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KohhPhotography The Bardos, Collage Anna Bu Kliewer

Meet Kohh, Japan’s most enigmatic rap star

Watch a documentary about the rapper who went from an upbringing surrounded by violence and drug addiction to curating art shows and working with Frank Ocean

26-year-old rapper and artist Kohh endured a brutal upbringing – a father who committed suicide, a mother addicted to meth, his home in an area blighted by violence and drugs – yet it’s a childhood that, on a superficial narrative level, could be familiar to anyone with an interest in US hip hop. That Kohh grew up in the Oji district of Kita in northern Tokyo, however, is fascinating. It’s also biting in its instant subversion of the cliches around Japanese culture – predominantly kooky, geeky, and passive – and an example of a darkness little known to those outside the country and unspoken by many within.

Kohh, who still gives props to his neighbourhood and crew on his records, puts this into the public sphere on “Dirt Boys”, a sinuous trap beat over which he namedrops pricey fashion labels, dismisses those sneering down at who they are and where they’ve come from, and espouses staying true to yourself. Kohh sees no reason to shift away from his roots, despite some of the memories it holds and his growing success. “Your hometown will always be your home,” he avouches.

Kohh came to worldwide recognition with his verse on Keith Ape’s “It G Ma” in 2015, but he’d already found fame in Japan and in wider underground hip hop circles from his first mixtape Yellow Tape in 2012. A hodgepodge of freestyles, covers, features with artists like Loota (who he still works with), and a single (“We Good”), it was followed by another three mixtapes and three studio albums. A fourth studio album, Dirt II, came last summer, with its listening party held in Paris alongside a gallery showing he curated. He’s also delved into making his own art (primarily paintings and sculpture) and found time to work with Frank Ocean on Blonde (he dropped a guest verse on an extended cut of “Nikes” exclusive to the physical CD version of the album). “Frank Ocean invited me (to work with him), and I ended up recording in his studio in London,” Kohh recalls. “As for what we have in common… well, we both make music?”

Kohh is the subject of a new short film, Kohh’s Son (its title is a reference to his family history – the rapper’s real name is Yuki Chiba, ‘Kohh’ was his father’s surname). The film is often dark and dreamlike, a downpour-and-replicant-free Blade Runner that raises as many questions about its subject as it answers. “There’s so much more we would have liked to do,” filmmakers Lindsay and Toa Bardo admit. “We presumed what we saw online would be what we got, something bordering badass and cocky but it was the total opposite. He has to be one of the most humble, shy and genuine people we have ever met. What we have is maybe just the tip of the iceberg.”

The Bardos discovered Kohh online during what they describe as a “quest” to find a way to convince their producers they needed to go to Japan. “I guess we really discovered and unraveled him when we started shooting,” they explain. “He came to life in a very organic way for us. We had no preconceived ideas or prior knowledge, we just liked his music and his style, but it’s always more fun to take a walk on the dark side and he seemed like the guy to do it with.” Their film captures the artist’s duality – a firebrand on-stage, reticent and softly spoken off it. His replies are precise and unwasteful; everything that he really wants to be known lies within the music he makes.

The music itself has shifted over the years. He still uses trap – with which his music is most closely associated – as a base, but now incorporates punk and rock elements, such as throwing “Die Young” into a pool of sludgy metal guitar and Marilyn Manson-esque vocals as snare rolls purr ominously below them. While Kohh has previously stated his influences range from King Giddra to Kanye West, he’s also added Nirvana, The Blue Hearts, and the Sex Pistols to the list. The change in sound, Kohh says, “just came quite naturally.” He’s also shifted his lyrical focus since “Dirt” to matters of art and death, like “Business and Art” and “If I Die Tonight”. On the latter, he raps, “art is long, life is short.” Given his vast output over the past five years, it might lead one to believe he has a compulsion to create in the belief that he won't have enough time to do everything he wants. But Kohh disagrees, saying, “I believe that lyrics only take their real meaning depending on what the person listening to it feels like at that precise moment. That’s how songs work to me.” Has he ever experienced an anxiety in his creative process? “Anxiety? not really. I’ve been able to do all I want to to do for now.”

Kohh is not easy to decipher. The matters of life and death that occupied such a central place in his recent albums was approached in a unique way, both a furious triumph at being alive and a refusal to die, when many artists glorify death or beckon it. Yet, when asked what brought him to that point, he simply replies, “I’m really just living.” On his relationship to art, he switches between curiosity and polite detachment. Lyrically, he frequently references a who’s who of modern artists – Basquiat, Miro, Warhol Picasso, Dali – yet he dismisses anything deeper than a surface interest. “I don’t identify with any of it,” he says. “I just look at them and think that they are great paintings.” He has a tattoo of Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q on his throat, an interesting placement given that Duchamp's own vague translation of his work was ‘there is fire down below.’ When I ask whether there’s a connection between those words and their placement over his vocal cords, Kohh replies, “Not really. I love Marcel Duchamp – I wish I could ask him the meaning of ‘there is fire down below.’”

Kohh’s music, his growing influence and presence on the global scene, and his dexterity within his artform has led to being called a pioneer and a figurehead for Japanese hip hop. But, as he says, “I’m only a Japanese artist because I was born in Japan. It doesn’t really matter to me which nationality I am. I’m human before anything.” Does he see himself as a figurehead? “To me, I think that’s interesting,” he responds succinctly, if not enigmatically. Back in 2014, Kohh was the subject of a short documentary, in which he expressed the desire to change how hip hop is consumed, appreciated and seen in Japan. In those two years, his outlook has altered as he focuses on his own work. “To be honest,” he says, “the image of Japanese hip hop, respect or how people see me – none of that matters. And because of that, I don’t really know what has changed in Japanese hip hop. But it seems that freestyling has become quite a thing recently.”

The Bardos, however, like many hip hop aficionados and critics, believe that he’s essential to Japanese culture in general, not just to hip hop. “He wrecks all the underlying codes and rules; it shakes people, wakes them up and it’s necessary,” they say. “Japan is the biggest paradox, so tidy outside but something is definitely happening deep down, it’s something to face and accept. Kohh does exactly that not because he tries too hard, or even wants to change anything, just because he is what he is and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”