I once read an article on Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle which argued that the movie was almost revolutionary in a way, casting an Asian-American and Indian-American as its lead actors. It went on to talk about the struggle of Asian actors in American cinema, detailing how tough it was for them to grab roles that weren’t in kung-fu movies or blatant stereotypes. And I think that’s true, we have a significant Asian population over here and very little cultural representation – certainly there are those who know of J-Pop, but can you imagine one of those artists scoring a crossover hit? Can you imagine Perfume and Momoiro Clover making the critics’ year-end lists? Yeah, we had “Gangnam Style”, but did you notice how nobody cared that it appeared on the guys sixth release – if an American artist had a hit of that magnitude, their back catalogue would light up the charts.
Is the Western world maybe not ready for J-Pop, with its flashing colors, chirping melodies, and ‘idol’ stars that look like they’re 17 going on 13? Do we have to be? There really is something creepy to it all – where else could Hatsune Miku, a completely digital creation, become a pop culture phenomenon? Though how different are we, really? We certainly care about youth, we care about image, and we Auto-Tune the hell out of our pop stars to ensure that the least amount of personality comes through in the end. Outside of the unsettling world of mainstream J-Pop though, there really are a lot of acts that could cross over, as their music isn’t all that different than ours.
That must’ve been on the minds of those in the Teriyaki Boyz, a hip-hop supergroup consisting of two members of Rip Slyme, Verbal from M-Flo, Wise, and DJ Nigo. Formed in 2005 (I believe Rip Slyme were on a break, as Fumiya had fallen ill), their sole purpose seemed to be either to infiltrate the Western market, or at least to bring those sounds to the East. How do you do it? First of all, write half your lyrics in English (both Verbal and Wise were bilingual), so English-speakers have some parts they can grab on to (i.e. “HEEEY, SEXY LAY-DAY!”). Secondly, dress just like an American hip-hop group (circa 1992); loose-fitting shirts, baggy pants, colorful, backwards hats. Thirdly, play into enough Asian stereotypes to give yourself some sort of identity; sample some kung-fu movies, mention how the album came out in the “Year of the Chicken” (Chinese, Japanese, what’s the difference?), make numerous references to Asian cuisine, and so on. Fourthly, and most importantly – call in some favors. They managed to get a release on Def Jam, along with some serious star power – in order, you’ve got Ad-Rock (of the Beastie Boys), Mark Ronson, Daft Punk, Dan the Automator, Cut Chemist, Pharrell and the Neptunes, Cornelius, Just Blaze, DJ Premier, DJ Shadow, and Michael Watts.
So what went wrong? Simply put, it pandered too hard. There’s no formula for crossover success, as it happens so infrequently, but I think a lot of it has to do with personality. I’m not sure who would be interested in a Eastern hip-hop group who tooled their sound to be almost indistinguishable from a Western one, unless of course you want to hear what that stable of producers came up with. Therein lies the issue – most of these guys are clearly not giving it their best shot. Daft Punk was the biggest draw on this thing, but they wind up donating little more than an instrumental version of “Human After All” – worse yet, “Heartbreaker” was the first single, presumably on the strength of the Daft Punk name. A lot of times it seems like you’re getting watered-down versions of what these guys normally do; Cut Chemist just provides some beats for them to rap over, Ad-Rock, not exactly a great producer in his own right, can’t contribute much, the Neptunes sleepwalk through theirs. Who comes through? DJ Shadow is pretty great on “Kamikaze 108”, showing off an energetic, breakbeat-infested vibe that would’ve really made the album work, but alas it’s just the one track. Best of all is Cornelius, who produces “Moon the World” (what kind of title is that?) in the same way he did his own “Fit Song”, cobbling together disparate elements and stereo effects in a way that’s not at all befitting of a mainstream R&B song – nevertheless, it’s thought out enough to work really well, sounding natural yet off-balance in a way his best remixes do.
At least they were somewhat a success in Japan, selling a little over 100k copies; maybe not Tokyo Classic numbers but still enough to be considered a Gold record there. Not surprising, either, as Japan has had sort of a history of reappropriating American or European music to fit their own pop scene. In the end though, they did get their wish, sort of. 2006 was the year of Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, which it turns out had a soundtrack need for a group exactly like the Teriyaki Boyz – the theme song, “Tokyo Drift”, was actually a small hit here. Boy, that was a strange moment – I hadn’t seen the movie then, but I did hear the theme song at a bar, thinking, “Is that Ryo-Z? What the hell is going on here?” It is, hands down, the most obnoxious song they’ve done by some measure, but that hook is undeniable.
Their second album Serious Japanese came in 2009 (with a cover that aped YMO’s Xoo Multiplies), and it was another go at the same formula, with some returning faces (Ad-Rock, Pharrell and the Neptunes, Cornelius, Mark Ronson) with some new ones (Kanye West, Chris Brown, Jermaine Dupri, Big Sean, Towa Tei, Pusha-T, Busta Rhymes, Dondria). It’s a better album – again, Cornelius is the bright spot, but it sounds a lot less forced as whole. The songs are better, though they probably could’ve trimmed a minute or so off of most of ’em. Still, the real problem is twofold; first, all the singles were released beforehand – “Tokyo Drift” (2006), “I Still Love H.E.R.” (2007), and “Zock On!” (2008). Secondly, they rely a lot more on their collaborators this time around – on “Teriyakings” you don’t hear a member of the group until over two minutes in, not exactly how you establish a group that’s supposed to be some sort of all-star collective.
I would guess this is the last you’ll hear of the Teriyakis; Serious Japanese was a serious flop, and they haven’t done any other singles, while both Rip Slyme and m-flo have continued as normal. Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be. In retrospect, they never really had a chance – the main selling point of Serious Japanese was that it featured artists who “combined to win 20 Grammies”, which has disaster written all over it. Who buys a hip-hop album based on that criteria, anyway? That’s the rub with all of this, I would think that Rip Slyme, given a US distribution deal, would have had a much better chance at crossing over – especially since in 2005 they were coming off a string of really great singles which would’ve played well over here (“Funkastic”, “Rauken Baby”, “Blue Be-Bop”, “Joint”, “Super Shooter”, “Galaxy”). That’s what it’ll likely take – more personality, more fun, less attitude, less pandering. But hey, I respect them for trying, and they’ll always have that one moment in the sun – a moment where a guy in Small Town Wisconsin could hear Ryo-Z on the jukebox. At least that happened.