Exchanging Freshness for Freshness with VERBAL
From an unassuming background, Tokyo Hip-hop artist VERBAL could very well be considered the strongest link between a relatively misunderstood Japanese rap scene and that of Hip-Hop globally. Beyond the smooth English rhymes lies another noteworthy aspect of VERBAL as an influential member of the Harajuku fashion community, which comes as no surprise given the strong bond and well-documented relationship between Hip-Hop and style. Born as a third generation Korean in Japan, a career in the music industry was never in the cards for the artist legally known as Young-Kee Yu. However with a series of relationships built in his youth alongside musical-minded individuals such as Lisa and DJ Taku, a path into Japan’s music world was never that far off. This is his story and a talent that will undoubtedly increase in visibility and recognition with each coming project.
Text: Eugene Kan
Interview: Jey Perie
Photography: James Lisle
VERBAL’s first taste of Hip-Hop took place in the summer of 1985, at a YMCA summer camp his mother took him to in Boston, Massachusetts. The mesmerizing moves of head-spins and pop & lockers captivated the young 5th grader. What VERBAL originally experienced was nothing imaginable back in Japan, where a certain regimented society left little room for the improvisation and freestyle associated with Hip-Hop. The sights and sounds were a lot to take in for the youngster as his own bowl cut hair style, short shorts and long tube socks would be juxtaposed against that of children his own age ripping it up with their boomboxes. As a testament to the cultural change, “the first day in there I got my bag stolen… I’m like WHOA I don’t see that in Japan.” Among his peers, the chosen music selection would often lie in popular cartoon soundtracks. Throughout his junior high school days, going through a series of different names, the artist now known as VERBAL would start to ply his trade. As previously mentioned, music was never more than just a past time for VERBAL. Following High School, he made the jump to the US where VERBAL attended Boston College with a focus in Philosophy and Business. After his roommate introduced him to the Bible, VERBAL converted to Christianity when the philosophical nature of the book appealed to his beliefs. He also discovered an appreciation for helping out young, under-privileged kids in straightening out their lives. Experiences working amongst juvenile delinquents paved the way for a path as an urban counselor. However, the financial aspect of staying in college as he pursued a graduate degree in Christian Theology became difficult… his second calling had arrived.
On school holidays, VERBAL would often return home to Japan with one particular eventful trip home which would act as the catalyst for his music career. His friend DJ Taku had come back from a stint at college in Los Angeles with hopes of launching a musical career. Starting off slowly and organically, Taku asked VERBAL to drop a few bars on an upcoming piece he had been working on. Despite being a little out of practice, nevertheless VERBAL made an appearance. That first compilation between VERBAL and Taku ended up taking off beyond their wildest imaginations. On the advice of their boss, they formed as m-flo, bringing on-board a mutual friend of theirs known as Lisa, as a vocalist. The true extent and reach of their musical exploits were never fully understood by VERBAL as he would spend most of the year away at school in the US, however on each subsequent return visit, things would get bigger and bigger as he would see m-flo making their way to the top of the Japanese charts. While m-flo represented VERBAL’s emergence into the music scene, most recently his global fame has come at the hands of his participation in-line with the A Bathing Ape-backed TERIYAKI BOYZ (R), headed and DJ’d by none other than Bape founder NIGO (R). As VERBAL explains, the Japanese market is often looking for a much more pop-like sound to their Hip-Hop, something fully understood by the TERIYAKI BOYZ (R) going into their debut album in 2006, “Beef or Chicken”. Another issue that plagued Japanese rap had been the difficulty in utilizing American beats due to the phonetics aspect of the Japanese language and the reliance on the throat to create sounds rather than the diaphragm. “I’m sorry, I’m not trying to diss Japanese rappers but they just don’t sound good over American beats, so you have to be very careful how you ride over the beats.” While this musical intricacy was kept in mind for the first album, VERBAL feels that more so than ever they nailed it with their sophomore 2009 release, “Serious Japanese” which also marks the groups first foray into international markets.
Featuring production work from some serious heavy hitters including Pharrell Williams and Jermaine Dupri among others, the album released via Star Trak and marks only the 3rd ever Japanese album to drop internationally without any language and content changes. During the production of the album, many questioned NIGO (R) regarding the assumed spendings that were going into the production of the album, claiming it was largely a waste of money. However the true reality was, NIGO (R) “gave them a couple pairs of sneakers and they gave him beats…. They’re just exchanging freshness (sneakers) for freshness (beats).”
When pressed about the issue of selling albums in foreign languages, VERBAL brings an interesting argument to the table. Likening the unanimous love of catchy tunes such as La Bamba, as an example, a good beat and rhythm can overcome any language barrier. As a kid, Run DMC’s “It’s Christmas Time in Hollis, Queens…” meant little in terms of context yet the beat was something that resonated deeply with VERBAL. Perhaps an even more relevant example is the TERIYAKI BOYZ (R) track for The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift which is nearing the one million hit mark. With Hip-Hop’s traditional stylings going under the microscope consistently, thanks to Kanye West and his ever diverse approach to fashion, VERBAL himself has seen his eclectic styles as the center of attention. Back in 2004, he began a small up-scale jewelry line. Garnering much attention, this eventually developed into creating pieces for fellow artists and celebrities as well as the birth of another jewelery line entitled Ambush. A sort of experimental jewelery playground which has come to be marked by his signature POW! Rings, a lot of the brand’s success does have to do with the aforementioned superstar in Kanye West. Upon wearing a piece of Ambush’s jewelery, it immediately ignited a wave of interest. At the end of the day, Ambush is still something that reflects the tastes of VERBAL which is undoubtedly transcended his music onto the fashion scene.
As we rounded out our discussion with VERBAL, he took a self-analytical view as to how he’s changed over the last few years. Having traveled the world, the rapper has felt that the number one rule which may come across as cliché is to just “be yourself”. As an artist in Japan, there lies a certain equation which allows for a greater degree of success, “If you do this and know this person and feature this person, even though you don’t like this person… it will sell… there’s so much politics. It’s necessary to a degree but you start losing yourself and your focus.” There were some instances in the past where VERBAL felt that while his business sense was improving at the expense of the musical aspect, something that wasn’t true to VERBAL’s own beliefs. Nevertheless, despite this, the music made by VERBAL and company was still quite popular in the Japanese public. “It’s hard to describe, it’s enjoyable in one sense as I’m gaining this audience”, yet this does require a certain bit of character play since it’s not a true reflection of VERBAL’s personality. It does sort of parlay itself into the equation as something VERBAL has recognized as not purely contrived and that his ability to choose the appropriate personality for the situation at hand is useful in gaining success and understanding the tasks at hand. It was through worldly travels and meeting and working with the likes of Pedro Winter of Ed Banger, Kanye West and Pharrell Williams that VERBAL would develop a true sense of what it means to be yourself. Seeing the way Ed Banger Record’s headman Pedro Winter was able to explore the world, VERBAL adapted this way of business to his own record label, throwing in the towel for any preconceived notion that record execs had to be firmly planted behind a large desk. “There’s no one way to do it [in terms of running a record label and business]… but I felt I had to cater [to people like his parents]”, as his parents often stated that he wouldn’t make money off his music endeavors. In many ways, this led VERBAL to venture down a more commercial and perhaps more Japanese-market friendly route to prove his parents wrong in some ways. Coming back to the argument of being yourself, this self-analysis which has changed his character has undoubtedly created a full-circle personal connection between both business and music. All decisions are now reflective of the rappers own choice, largely irrespective of outside influences; “I don’t really care if I’m speaking all English over a track in Japan… That’s me!!! If they don’t understand, just don’t listen to the track… Before I had to rap all in Japanese… now I just do what I feel like over a beat”. Coming off a highlight with Yeezy giving the man his due props on the TERIYAKI BOYZ (R) most recent drop, perhaps this is an affirmation of VERBAL’s belief that he knows exactly what is best for his own interests.