“KONNICHI WA!” In October 2004 I made my first trip to the far east. Japan was my destination and my mission was to investigate the deep rooted love of reggae and dancehall in that region. They were definitely no rookie to this ting!
Reggae Sunsplash had already been established there since the late 1980s – artists from the UK like the Lovers Rock queen Carroll Thompson have been travelling back and forth for many years, and labels like VP had offices on the ground as it has always been an important region for sales.
However, what I experienced during my stay there blew my mind away.
I had already known the Mighty Crown lads Simon and Sammy for a few years, so I knew the scene was big but I didn’t realise the magnitude of it.
I was fortunate to play at an event for popular DJs and producers Hemo and Moofire, who not only specialised in dancehall, but also excelled in soca.
On the night the Japanese bashment queen Junko was in attendance.
There was a man selling cassettes and CDs, someone selling authentic jerk chicken and rice ‘n’ peas plus the biggest sound system you can think of. I was in a real dancehall!
Over the last 14 years Japan’s stake in dancehall has grown, but most noticeably in the sound system arena.
In some of the most recent international clashes, sounds like Yard Beat and Hemp Higher have done more than make up the numbers.
They are serious contenders, just as trendsetters Mighty Crown always have been. This month saw the latest in the increasingly popular Sound Clash Rumble series.
Japan Rumble was held at Bay Hall in Yokohama, and saw four sound systems competing for a place in the World Clash final.
It featured defending champions Fujiyama, Independent, King Jam and Jah Works, who came out victorious. Unfortunately I couldn’t blag a trip to Japan for a face to face interview with Oga from Jah Works, but we connected on the phone to find out more.
“We have four members in the sound,” he told me. “We are based on Osaka, in the west of Japan. My boss started the Jah Works sound in 2004.
“We went to Jamaica and heard Bass Odyssey and Stone Love and listened to these sounds since we were young.”
Don’t think for a second that the sounds in Japan are just doing their own thing and are not entrenched in the core of the culture. That definitely is not the case.
“We go to Jamaica often. When I go I try to spend at least one month there at a time.”
It’s renowned in Japanese culture that when they get involved in anything, they absolutely give it their all. It seems sound system culture is exactly the same for them.
“There are many sounds in Japan – we have been going for a long time, but some sounds from across the country have been going since the last 10 years,” he tells me.
“We have the full sound system – speaker boxes and everything! We string up our sound and play.”
Their biggest export is Mighty Crown. Once perceived as a novelty, but now firmly positioned in the entire reggae business, they have revolutionised the global attitude towards reggae and Japan.
“Without Mighty Crown we would have had the exposure across the world. They have helped the Japanese sound system movement a lot,” he says.
The sense of reverence is clear to hear.
“We can’t be Mighty Crown – we don’t have the dubs or experience that they have – so we just try to be the best we can be.”
And that they have done. With the recent win has come a new level of expectation and pressure – not that Oga minds.
“Winning the Japan Rumble was a dream come true – I always thought about representing Japan at World Clash.
“We have got a new fanbase now – many new Twitter followers and messages from all over the world wishing us congratulations. This has opened many new doors for us.”
But now it’s on to the next phase.
He says: “We are getting ready for world clash – we go heavy into it from next week, preparing everything we need.
“Another trip to Jamaica to cut some dubs.”
One thing that has always intrigued me is the way Japanese music fans pick up the language, so I asked that most awkward of questions…which came first: Learning proper English or Jamaican patois?
“Jamaican patois! I just spoke to Jamaicans and watched movies like Shottas and Rockers over and over again to learn what they were saying.
“My father loves reggae and he introduced me to reggae. “I grew up listening to Peter Tosh, Dennis Brown and most of that 70s rockers style. Foundation is still big here – even young fans love it and the new wave like Chronixx and Protoje.”
In a world that is so easily divided, it is incredible to see and speak to someone who is world’s apart culturally from me, but share a love, passion and excitement for a common purpose with me – Sound Systems. Big Up Jah Works!