Dragon Ash

Courtesy of Wowow

The darlings of last year' music media may have been Hikaru Utada and her new breed of Japanese R&B teenage divas, but there's been a quieter revolution going on in other quarters. The country's native DJs and technocrats such as Ken Ishii have gained the respect of the rest of the world, and now Japanese hip hop has been pulled out of its playpen by the foursome known as Dragon Ash.

The band, when it was formed in early 1996, at first had no resemblance to hip hop at all, as they played mainly punk and straight-ahead rock. The creative force behind them was the youngest member of the band, Kenji Furuya, the son of reasonably famous actor Ikko Furuya. In 1995, at the age of sixteen, he appeared in the ski-resort weepie "Gerende ga Tokeru Hodo Koi Shitai" (Love in the Melting Ski Fields), but afterwards decided that music, not movies, was where he wanted to be. Along with high-school friend and drummer Makoto Sakurai, he held auditions for band members and recruited Ikuzo Baba as bassist. Baba at that time was twenty-nine, the eldest of the three, his ten years of experience being vital as they sought advice on entering the music business.

Their live debut came at Club Citta in Kawasaki in August 1996, and the following year were signed to Victor Entertainment. After releasing two moderately successful but musically unremarkable albums, the trio realized that their musical tastes were more and more leaning towards the rap and dance music coming out of the US, and started to get more experimental. DJ Bots was invited to join the 1997 world tour, and his turntable skills first reached CD on the track "NJ Soul," featured on the first full Dragon Ash album, Mustang.

In 1998 DJ Bots was recognized as the band's permanent fourth member, and in September they released Buzz Songs, their second album. This was to stake out the sonic territory that was to be their winning secret; the raw sensibility of guitar rock combined with cut-up hip hop, performed with both passion and skill. They finally battered down the doors to the Oricon pop charts with the singles "Let Yourself Go. Let Myself Go," "I Love Hip Hop," and the song which has become their anthem, "Grateful Days," a haunting melody snatched from the grasp of Pachelbel's Canon.

In July 1999 they released their enormously successful album, appropriately called Viva La Revolution. A substantial part of the lyrics are written in English; this reflects their internationalism, and not, thankfully, another misguided attempt to conquer the pop world outside Japan. Dragon Ash and their management have no plans to try to "break" the notoriously treacherous US market.

So what's next? The band have just finished headlining the TMC 2000 tour of Japan, and their last singles were "Deep Impact" and "Freedom" (containing mixes by the US rapper Speech). The new album out in July is provisionally titled Fool's Mate. For Dragon Ash, the next move is sure to be a good one.

James Walker

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ISSUES 248/9-