DJ Krush emerged from the Japanese hip-hop scene, but his eponymous 1994 debut album, with its slow-motion beats and moody, atmospheric samples, found its Western home among trip-hop fans, who embraced him as they did DJ Shadow, DJ Spooky and DJ Cam. He signed to Mo’Wax for his second album, 1994’s Strictly Turntablized, and jumped to Sony for his third, 1995’s Meiso. Before that, his work had been almost exclusively instrumental, but on Meiso he welcomed several notable American rappers—CL Smooth, Black Thought and Malik B of the Roots, Guru and Big Shug—into his world. The album also featured a collaboration with DJ Shadow.
Later releases like 2001’s Zen and 2002’s The Message at the Depth featured vocal contributions from artists ranging from Company Flow to Zap Mama, Antipop Consortium and Anticon, as well as multiple Japanese rappers. In between these albums, though, he released stranger, more minimal and more adventurous projects like 1996’s Ki-Oku, a collaboration with trumpeter Toshinori Kondo; 1998’s almost entirely instrumental Kakusei; and 2004’s Jaku. The latter album, possibly his masterpiece, brought in spiritually minded Japanese jazz artists like saxophonist Akira Sakata, pianist Ken Shima, and shakuhachi player Shuuzan Morita, as well as tsugaru-jamisen player Shinishi Kinoshita. The tracks created a meditative yet still floor-shaking combination of spiritual jazz, traditional Japanese sounds, and thunderous beats. Touring in support of Jaku, he brought Sakata and Shima to New York, along with rappers Mr. Lif and Aesop Rock. The show (which I saw) was a heady swirl, and an unforgettable live experience.
Krush mostly disappeared after Jaku. In 2006, he released a two-CD compilation, Stepping Stones: The Self-Remixed Best; the first disc featured vocalists, while the second was instrumental. But then he was gone until 2011, when he released a string of 10 singles, roughly one a month. His first full album since Jaku was 2015’s Butterfly Effect, a somewhat dancefloor-oriented release with guest appearances from rapper Divine Styler and composer Takashi Niigaki, among others. That was followed by 2017’s Kiseki, a stark and booming salute to the hip-hop underground that featured all Japanese rappers; the deluxe edition included a second disc of instrumental versions of every track.
Krush’s third comeback album, Cosmic Yard, feels like a sequel to Jaku. It’s entirely instrumental, and the music frequently has a spiritual quality; the guests all come from the world of Japanese jazz, with the exception of Dutch percussionist Binkbeats. Toshinori Kondo and Shuuzan Morita return, even playing together on one track, “Law of Harmony,” and virtuoso acoustic guitarist Yukihiro Atsumi performs on “Divine Protection.” But it’s far from a drifting, ambient/New Age effort. The beats are massive—blocklike slabs of rhythm slam into the sides of your head. “Asterism” chops surging strings into twitchy stabs, while “Emission Nebula” layers samples of mellow saxophone and forcefully yanked upright bass strings as a rhythm track composed of clicking wood blocks, cymbals like scissors snapping shut, and underwater bass booms rolls patiently on. On “Ignition” and “Habitable Zone (Chapter 1),” the beats are so distorted and aggressive, they’re like something off the Electric Ladyland compilations from the turn of the millennium. Jaku is still DJ Krush‘s best album, but this one carries enough of its spirit, and offers enough new ideas, that it’s well worth any fan’s time.
Stream “Emission Nebula”: