DJ Krush – Jaku

DJ Krush
Jaku

Hip-hop is most often branded as an urban, American phenomenon. It was birthed from the grimy womb of New York and was quickly adopted by West Coast cities like Los Angeles. Only recently have so-called “secondary” Midwestern cities experienced their fair share of success, and even so, Chicago and St. Louis aren’t that different from New York and LA. The imagery associated with hip-hop includes the brick of urban edifices, the crumbling concrete of sidewalks, and the cold metal of 9mm pistols. One of the biggest issues in hip-hop these days is its spread to the suburbs; indie-hoppers like Sage Francis, Cex, and the Anticon crew have expanded the reach of the genre into picket-fenced houses and green front yards. It’s clear that though hip-hop is still labeled as an urban, black phenomenon, it’s going through an identity crisis.

In other words, the last thing genre purists need is an import from Japan, of all places, to make his mark on hip-hop. Such purists can put away their argument of tainting hip-hop’s roots aside; Krush has been making beats since the 1980s – right around the time rap was incubating in the NYC streets. Now 41 years old, Krush has released his infinitieth album, Jaku, and his style is still fresh. The album’s press, trying desperately to sound as indie-cred-underground-hip-hop-culture as possible, claims that Krush’s music “turns its back on whack commercialism” and sees things from an “art-funk” angle. I’ll let you try to decipher the real meaning of such buzz-words.

Jaku starts off with “Still Island,” a tense statement of Krush’s intentions. Skipping percussion and sparse use of bass create the foundation, over which Japanese shakuhachi, or wooden flutes, soar at will. “Still Island” is a fine mood-setting piece for the rest of the album, but it stays well past its welcome; not much changes throughout the course of the song, and the almost non-melodious shakuhach-ery is not enough to carry it past the five-minute mark. “Road to Nowhere” features an infectious lumbering bass line over a crisp tambourine, but again, there is not much development in the song’s execution. The relatively static nature of some of Krush’s songs presents itself as a problem throughout the album; though almost everything Krush does is interesting at first, even the finest of beats can lose a listener’s interest after five minutes of repetition almost without variation.

On some tracks, however, Krush is able to change things up enough to really captivate the listener. “The Beginning” is cinematic in scope; windblown flutes garnish dramatic cymbals and an insistent bass line. The song provokes images of the Japanese countryside, sparsely populated by small, paper-walled houses. “Transition” features cut-up strings over busy percussion and is held effectively under two minutes in length. “Stormy Cloud” brings in jazzy piano over an ominous bass to create a tension not only in the instruments composing the song but also the cultures informing it. Though it approaches six minutes in length, “Stormy Cloud” doesn’t fall into the rut that carries many of Krush’s songs into oblivion.

On two tracks, DJ Krush brings in Def Jux MCs to rap over his beats. “Nosferatu” is some of Mr. Lif’s finest work to date; he tones down his delivery and delivers an excellent hook, proclaiming himself to be the “black Nosferatu.” “Killswitch” features Aesop Rock, who delivers a good, if unremarkable, performance. On both tracks, Krush provides more conventional beats sans traditional Japanese instrumentation. In fact, both beats would belong comfortably on a number of Def Jux releases.

Like many instrumental hip-hop albums, Jaku suffers not from a lack of ideas but from an inability to sufficiently expound on its ideas. If DJ Krush wants to make a truly legendary album, he needs to learn that an idea extended beyond its welcome, no matter how great it seems initially, is almost as bad as a poor idea to begin with. There is nothing more disappointing than listening to a song that changes your perspective on music, only to feel the excitement wear away with every passing minute spent listening to the same thing over and over. Many of Krush’s songs do break the mold, but a number of Jaku’s tracks fail to escape the doldrums of monotony. Jaku is a worthwhile album because of its freshness and innovation, but listening to the entire thing in one sitting is a rather daunting proposition. In the end, DJ Krush is the logical extension of Wu-Tang’s xenophilic love of Japan, and anyone interested in another culture’s take on a distinctly American (until now?) phenomenon should check this out.