I remember when he died. Or rather, when it was published on his blog for Hydeout Productions that he had passed away a month earlier in a car crash in Shibuya. I’m finding it difficult now to type out exactly what kind of emotions it drew from me. For lack of a better label, it was a certain kind of regret. For not having acknowledged before just how unique, yet similar to so many of us he was. I think I took him for granted. I would have liked to tell him thank you, and I’m sorry for not celebrating his work more while he was still with us.
I’ll try not to belabour it, but Nujabes held a place for me unlike other artists. I first heard of him while sitting shotgun in a car driving in Tokyo, listening to a mix made by my friend Atsu-one. My understanding at the time was that he was a Japanese producer who used a lot of piano samples, and whom my friends respected a lot. The only other Japanese hip hop artist who garnered that level of respect from them was DJ Krush, so this meant a lot. But Nujabes was different, he had his own style. Subtle, understated, a refined grace. His songs were simple and showed respect to basic elements and instruments by letting their natural beauty shine through rather than overproducing them. To put it another way: he was Japanese. Wabisabi, if you’re unfamiliar, is a classic Japanese aesthetic. Picture geishas and tea ceremonies, restrained, deliberate, meditative, peaceful. I think my friends connected with and appreciated how well Nujabes was able to weave Japanese culture into hip hop, and really make it his own. Their own. They often discussed with each other the dim future of Japanese identity in the face of globalization, and he might have represented to them a hope for how they could find a place in the world and still be themselves, be Japanese.
His music had an influence on our values, our outlook on culture, and also our dance style. Our crew, Ill Concvd, started out in Tokyo battling hard as any group of young bboys would. But as we grew older, Nujabes’ music showed us how we could mature and still be ourselves, that we aren’t tied to any bboy battle mentality. And so our style evolved, into a more refined and introspective bboy style, which I realize might be hard to imagine. We grew to value dance sessions on the beach with drinks and a small radio over winning a competition at a night club. Spontaneous expressions of hip hop while pulled over on the side of the road in the middle of the night with the radio playing and us spinning on the concrete; over subjective judges, bracketed competitions, and prize money. The two values are not mutually exclusive, and I’d like to think now I can enjoy both these sides of the dance. But without my experience with my crew over there and Nujabes’ work, I might not have found the balance between the two that brings me peace and joy bboying.
We’d listen to Hydeout Productions (Nujabes’ record label) routinely at practice. We had our favorite tracks, I remember a frequent one was Don’t Even Try It featuring Funky DL. Another was Mystline. But my personal favorite, the one that for some reason immediately floods my mind with memories of my 2 years in Japan, is a 16 beat sample looped for one minute and fifty one seconds, called Decade. It’s nostalgic; melancholic, but also suggesting some good times that were had. And amongst all the good and bad experiences, the seemingly random events gather to create meaning, judged neither positive or negative. They just are, and in their existence there’s beauty.
Listening to it now I can remember so many moments on the street in Shibuya, in Yoyogi, in Shinjuku, sitting on the sidewalk next to our small radio at night while businessmen walked by on their way home after a long day of toiling for the company. Paper cartons of tea kept us cool in the summer and canned coffee warm in the winter at those pavement practice spots that all the dancers knew about. Warm, thick raindrops falling in the rainy season, the overhang from the office buliding keeping our floor dry. The bone-chilling wind in the winter that provided another way in which dancing gave us life: heat. So many moons, partially obscured by clouds and by the trees in the park across the street from our spot at the bottom of Cerulian Tower. Homeless people getting in arguments with parking garage attendants. Trips to the convenience store for batteries, and more tea. Complaints about our jobs. Problems with girlfriends. Family. The thought never crossed our mind what we were practicing for. In those days the practice was the end in itself. Thank you Nujabes, for giving those moments a soundtrack, so that I can listen now and remember.
This is a picture of my friend David and I at a record store in Shibuya called Tribe, that was owned by Nujabes. It was a very humble shop, in an alley behind a temple, up a flight of stairs, with no sign. I remember climbing the stairs and noticing the tiles on the roof of the temple, and how fragile they were.
After I learned that he had passed away, I listened to his music for two or three days straight. And songs that I used to skip over, that weren’t exactly my favorites, I gave another chance. Listening to them again with a new perspective, I genuinely enjoyed them and discovered a newfound appreciation for them. It was a happy realization - but also regretful that I hadn’t noticed how good they were before. I felt like it was a waste to have only fully enjoyed his work after he had already passed. It inspired me to take a look at my life and see what else I wasn’t giving its full respect, wasn’t enjoying as thoroughly as I could. Among the things I found, I remember deciding to tell David how much I enjoyed his mixes. I told him which parts were my favorites, that they were really unique and special to me, and that I appreciate him sharing them with me. It’s hard, but I hope I can always remember to tell everyone exactly how great I think they are. You never know when you might lose the opportunity.
On Thursday Feb. 17th there was an event called Peaceland, a tribute to Nujabes. Among the artists who presented the show were Substantial, Pase Rock, and Apani, who had all collaborated with Nujabes on projects. I’d like to thank them and all who were involved in the show for a beautiful event. Especially Substantial who has in my opinion represented PG County and the DMV well, as an artist and from what I’ve observed briefly meeting him in person. I along with some OnBeat fellows Jay, Phannarith, Santi, and Chinge came out and enjoyed taking an evening to celebrate Nujabes’ life and work along with other local fans. The DJ played his tracks, the MCs performed his songs, and stories were shared about what kind of person he was. I was especially touched when halfway through an acapella of one of the songs he had written with Nujabes, Substantial stopped, hesitated, tried to continue but could only muster the question “You know how sometimes you can feel someone’s presence even when they’re not there?” Thank you for that courage, I’m glad I was able to be there for that moment.
Writing this out has helped me sort through some thoughts. I hope that it was in some way meaningful to those who read it. Thanks for taking the time.
May he rest in peace. ご冥福をお祈りいたします。