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Hip-Hop Loves Anime (And We’ve Got The Receipts)

A deeper look at the relationship between Japanese animation and American hip-hop

Utsav Kotrial Aug 23, 2018

Afro Samurai from Studio Gonzo K.K.

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Anime and hip-hop are a match made in heaven. Sounds baffling, doesn’t it? Recently, after several public figures like actor Michael B. Jordan and Kim Kardashian expressed their obsession with anime, a million think pieces have been published trying to figure it out. A lot of theories about hip-hop and anime’s convergence are being thrown around, and many of them make perfect sense. Although anime is still heavily stigmatized for being ”˜immature,’ a major chunk of its fans are adults. Hip-hop is stigmatized too, mainly for being too aggressive or flashy, and sometimes this stigma is a veil for harmful racial stereotypes. However, the two art forms keep growing in influence and have a relationship that’s getting stronger by the year.

Both hip-hop and anime feature escapism, express simple emotions and behaviour in extreme ways, and often embody a ”˜me against the world’ attitude. Both critique forms of oppression in modern society, and reflect its violence back to us. Both attempt to balance their nihilism with passion. Anime protagonists also represent undying optimism. Rapper RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan, who produced the Afro Samurai soundtrack, wrote in his 2009 philosophical book The Tao of Wu that anime “represents the journey of the black man in America.”

Spirited Away @jheneaiko

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There are countless instances of rappers being inspired by the aesthetics of anime and referencing characters. The sample-friendly soundtracks of popular anime have inspired many a struggling Soundcloud artist to rap over them. YouTube is brimming with stylised video edits of rap songs set to action anime like Naruto, the fast-paced, fluid animation serves as a perfect companion to the angry, emotional energy of trap beats and teen angst. Other videos with slower songs pair them with serene, glittering anime landscapes. The relationship goes both ways, with shows like Afro Samurai, Samurai Champloo and Devilman Crybaby featuring soundtracks, stories and characters inspired by the American hip-hop scene. 

Post 2010, anime began to infiltrate the mainstream. Partially due to the underground rapper Lil B, whose early work encouraged new artists to openly express their love for it. For example, Ugly God, Skee Mask, and Famous Dexter are now embraced globally. Anime films/series like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Akira are considered cult classics in the West, and streetwear brands like Supreme have made them a part of hype beast fashion.

AKIRA/Supreme Fall 2017 Collection

Major artists like Drake, Kanye West, Snoop Dogg, J Cole, etc. are also equally invested, dropping hints on their songs, artwork and social media. This year, San Diego Comic Con even had a brilliant panel on ”˜Bridging Anime and Hip-Hop,’ moderated by pop culture journalist Victoria Johnson and hip-hop beat maker Marcus Wolfe.

In honor of this loving union, here’s a list of five radical anime references in hip-hop.

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“Daytona 500” – Ghostface Killah

This Ghostface Killah video from 1996 is one the earliest instances of an anime music video, and remains popular to this day. It’s a fast and furious track set to clips of the classic 1960’s anime Speed Racer. The show’s name is self-explanatory, it’s about automobile racing, and it complements the music in a way that opened a lot of eyes to the potential of anime in music. The show’s cult status even got it a slick, big-budget Hollywood adaptation in 2008.

“Stronger”, Kanye West

Kanye West’s “Stronger” came out when his string of commercial and critical successes turned him into a formidable foe for the rest of hip hop. It’s only fitting then, that the video is almost a shot-for-shot remake of select sequences from the endlessly influential 80’s anime, AKIRA. AKIRA is a brutal cyberpunk film set in Neo-Tokyo, a brightly-lit post-nuclear Tokyo, torn apart by corruption and poverty.

The anti-hero Tetsuo becomes increasingly powerful, and his psychic abilities almost turn him into a villain. Shots of Kanye at the hospital, being scanned and glowing with a mysterious energy show that he relates to this iconic character. Although the video makes very little sense of the events, it’s a treat for fans of classic Japanese animation.

“Pink Matter”, Frank Ocean

Dragon Ball Z is the number one anime cited by rappers, and everyone seems to have at muttered at least one reference to it on a verse somewhere. Danny Brown talks about, “smoking on some Goku, buds like dragon balls.” On the song “My Shine”, Childish Gambino states, “Honesty, I’m rappin’ ’bout everything I go through / Everything I’m sayin’, I’m super sayin’ like Goku”. “Ultimate” by Denzel Curry has “You claim you’re the homie/ I turn into Broly”, a reference to the ridiculously buff warrior from DBZ. The list goes on.

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But the reference in “Pink Matter” feels different. It’s not bragging about strength. It comes from a slow, sensual jam that has Ocean discussing his complicated relationship with women with his Sensei. The repeated line “Cotton candy/ Majin Buu” mentions the ruthless villain Majin Buu. It’s a deliberate contrast. Both cotton candy and Majin but are pink in color, representing female energy. However, one has softness and sweetness, and the other has relentless destructive power.

“Ps & Qs”, Lil Uzi Vert

This wacky visual for “P’s and Q’s” by Lil Uzi Vert isn’t referencing a specific anime. Instead, it covers a lot of different tropes of Japanese animation. Lil Uzi plays a student in a Japanese school where everyone has those creepily huge anime eyes, has an arch-nemesis who’s eyeing his girlfriend, comic-book style panels, English and Japanese subtitles, and switches between animation and live-action. He’s even packing shurikens, the ninja stars that leave a hell of a body count in anime.

“4 Your Eyez Only”, J. Cole

This hard-hitting, introspective track from J. Cole samples “To The Oasis” by Yuji Ohno, from the Lupin 3 soundtrack. The Lupin 3franchise consists of adventure-comedies starring a master thief. Two different worlds? Sure, but it works. It’s not nearly as strange as other anime samples used by hip-hop stars. 

The Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa track “No Social Media,” about them enjoying the company of women far away from social media uses the main theme of Higurashi No Kuno Ni (When They Cry), a horrifying murder mystery. On their debut mixtape, Das Racist sampled a moody track from Samurai Champloo for “Rapping 2U”, and Samurai Champloo itself was inspired by hip-hop. Full circle!

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