The Kobo Dropout: how an idol group helped me finally appreciate a hip-hop classic (amongst other things)

It’s amazing (SO AMAZING) how context and personal associations can influence–and change–one’s enjoyment of music everything.

Yo Nacchi, I'm happy for you and I'ma let you graduate, but Momochi's gonna be the greatest H!P member of all time!

Yo Nacchi, I’m happy for you and I’ma let you graduate, but Momochi’s gonna be the greatest H!P member of all time!

2004 was a key year on both sides of the Pacific as far as my music interests go. In America, hip-hop heads were witnessing the release of The College Dropout, the anticipated debut album from then-hot-producer-turned-hungry-yet-unproven-rapper Kanye West that would open to rave reviews, tons of radio airplay, and an auspicious start to what has become a long and notorious career in the mainstream spotlight. In Japan, Hello! Project had turned half of its H!P Kids roster into a new group called Berryz Kobo, who debuted with their own hip-hop flavored release in “Anata Nashi de wa Ikite Yukenai” to start off their own decade-long run at J-idol stardom.

Unfortunately circumstances would not allow me to enjoy either artist’s rookie year. Before I could even get around to acquiring a full copy of my own, the hype and airplay of West’s album inadvertently became the haunting soundtrack to a summer gone wrong, following me on a horribly disappointing Las Vegas roadtrip (during which my “friends” actively gave me a hard time and hindered my plans to explore the town) and tempering the feelings of unrequited love towards a girl I met online who had just moved into my city but ended up with someone else. And while I would later become a huge Kanye fan through his subsequent work, this first album would long be associated with that depressing summer of 2004–like seriously, it was pretty bad, it took years for me to get over those events. As for Berryz…well, I simply had no idea they existed, as any attempt to get me to become an idol fan at that time would likely have been scoffed at, me being “too cool” for such “soft sugary pop shit”.

Both problems, however, would be rectified by a series of interesting coincidences and converging events eight years later.

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The Art of Creative Critique (AKA why I remix)

Shameless plug time? Yes, shameless plug time.

Around early November last year I completed and posted this little thing:

A remix of C-ute’s “Kanashiki Heaven”, which I cleverly renamed “Kanashiki Amen” in honor of the main sample I used; the remix was borne out of a desire I’ve had since the beginning to put my own spin on that particular C-ute song as well as an excuse to utilize that legendary “Amen Brother” drum break in some kind of composition–and with the remixed title merging together the way it did, you could say it was a match made in…heaven.

The end result is a contrast to the original, as I chose to replace an intense high tempo rock sound with a somber mid-tempo funky groove beat that matches better with the song’s vocal flow and sad lyrical theme, and swap out busy layers of instrumentation for scratched rap quotes that punctuate the rhythms and make reference to the performers, their lyrics, and the new beat. It was quite fun working on this, especially with the stereo separation of each singer’s vocals, the samples used, and random experimentation leading to the subtle inclusion of a video game theme right after the second verse, but admittedly it was a bit frustrating as well, with inspiration sometimes hitting roadblocks along with the tedious nature of certain aspects of remixing (sample morphing, sound volume checks, etc.).

More than simply having fun with a song I like, however, this remix was also a statement. Taking advantage of my access to a means of music production, it was my way of saying “I’m impressed by what you’ve done, but here’s how I would’ve done it”. “Kanashiki Amen” was a personal celebration of the awesomeness that is “Kanashiki Heaven”…but at the same time it was also a critique of the song.

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Rocky Logic: heightism, gender expectations, and other crap normal people don’t care about

Hello! Project (and the Japanese idol scene in general) is kinda funny in that, amongst all the mindless pageantry and silly shenanigans the girls get into, it can still make a person think about how things work on a deeper level. Usually this is due to more newsworthy happenings, such as scandals or graduation/audition announcements or other milestones, but occasionally something as mundane as a normal release by a second-tier group can spark some interesting thought. Case in point: “Rock Erotic”, one half of the latest single by Berryz Kobo which features a music video that strives to live up to the song’s title. With corset dresses, lyrics that reference “magic fingers”, and even some of the members taking on male roles and wardrobes to accentuate the eroticness of the dance routines, many Berryz fans–and even some non-fans–were certainly abuzz with excitement.

Me being me, however, I couldn’t help but obsess over the video for a bit of an unexpected reason: particularly focusing on how the male roles just so happened to get assigned to the taller members of the group…which leads to the first edition of a new segment I like to call J-Triumf needlessly overanalyzes and misinterprets a music video!

(Disclaimer: the following commentary does not guarantee any particular level of needlessness, overanalysis, or misinterpretation; your mileage may vary)

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Berryz Sisqo-bo: return of Return of Dragon?

Now that introductions are out of the way, it’s time to get into the full swing of things. This week marks the release of Berryz Kobo’s ninth official album, Berryz Mansion 9 Kai, and to commemorate this occasion, I’m actually gonna rewind to last year for a bit in order to instead take an interesting look at their eighth album, Ai no Album 8!

I purchased this album while attending the group’s second US appearance in New Jersey last June, and, still high off that whole experience, I found myself thoroughly enjoying the album from start to finish upon listening to it after I got home. The three singles from 2011 that I merely glanced over the first time became a joy to listen to this time around, while the new songs for the album served as the soundtrack for reminiscing over my adventures on the east coast. Listening to the whole thing would forever be associated with those fun times–to this day I can’t help but chant nonsense gibberish to the tune of C-ute’s “Shiawase no Tochuu” whenever I hear “Because Happiness”, just as we did during the concert.

But there was something oddly familiar about this album. Noticing that the last track of the CD was a soft piano-driven ballad, I took a closer inspection at the structure of the track order and the songs themselves and realized that Ai no Album 8 was eerily similar to an album I purchased 11 years prior that also was acquired in the month of June and became associated with fond memories: Return of Dragon by Dru Hill frontman Sisqo!

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