Verbal is a man of many talents. Since forming hip hop group m-flo alongside producer/DJ Taku Takahashi in 1999, the rapper has been central to the rise of Japanese hip hop culture. From rapping on a remix of Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were” to working with Kylie, K-pop super group 2NE1 and (as part of hip hop supergroup Teriyaki Boyz) Pharrell, Kanye West and the Beastie Boys, the 37-year-old has a proven knack of being at the right place at the right tempo. In March 2011 he released solo album Visionair, which featured collaborations with Nicki Minaj, Jermaine Dupri, Swizz Beatz and Lil Wayne, taking his verses to a global audience. Away from music, he and his wife Yoon created Tokyo-based jewellery brand Ambush, which has garnered a cult following – its offbeat pieces have been commissioned by artists from Kanye to Korean rapper G-Dragon. It’s hard to be an original in the constantly evolving metropolis that is Tokyo, but Verbal manages it with a sense of fun and individual flair in both his style and musical expression.
Dazed Digital: You’ve been at the forefront of Japanese urban music. How have you seen it evolve?
Verbal: What’s weird is that Japanese hip hop artists kinda take the wrong elements of American hip hop culture. For example, I was at a radio interview with some rappers, and I was like, ‘So what’s real hip hop?’, and they said, ‘Real hip hop is hustling and selling mixtapes and blah blah blah.’ So I’m like, ‘Okay, what do you talk about in your songs?’, and they’re talking about ‘the reality of the streets and selling weed.’ You don’t even need to do that in Japan – it’s not like that. I mean, of course there are gritty parts of Japanese life, but it’s not hard like the ghettos of New Orleans or something. I think people in the Korean music industry understand the music culture deeper than the Japanese artists.
DD: What’s the biggest change you’ve noticed within the music scene since you began your career?
Verbal: CDs don’t sell. So that just totally altered the way people think. It became more about music, which is really cool. I’ve had people trying to fit us into a mould, but that changed because right now it doesn’t really matter what you release – things don’t sell anyway. So the past rules and ways don’t fit any more. It definitely changed the way people think, and they can’t really go with the flow any more. It’s spawned a new generation of movers and shakers and creatives.
DD: You released the new m-flo album Square One earlier this year, after a five-year hiatus. What inspired you to get back together with DJ Taku?
Verbal: After we released our fifth album in 2007 we were really fried because we were going at it hard. It’s different in Japan, because you have to release singles prior to the album. In the States I believe you release albums and then, depending on what’s popular, release singles subsequently. It was a natural progression – maybe once every few albums we’re just like, ‘Let’s do our own thing, get energised, and then come back.’ But five years was really long and the record company was getting agitated so we just had to get it out this year, y’know?
DD: You’ve done fewer collaborations this time. Why?
Verbal: We decided to conceal the singers’ names this time because over the last five years, I’ve been DJing and going around the world and watching all these groups and how people are getting entertained at clubs. People don’t really care who the singers are. So I just thought: what’s the point of hyping? We were doing all that hyping before but our soundscape is becoming more and more cluboriented. I don’t really think it matters any more.
DD: You and your wife, Yoon, run the Ambush jewellery line. What inspires your collections?
Verbal: I made the first POW! ring because I wanted to treat myself with a name ring – you know, like how Biz Markie has the BIZ ring. But I didn’t want to write ‘Verbal’. So I was just flipping through some like, Lichtenstein book, and thought, ‘Oh shit, what if I had a finger ring that said POW!, like I’m punching somebody?’ For me the design sources are various, but I always want to bring a smile to people’s faces. I don’t want to be too serious, even if something looks good. Everything Yoon does, there’s something quirky about it. That’s what I love about her. In the design there’s always some kind of motif or joke or concept that strings everything together. It’s the same jewellery as any other but ours has that weird and funny energy to it.
DD: Why is Asian pop culture gaining in overseas recognition and popularity right now?
Verbal: Asian culture is the alternative style that you can’t find in your own country. We interpret things differently, in a cool way. So I think it’s interesting for people outside of Asia to come here and see what’s going on and what we create. There’s just so much stuff that you can’t copy. You can have the same-looking store, but the culture behind it is so different. For instance, with otaku (‘geek’) people in Akihabara, Tokyo, everyone in the club is tweeting while they’re dancing. You won’t find that kind of stuff anywhere else. It’s basically the cool people from overseas that find Asia cool who become the spokespeople and open doors.
DD: How do Asian artists contribute to the west?
Verbal: From my perspective western artists, especially with the music I listen to, have the energy, the vibe, the direction. The kinda general and international direction they make, I think Asia as a whole follows and makes its own. We didn’t invent TV but we kinda made it better. We didn’t start DJing but we make all the equipment here. (laughs) So now K-pop is getting really big, and obviously artists like (boy band) BIGBANG and other Korean artists are all influenced by American producers and artists. But it’s not American any more once it goes through their filter. It’s a whole different market. So I think American or western artists make the creative direction and Asian artists take it further.
DD: Where do you see Asian pop culture heading next?
Verbal: I think it’s going to go really international. Now we’ve got PSY talking about Gangnam – like, where is that? That’s how I felt when I first heard Run-DMC, I was like, ‘Where’s Queens?' So now PSY has proved you don’t have to speak English to make a hit. It’s going to change how labels think about music and how it can be marketed. Now they’ll be looking for the next Asian sensation to make that hit. And you don’t have to be like (nine-member K-pop girl group) Girls’ Generation, you can be a chubby Korean dude like him. (laughs) So it’s definitely going to open a lot of doors. I feel like it’s going to get huge. I mean, Asia isn’t just somewhere people go to for good kimchi or something any more. (laughs) It’s not just about food or fashion now – it’s also music.
Text by Edwina Mukasa
Photography by Matt Irwin