February was a short month; it passed us too soon, and so did Nujabes. Nujabes, in some hip-hop circles, was the J-Dilla of Japan. Aside from their music production similarities, they were both born on the 7th of February; and they both died in the month of February (Nujabes left us four years after J-Dilla), and fans of both take these coincidences quite seriously—the infatuation is close to spiritual connection permeating throughout the international hip-hop scene.
With that said, we make the connection just for the sake of comparison. This isn’t a competition.
Admirers consider Nujabes, the prolific Japanese producer whose name is an anagram of his birth name June Seba, as one of the kings of nostalgic, neo-jazz-hop.
His mood-inducing instrumentals and preference for collaborating with thought-provoking underground rappers (Substantial, Cise Starr, and Shing02) transport listeners back to the 90’s, hip-hop’s golden age. Nujabes’ music was a perfect addition to Samurai Champloo, the popular anime that combines a traditional Japanese setting with modern Hip-Hop culture.
He skillfully plucked the best Jazz sounds the 1920’s-1960’s had to offer and, like a true music connoisseur, gave them new life when he merged hip-hop traditional drums and snares.
The rather reclusive producer also owned two record shops in Japan: “Guiness Records” and “Tribe,” where he’d stock his favorite music (and apparently kept low stocks of songs he didn’t like, such as Jay-Z’s Hard Knock Life).
I’ve compiled, in my opinion, ten of the must-hear songs by Nujabes:
1. “BattleCry” ft. Shing02 – “BattleCry” is the song that sets the tone for Samauri Champloo’s first episode “Tempestuous Temperament”. There is a no better introduction to the series’ main characters, Mugen And Shin- the two maintain a chilly calm that borders on scary nonchalance in the face of danger. “BattleCry” embodies this perfectly-while Shing02’s flow barrels through with the force reminiscent of a swift cut from a samurai sword, Nujabes’ beat remains smooth and mellow, backed by rippling piano keys.
2. “Luv (Sic) pt.3” ft. Shing02- The third part of an intricate hexalogy dedicated to the exhilarating ups and despairing lows love can put a person through, Shing02 reminisces on a love lost with lines like “The room that caved in my heart is exactly the same as you left it.” And while Nujabes’ love of piano samples and orchestral jazzy sounds may make you forget, he reminds you that at his core he is Hip-Hop, beginning “Luv (Sic) pt. 3” with a looping turntable scratch and mic checks over an artful sampling of Nana Caymmi’s melodic piano symphony “Tens”.
3. “Feather” ft. Cise Starr & Akin – This Nujabes production is ethereal and gravity-defying enough to make you believe Cise Starr as he raps “Drifting away like a feather in air, Letting my words take me away from the hurt and despair”. Nujbaes’ calming piano sample practically floats over low base drums as Cise Star & Akin trade enlightening bars, creating a song both mediative and thought-provoking that is sure to make you feel weightless.
4. “Tsurugi No Mai”- Nujabes begins with his genius sampling of hard-bop and soul-jazz organist Jimmy McGriff’s song “Where it’s At.” The feverish and energetic 1960’s jazz single interlopes in and out of a percussive hip-hop beat, creating a sound both nostalgic and modern. Nujabes rearranges the funky jazz song with sophistication- a technique that warrants the comparisons to sound architect J-Dilla. Like Dilla, Nujabes’ ability to rearrange carefully orchestrated music in an uncontrived manner display what the producer did best-marry Jazz and Hip-Hop seamlessly.
5. “Think Different” ft. Substantial- The 8th track on Nujabes’ first solo album “Metaphorical Music” finds Maryland born rapper Substantial comparing his preference for deeper lyrical prowess over mainstream rappers’ more vapid subject matter. Although he is reluctant to give negative critique to other rappers, spitting “I aint better than you, I just think different,” it is an unmistaken underhanded snub at mainstream Hip-Hop. Nujabes creates the perfect soundscape for this snub, paring an opulent, orchestral, “Vivre Pour Vivre (Live For Life)” by Francis Lai with recurring heavy base and kick drums.
6. “Lady Brown” begins with an intricate guitar solo over heavy beats- a sample compliments of Brazilian guitarist Luiz Floriana Bonfa’s “Shade Of The Mango Tree”. However, once Cise spits his verse, the song blooms into a rich melodic experience that carries his poetic ode to his woman with ease.
7. “Who’s Theme” ft. MINMI-While much of Nujabes’ music revolves around upbeat jazzy tempos, “Who’s Theme” slows things down to a neo-soul tempo reminiscent of the days when artists like D’Angelo and Jill Scott made their mark. And while Japan’s first Soca artist MINMI’s vocals are usually paired with more tropical sounds, she proves her versatility with her soulful vocals. The mournful crooning in the background of “Who’s Theme” is both eerie and passionate, stirring up the wistful emotions appropriate for a love song.
8. “Aruarian Dance”- “Aruarian Dance” eases into a happier upbeat tempo, perfectly blended with an elegant sample of 1930’s jazz single “The Lamp Is Low”. Nujabes’ skillfully strips the song down and rearranges the original structure throughout the song. Alone “The Lamp Is Low” is soothing enough to put you to sleep, but paired with continuous drums, “Aruarian Dance” becomes an oasis of sound that envelopes you in a serene euphoric calm that is easy to vibe to.
9. “Counting Stars”- Expertly adding riffs and snares over a sample of Jose Felicianos’ “Affirmation,” Nujabes once again blends traditional hip-hop sounds with a classic jazz vibe. With a piano flittering in and out of an incessant snare drum, the select nuances can be difficult to catch upon first listen and it is this element that makes Nujabes’ beats a masterpiece. “Counting Stars” is a multi-layered experience- you can pick the song apart numerous times and still find something you didn’t hear upon first listen.
10. “Latitude” ft. Five Deeze -Turntable scratching is for basement parties and piano melodies are for concert halls, stereotypically speaking. And although the two sounds don’t seem compatible, Nujabes constantly defies unspoken rules in a way that works for him. The subtle rhythmic scratching throughout “Latitude”, accented with a delicate piano sample create a well-rounded and complex amalgam of sound. Five Deeze’s voice provides the song with necessary grit, making this song impossible not to bop your head to.