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Loop Junktion

If you haven't turned on your radio or tuned into MTV recently, here's the news: hip-hop rules. Japan is being increasingly overrun by a legion of Jay-Z and Beyonce wannabes. Case in point: even former J-pop idoru Namie Amuro is now making hip-hop.

But amid the swaggering B-boys are some groups concocting a more thoughtful, musically rich recipe of Japanese hip-hop. Loop Junktion, still based in their hometown of Machida in suburban Tokyo-but making increasing inroads into Tokyo as well as further afield-are cooking a rich stew that blends the spoken-word narratives of hip-hop with funk, acid jazz, and a healthy dollop of style.

Don't let the musical accomplishment and the fact that the band was formed by Japanese students attending Boston's famed Berklee College of Music give you the wrong impression, however. Loop Junktion probably have more street cred than most of the Japanese B-boys you see striking ape-like gansta poses on MTV.

In the song "History" from their new album Turkey, for instance, MC "Yamajin" tells the story of the difficulties of trying to make it outside the Japanese mainstream. "I was making music at the time but not making enough to get by," he says in an interview at Sony Records. "So I turned to crime to make ends meet." The song depicts the lure many young Japanese men without privilege face of becoming a chimpira, or petty criminal.

"In the first verse I describe getting busted," Yamajin continues. "In the second verse, I talk about friends from my 'hood who helped me out, and in the third verse I describe how things ended up working out with this band." The gangly, raspy-voiced MC doesn't boast about his theft convictions, but he does insist that his words resonate with young Japanese disillusioned by a lack of opportunity in an economy in which the jobless rate for men age 15 to 24 now stands at over 12 percent.

"I'm now 26," says Yamajin. "As you move out of your teenage years to adulthood, even if you aren't arrested, you undergo various difficult experiences: fighting with your parents and friends…things don't always go as you'd like. I think people can relate to what I'm saying from this point of view."

From the other side of the conference table, keyboardist "Takumi.K.dog" concurs. "For American rappers, getting busted seems almost like a rite of passage," he says. "I'm not sure if this is good or bad-but these experiences are part of the reality of hip-hop."

If a career in hip-hop seems unlikely to please many parents in the US, one can imagine how it must be in hierarchical Japan. Yamajin confirms that this is the case. "When I got to be about 23 or so, they began to say it's time to get a job," he says of his parents. "But when the band signed with Sony, we began to get along better. Having a contract with a well-known company makes us more respectable. Because of that, my parents were able to feel like, 'Well, he wasn't just messing around, but really trying to do something.' Until then they were like: 'What are you going to do?'"

With a sophisticated, urban sound that sets them apart from the somewhat comedic approach of mainstream Japanese hip-hop groups like Ripslyme or the bling-bling bluster of MCs such as Zeebra, Loop Junktion, says Takumi.K.dog, find themselves appealing more to the acid jazz, house and drum 'n' bass communities of Tokyo's fertile dance scene. He says that after forming, they played relentlessly to establish themselves but are now gigging more selectively.

"We've developed gradually, and want to continue with this approach," he concludes. "We want to be in this business for a long time."

History is available on Mastersix Foundation/Sony Records. Loop Junktion host gBack to the Labh the second Friday of the month at Club Asia in Shibuya. The next event is September 12. Tel: 5458-1996. www.clubasia.co.jp. Total info: www.loopjunktion.net

Photo credit: Courtesy of Mastersix Foundation/Sony Records

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