes I can’t find out if the sample (that’s if there even was a sample) was declared or not. I’ll have to sleep on it and really think about how I want to go forward.

A big part of the music for me, is looking at how samples have been used and what they bring to the track. Seeing as this was done in Japan and the parent label is Def Jam, I don’t think I’d be highlighting anything that wasn’t declared. Aside from that, similarities to other works are probably not intentional and I have no actual knowledge of, nor would I be alleging that anything was sampled that shouldn’t have been.

For me, this is a big thing. I’m not a fan of snitching on artists for their samples and I really respect DJ Premier, his work and his opinions. This struggle that I’m having with myself speaks to the culture of Hip-Hop and Rap music. It’s a culture that’s about building on the past. I don’t think Premier is against paying people what they’re due, but as he says, there are artists he’s sampled that don’t like or respect Rap music, so those samples have to go in under the radar. This is a conflict between a culture of sharing and collaboration against a culture of ownership and theft. I suspect that in Japan, all of the samples will have been meticulously cleared as that’s the culture there. But then, we’re talking about Japanese artists involved in Hip-Hop. I’d guess that they’re more in tune with the culture of the music they’re creating than with the ‘establishment’, so you never know. I’ll definitely be looking into that aspect of the culture in relation to Japan, but for now, I might just keep my opinions about samples that I think I can hear to myself.