Alan "The Alchemist" Maman's discography is one of the most prolific in hip-hop history. What's the story of the man behind the beats?
Due to length, contributions are indexed as follows:
- Pase Rock (commentary throughout)
- Marcus D (you are here)
- Funky DL
- Nao Tokui
- DJ Ryow
Considered by many to be the prodigy of Nujabes, Marcus blends atmospheric sounds and underground Japanese hip-hop with jazz and video game samples to create a unique yet familiar sound through his music.
He is also one half of Bop Alloy, a hip-hop duo consisting of him and Substantial. Marcus served as a massive help during the creation of this project as a whole, coordinating with those close to Jun and his family; this wouldn’t have been possible, nor would it have come together, without Marcus’ kindness and blessing.
Metaphorical Music. Tell me what you know about it. How the songs were crafted, the techniques. Break it down, what stood out to you?
A Day by Atmosphere Supreme has also always been one of my favorite tracks. I’m not positive about the process Jun went through, but I love the sample he used.
I remember me and Zack Austin [Nitsua] talked about it at the first tribute show. It was pretty cool how he [Jun] flipped it. It’s got that guitar fret sound in it, which makes it sound like the guitar was played live, which I imagine was intentional. The textures in that song are what drew me to it when I first heard it.
Kumomi, Highs 2 Lows, Think Different, Lady Brown. F.I.L.O, Beat Laments the World. I could go on…Latitude remix.
I don’t think a lot of people are aware that Latitude was originally on the Five Deez album, Koolmotor (2001). The original was produced by Fat Jon.
It’s a bit obscure right?
The original yeah, but I think Latitude (Remix) is one of Nujabes’ more well-known tracks.
Could you touch on Beat Laments the World a little more and what you know about Highs 2 Lows?
Beat Laments the World is always mistaken for the Samurai Champloo ending. They’re essentially the same, but the beat was reworked/interpolated for the anime. Uyama played the piano riff on the original.
If you listen to Beat Laments the World, it sounds similar to how the original record sounds, and also has a part of Pase’s accappella in it from Blessin’ It. On the other hand, Shiki no Uta is smoother. The drums are toned down, the filtered/synth bass was cleaned up and changed etc., and it’s just overall more accommodating for a vocalist. Less raw.
Highs 2 Lows also has an Uyama remix, which I actually… I don’t know, I think I’ve played the remix more, even though the original is one of my favorite tracks. A conversation came up with Cise [Starr] where he shed some light on the lyrics during the 5-year tribute tour back in 2015. I’d always been a big fan of that track, and there’s a lot of metaphors in it…Cise is a really intelligent dude, so I wanted to understand where the inspiration came from.
‘With Krylon spit, I tag the charts with the graphical hits/ So who you fucking with? Arm, Leg, Leg to Arm Head/ Snapping your neck back while you spit out a Pez’
He mentioned that in those bars, the the ‘Arm, Leg, Leg to Arm, Head’ part spells out ALLAH and is one of the 9 tenets of the Five Percent Nation (of Islam), which is pretty prevalent in a lot of old school east coast hip hop. He was also telling me and Stan [Substantial] that the extra ‘r’ in ‘Starr’ was added autonomously by Jun. Not sure if that was a nod to Gang Starr or not, but he was adamant about adding the extra ‘r’ on Cise’s releases.
For sure, that’s definitely a lot to take in and some very cool information, man. Switching to Samurai Champloo, there are two primary albums for it, Departure and Impression.
And two more lesser-known ones, both produced by Tsutchie.
That’s right! He made that song called Sincerely.
Yeah, he produced the majority of the tracks on the anime.
Masta, that’s the name of the one project.
Yeah. He did a ton of the background tracks. In most cases, if you don’t know off top who produced the track, it’s most likely Tsutchie.
Personally I don’t think he gets enough credit for his work on the series.
A lot of his stuff is even miscredited as being produced by Nujabes. (i.e. Sincerely). Same goes for Force of Nature (i.e. Just Forget).
Who actually reached out to Jun about working on the anime and said ‘Hey, we want you to work on this anime called Samurai Champloo,’ and made it happen?
Jun’s manager at the time, Takumi Koizumi, linked them, if I’m not mistaken. Takumi got a call from them, but Jun was in Paris providing music for a fashion show.
Last year I linked with Takashi Kochiyama, who was one of the executive producers, and the guy who helped Watanabe curate the music for Samurai Champloo.
The most interesting thing he mentioned about working on the anime was that he [the executive producer] was more of a heavy metal/rock fan, and that hip-hop was sort of out of his element, but he knew good music when he heard it.
In regards to that, what can you speak on regarding production?
From what I know he used an MPC2000XL, and other hardware. He also used Pro Tools, but I don’t think he wanted people to know that he was using a computer. Although, I think by that time it was necessary and even detrimental to not be tracking vocals and beats digitally.
When he and Substantial were making City Lights [off Spiritual State, a posthumous album], Sub penned:
‘No excuses should’ve planned in advance man, documented on Pro Tools or Tascam, struggles & hustles of an ordinary black man’
They had an argument that led to the track being shelved, because Nujabes didn’t want the mention of Pro Tools in one of his tracks and wouldn’t release it unless it was removed. Everybody tells me that he knew what he wanted, and he wouldn’t back down just to avoid an uncomfortable situation. I think that type of meticulousness made him difficult to work with for some people.
He sampled strictly from vinyl as far as I know, and had/still has an expansive collection. I was lucky enough to inherit one of his turntables from Guiness Records. It’s an old Technic SL-1200MK3 that’s on its last legs, but I still use it everyday when I make music.
I’ve always been curious as to what your take would be if asked how he influenced hip-hop. Take Dilla, as an example. If someone asked how he influenced hip-hop, a popular response would be his technique of chopping and signature drums. What’s your take for Nujabes?
In the Japanese scene, he was among the first, if not the very first artist, to actually import his own stuff into Japan as a “foreign” artist.
He lived in Japan, made the music in Japan, but then he’d send out orders through his company, shipping from the US to import his own work back into Japan…that way it seemed more authentic.
I guess I’d liken it to a native Japanese person setting up a karate dojo or ramen shop in the US. That dojo or restaurant is going to seem more authentic and have more credibility than a white guy teaching karate/tae-kwon-do in a strip-mall, if you know what I’m sayin’.
He had a very specific image he wanted to promote and portray, and a lot of things that he didn’t want known to the public. As part of that image, he didn’t feature any Japanese rap on his releases, and only worked with a small number of MCs, who were and still are well-known and sought after by Japanese producers in the scene.
Genius when you think about it.
Right, and it was harder to obtain hip-hop in general. I mean, there was no YouTube or central spot to grab material from back then, 15 years to two decades ago.
Yeah, the world wasn’t as small, and we weren’t as connected.
One topic I see asked and discussed a ton, or rather a claim that is often thrown out, is ‘Nujabes influenced the lo-fi scene,’ as with any prolific figure in hip-hop, influencing some sort of scene or movement.
Well, there’s lo-fi and then there’s “lo-fi” [laughs]
The people who say Nujabes influenced the current wave of lo-fi definitely aren’t wrong, but I think there’s some misinterpretation.
I obviously can’t speak for him, but I think Nujabes would have been making something entirely different if he were still alive. Most of his close friends say that he was transitioning into house music, which you can hear in “World’s End Rhapsody” on Modal Soul and a number of other experimental tracks…so I don’t really see the connect between his music and finger drumming over Youtube rips of old jazz songs, which I’m not saying all lo-fi is, but yea.
On the other hand, music is self-expression, and I know for a fact that’s something he stood for. Expression and creativity are things the lo-fi scene actively cultivates and nurtures from what I’ve seen. It’s allowed for people to break out of the box of traditional hip hop beats and ignore a lot of the rules that hip hop purists elitists put on them. When I was coming up, there was always some old head telling me I wasn’t doing it right because of an unwritten set of rules I had to adhere to. I haven’t seen any of that with lo-fi, which is a positive thing. I dig that aspect of it.
Now, do you think that when Jun was making beats and his own work, that this was the result of him going after some sort of aesthetic or specific sound with that aforementioned roughness in it?
I think you can tell just from listening to his albums that he had a clear vision of what he was trying to accomplish it. That’s why he was able to push his opinions so adamantly. When you come across the samples he used, you can tell his knowledge of music was vast.
A lot of beatmakers will just drop the needle on different parts of a record looking for a break, but I feel like he listened to his records regularly and was well-acquainted with their contents. Like the sample for Feather for example. That would be a difficult break to just stumble on.
One of the things I always admired was that he knew when to let a sample do its thing. Sampling is like curation, cause once people find the track you sampled for a song they love, they’re going to have an automatic connection to the original…with Jun, I think that was Yuseef Lateef. A lot of people from an entirely new generation were introduced to his music because of Jun’s songs. Being a curator of dope old music that might not have gotten much shine during its own time is one of the best things about being a producer who samples.
The one thing that continually comes up in conversations with his friends, family, and collaborators is that he loved music and wanted other people to enjoy music, and I think he transmitted that beautifully into his own creations.
Were there any unknown collaborators or artists who used an alternative name that worked with Jun that you found to be interesting?
L-Universe is Verbal. Verbal is ridiculously huge pop star. A lot of people don’t know this. I actually didn’t know this myself until I flew back to Seattle and met up with my friend, and showed him a picture and said ‘I got a picture with L-Universe, he collaborated with Jun’ and my friend was like ‘Yo, that’s Verbal!’
Wow, small world. That’s crazy.
At that time I didn’t have any idea who Verbal was. I sat and talked with that dude for over an hour, and I had no idea that it was Verbal, so here I was feeling like a complete asshole [laughs].
He’s got a clothing and accessory line now called AMBUSH, very successful guy. Doing huge stuff, worked with Pharrell, Kanye West, the whole Tokyo Drift era of stuff with Teriyaki Boyz. He’s still very good friends with P. I went to go see a show at AgeHa [a club in Tokyo, pronounced ah-geh-hah] and Pharrell came out, while Verbal was DJing for him.
I’m reminded of the first initial tribute tour, perhaps in 2010, when I met up with Verbal for the very first time. Here he was, this man dripping in purple, head to toe, in a bucket hat with a suit to match, and rings on just about every finger that mimicked eyeballs. That’s when he sat down and we exchanged stories and he told me the story of how he met Jun back at his old studio.