Japan Beat: Shing02

Not too many Japanese rappers call San Francisco home. But then again, not too many rappers have the profile of Shing02. Growing up the son of a trading company employee posted to countries as far flung as Tanzania, Shing02 (b. Shingo Annen) has a perspective decidedly different from your standard Japanese MC.

"I don't want to get any extra credit for being from America," says the intense 26-year-old from the other side of a table in the Metropolis conference room. "But I do want to go against the grain of [Japanese] pop songs having English titles and lyrics." Despite his English fluency, the University of California at Berkeley graduate's new album, 400 (Mary Joy/Music Mine), is written entirely in Japanese, with nary a squeak of English on its 14 tracks.

This, of course, poses a problem for those with less than fluent Japanese like this writer. So I ask Shing02 to explain one of his songs. He chooses "2102," a song that he says describes the future, 100 years from now. "The message is that no matter how much technology advances, we are still human," he offers. The inventive lyrics describe a high-tech future in which a man rushes around town in a hydrogen-fueled car, later heading to a teleport to travel to Asia. But in the denouement, expectations of a high drama sci-fi spy story are subverted when it turns out that the song is simply about a rapper delivering a power adapter to his DJ.

This kind of songwriting defines Shing02's approach, and sets him apart from the "bitches 'n' cars" concerns of many of his contemporaries. "I try and be more experimental," he explains. "I try to include both traditional and creative forms of writing, and also different ways of introducing characters and metaphors."

Shing02's intelligent lyrics, offbeat, punchy rhythm tracks and dynamic live show have begun to earn him a growing following in Japan, cemented in a performance at last summer's marquee Fuji Rock Festival. Rapping since his teens and also busy at the office of independent Shibuya label Mary Joy Recordings, the hip hop artist is a bit surprised by his success. "I used to do it for fun, and was always the youngest in the scene. But now I see kids buy my album as their first rap album, and that is crazy to me," he says. "It's a big responsibility."

At the moment, Shing02 is focusing on expanding his reach out of Japan. "Right now I have a fan base in Tokyo, but what I am trying to do is also appeal to Asia and Europe," he says. "I definitely want to reach out more to Asian kids, as there are hip hop scenes everywhere, from Malaysia to Hong Kong."

Despite his unconventional approach, Shing02 sees a need for both the mainstream and the independent scenes. "I don't have any particular negative things to say, because I think in the end everybody benefits," he says. "If there is a big major scene, then the independents get their share of attention also."

Shing02 sees hip hop making steady gains in Japan, but with some costs. "Hip hop is trying to be incorporated into pop culture, so it has to appeal to a mainstream crowd," he says. "I definitely see people trying to make their sound more accessible, but whatever problems I see in Japan with the commercialization of avant-garde culture are not exclusive to this country."

Shing02 plays Milk on April 27 and Shinjuku Loft on April 28. See listings for details.

credit: Music Mine

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