Category Archives: Rap Persona

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.

Tokona-X Fans on Mixi

I’ve discovered a treasure trove of information about Tokona on a social media site called Mixi. It’s like the Japanese version of Facebook and many people gather there to discuss things, plan events and meet new friends with similar interests.

I found a group called Tokona-X, which seems to be quite active. It’ll take me a while to get into it, but I should be able to learn more things about Tokona by firstly reading as much as possible, then by asking a few questions myself.

I think it’ll be hard going at first as I get used to reading Japanese again, especially as it appears that most of the language will be some form of dialect/ non standard Japanese. Hopefully it will become easier after a while. In any case, this should be a real help towards my goal of showing the English speaking world who Tokona was.

The Unofficial Murder of Tokona-X

Tokona-X-cutting-somethingThere are three versions of events surrounding Tokona’s death, asking the question ‘did he die, or was he murdered?’ All versions leave us with more questions than we had to begin with. The only true conclusion we can get from each version is that his death was untimely. It wasn’t the right time for him to die, in the prime of his life and at a promising stage of his career, but in each scenario, a set of factors came together and lead to his passing. There’s a public or ‘official’ reason for his death, a second, potentially more honest account and an a third reason involving Yakuza and murder.

 

The Official Story

As anyone that has lived in Japan will know that the summer months can be very uncomfortable. They are unbearably hot, extremely humid and have the power to sap your energy completely. In the north of the country, the hot, humid months come and go reasonably quickly, preceded by the rainy season known as Plum Rain or Taiyou (梅雨) in Japanese. The far south in Okinawa is perpetually tropical, but towards the middle latitudes of the country, the heat of summer is prolonged and the hot, humid months seem that much more intense because of that.

It’s often a good idea to stay indoors as much as possible, enjoying your air conditioning. One summer, I was deep in conversation with an old man who runs a restaurant I love to visit and he said he hadn’t gone outside all summer. I asked him ‘why haven’t you been outside all summer?’ and he responded ‘because I’ll die!’ We shared a laugh together, but the serious truth is that the heat really can drain your energy.

Officially, Tokona died of heart failure. He’d been struggling all summer with heat stroke, then in November, he suffered a cardiac arrest from which he did not recover. While still quite a warm month in Nagoya, I wonder why it was this, much cooler and less humid month that he passed away.

 

Cocaine Overdose

Cocaine seems to be a popular drug with stars in the West and despite their strict drug laws, it way also be popular in the East. Drugs seem to be readily available in Japan if you can find the right person, as every few months, a celebrity becomes embroiled in a drug scandal; usually related to marijuana.

It is said that Tokona had links to the Japanese underground and if this is true, it’s likely that he could have gotten his hands on cocaine. Certainly, videos like ‘I Just Wanna’ and at the beginning of ‘Densetsu’ (伝説), meaning ‘legend’, a video that appears to have been put together by a fan and shows a live performance of ‘Shirazaa Itte Kikaseya Show’ (知らざあ言って聞かせやSHOW) mixed together with part of a promotional video, Tokona can be ‘clearly’ seen preparing something and taking that something.

He may have had an overdose or taken too much of a bad batch, which ultimately lead to his downfall. If this was the case, it’s highly unlikely that it would be made public as I’m not sure his family or the record label would enjoy that kind of publicity in Japan.

Of course, his drug taking could have been all a show; a show that may have taken him into the firing line of the Japanese Mafia.

 

Murdered by Gangsters

The last scenario, that Tokona-X was killed by Yakuza, is the most intriguing. the theory behind an underworld murder is that Tokona’s personality clashed with what is expected in the underworld. Tokona was an extrovert, which is what made him such a good performer, but it’s this persona that could have put him at odds with the underground.

As is the case in the rest of Japanese society, one should be humble and not draw attention to oneself or ones activities; unless those activities cast you in a wholly positive light. This is in direct opposition to the gangster rapper persona which Tokona did so well. Being a ‘loud-mouth’ serves no purpose but to put you onto the radar of people who didn’t want the spotlight to fall on them should something go wrong.

It has been said that there are some Yakuza who helped him get into the position he was, but his showmanship and big mouth put him at odds with them. Tokona was happy to talk about his sexual exploits and make reference to his drug taking habits. This is the kind of thing that might have annoyed those who had been backing him. With Tokona out of line, the best way to shut him up could have been to supply him with a bad batch of drugs and allow him to indulge himself.

 

So What’s the Truth?

Of the three probable scenarios, it’s not possible to come to a definite conclusion as they’re all logical and entirely possible. As with most things, the official reason probably contains some of the truth, though not all of it. The truth is most likely to be a combination of the official story and the drug overdose. Many stars in the west have been a victim of their own drug habit and there’s no reason why the same couldn’t be true of a Japanese star.

On the other hand, if he did do something wrong or make a mistake, did he deserve to die? If there’s truth behind the suggestion that he moved in Yakuza circles, he would have been aware of what he should and should not have been doing. The problem could have been his youth; young men often believe that they’re invincible. Instead of doing what was expected of him, it’s very possible that he instead did whatever he felt like doing to enjoy his fame.

Whatever the reason for his death, be it murder, an accident or simply of natural causes, only those closest to him will know the truth. The only things we can be sure of is that 26 is too young to die and in 2004, we lost one of the great Japanese rappers who was yet to show us all of his potential.

Legend In The Flesh

We all dream of meeting our heroes in the flesh and sometimes dreams are all we have. I recently re-discovered a few of Tokona’s live videos. I’ve seen some before, several years ago, but got interested in a few of the suggestions at the end of another Tokona video I was watching and decided to check them out.

My favorite one is actually three songs mixed together with the live audio and video, then the live video and studio recording. ‘Shirazaa Itte Kikaseya Show’ (知らざあ言って聞かせやSHOW) is followed by ‘I’m in Charge’, then ‘Nexxxt Big Thing’. For me, hearing him on a track is a powerful experience. The thought of seeing him live would be one of the greatest things I could do; but unfortunately, that will never be possible.

When he takes to the stage, he seems to be in a new place, up there doing his own thing to entertain the crowd without worrying about anything else. He’s quite aggressive and yet relaxed very happy in his own skin to be doing something he enjoys and that’s the way to get the crowd going crowd going. It’s got to be the excitement he generates by his gestures and the way he looks at the crowd. A big part of Hip-Hop is entertaining the audience and that’s the reason rap music came about; a way to entertain the crowd. It’s as though the relaxed way he goes about his art is because that was his calling and that comes through in his mannerisms. That’s the original reason I began listening to him. He was doing something different from the other Japanese rappers, but in a way that felt natural and as though he was making a contribution to the art form.

Of the rap and non rap music artists  I’ve seen, he is more aggressive and that’s what you’d expect. Even so, everything he does is controlled and calculated The brand of rap music Tokona performs is one that relies even more on having the attitude that you’re the best, you’re on top and nobody comes close. He pulls this persona off really well, having a stage presence to match the content of his lyrics.

Props also come into play with the performances. The sweat towel is his strongest prop, being there to wipe his brow and whip the audience into a frenzy. The second weapon he makes good use of is the crotch grab. I’m not sure what he’s trying to find in his pants, but he seems to find it and whips it out to the delight of the audience. Perhaps it’s the sweat towel he’s looking for? The third prop is the use of hype men. They’re perhaps the weakest part of the display in that sometimes, it looks as though they’re just there to make up numbers in this particular video. However, it’s not possible to hear everything that’s going on and they don’t do any rapping in this particular montage, so

Recorded, Tokona sounds so energetic and passionate. Of course, I’ve only seen and heard recordings of his live performances, but he really comes to life as if he was right in front of me performing. Being able to actually see someone do something they clearly enjoy and were born to do is a great feeling. From the change in excitement I feel from his recordings to the live performances, I think he’d be a sight to behold in the flesh. All I can do now, is seek out more of his live shows and dream of what could have been.