Slowly, although probably a good deal more slowly than I’d like, a good deal of genuinely excellent Japanese popular music is making headway outside of Japan. This doesn’t just include “J-prefix” (i.e., J-rock, J-pop) talents like T.M. Revolution and Puffy AmiYumi, but folks just outside the mainstream who nevertheless have terrific cult appeal that could conceivably spread to other countries. This also includes people spread on the fringes — everyone Keiji Haino to Kazuki Tomokawa, definitely not what you’d call “commercial” artists but people unquestionably possessed of vision and talent and who deserve to spread it far and wide.
Closer to the center, though, is a whole galaxy of artists riding just below the waterline: people whose talents and inclinations would seem to make them shoo-ins for broader acceptance, but for whatever reason haven’t yet had a spotlight shone on them. DJ Krush is one among those many, and that’s a shame: he makes music that is so polished, assured and compelling that he doesn’t deserve to just be called a DJ, or a hip-hop artist, or even a-musician-from-Japan. One of his few brief moments in the public eye here in the West was actually how I found out about him in the first place: his track “Dig This Vibe”, from the Blade soundtrack, was one of the very best things on that whole record. I followed up on him and found he had a whole slew of recordings that were just as good, if not better, and which deserve to be heard outside of the circles of people who’d normally seek them out.
The Message at the Depth, from 2003, is probably the single best full-length album by DJ Krush I’ve heard so far (although I confess, still haven’t cracked the shrinkwrap on his 2004 release Jaku yet). Of all the tracks on it, only one or two don’t really sit well with me, but the rest are magnificent — it’s like watching the boiling underside of storm clouds massing overhead, and then feeling the thunder hit you in the gut. The instrumentals are by far my favorite parts of the record, but only because I have a prejudice against putting lyrics to music that already has great power: in a way, the lyrics don’t tell us anything we don’t already know. To that end, my favorite track that actually does have lyrics, “Toki no Tabi (Journey of Time)” is entirely in Japanese — the alien-ness of the language removes it from any specific meaning.
To that end, it’s when the album switches to English that is actually weakens a bit. “Song for John Walker” (with Anticon) — about a certain J.W. Lindh who was tried as an enemy combatant — isn’t a bad song, but it’s so concrete and specific that it seems out of phase with the brooding dreaminess of many of the other cuts. Ditto “What About Tomorrow” (with Ras Abijah) by itself an above-average reggae tune, although again in the context of the rest of the record it seems slightly out of place. Then again, Krush’s touch is something you can sense in every tune here, and if you’re attuned to it (it stands out all the more on repeat listens), it provides the thematic binder for the record that might not have been there in the music itself.
Krush picks excellent collaborators, too: on this record alone he’s joined by reggae masters Sly and Robbie Shakespeare (“But the World Moves On”, one of the best cuts on the whole disc), the Antipop Consortium (the very brooding “Supreme Team”), and many others. They all give in their own measure, but it’s always clear that they’re working in service of Krush and his sensibilities — which, if I haven’t made that clear yet, are definitely worth full price.amazon-alt=41J9KNH2XYL