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Japanese Street Beat
In the KFSR studio at Fresno State, Patrick Montgomery is decked out in Armani Exchange jeans, a retro polo shirt, and beat-up sneakers. His short, casually spiky blond hair and blue eyes peg him as a typical California boy. Lounging in an unremarkable office chair and looking more like an Abercrombie & Fitch model than a Tokyo gangster, his booming radio voice announces the details of the last track- in Japanese. DJ Trik, as his listeners know him, hosts one of the most popular and well-known Japanese hip hop shows in the world.
Every Friday night from midnight to 5am, DJ Trik plays the latest and greatest in Japanese hip hop, from established artists like Tha Blue Herb and King Giddra to brand new tracks by Japanese teens emailed in at the top of the show.
During Japanese Street Beat the KFSR servers fill up with 60,000 online listeners from Japan alone, according to Trik. His three annual Japanese hip-hop compilations, released on the Japanese Street Beat web site, have been downloaded over hundreds of thousands of times.
Trik entered Fresno State at 22 after a two-and-a-half year stint living in Japan. As a linguistics and anthropology student he joined the Japanese Student Association to "ease the reverse culture shock." The JSA had a two-hour radio show, and they asked him to fill up 30 minutes with contemporary Japanese music.
"The thing is, I never listened to Japanese hip hop when I lived in Japan. I bought - like randomly, I picked up two Japanese hip hop albums, thought, 'That's kind of weird,' so I grabbed them and I listened to them on the plane. And I was like 'whoa,' blown away by the production first of all and how well it flowed with the track. The Japanese I had acquired allowed me to pick up on a lot of the word play and so I was really, really impressed."
He played a few of those tracks on his show, along with more contemporary Japanese music. Calls would come in after he played the hip hop tracks, so he started playing more.
"I got more material from people that I knew and people would send me some things and I'd play a little bit more."
The transformation of Japanese Street Beat to a three-hour show in 2001 was based on the popularity with local listeners, most of whom have no idea about DJ Trik's identity.
"People are like, 'Oh yeah I listen to your show, you're not Asian!' And then the next thing is usually like either 'I love your show' or 'I get high to your show all the time!' I get that more than anything. While I don't condone it, I think it's very amusing."
In 2003 the show went to five hours.
"First couple weeks it was kind of a monster but it allowed me to make up separate, kind of niche-y sections. You have more to play with," Trik explains.
In October of that year, the Japanese Street Beat went online.
"It just blew up from there. Like as far as the Japanese listenership - like the whole website came about because of people listening in. They're like, 'This is great, we want a website for it,' and so some guy made the website and gave it to me."
The online broadcast has introduced thousands to Japanese hip hop. Jesse Viinikainen, CEO and Chief Editor of the world hip hop web site Culture Universal, says Japanese Street Beat is helping to expose more people to Japanese hip hop.
"Even though it started in Japan in the early 1980s, Japanese hip hop still doesn't get any exposure even in other countries of Asia. I think Culture Universal and JSB are the only 2 medias in the world exposing people to Japanese hip hop music and culture."
JSB is exposing J hop to many in Japan as well.
"The reason the popularity is there," explains Trik, "especially among the Japanese, is not necessarily because 'Oh I'm, so cool,' or the show's so great but because there is no show in Japan that plays Japanese hip hop."
FM radio in Japan is dominated by American commercial music and vanilla J-Pop.
"It boggles my mind," Trik says.
"Even with the popularity the show has generated, and the kind of attention and press we've gotten, and the kind of artists that have blown up as a result of exposure on there, all that, there's still not one FM radio program that's solely focused on Japanese hip hop in Japan. It just blows my mind."
Hip hop reached Japan in a big way in 1983. According to Ian Condry, a Japanese cultural studies professor at MIT who is writing a book about Japanese hip hop, the Japanese premiere of the graffiti film "Wild Style" sparked interest in many aspects of hip hop culture. And when some of the stars of the movie - DJs, b-boys, and graf artists - came to Japan to promote it, break dancing appeared in Tokyo's Yoyogi Park.
But the vocal elements of hip hop in Japan were slow to emerge.
"When hip hop came about," begins Trik, "partly because of this intimidation factor from America and this idea that hip hop can only be in English that America still pushes on people - I should say the mainstream scene really does that - the Japanese tend to be typically a bit timid about trying something very vocally expressive like that."
Other aspects of hip hop culture thrived, however.
"So hip hop in Japan was really limited to the other elements of hip hop, like turntablism, DJing and breaking and graffiti and things like that - the other kind of non-vocal elements of hip hop," Trik recounts. "And that took off huge."
After the success of DJs (think DJ Krush) and trackmakers in the late 1980s and 1990s, MCs began experimenting with flowing to tracks.
"Then some people started trying their hand at rhyming and they found that actually Japanese, along with Korean, are probably the two - and I've heard a lot of hip hop in a lot of different languages - Japanese more than Korean are probably some of the best languages from, like, purely a beat perspective, to flow to a track," says Trik.
Each syllable in Japanese is comprised of a consonant and a vowel, which allows for a wide range of flexible sounds and rhythms. MCs also take English words and "Japanize" them, creating ever more rhythms. English curse words are a favorite, to fly under the radar of Japanese censors.
While the sub-genres of Japanese hip hop are as varied as those of its English counterpart, there are some broad themes that run through the music.
"One theme that is constantly hit upon is the theme of conformity, or non-conformity," says Trik.
"Being an 'individual' is really getting more acceptance, but really it is a rebellious kind of notion. And in that sense it's very true to the spirit and the roots of hip hop."
Fear and uncertainty about the future - economic and otherwise - is another central theme in Japanese hip hop.
"Just a theme that is common throughout a lot of hip hop is the theme of uncertainty about the future - about your own future," Trik explains.
This was especially true in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the Japanese economy was contracting and a new word - risutora, short for "restructuring" - entered the lexicon.
Japanese hip hop is devoid of the intense racial politics of American hip hop, which has helped to create a more inclusive hip hop community.
"People say 'Why do you like Japanese hip hop?' and I say because of the lack of racial politics that's involved. Like just the act of creating - you don't have black Japanese telling white Japanese that they can't be involved in hip hop because it's a black thing," says Trik.
"You just have people who want to make music and enjoy making music. And so the variety of sub-genres you find in Japanese hip hop is astounding."
And few have the depth and breath of knowledge to expose listeners to such a wide variety of tracks as DJ Trik, blond hair or not. Despite his success and notoriety in Japan, DJ Trik has yet to return to the land of the rising sun. Later this year he will move to China, but vows the Japanese Street Beat will continue every week.
"I'm sure a lot of kids out there discovering JSB is coming out of Fresno are a bit shocked at first and maybe think it's an Asian fetish thing or something similar," jokes Culture Universal's Viinikainen. "But actually Trik is one of the only people I know that have shown passion over this music over the years."
Visit Japanse Street Beat online at http://sound.jp/j-st_beat/
To download Trik's compilations, visit http://sound.jp/j-st_beat/products/