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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 December 2003, 00:25 GMT
Japan grows its own hip-hop

By Yo Takatsuki
BBC, Tokyo

Think booming bass lines, punchy rap lyrics, baggy clothes, converted Cadillacs and big gold jewellery, and you might think you were on the streets of Los Angeles.

But this is Tokyo, where it has become increasingly difficult to avoid the music and fashion more closely associated with the American urban ghetto.

Hip-hop, which always enjoyed underground popularity in Tokyo's nightclubs, joined the mainstream when Japan's own, home-grown rap stars started producing hits.

Tokyo hip-hop shop
Hip-hop shops are packed with eager customers
Its profile has enjoyed such a surge that it can claim to be the music of choice for young Tokyoites who cram the streets of Shibuya, the city's epicentre for youth culture.

Guinness Records is just one of the many Shibuya record shops enjoying a boom in business.

At weekends the shop is packed with record-hunters out for the latest releases.

The store manager, Hideaki Tamura, cannot believe how popular Japanese hip-hop has become.

"Japanese hip-hop really exploded in the last two, three years. I never thought there would be a time when Japanese records could outsell American ones but it's happening," he said.

Mr Tamura believes the secret behind its success lies in Japanese hip-hop artists starting to do their own thing rather than copying their US counterparts.

"I think the secret behind the popularity is that Japanese hip-hop lyrics matured. Before they used to copy American gangster rap singing about guns and violence, which there isn't too much of in Japan," he said.

Hip-hop fans in Tokyo
Some are more interested in the clothes than the music

"Now they've realised it strikes more of a chord with listeners singing about reality. A lot of it is peaceful, about everyday life - poetic even. I think people started to relate to what was being sung. I don't think it will be long before a Japanese hip-hop artist becomes famous around the world," he said.

The popularity of the music is also affecting the way Tokyo's youth are dressing.

Shibuya's streets are lined with immaculately dressed boys and girls looking just like their favourite hip-hop stars. Big baggy clothes and baseball caps are definitely in vogue.

Asumi Sato, a 22-year-old student living in Tokyo, has only recently caught the hip-hop bug.

"Everyone in Tokyo seems to be into hip-hop now. But it's not just the music. I think many people love the fashion side of it," she said.

"The clothes look good on boys and cute on girls. All my friends dress in a hip-hop style."

There are more than 300 shops selling hip-hop clothes in central Tokyo alone. Down the road from Shibuya is Harajuku where a new store called Kraft has just opened. Keisuke Iwamoto, who works in the shop, said business had been good since opening.

"This shop specialises in imported clothes from America - all big and baggy. We've enjoyed good business since opening in the summer," he said.

"The best-sellers have been stuff with military style camouflage designs. We have a wide range of clientele and I don't think that everyone is in to the music, but they like the fashion. But the fact that there are so many good Japanese hip-hop artists around now have definitely fuelled the craze," he said.

Hip Hop is a big part of our pop music. Young children and even my grandparents like it. I don't think it's going to just go away
Asumi Sato, fan

But Tokyo's youth are notoriously fickle when it comes to fashion and music. Writer Carlo Niederberger believes it is only a matter of time before the next big thing comes around.

"It's true that hip-hop is very popular. It's definitely fashion based, a lot of kids in their teens have all the clothes and the looks to go with the music. So when the fashion dies out so will the music too," he said.

"The nature of society in Japan is such that if a fad starts it booms, it becomes very big and one day it dies, very quickly.

"I think the music industry will follow the market and where the money is. If hip-hop and black culture decreases in popularity, which it may well do, the music industry will take action," Mr Niederberger said.

But unlike most fads before it, Japanese hip-hop is not just staying on the streets, but is making its way into the nation's homes.

This suggests that it is no longer music and fashion for just the cool urban types, but that this trend could beat the odds and stay around a little longer.

"Hip-hop is a big part of our pop music. Young children and even my grandparents like it. I don't think it's going to just go away," said Asumi Sato.

Listen to Japanese hip-hop on Yo Takatsuki's report

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