Japan's Hip-hop scene is rather informal and smaller in scale compared to other genres, particularly with regard to corporate backing, but it is still commercially successful. If you want to check out which groups are worth your time, you should start with these:
Formed in 1989, the three-piece rap group Rhymester is one of the oldest hip hop acts in Japan. The group consists of MC Utamaru and DJs Mummy-D and DJ-Jin. They are also associated with various acts, including rock musicians such as Kiyoshiro Imawano, allowing them to gain fans even outside of the hip hop scene.
- Still Changing – a groovy ditty with rap verses and an infectious hook for a chorus. The upbeat rhythm carries the fast rapping very well, making for a song that’s very easy to bop your shoulders to.
- This Y’all, That Y’all – another upbeat song that features rap verses and a singable chorus. This time, the chorus is even more melodic due to the presence of guest artist Super Butter Dog.
#2. Dragon Ash
Founded in 1996, Dragon Ash consists of Kenji “KJ” Furuya, Makoto Sakurai, Tetsuya “DJ Bots” Sato, Hiroki Sugiyama, Atsushi Takahashi, and Masaki “DRI-V” Chiba. The group is one of the first Japanese groups to popularize Hip Hop in Japan, but they are mostly categorized under rap rock due to the metal and punk influences in their songs.
- Lily – a slow, layered affair with quiet interludes, Lily is a radio-friendly ditty that still contains enough overdriven guitar parts and cymbal crashes to justify Dragon Ash’s designation as a rap rock group. This is more of an anthem rock than Dragon Ash’s usual fare, but it deserves a listen because it shows their most radio-friendly side.
- The Show Must Go On – hard punk rock vocals carried by equally abrasive guitars, melodic refrain, subdued but still noticeable disc scratches, and a very danceable beat make for a strange yet infectious beast of a song.
#3. Tha Blue Herb
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Tha Blue Herb is a three piece alt-hip hop group from Sapporo, Hokkaido. The trio originally formed in 1997, and consists of MC Ill-Bosstino, producer/DJ O.N.O., and live DJ DJ Dye. The group is popular in the Japanese hip hop scene, but each individual member also has a following on their solo works, notably Ill-Bosstino who has worked with other popular acts such as DJ Krush and Audio Active.
- Prayers – if you like rap verses riding on slow beats and piano music, this song fits the bill completely. Works well as background music for sentimental videos (in fact, the music video itself gives off the same feeling.)
- Road to the Underground – the song starts out a little bit quiet, but immediately segues into Ill Bostino’s verses while riding a drum beat. The beat is slightly syncopated, so it doesn’t lend itself well to random shoulder bopping, but it’s definitely a catchy hip hop tune.
M-Flo was originally a 3-piece hip hop group consisting of DJ and producer DJ Taku Takahashi, MC Verbal, and singer Lisa but the group was reduced to a duo when Lisa left the group in 2002. Instead of finding a replacement, M-Flo decided to start the M-Flo Loves… project, which has them supporting different vocalists over three albums, including popular femaleartists such as Koda Kumi, Bonnie Pink, and BoA.
- Just Be – any new m-flo user should check out at least one song from their days when LiSA was still part of the group, and Come Back to Me is the perfect candidate. It’s a slow groove that highlights both LiSA’s beautiful vocals and Verbal’s exceptional mic skills.
- The Love Bug – this song sounds more kPop than hip-hop or techno (the two genres that m-Flo are masters of), and for good reason. The track features the Korean international popstar BoA on vocals, as part of their mFlo Loves… project. The song proves m-Flo’s ability to adapt to different styles.
#5. Rip Slyme
RIP SLYME is a hip hop group that consists of MCs Ryo-Z, Ilmari, Pes & Su, and their DJ, Fumiya. The group cites old school hip hop as their primary influences, including notable western acts such as the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy.
- One – an upbeat hip-hop song, one that’s a good addition to your car playlist during long boring drives. It also has a little bit of English lyrics so it’s easy to get into even if you’re a non-Japanese speaker (assuming that you’re not turned off by engrish.)
- Joint – another song with engrish lyrics. A little bit faster than your usual radio friendly hip-hop, featuring fast, syncopated drumbeats and midtempo rap verses, making it a fun party song that everyone can rap along to.
#6. King Giddra
Formed in 1993, King Giddra is one of the first few groups that frontlined the Japanese hip hop scene during the early 90s. Named after the 3-headed monster from Godzilla, the group consists of MCs K DUB SHINE, ZEEBRA, and DJ Oasis.
- Unstoppable – the title is very apt. The rough hewn vocals and the thumping beats make this song an ideal soundtrack for an action film (or a reality show about policemen, as the music video demonstrates.)
- Star Tanjou – a slower affair that features a contrast between acoustic guitars and drum machine. You might not understand what they’re rapping about, but this song will give you the feels.
#7. Home Made Kazoku
Home Made Kazoku (translates to “Family”) is a three piece hip hop group that was originally formed in 1996 and underwent a series of lineup changes, until they eventually settled on a lineup that consists of MCs Micro, Kuro, and DJ U-Ichi. The group is known for upbeat and singable hip hop songs.
- Shooting Star – a very upbeat hiphop song that really proves why Home Made Kazoku is considered by fans as “feelgood hiphop.” The song features their trademark fast verses and radio-friendly melodic hooks.
- Kimiga Itakara – another upbeat song, but this time there is more focus on melody, although there are still portions of the song devoted to rapping.
Originally founded in 2002, the hip hop group Lead consists of Hiroki Nakadoi, Shinya Taniuchi, and Akira Agimoto, who all met each other while attending Osaka’s Caless Vocal and Dance School. They soon added a fourth member, Keita Furuya, but eventually lost Hiroki Nakadoi, bringing their roster back to three.
- Manatsu no Magic – if this reminds you of the Backstreet Boys, keep in mind that it’s Lead’s first single, and was released in 2002. The song and the music video does make them look like a boyband, but make no mistake about it. There are parts of the song that show their rapping skills.
- Speed Star – this comes a little bit later in their career so it’s more polished. Still a little more poppy than the average hip-hop song, but still contains enough rapping and the right kind of beats to justify being called a hip hop song.
#9. Scha Dara Parr
Commonly referred to by the acronym SDP, Scha Dara Parr is a three-piece hip hop group that was part of the first wave of hip hop groups to become popular in Japan. They originally formed in 1988 and debuted in 1990. The group consists of MCs Bose and Ani, along with DJ Shinco.
- Urban Grammar – this song came out in 1998, and it really sounds like it. The steady drumbeats and the modulated rap verses make it sound like a ~globe song minus a female vocalist.
- Game Boys – a little bit more contemporary, this song shows why SDP is frequently likened to the Beastie Boys, as they have similar musical stylings.
Formed in 1994, the rap group Shakkazombie consists of MC Osumi, Tsutchie, and MC Hide-Bowie. The group is known for kickstarting the careers of many artists, usually through collaboration with the up and comers.
- Shakkattack – what better song to introduce the band than the very song that bears their name. This is a midtempo hip hop song punctuated by the somewhat slow yet forceful rap verses.
- Recover the Sky – this song might be familiar to anime fans because it was featured on an episode of the popular anime Cowboy Bebop. The episode was only shown once so the track wasn’t included on the anime’s soundtrack. The song features piano and drum machine as the background, while the MCs ride it with their trademark rapping.