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By Dan Grunebaum


If Japan’s future lies in its “gross national cool,” then this hip-hop/break-beats/scratch duo may point the way

“Juicy” and “KEIZOmachine!” hide behind graphic images Gorillaz-style
courtesy of oWieden+Kennedy

It’s always fun to see your favorite bands at the Fuji Rock Festival.

But it’s even more of a gas to be blown away by an act you’ve never heard of. Such was the case at FRF ’04 when I stumbled across Hifana.

Perched behind a bank of turntables, samplers and effects machines, two deft young electro-percussionists brought the stage alive with a syncopated fusillade of hip-hop beats, cut in with bleeps, ad voiceovers and train announcements: the sampled sonic detritus of pop culture. Trading off like synchronized swimmers, they also had a visual screen show that was as schizophrenically entertaining as their music.

Curiosity piqued, I tracked down Hifana (yes, we get the weed reference) through their website (www.hifana.com) in time for the release of their latest effort. A combined CD/DVD package, Channel H is out on hip ad agency Wieden+Kennedy’s music label W+K Tokyo Lab. That’s where I caught up with the pair, who call themselves simply KEIZOmachine! and Juicy, on a steamy August afternoon in Roppongi.

“The two of us were in a belly dance percussion group at the end of the ’90s, but increasingly we wanted to produce sounds we couldn’t get out of our drums,” says Juicy, a.k.a. Jun Miyata, 28, about the group’s origins in the hip Tokyo suburb of Kichijoji. “We began to experiment with samplers, and Hifana gradually evolved a separate identity from that group.”

“We used to play at dance music events, and became interested in electronic music,” elaborates KEIZOmachine!, a.k.a. Keizo Fukuda, 31. “Forms like hip-hop and drum‘n’bass were more interesting from a rhythmic point of view and offered the most rhythmic freedom.”

As digitally conversant as the two are, it’s KEIZOmachine! and Juicy’s skills as sampling pad percussionists that separates them from garden variety scratch turntablists. Unlike most live electronica acts these days, Hifana are glued neither to turntables nor to laptops. They’re tapping and punching their samplers like acoustic drums (which they also keep close by), ducking and weaving with the deft technique of experienced percussionists.

As anyone who’s watched a scratch DJ knows, even highly skilled turntablism only sustains interest up to a point. For Hifana, all the scratching and tapping is only a means to an end, which is often comedy. “We wanted to inject a note of humor into our music,” says KEIZOmachine!, returning to the subject of Hifana’s beginnings. “At first we tried with the percussion band, but it didn’t work, so we ended up channeling the humor into the project that became Hifana.”

It’s not only that they lace their music with samples that sound like digital farts or kitschy fragments of Janglish. Hifana songs often tell a story that’s fully fleshed out by the visuals that accompany their music. The DVD for their new album, for instance, welcomes you to a sort of otherworldly, ungodly cable channel, peopled with zany characters both real and virtual.

One of the better tracks is “Bangzai Cooking,” featuring comic duo Gamarjobat. KEIZOmachine! plays a ludicrously stereotyped but fearsome chimpira gangster customer, while Gamarjobat are the hapless cooks and Juicy the unflappable waiter who has to serve him. What makes the video effective is not simply the slapstick humor of the skit, but the cleverness with which the actors’ gestures are seamlessly timed to the slap-happy beats and samples of the music.

It’s impossible to do Hifana justice in words, so I’ll leave it up to readers to find out for themselves exactly what the pair are about. Aside from Channel H, another way to sample their wares is to direct your browser to Apple’s new iTunes Music Store Japan, where the Hifana track “Wamono” was selected as a Single of the Week in August.

Hifana will be doing a “Channel H Zapping” tour of Japan this fall and can also be experienced at their occasional “Zamurai” events—a good place to start for cultural seekers looking to get in on Japan’s vaunted “gross national cool.”

Hifana play Unit on Oct 14. See concert listings for details.

Would you like to comment on this article? Send a letter to the editor at letters@metropolis.co.jp.