The jazz roots of Nujabes, a pioneer of ‘lofi hip hop’

In Lifted, Javon Anderson examines the long-standing relationship between jazz and hip hop.

On the Internet, people interact with music in ways that can birth some of the most unlikely genres and subcultures. In this extremely connected world, it’s easier than ever to morph and mix together influences to reflect different walks of life and touch audiences that you might not have even known were out there.

The late Japanese hip-hop producer Jun Seba — otherwise known as Nujabes — has epitomized this cross-pollination. Early in his career, Seba was especially passionate about hip hop and made a mark on the Japanese scene with his two releases Metaphorical Music (2003) and Modal Soul (2005). He also owned two record stores in Shibuya and founded the independent record label Hyde-Out Productions while only in his twenties. He collaborated with many artists from all around the world including Shing02, Substantial, MINMI, Fat Jon, Uyama Hiroto and Pase Rock.

Nujabes is known for his choice of modal jazz samples mixed seamlessly with many elements of turntablism, breakbeats, and boom-bap-styled drums that are more common among Western hip-hop producers. Drawing from his huge record collection, Nujabes favoured warm analog sampling along with live instrumentation to make his sound more cohesive. One example is the track The Final View, from Metaphorical Music, which samples Yussef Lateef’s Love Theme From Spartacus.

Nujabes transforms the original sample by adding a driving boom-bap drum pattern littered with unconventional sounds. During the bridge, he also weaves in a sampled saxophone run over another spoken-word sample, adding to the downtempo, immersive environment that’s common among Nujabes’s music.

Nujabes ended up finding a more global audience thanks to his involvement in the soundtrack for the anime TV series Samurai Champloo, created by Shinichiro Wantanabe. This series loosely blended the setting of feudal Japan with the modern aesthetics of hip hop, breakdancing and graffiti. Airing in the U.S. on the Cartoon Network programming block Adult Swim, Samurai Champloo was a hit — with its soundtrack consistently praised as one of its best attributes.

The influence of this anime and Nujabes’s music went on to explode on the internet, inspiring many artists to try to emulate the same aesthetics. This gave birth to the subgenre known as “lofi hip hop” in the 2010s and beyond. This isn’t the first time that hip hop, jazz and East Asian culture converged, as it can be argued that it’s the inverse of how the Wu-Tang Clan drew inspiration from old martial arts films.

Nowadays, Nujabes is lauded as one of the principal pioneers of lofi hip hop alongside J Dilla and similar producers. What is most interesting about Nujabes’s following is how intimately endeared they are with the artist, despite the fact that he didn’t do interviews, generally avoided the limelight and died in 2010 at the age of 36. Even today, many popular contemporary rappers like Logic, Joey BadA$$ and Jaden Smith shout him out in their songs.

The overarching impact Nujabes’s music has reintroduced both jazz and hip hop to young audiences in the Internet age.

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