He answered the door in a white T-shirt and black track pants, with the dragging gait and heavy-lidded look of someone who had just woken. The interior of his house is more sparse than one would imagine, seeing as its owner is famous for wearing the voracious strains of ink and clothing on his body with diabolical impunity. White, plain-Jane walls, two desks (for work, he offers), and a TV, in front of which was slouched a lone figure on a red leather sofa, watching cartoons. The only sign of vice: an ashtray resting on a spotless black stovetop. Anybody could have lived in this cozy two-storey, but you would expect it least of all to be KOHH, the rapper-meets-artist-meets-model with a reputation as an aggressive lyricist reaching far beyond his home country of Japan. Even his neighborhood of choice is surprising – Oji, an area just outside Tokyo’s city center, whose suburban streets are somewhat at odds with the only sight which comes close to befitting such repute: a brand new white Mustang parked at a curious angle, somehow managing to look both scrupulous and insolent at the same time.
For KOHH, the lines between art and music don’t exist, and he’s equally passionate about both.
Quiet and reserved, with his hair cropped short and significantly less blue than I anticipated, KOHH seemed almost demure in the flesh, compared to the swaggering, larger-than-life personality I’d gleaned from countless music videos and had consequently expected. True to his roots, his manners are impeccable. He introduces the couch-surfer right away: his name is Yano, a rapper KOHH met on a recent trip to LA. He’s been recruited into a verse on KOHH’s upcoming album, and has been living with him for the past few months. KOHH chats easily about random things during the photoshoot: a pair of Evisu jeans he liked in passing, a specialty shop where he plans to wrap his girlfriend’s Christmas present later that day. He takes his art collection out of storage and splays them haphazardly on the couch: works from artists all over the world, photographs and his own paintings. This is the most animated he’s been so far – for KOHH, the lines between art and music don’t exist, and he’s equally passionate about both. This explains why he’s so hesitant to label himself as a rapper: he just likes to make things.
After the shoot, KOHH saunters over to his kitchen. “You can start anytime,” he says, lighting his cigarette with a noncommittal flick of his wrist. “I’m going to eat.” His foray into fashion began with FACETASM at Paris Fashion Week, where he was originally interested in attending the show, but ended up on the runway instead. “It came on really randomly,” he says, face furled in smoke. “A week before the show, [founder] Hiromichi Ochiai hit me up asking if I wanted to walk in it. I didn’t know him at first. It just happened on a whim.” He doesn’t think much of it: “I’m just a rapper who likes fashion; I’m not trying to do anything special.” He does, however, have a penchant for sleepwear, and has plans to collaborate with stylist Lambda Takahashi on a 100% silk, one-size-only pair of pajamas.
Yano the couch-surfer puts his cartoons on mute for his friend’s interview, but he may as well have left them on – KOHH was a man of few words when it came to reflecting on his own work. Most people are comfortable talking about themselves – KOHH is the complete opposite, less from actual discomfort and more from the simple fact that he hasn’t given the past much reflection, and can’t be bothered to pretend otherwise. He doesn’t have much to say about his novel position as an exclusively Japanese rapper impacting rap culture as much as he has, even going so far as to avoid the umbrella term of hip-hop entirely. An intriguing claim for an artist undergoing exponential growth on an international scale, contributing to works such as “Nikes” on Frank Ocean’s latest album, Blonde, or Keith Ape track “It G Ma,” which stormed the internet in 2015.
Even in light of his burgeoning global presence, he shrugs it off. “I just make what I want to make,” he says point blank, in between bites of boiled eggs. Obviously preferring to let his work speak for itself, he avoids being pigeonholed with almost as much fervor as he places into making the music itself. His latest album, Dirt 2, has a grungy edge from listening to Nirvana during production – other than that, he says “I never really listened to rock before. It was mostly hip-hop until now.” As for his recent stints in LA, London and Paris? Though the French capital served as the namesake of one of his tracks, he doesn’t draw any influences from the places he’s visited either: “People play stuff for me from different countries when I’m there, but usually I just listen to what I like. I don’t really go out and look for new stuff.”
KOHH seemed almost demure in the flesh, compared to the swaggering, larger-than-life personality I’d gleaned from countless music videos.
Steering clear and wide of any style affiliations, his inspiration comes on the fly: “It’s really just how I feel at the moment. When I’m with friends, we’re quite spontaneous. We just do what we like.” Not to say KOHH is a man of few words and even fewer musical influences, but his modus operandi seems to be driven by spontaneity – he doesn’t spew artistic rhetoric for the sake of rhetoric. Stuff, according to KOHH, just happens. Maybe this is precisely why his work resonates with so many people – he is unpretentious to a fault. It makes his work authentic, communicating to his audience in ways I suspect countless interviews would fail to ever achieve.
Shoji, KOHH’s acting manager from Columbia Records, describes the rapper as a very private, straightforward person. He chalks up the silence to candor, culminating from KOHH’s inability (or refusal) to play the role of an entertainer. “He still has a lot to learn and develop [with his public persona],” Shoji says. Perhaps it’s true that KOHH doesn’t really care about the pull of celebrity nor the wider scope of his contributions to his genre of music, but for all his indifference, KOHH is ultimately a man of conviction. “Money is the death of art; I’m just making art,” he intones on “Business and Art,” a track from his latest album, Dirt 2. He has a refreshing insight when it comes to his reputation: “To be honest, I don’t really know how people see me as an artist. Everyone has a different opinion. I don’t have any particular way I want to be remembered, either.”
Maybe he’s not interested in being famous at all. His triumph lies in his indifference: sometimes the biggest impacts are made by people who aren’t trying. KOHH breaks cultural borders simply because he doesn’t acknowledge them. “If you’re cool, you’re cool. If you’re not, then you’re not. Where you’re from? It doesn’t matter.” His music videos perfectly address the issue of culture, in that it isn’t addressed at all: liquor, grills, shades, tattoos – it’s universal. KOHH’s music is about his history, not his heritage. Does he think Japanese rappers add anything unique to the global landscape of hip-hop? “They speak Japanese,” he answers dryly.
As the hours go by, one discovers that KOHH’s deceivingly bare abode reflects his character rather than his image: saying little on the outside but brimming with hidden ideas and words. Maybe this is what makes him so appealing: he has nothing to prove. KOHH is Newton’s Third Law personified in an aurally loud and rhetorically silent package: every characteristic has its equal and opposite. His frame, almost too light for his tattoos; his demeanor, almost too serious for his looks; his IDGAF attitude, perhaps too irreverent for fame. Despite the seeming contradictions, there’s one simple truth: KOHH is a viciously talented artist with a brusque integrity that few have the privilege of witnessing in person. His mystery and manner come together without panic or bravado, radiating the deep self-assuredness of someone who has nothing to hide but more still, to show. He is who he is; for whoever’s watching, it’s probably more than enough.
This story was originally published in HYPEBEAST Magazine Issue 17: The Connection Issue as ”Come As You Are.” Find out more here.