Stepping Stones: The Self-Remixed Best
ideaki Ishii is Japan’s best-known exporter of hip-hop. Many outsiders perceive modern Japan to be a recycler or comical mis-interpreter of Western culture. The Tokyo artist, who became a DJ after seeing the classic hip-hop movie Wild Style, studied and mastered every stance and move he heard. He also dispelled the stereotypes of the cartoonish, Japanese appropriator by joining the ranks of producers like DJ Shadow, Cut Chemist, and Peanut Butter Wolf during the instrumental hip-hop renaissance of the mid-90’s.
The Krush sound typically captures the after-hours sensation of being alone on a dimly lit street and letting your mind’s confusion take hold. Ishii’s productions breathe by bathing murky beats in droning loops of hazy woodwind melodies, jazz basslines, and piano tones that quickly fade away like streetlights passing by a car window. “Kemuri” is one such example. It embodies the atmosphere of intoxication and dread by allowing a melancholic flute melody to paint a sky lit by orange factory light and carbon monoxide purple. In his recent remix of “Kemuri,” Krush thickened the beats and slashed away the tension through the laser-like precision of his turntable scratches. That moment is a highlight on Stepping Stones, his remixed collection of favorite tracks. The two-disc set is divided between “Lyricism” (collaborations with MCs) and “Soundscapes” (instrumental pieces).
Stepping Stones shows that Ishii seems to be more comfortable letting a MC or a guest musician take the fore. He knows best when to step behind the curtain. His remix of “Mosa” is the collection’s best moment, where he makes a piano sample drift like rainwater across a street while Japanese MC Kan delivers rhymes in a voice that’s aged by years of hustling and lecturing in the streets. Pianist Ken Shima’s notes brilliantly panic, scatter, and regain composure to Ishii’s Roland 808 beat in “Stormy Cloud,” while Roots drummer Questlove steadily treads to the gritty, neon-bathed noir of “Endless Railway.” The latter track has drizzling orchestrations that similarly seep and drift through the DJ Shadow collaboration, “Duality,” which shows how easily Ishii and Josh Davis’s works could be mistaken for each other. And then DJ Disk comes along and punches out Ishii in “Duck Chase”—a knife fight between Disk’s hummingbird-skittering scratches and Ishii’s collapsing beats that somehow figure into a late 80’s NES game.
As for Ishii’s productions for the MCs, he usually ends up doing busy work. He delivers a generic, thudding rhythm and a three-note keyboard riff on the Anticon Collective’s tale about “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh living in an America ruled by a Caesar. Of course, it wouldn’t be an Anticon joint without Passage and Sole dissing the “carbohydrate kings” with fanny packs and “Daisy-cutters strapping parachutes to Lunchables to land on the lap of the new batch of bargain hunters.” Elsewhere, Ishii’s choppy rhythms stifle and smother Company Flow’s pacing in “Vision of Art,” and Mos Def’s righteous stance in “Shinjiro.” His remixes of R&B; tunes “Danger of Love” and “Final Home” are simplistic trip-hop ballads that belong in an Urban Outfitters mall store soundsystem. Ishii is more successful when his fingerprints help fluidly narrate the rappers’ stories such as his wave-tossed, electro rumble that makes C.L. Smooth’s syllables bounce in “Only the Strong Survive,” and the grinding bassline that’s chewed well by Aesop Rock’s stressful rasp in “Kill Switch.” As Aesop puts it, “Welcome to sham city limits / Let your insects do the walking / Let your indent through the shredder / Let your instincts make it awkward.”
Stepping Stones’s main disappointment comes in the lack of solo tracks: it’s much more interesting to hear Krush dwelling alone in the musical grey area between East and West—between classical Japanese tradition and the rhythms of America’s inner-cities. It’s a place that he built and, for the most part, abandons on Stepping Stones. Krush might do well to remember the old adage: it’s not where you’re at…
Reviewed by: Cameron Macdonald
Reviewed on: 2006-09-12