Overshadowed. I guess that’s the way Nujabes will always be looked at, not just in his life, but also in his death; the date of his death coming at around the same time as fellow jazz-rap pioneer G.U.R.U.’s heart attack, and the announcement coming on the same day as the death of the more famous Alex Chilton.
I can’t help but feel that a man unlucky enough to not be American, and thus finding himself entirely ignored by hip-hop in general, deserved a little bit more luck here. There really is no way to say this without sounding like a collossal prick, but Alex Chilton’s death was just a shame and nothing more – he was a nice man, and it’s sad that he died, but he’d peaked as an artist decades ago. Nujabes, by comparison, probably wasn’t due to peak for another few years – his work had just been getting better and better as time went on (2006’s Modal Soul being one of the best hip-hop records of the last decade). The man was 36, for Christ’s sake. There were plenty of people in the Western world that thought any hopes of the vibrant Japanese hip-hop breaking out internationally rested with him; that he would be the one that followed DJ Krush (no megastar himself) into having a sizeable international following. Who knows how important he might have been?
And yet, the likelihood is that he’d always have been a cult figure. He simply didn’t look, feel, or sound like a star; his music was far too easy-going and far too blissed-out to really sit with the average, ultra-serious American rap fan, and the association with animé series Samurai Champloo (for which Nujabes contributed several tracks) hardly helped.
I won’t lie to you; I’d never heard of Samurai Champloo until I’d heard of Nujabes. I’ve never seen it and I’ve never even heard anybody talk about it, other than when they’ve done so in conjunction with Nujabes (or Fat Jon, with whom Nujabes collaborated). For all I know it’s the coolest show on Earth; but the reality is that most people are going to see the word ‘anime’ and run a mile. Yet despite my lack of interest in the show that he’s most famous for, I know and love his music. I know I’m not the only one, either; Nujabes is a real word-of-mouth artist, a man who built up a small but devoted fanbase in a country 6000 miles away from his own, without any promotion or any high-profile associations. You can see that just by searching YouTube for his name and clicking around; aside from still images, the only real videos of his are fan-made mash-ups with the likes of 2pac and Nac (the mash-up with Jay-Z’s “Pray” is worth checking out, incidentally). His music isn’t on Spotify, either, not is it streamable or even previewable on Last.fm. This is an artist that nobody thought was worth promoting; and yet there’s been an outpouring of grief all the same, just because his fans kept on forcing his music on other people (how many of these people do you think are Japanese?)
With any luck, that’s where his influence will be felt. Japanese hip-hop might be successful within its own country, but for international eyes looking in, it’s a mess – the blackfaced imitations of Africans that Europe and America outlawed decades ago still run rife there, while far too many of the biggest stars simply offer up carbon copies of U.S. acts without adding any of their own national or personal identity. Nujabes was different, though; his music was distinctly Japanese, and a world apart from American hip-hop – not just the Jay-Zs and Kanyes, but also the vast majority of underground acts. He certainly wasn’t the only one like that, and we shouldn’t forget that – but death has a funny way of thrusting people into the spotlight (case in point; who gave a fuck about Corey Haim before last week?). Jun Seba at least deserves this moment; for a wave of new fans, however few there may be, to go and discover some of the most blissful, feel-good music in hip-hop’s history – or in any genre.