The Japanese bartender that taught me about hip-hop
So one night years ago, due to circumstances that I no longer remember, I found myself in an after-hours reggae bar in Tokyo.
At some point, I started talking to the owner of the bar, and it came up that I was into Japanese hip-hop. He asked if I’d heard of Flower Travellin’ Band. I told him no, because I hadn’t, and also because Flower Travellin’ Band sounded like the stupidest rap name I’d ever heard. I did not say the second part of that sentence aloud, but it was probably written on my face.
He shook his head at me, and told me I needed to understand my roots.
He disappeared into the back for a moment, and came back with a worn-out looking LP. It was Flower Travellin’ Band’s first record, Satori. He went over to the music booth, and cut the reggae music off. Everyone stopped dancing and looked at him. It was already four A.M., but there were a solid 15–20 people there, and they were enjoying the reggae vibes. He didn’t care. He put the record on the turntable:
Crackles. A high pitched tone. A tinkle of hi-hats. Then an eardrum-shredding shriek.
The man looked at me expectantly, and said three words:
“This is hip-hop.”
It wasn’t. It’s not. It’s psych rock.
We listened to the entire Side A of the record. He alternated between lecturing me on Japanese rock marginalia (example: the vocalist later went on to sing with the Wailers after Bob Marley died), and blissfully spacing out to solos he’d undoubtedly heard a million times, as if to show me — this is how you feel the music. He’d close his eyes often, even as he talked. People were leaving. I’m not sure if he noticed.
The dude completely ruined the vibe of the evening, and made a good dozen of his customers leave. All to give this kid he’d never met (and who barely understood what he was saying) a history lesson.
Months later, I finally understood what he was getting at with that three-word phrase. Satori was a landmark album in Japanese music history. If I was going to study hip-hop in this country, I needed to understand the mindset of the rebels that came before it. That record opened up a completely different world to me. I’m pretty sure he knew it would.
So shout out to the owner of Heartbeats Reggae Bar in Choufu, Tokyo. You probably don’t remember me, but you taught me a lot.