various artists :: Samurai Champloo: Music Record Katana :: Pioneer/Geneon
as reviewed by Steve 'Flash' Juon

There are a lot of haters out there who think anime is some straight up nerd shit. The worst are people who judge anime solely on it's perceived reputation as being weird Japanese cartoons that don't make any sense, without having ever watched a single episode of a series or any of the movies directed by Hayao Miyazaki in their entire life. Unfortunately anime fans have at times not helped the public perception by calling themselves "otaku," which english speakers think is "devoted anime fan" when in fact the word has a strongly negative connotation in Japanese more akin to "unhealthy obsession." Now how can you explain anime to a hardcore hip-hop fan, one for whom the image of candy whips and beautiful honeydips is ideal, when even a Japanese anime fan would look at people in the U.S. calling themselves "otaku" and think they're straight up whack? That's two strikes down already, and if you play them some shit like "FLCL" or "Super Milk Chan" you'd better give up before you even get started.

It's a shame really. The underground rap heads who worship Company Flow's "Funcrusher Plus" and snub anime are completely oblivious to the fact that the intro to the song "Silence" samples from the english dub edition of "Vampire Hunter D." The same commercial rap fans who think Kanye's "Late Registration" is "hip" but perceive anime fans as "geeks" completely missed the dopeness of the line "Lupe steal like Lupin the 3rd" in "Touch the Sky." By being so singularly obsessed with keeping it real, it's those backpackers and flossers who are really the ones missing out - all this cool shit goes right under their noses completely unnoticed.

Even those who singularly dismiss all anime as not being dope enough to even mention in the same breath as hip-hop music and culture would be proved wrong seeing a SINGLE episode of the hit series "Samurai Champloo." The name of the show is a play on the word "champuru" meaning to mix or blend, which is itself hip-hop's oldest tradition - recombining often seemingly disparate elements into a new and more interesting whole. The show doesn't just adopt a hip-hop attitude though, it wholly incorporates hip-hop music and culture into the Edo period of Japanese history. Bizarre? Perhaps. But you can't knock the hustle when you see samurais getting high on weed and itinerant gangs painting graffiti on pagodas. You might presume that mixing feudal era Japan with modern hip-hop is a joke, but even though it's occasionally used for comic effect Shinichiro Watanabe is clearly a fan of everything from Adidas sneakers to the murals of Futura 2000 - he's real with the shit.

Not surprisingly the "Music Record Katana" soundtrack that accompanies this popular TV series also has a hip-hop attitude, including an extended version of the rap song "Battlecry" by Nujabes and Shing02 that's used to open the show. If you have seen the show you might mistakenly believe they commisioned an english rap song to make it a little more accessible to a non-Japanese audience, but the opening of the show is exactly the same in the East as in the West. Shingo2 was born in Tokyo, went to school in the U.S. at UC Berkeley, and his passion for hip-hop extends to producing and illustrating as well as just busting raps - which "Battlecry" proves he can do quite fluently in either language:

"Yes! Sharp like an edge of a samurai sword
The mental blade cut through flesh and bone
Though my mind's at peace, the world out of order
Missing the inner heat, life gets colder
Oh yes, I have to find my path
No less, walk on earth, water, and fire
The elements compose a Magnum -
- Opus, my modus operandi is amalgam
Steel packed tight in microchip
On my arm a sign of all-pro
The ultimate reward is honor, not awards
At odds with the times in wars with no lords"

The track works equally well on both the show and the soundtrack, as it sets you up for a journey where two unexpected cultures blend seamlessly. Then again while "Samurai Champloo" may come as a shock to anime haters, those same heads who enjoyed poorly dubbed kung-fu flicks as kids and became rap fans of Wu-Tang Clan in later years may not find blending martial arts with hip-hop "champuru" style nearly so surprising. Perhaps the sole dissapointment of this soundtrack is that Shingo2 only has one rap on the whole album. In fact due to the fact that 95% of the album is instrumental only, it's impossible to give "Music Record Katana" a fair score lyrically. That doesn't mean it's not a great musical experience, it's just one that's a little more akin to acid/trip-hop styles or the musical musings found on a DJ Shadow record. You'll still find yourself headnodding to the subtle spacy shuffle sounds of "Ole," feeling the deep bass and boom bap clap of "Raw Material" and bugging off the up-tempo freeform jazz of "Dry." The soundscape, like the show itself, works off a wide variety of elements that have been incoporated into the hip-hop arts.

While the album does slow down a little for the R&B stylings of Kazami's "You" and ends in a fairly traditional anime fashion with the upbeat singing of "Shiki No Uta (Song of the Seasons)," it's clear that "Music Record Katana" is dominated by a sensibility that any hip-hop fan would enjoy, whether they are an anime fan or not. Watching "Samurai Champloo" is not a requirement to enjoy this soundtrack, neither is listening to this soundtrack a pre-requisite to enjoying this hilarious and heartwarming series which currently airs in the U.S. via [adult swim]. Together the two are an undeniable pleasure. Haters be warned - even those who call themselves "otaku" can still be fresher than you if they get down with the funky styles that "Samurai Champloo: Music Record Katana" has to offer. No need to stand there fronting in a b-boy stance - let Mugen and Jin do that for you, while Fuu stands there looking like the fly little cutie she is.

Music Vibes: 8 of 10 Lyric Vibes: n/a of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 8 of 10

Originally posted: February 21, 2006