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:
Seba “Nujabes” Jun was a record shop owner and producer, though most know him for the latter.
Above anything else, however, he was a student of hip-hop.
Guinness Records and Sweet Sticky Thing
Jun grew up in eastern Tokyo, Japan. Drawn to music from a young age, he would go on to own Guinness Records in Shibuya, investing himself into the business side of music. The physical shop was closed in 2011, a year after Jun’s passing. However, it continued to operate digitally through Tribe, the shop underneath Guinness Records on the third floor, which managed Hydeout Productions’ record sales. There is also a very rare video of his record shop, shot around 10 years ago, courtesy of DJ Sarasa.
Pase Rock, one of Jun’s closest friends, gives interesting insight regarding the dynamics of Tokyo record shops:
So, as you may know, each record shop in Japan has [had] its own sort of style and flavor. They’re all gone now, but back then it was an identity for each store, and you went to each store for whatever sort of music they had. Jun’s shop was, for lack of a better term, the underground hip-hop spot.
His store leaned more towards stuff you’d sample, and underground hip-hop. Soul, jazz, lots of stuff like that. 60% underground hip-hop, 40% other. Jun didn’t really like the commercial hip-hop, so if it wasn’t like DJ Premier, Pete Rock, or Five Deez, he wasn’t with it.
While working at his record shop, Jun eventually dove into the world of production, making his own beats. Learning the ropes of how they were crafted, Jun went on to remix Nas’ One Love off Illmatic, pressing it on wax through Top Graphicers in 1998, and mixing it in with the popular records at the time, to gain traction of his moniker (Dimention [sic] Ball at the time)—a technique heralded as a ‘crazy hustle’ by Pase:
I think he [Nujabes] did a Nas bootleg of One Love, that’s what his brother told me. He would then take that, press it onto vinyl, then throw it in with the Nas bin, so people would be looking for Nas, who was one of the top artists at the time, and they would stumble upon this strange record and think “Who is Nujabes?” not knowing it was the actual owner of the store.
Crazy hustle. Tokyo is tens of millions of people, so lots of customers moving through the shop, and he did really well. I learned the hustle from him.
Within the same year, a 36-track mixtape—18 A-side, 18 B-side—called Sweet Sticky Thing ~Reload All Good Music From Old To The New~ was released through Hyde Out Recordings (now Hyde Out Productions, a sister company). Often discussed and referred to as simply, Sweet Sticky Thing, the title is nod to Ohio Players’ track of the same name on their classic album Honey.
The cassette is considered a grail among underground hip-hop cassette collectors, given its extremely limited cassette-only, local-only release. It is the first full-length piece of work under the pseudonym Nujabes.
Nujabes also started collaborating with L-Universe near this time, known as Verbal today (and affiliated with his wife Yoon, with their AMBUSH line). Marcus had a few words to say about that:
L-Universe is Verbal. Verbal is a 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!’
Creating ‘To This Union A Sun Was Born’ with Substantial
Stanley “Substantial” Robinson, a musician, passionate activist, community organizer, and one half of Bop Alloy, has been a student of hip-hop for over two decades. It all started with a phone call.
I met Jun through a friend in college. That friend later went on to become a rapper that people would come to know later as Sphere Of Influence. When my friend went back home to Japan, he got a gig at Jun’s record store. This was before anyone knew who “Nujabes” was.
Jun hit up my friend and asked him if there’s any rappers in New York at the time worth checking out, and my homeboy told Jun to listen to me.
My friend went on to play a mixtape that was made in school, called Disc 1, which happened to have me on it. Next thing you know, Jun calls me up out of the blue.
I thought it was a prank call. The man on the other end of the phone had a really thick accent, and I’ve got a bunch of friends which are clowns [pranksters], so I just thought it was one of my friends.
Luckily, I didn’t hang up, and I took him seriously. He requested I send him more stuff, and I sent him more of my material. After he heard it, he sent me some beats back. This was ’99. Ended up signing a contract with him shortly after, and in ’00 he flew me out to Japan for a month. That was the first time meeting him in-person. That’s when we started working on To This Union a Sun Was Born.
This would act as the first stepping-stone in their tight-knit relationship together, making music for several years afterwards. Sub ended up heading back to Tokyo to record Blessing It, Metaphorical Music’s opening track.
That session came later. The initial stuff with my debut album was recorded in, I want to say January of 2000? Then when I went back out there [Tokyo] to record Blessing It, I also recorded a few other tracks that were unreleased, as well as Eclipse.
When asked about the volume of music created between him and Jun, Sub puts the number between 30 and 40 tracks, with half of those to remain unreleased. Despite having a few back-and-forth moments in the studio, at the end of the day, the two always came back around, and made sure things were set right between each other. A full relationship.
Yeah, man; there’s basically enough for an album and an EP. I think it’s safe to say we made between 30 and 40 songs.
It is easy for us to remember the positive, or the easy times; the smiles and laughs. I shed tears in front of that man [Jun]. We had fallouts, real fallouts, raising our voices at each other, but we made sure to come back around and break bread after.
I feel like that’s a full relationship; the good and bad. The people who I love the most, am the closest to, and have had the most powerful experiences with, it wasn’t just one-sided, or one way all the time. It was a spectrum of emotions, and I’m glad I had all the experiences with him. From the good, to the not-so-good.
More important than any music they ever made was the relationship the two shared, becoming close friends over the years, with Jun introducing Sub to Japanese culture, and everything else that came with extended stays in Japan. Humble and respectful in character, Sub would take interest in these traits and see it reflected in general within Japan’s societal culture:
I liked how humble folks were about things they knew they could do well, but there wasn’t much bragging. If someone said they could do something,that meant they could do it very well.
That was a major takeaway for me. You can be great and humble at the same time.
Sub goes on to share stories about how him and Jun used to hit up the same curry spot day after day when he would be in Japan. A testament to Jun being a huge foodie, a curator of good eats, and the need to share it with his close friends so they, too, could enjoy it.
Jun was a huge foodie; anytime he’d find a good spot to eat at—he loved curry—there was this place, this restaurant that we’d always go, and it was called Bowery Kitchen. We loved that spot; think we hit it up twice a week.
Perhaps this was the reasoning behind the name ristorante / good music cuisine: making’ good beats like cooking’ good foods which is a mixtape released in 2002, with an aesthetic theme of culinary art, blended with smooth relaxing instrumentals.
Sharing was very important to Jun, especially with music in regards to conveying a message through sound, putting part of himself in the music, and evoking emotion from the listener.
When you hear his music, you hear parts of the man himself, in all different places. There are certain beats where you can hear the happiness, the sadness, others just relaxing, some chaotic.
As anyone who worked closely with Jun will tell you, he was very much a student of hip-hop and took influence from those in his circle extensively, to craft and refine his own sound. These close relationships were a large part of what shaped the sound of the music listeners enjoy still today. Sub wrapped things up by expressing how tangible the passing of Jun was for him, and how it still very much is, due to how much time they spent together and how it’s more real. A close friend, not just a figure of music discovered through YouTube. Deeper than music, and closer to home:
I guess for me, it’s not this dream thing. It’s still a very real thing. My wife, which Eclipse is about, who I’ve been with for 20 years, she got to meet him in my second trip.
When someone close to you—because obviously I don’t see Pase or Funky DL or Shingo often—to have somebody next to me, on a regular basis in my life, someone who has seen the challenges we faced and how we overcame those challenges together, it makes it that much more real for me.
Tracking Down Funky DL
Funky DL, a modern purveyor and preservationist of all things jazz, has been releasing records for more than 20 years. An artist revered for his jazz-hop mixes and work within the United Kingdom, DL went on to utilize UK exporters to ship vinyl globally for distribution. A large importer within Japan, and loyal customer of DL’s vinyl, was Guinness Records. In particular, its owner, Jun Seba.
He was buying my stuff for about a year and a half, and it just so happened that I decided to include my cell number on one of my releases.
He called me, this was in ’99, he called me and explained who he was, what his idea was, and how he just started producing and really liked my style. He actually had just been trying to reach out to me way before that, he said.
I was doing releases with Utmost Records, and every time that he would get a hold of someone, apparently they said they would forward the information to me, the detail and whatnot, but they never did, so it took a while to connect the two of us. He called me in ’99 as I mentioned, and we contacted each other just like that, on my cell phone.
It was this straightforward technique Jun used to reach out to artists overseas, allowing for a more diverse sound and wider range of collaborations. A total of 10 songs were crafted between DL and Jun; 5 during the first trip to Tokyo, and 5 the following year, in ’00. Tuesday Evening, a collaboration between Jun and Verbal, a then-unknown Japanese MC, is one of several songs from those sessions, now two decades ago, that have yet to be released.
The last time I heard that song, it was played by Verbal at a Nujabes tribute show in a club. The thing about Nujabes was that he was very selective in what would be released, even though he’d record a lot of songs. Just about how he felt about the recording at the time, that’s what dictated the recordings being released, or shelved.
Among the most useful information learned from Jun along the journey was his approach to the business side of Japan’s music industry, DL says. As an owner of a vinyl shop, Jun knew how to move music very well, and kept up with trends daily to stay ahead of competitors, researching what was hot or not. Aesthetic of both business and music played large parts in Jun’s formulaic approaches.
He taught me more about presentation, and food for thought about album aesthetics. … For example, we did an album called the Latin Love Story. … So, I did that album, and followed it up with Latin Love Story: Volume 2.
Jun said something like: “DL, it’s not the best idea to name things in succession, such as Volume 1, Volume 2, or Remix. These are songs you’ve already recorded, so put a new spin onto it. Instead of calling it Latin Love Story: Volume 2, why not call it Music from Naphta?”
Naphta is my first name. He mentioned this would intrigue the Japanese market, as they would be unaware of what “Naphta” was. A place, a person, a thing? It would spark interest. Those were kinds of things he would give me advice and insight on.
So, he did. More literal and clever thoughts also emerged, and sparks the question of how exactly certain albums are regarded as more legendary or revered in Asia regarding hip-hop, as DL details here with Slick Rick, via Takumi Koizumi, Jun’s tour manager and label manager of Hydeout at the time:
Speaking with Jun and his manager Takumi, I recall a time where we were talking about Slick Rick’s album, Children Story. He said DL, the audience in Japan may not know what you’re rhyming about, but they may enjoy the sound.
Even someone in Japan who doesn’t speak English would probably know the word “children” or “child” and know the word “story” and have a sort of idea for what the album would be speaking on or talking about.
After Jun’s passing in ’10, DL mentions how difficult it was to match up sounds on Spiritual State, the posthumous project released in 2012, paying homage to Jun. Although the project itself was sounding alright, a number of people including Takumi worked endlessly to attempt to line up sounds and correctly infer what the songs were supposed to sound like.
It took a really long time to figure everything out. Even something as simple as what you hear as a piano, it would have to be matched. Music programs these days, you can open a window and there’s 50 piano sounds, so which one is it? A hard sound, soft sound, a more sustained or subtle sound.
That’s something which I think is interesting about his last project.
As for Funky DL, he continues to make jazz-hop, while keeping Jun’s jewels of knowledge in mind as he navigates the music industry.
Shing02 and the Luv(Sic) Hexalogy
Shingo “Shing02” Annen has been a staple to many Nujabes songs throughout the years. The Luv(Sic) hexalogy is a rare entity within not just the Japanese hip-hop scene, but simply in general. A 6-part series spanning nearly 15 years, it had stood the test of time and has become one of the more interesting collaborations within music.
Remember that Pase mentioned that Luv(Sic) was actually pitched to him by Jun first, and after not feeling the beats vibes that much, it was then passed to Shingo:
The original Luv(sic) beat which people know Shing02 for rapping over, was originally for me, I started to record a song for it but I just didn’t really like it so I turned it down and he offered it to Shingo.
I went ahead and inquired about it in retrospect, if he holds the same stance on the beat’s vibe:
Yeah for the most part. There is a different appreciation for it now though. I understand Shing02 doing Luv Sic and what Jun was going for. After I heard that song the beat made more sense to me. I think Shingo just did it justice. I wouldn’t have made the song come to life the same way he did. My biggest beef with Jun were his drums, they were so dry at the time. I didn’t like his drum sounds back then. That, and him making beats perfectly on time.
They were exactly perfect, there was no swing in his hi-hats. And for Fat Jon and I, we were very rigid about our “rules” for beats. Stiff hi hats with no swing was like a cardinal sin. But I was young, naive and not very open minded. Jun kinda helped get me out of that. He expanded my horizons a lot to say the least.
With the release of the Luv(Sic) hexalogy vinyl also came the full story, as told by Shingo himself, in regards to the collaborations and how they occurred:
We all know that love can be sickening. That true love, it turns your world upside down, a feeling that can transform your constitution and render you helpless.
Love defies formula, it borders on insanity and spirituality, No matter how slim the chances, once you meet the love of your life, you might just end up creating something that may outlast your lifetime…
He goes on to break down and analyze each piece of the puzzle, mentioning the heavy and dense scratches heard throughout (by various DJ friends, including SPIN MASTER A-1 and others), which any listener will recognize as a distinct sound that floats on top of each beat:
The importance of the scratch DJ to the entire Luv(Sic) series cannot be overstated. It was ingrained on me from early on that having a good scratch to a rap song is key, so I took the time to select the samples from various sources. Of course we only used vinyl records without exceptions, which enhances the analog aesthetic that Nujabes adhered to.
I reached out to Shingo for further comment; he respectfully stated that he’s said everything necessary already through his music, and hopes for all to continue to enjoy him and Jun’s work. Below you can see scans of concert posters:
Exploring Music and Self with Nao Tokui
Nearly two decades ago in 2001, Nao met Jun at the Digital Signal Processing Workshop of Japan, an intense 5-day summer workshop which covered algorithms and techniques used for signal and sound processing, utilizing Max/MSP, a visual programming language for music.
If I remember correctly, it was the last lecture session in the morning of the first day of the workshop. I knew very few people then, so I took a random empty seat.
Right next to me, there was a quiet/self-possessed guy, who looked like a few years older than me. After the lecture, we started chatting somehow and introducing ourselves to each other.
He said, “I make hip-hop tracks.”
This would serve as the genesis of their friendship. Following a few sessions, Nao invited Jun to hang out and discuss music; after hearing snippets of Nao’s upcoming album Mind The Gap, Jun was interested in collaborating further. This lead to them coming together on Rotary Park, arguably one of the most experimental tracks within Jun’s catalog. Rightfully so.
After the workshop concluded, both headed back to Tokyo, to continue theory-crafting and exploring the strongest thing they had in common—a deep passion for music. Nao, with a few words on their sessions:
During our studio time, we tested many different ideas on mainly sampling, sequencing and complex sound effects using granular synthesis and such.
Those snippets of ideas/half-made drum patterns/sound effects must be somewhere in his hard drives, but I believe Rotary Park was the only track we managed to finish.
I think we spent too much time on the exploration of new ideas, rather than composing actual music, which I sincerely regret…
Evident was the yearning Jun had to twist and bend sounds to their limits, to create his own vision of emotional throughput from a seemingly-magical array of crate gems he had dug far and wide for, internationally.
The friendship of Nao and Jun remains an interesting juxtaposition. An accomplished guru of computer science coming together with an adept record store owner. Both diving into the realm of sound to explore further, pushing one another to creative limits, resulting in a grotesque yet controlled product. Bliss, to some.
The Methodology Behind Metaphorical Music
Perhaps the fan favorite and most well-known album of Nujabes to be released. A late 2003 release a few months after Hydeout Productions FIRST COLLECTION, dropping smack in the middle of a massive paradigm shift hip-hop—what seemed to be the end of gangster rap, and the beginning of Kanye’s reign, following his debut album College Dropout, just a few months later—Metaphorical Music was not a known release at the time, nor was it internationally recognized on the level it is presently.
Recorded and mixed primarily at Park Avenue Studio, the 62-minute project contains some of Jun’s most iconic songs, those with cult-like followings that have been spread internationally following the airing of Samurai Champloo. Speaking more with Marcus about the album, he brought up a common mistake among listeners:
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 acappella 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.
Rawness and the ability to evoke heavy emotions just by sound was something listeners could observe a noticeable shift in, after working together with Fat Jon on the Samurai Champloo soundtrack. A transition both on a metaphorical level, as well as technical, as mentioned by Pase:
I would say that four people specifically: Nao Tokui, Uyama Hiroto, Fat Jon and Monorisick [DJ Deckstream], contributed a lot to shaping Nujabes’ sound.
The production on Metaphorical Music is referenced by many hip-hop heads as one of the few pinnacles of modern low fidelity and jazz-hop, far from any sort of cliché, and able to hone in on a very specific vibe. Marcus had some more information on how it came together:
From what I know he used an MPC2000XL, and other hardware. He also used Pro Tools
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 every day when I make music.
Three pages from a hip-hop and audio engineering magazine out of Japan from ’03-‘04’ gives more insight, into the literal setup that was used to craft this album, as well as parts of the Samurai Champloo OSTs, as seen below, courtesy of Josue Silva.
You may notice on the second page, there are two SL-1200MK3’s; the one contained within Marcus’ interview is one of those two. It was passed down to him.
Following the release of the first Hydeout Collection tape, a 14-track project in collaboration with Monorisick (DJ Deckstream) and L-Universe, as well as Metaphorical Music, was arguably the source for Jun’s international recognition, resulting in a cult-like following for his music.
The anime that follows three travelers on a journey to find a man deemed the Sunflower Samurai.
Samurai Champloo: Mixing Ancient Japanese Traditions with Hip-Hop
A bold and anachronistic approach to Japan’s Edo/Tokugawa period (1603 to 1868), Samurai Champloo flooded the niche of hip-hop heads with a penchant for anime. Above pic via mcorrgon. Although not the first attempt at such, it was an example of how a new standard could be set with pinpoint execution. From the director himself:
The show is set during the Edo era some 60 years after the confusion of civil war lifted. But forget the historical details. Think of it basically like some period in time 60 years after the end of a war.
Although known for weaving a wide range of genres into anime flawlessly, hip-hop was a first for legendary Kyoto-born anime director Shinichirō Watanabe. Admittedly not a huge hip-hop head, he was steadfast and determined to make the unusual mix work. Coming roughly 7 years after acting as associate director for Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo was released to the world.
Little did anyone know, it would become a timeless classic within its space, and act as impetus for the little-known modern hip-hop “lo-fi” movement. A hyperbolic revival of traditional low fidelity ideals with down-tempo, instrumental beats, often with a Japanese aesthetic for samples or accompanying visuals, lifted from anime or Japan during the 1980’s or 1990’s.
Marcus on the lo-fi 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 yeah.
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.
Pase on the lo-fi movement:
An SP-1200, MPC, they each have a specific sound to the machine. Combine that with sampling from vinyl and no proper mix on the song, Voila! You get “lo-fi.” Record crackle and whatnot. So, it wasn’t necessarily the artists trying to make their stuff sound dirty, grimy, lo-fi. At the time, that’s what was available and learning how to mix you probably had to go to school for. These were complete do it yourself times. If you don’t have a proper engineer to mix your songs then it’s going to sound lo-fi, or rather, what they call lo-fi now.
But in the hip-hop sense, I think you’d have to look at the Anticon movement and a whole lot of west coast hip hop movements and instrumental hip hop that would probably be considered “lo-fi” now.
Early Diplo, Jel, Odd Nosdam and RJD2 come to mind. DJ Shadow’s albums were all great and probably a better example of well mixed “Nujabes style” music, for lack of a better term. Ninja Tune and Mo Wax records etc. DJ Krush was the king of this style of music especially from a Japanese standpoint. I say all that to say there are a lot of great examples of where “lo-fi” came from than just Nujabes or Dilla.
It’s like putting an Instagram filter on a photo or something but just with audio, I get it. It’s nostalgia of a time gone by. I think it probably feels romantic in a way if you weren’t alive in 1994 or 1997 and I realize that’s just the way life is, things go in cycles. But it’s not 1997 anymore and I’m not big on nostalgia. I lived through it, I was there. I don’t want to go backwards so to speak (musically).
It doesn’t serve me or my life in any way. So “lo-fi” is probably just not for me. That being said, I haven’t listened at all so maybe I’m just ignorant and am missing out!
Above, scans by AC73, one of the most prominent archivists from Zero Chan. Rising up in the hip-hop space a few years before SoundCloud rap got on its feet, the modern lo-fi movement went on to birth a whole league of new bedroom producers who latched onto this aesthetic, often attributing their interest to Samurai Champloo, its soundtrack, and an enthusiastic mindset towards Japanese culture. Among the largest containing millions of followers on YouTube, resulting in a large wave of always-on streams for such music, which branched into more labels such as chill-hop, chillwave, study beats, and more.
The soundtrack was a primary reason why viewers connected to the anime, also giving the show a unique vibe that no other show at the time had. Surprisingly, most of the background music and filler music heard between sequences is produced by Shinji “Tsutchie” Tsuchida, while many are mistaken in thinking Nujabes produced the majority. Also something which may be a little-known fact, is that there are actually 5 albums (technically, 3 albums, and 2 playlist compilations) for the complete Samurai Champloo soundtrack, not just the two which were collaborations between Nujabes and Fat Jon.
There are also several tracks which are not listed within any of the playlists or soundtracks for the anime itself, which come from external sources. You can read more about that, in-depth, here. Below you will find artwork and information about the anime’s music below, via Discogs.
Tsutchie mentions how he got the initial hookup for the anime, which would end up having a domino effect, leading to Takumi Koizumi reaching out to Jun, then Jun conversing with Fat Jon to work on it together:
One day, I received an unexpected call from anime director Shinichiro Watanabe. He told me he was working on the production of a crossover historical anime series set in Edo period, which combined Samurai and Hip-hop. Then he added “I need someone to take care of the soundtrack.”
The anime served as a visual example of how masterful direction could blend two things on opposite sides of the spectrum. Underlying themes such as that of race acceptance and determination through common interest allowed viewers to see personal parallels at a different level than other anime which lacked such. Mladen over at The Find Mag wrote an exceptional piece detailing this, stating:
The influence of these four mostly unknown artists on the the new batch of young beat-makers is palpable, many of whom will admit that Samurai Champloo was their first memorable interaction with hip hop. In this case for anyone who has watched the influx from the outside, it’s clear that the series has led to an over-inflation of the importance of the four acts mentioned, to the point where the music itself is perhaps no longer judged on its own merits but through a lens of devotion and nostalgia.
Whether or not they’re ‘real’ hip hop fans is a ridiculous point to argue, as we’ve all had our different entry-points to this music, but the influx of an enthusiastic and international youngsters into the scene has been nothing but positive for hip hop overall.
This is true, as a lot of the new generation of people associated with the aforementioned modern lo-fi movement credit this very anime, specifically the two main soundtracks (Departure and Impression) as their first taste of hip-hop. As many hip-hop heads may know, the chilled aesthetic we hear throughout the anime is far from mainstream hip-hop, thus presenting more appeal to a wider audience, through a sound which is much easier to digest, often without lyrics.
Whether it was through sound, aesthetic, or both, Samurai Champloo both inspired and connected with people differently than other anime. 15 years after its initial release, this continues to be true.
The Era of Modal Soul
Two years after the release of Metaphorical Music, and a year after Samurai Champloo had begun to air, Jun dropped his second full-length album entitled Modal Soul. A more downtempo approach at jazz-hop with features from familiar faces, this would signal a shift in both sound quality and direction.
Following an extensive collaboration with Fat Jon, cleaner mixing and more smooth currents could be found within Jun’s tracks. The aforementioned collaboration has been mentioned by multiple people who worked closely with Jun as being a paradigm shift in his approach to music, both aesthetically and technically. Pase had more to say on just that:
The Samurai Champloo deal came in around the same time; I’m not 100% sure about the details regarding that, I would have to check with Fat Jon, but I think that [the trip and time in the studio] is why that ended up happening. They were doing that project together, so they ended up in the studio together for a little while.
You get a different Nujabes after that, in my opinion.
To me, it’s like night and day. After that period, his [Nujabes’] music got way better in my opinion.
His music got a lot more musical especially when he started to collaborate with Uyama Hiroto. Hiroto worked very closely with Jun for years. A lot of Modal Soul is Nujabes and Hiroto.
A lot of the later stuff is also if you pay attention. I love that era of his music when he started to incorporate Hiroto’s playing into his tracks. I’m a big Uyama Hiroto fan. The later trips I had with Jun he was starting to play more instruments, trumpet and flute, a lot of flute. Another Fat Jon influence I think.
Again, like Marcus, Pase, and Substantial mentioned in their interviews, influence within hip-hop is very much a two-way street, always taking and giving, an eternal cycle to draw inspiration from, to craft into your own sound. Sub mentioned the following:
Jun was always digging for new music, and was a huge Dilla fan. He was also a big fan of Fat Jon. He started to play flute because he found out that Fat Jon played flute.
It’s that friendly competition. I would say that the greatest artists usually keep great company, and almost always are influenced by those they work closely with. … Both ways.
You can hear a difference in Jun’s music prior to working with me, and after. Same thing with when him and Funky DL collaborated. Same thing with his collaboration with Fat Jon, especially—you can hear a lot of dance music feelings in his work, something Fat Jon was already doing before Nujabes had technically put something out.There is always an exchange, and even if we’re not talking Nujabes.
We can see a show in Seoul, right after the release of Modal Soul, where Jun himself is playing a flute. Jun says the following:
If anybody knows, I came to Korea one time to DJ, but at that time you probably did not know me, and at that time I was maybe just with my first band with two or three people; [we were] mainly tourists.
I had one-two-three 12-inch released six years ago or something, so I was just… I am just an ordinary guy. [sic]
A quick look at the sheer amount of samples, and how rare and unknown some are (or rather, were, before people went digging after hearing his music), is a testament to how deep Jun dug in the crates.
Perhaps the most recognized sample in all of Jun’s discography is I Miss You by Noriko Kose, found within Reflection Eternal. Another sample which took years and years of digging to pinpoint by hip-hop heads around the world is Tens (Calmaria) by Nana Caymmi.
The album itself is a crowd favorite among fans, and although the sound may be similar on the surface to Metaphorical Music, it was anything but if you lent a closer ear while giving it a spin.
Jun’s Last Album: Hydeout Productions 2nd Collections
In November of 2007, what would be Jun’s last album, was released to the world. Consisting of 14 tracks, 12 were produced and mixed by Jun. The exception being Uyama Hiroto’s solo track, Windspeaks and Emancipator’s track entitled With Rainy Eyes.
For years, the 6th track off the project, Counting Stars, was the most viewed Nujabes song on YouTube. In the midst of the Samurai Champloo fan wave, it was one of the very first uploads of a Nujabes track in the west, and it stuck like glue to fans around the world who became engrossed in the music.
A more serene and glowing sound than other work, it was clear that Jun had once again shifted his sound into a different mold. Arguably the most atmospheric of any work up to that point in his discography, Hydeout Productions 2nd Collections is also the one project listeners are often confused about. As a whole, does it evoke sadness and guilt, or happiness and confidence?
One of the more peculiar things about the project as a whole is its cover art. Not done by an in-house artist, or even a local artist, the cover is extremely abstract and doesn’t necessarily match up quite as linearly as previous covers. Warm and lush tones going to and fro, courtesy of Cheryl McClure, an obscure artist out of Texas whose sole cover art credit is this.
Unfortunately, despite positive reviews and a track record of linearly increasing skill set with each new release, this would end up being the final album the world would hear from Jun. After the release of the Second Collections tape in 2007, Jun took a hiatus from music.
Jun’s Lasting Legacy
20 days after the fact, it was confirmed to the public that the musician hailing from Tokyo, Japan who a global audience had come to know and love as Nujabes had indeed passed away, after failed attempts to resuscitate him at a hospital in Shibuya.
This came as an earthquake to the hip-hop scene. Just 4 years prior, James “J Dilla” Yancey had passed, and now Jun. One of Jun’s closest friends Shingo, wrote the following statement:
It has been announced that Jun Seba, aka Nujabes, Japanese hip-hop producer extraordinaire, passed away late February.
We deeply regret the loss of a unique talent and a close friend.
Even last week, I passed by his house and called him thinking he was still home.
Jun Seba will be dearly missed by his family, friends, colleagues, and fans worldwide.
Although Jun left this life too early, his music continued to make waves. In some respects, larger than ever, due to word of his passing which spread across the globe.
Following his passing, friends banded to together in unison, promising to maintain Jun’s legacy and preserve his music in the best way possible. Shingo headed to the studio and collaborated with other close friends to make sure the half-finished project Jun was working on would see the light of day as a final release. Funky DL had great insight into this process, being a high-level professional producer who often crafts his own beats from scratch, with no sampling:
In regards to the posthumous project Spiritual State, as you may know, as a producer it’s very difficult to infer or assume things that another musician intended to do with the music. Matching sounds and instrumentation up was incredibly hard to do for that album. Takumi was telling me it’d be released soon and I was loving it, it was just the sounds that were being matched up were very difficult to make sound correct.
You may have different versions of the song. Perhaps you used this MIDI sound, or that one, or when the song is loaded up you want a different version, or you may know what sounds to record that no one else does.
When Nujabes passed away, no one knew what sounds he was using or what his final intentions were regarding that album’s overall sound. It took a really long time to figure everything out. Even something as simple as what you hear as a piano, it would have to be matched. Music programs these days, you can open a window and there’s 50 piano sounds, so which one is it? A hard sound, soft sound, a more sustained or subtle sound.
That’s something which I think is interesting about his last project.
That album was released in December of 2011. A posthumous release, it would be Jun’s third album. Despite not having the polish of previous projects, it carried just as much sentiment and emotion.
Nao Tokui said it best, when asked about what he thinks Jun would say to him today:
“Nao, don’t waste your time by just testing new ideas. Make music!”
It was this steadfast mentality which allowed Jun to improve quickly and ascend through the ranks as a producer. Starting out with remarkable confidence, despite having questionable results, yet never phased by criticism, and always open to influence from those in his circle or otherwise.
A now-revered hip-hop producer who is often put up near the top, Jun continues to reach millions of fans globally. Although we may never know what Jun’s end goal was with music, it could be said that fame and labels are far from what he would have appreciated most.
It was a journey of self-exploration, while evoking emotion from the listener. Being influenced by those close to him, and taking in knowledge. Sharing stories through his music, and connecting with those who could relate.
This was Seba Jun’s immortal legacy.