There is an air of myth and mystery surrounding the life of Hideaki Ishi b/k/a DJ Krush. It’s claimed without controversy that he was a juvenile delinquent as a youth in Tokyo, one who dropped out of school and aspired to be a yakuza tough guy. The story goes that one day someone dropped a severed human finger wrapped in paper on a desk in front of him, and that when he realized the finger belonged to a friend of his, he immediately decided to “straighten out” and leave the criminal underworld behind. It’s all quite fantastical and reads like the plot to an Akira Kurosawa film. How would you even authenticate this story? Yakuza are notoriously secretive and even if there was someone who was part of his life back then who could authenticate it, they’d never go on the record and confirm it. You either accept the truth of it at face value or you don’t.
Far less fantastical but far more interesting to me is his pioneering work as a deejay and producer. When it’s said that his ambitions in that era spawned from a chance viewing of the movie Wild Style I don’t doubt it for a second. After all at close to around the exact same time I was inspired by hearing “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” on a breakdancing tape, which is why I’ve used ‘Flash’ as my unofficial middle name for all these years. Let’s be blunt – Hideaki Ishi is ten million times better at hip-hop than I’ll ever be. The only thing I excel at (though that’s debatable) is writing about the music and culture. DJ Krush makes JAMS. It’s apt that his major label debut was simply called “Krush.” I’m also going to crush something here — the notion I dropped the phrase “straighten out” above by accident. If you’re not immediately reminded of Pete Rock & CL Smooth listening to “Keeping the Motion,” I’ll point you to WhoSampled.
Even if I wasn’t heavily invested in discovering new rap music from all around the globe in the early 1990’s, I would have quickly discovered DJ Krush thanks to “B-Boy Mastamind.” You’ll have to pardon me as I go outside and pour the rest of my beer on the curb, as hearing this song again makes me shed a tear for the late Keith Elam b/k/a Guru. “I’ve got more rhymes than New York’s got crime/Why? Because I’m a b-boy mastermind.” He is indeed. Hearing Krush flip the kind of jazzy beats that suit Guru best makes this feel like a lost Premier track. In a way it almost is because the song was inexplicably cut from the U.S. release of the album. It was a blessing in the day and it still is today to hear Guru say “I wanna make a crazy shoutout to all the hip-hoppers in Japan keeping it real.” I salute them too.
There’s a fundamental truth here that needs to be spoken out loud — if you weren’t told “Krush” was from a Japanese deejay, it wouldn’t be obvious other than Guru’s shoutout. While DJ Krush hasn’t been shy about incorporating his cultural heritage into other albums and projects, this 48 minute release is an almost pure expression of American rap from the opposite side of the globe. A rose can grow from concrete, and hip-hop took root all around the world with equal force, breaking through anywhere disaffected youth needed the tools to express themselves. The boom bap that Krush slaps the ground with on “Roll & Tumble” begs for the likes of Diamond D or Lord Finesse to bless the track, AND YET once the piano breaks in and takes over I wouldn’t have the song go any other way.
One could fairly describe this release as an instrumental album more than a turntablist album. Krush has plenty of tricks up his sleeve, but on songs like “Edge of Blue” he’s showing off his ability to layer different sounds into mesmerizing displays of production. It doesn’t hurt the track that he samples the exact same “Big Sur Suite” that the likes of Black Sheep, Dr. Dre and the Beastie Boys did. This shows Krush was on par with his contemporaries of the day, creating the same kind of dope tracks they were, made all the more impressive by the fact he operated in a scene isolated from many of the cultural influences that drove their success. Not to make this too personal again but as a kid who had to order his music from Upstairs Records because it wasn’t carried in stores locally, I can relate to that passion of his and the desire to immerse yourself in hip-hop no matter how far removed you were/are from its birthplace.
I’ll cut to the chase — “Krush” is a record you should own if you don’t already. I know it won’t have enough rapping for most rap fans, particularly if you get the insulting U.S. edition that leaves Guru off the album entirely, but I’d still recommend it anyway just to hear Hideaki Ishi express his love. Whether or not he was almost a feared yakuza tough, one who could have been sitting ringside at PRIDE shows at Saitama Super Arena without buying a ticket, he’s definitely a front row guy in my mind. I rank him as a legend not only for what he did back then but for still doing it to this day.