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Friday, Oct. 30, 2009

m-flo's Verbal spreads the love


Special to The Japan Times

"It's like a meteorite flow" says Verbal of his group's name. "I spelled it 'mediarite' because I thought we would hit with a big impact in the media and surprise the unsuspecting masses with some good music. I think it worked better than I anticipated."

News photo
Go with the m-flo: DJ Taku Takahashi (left) and rapper Verbal will celebrate their 10th anniversary with two concerts in Tokyo.

m-flo, the combination of DJ Taku Takahashi and rapper Young-Kee Yu, better known as Verbal, have become one of Japan's premier hip-hop production teams over the past 10 years. They're also the go-to collaborators for a string of the nation's leading pop vocalists.

Verbal spoke to The Japan Times at a recording studio in Tokyo's teen-culture mecca of Shibuya, ahead of m-flo's upcoming live double header at Tokyo's Yoyogi National Stadium on Nov. 14-15.

The shows will feature songs from the duo's 10-year career, and a cluster of special guests. Only some of those guests have been revealed, including South Korean pop star BoA and R&B singer Double. Verbal says the concept will be a seamless mix of songs rather than simply playing the hits. "I look at myself in m-flo more as a host than as a rapper or producer, making sure the artist feels comfortable and that the audience knows that," he says. "Because if the people on stage aren't having fun then the crowd can tell."

Despite playing huge arenas many times, Verbal is modest and surprisingly self-conscious. "[When I'm] performing, I get nervous about stupid things like the banter in the middle. When you make a mistake in Japanese it's called subetta [a slip], I don't mind saying anything in English but in Japanese you have to say something appealing to the crowd. So when I say something and it's reciprocated with something less than [a good reception] I feel really down. Even if the rest of the show was really good."

Verbal perfected his English in Boston, where he studied business and philosophy from 1993 until 1997. He had been in a band with Taku in high school, but faced resistance with that dream.

"My parents were pounding this idea in my head that rap was crazy and I'm not black — of course, now everybody raps."

Spending time abroad was a sabbatical from music, and even after Taku got him to rap on some early successful tracks, Verbal stayed focused on work and studying for a masters in divinity.

Following indie success, m-flo recruited a third member, college friend Elizabeth Sakura Narita (better known as Lisa), and over two albums became household names, developing a style at odds with the ubiquitous Tetsuya Komuro-produced pop of the late 1990s. But the Japanese press focused on Verbal's Korean and Lisa's Colombian backgrounds as the cause for the trio's poppy hip-hop style.

Verbal disputed the ethnic pigeon-holing they received, insisting their style had been the same since his days at high school in Japan. "I was listening to De La Soul and N.W.A. and Taku was playing drums and using a sequencer. m-flo was just the 1999 version of what we always did."

By the end of 2001, m-flo were touring across Japan and had a top-three album to their name, but at their peak, Lisa decided to leave, allegedly in acrimonious circumstances. Looking back, Verbal remains pragmatic.

"I'm not hiding it, I think back then it didn't seem amicable. We were on a TV show and everyone gets in arguments sometimes. We were really bushed after a show and Lisa had a bad day and said something, and in the TV show they ended with that part like it was a big deal. We had our differences but you know, I have known Taku since 1985 and I don't agree with everything he does [either], but we are like brothers. The media wanted to portray it that way, and I was thinking, 'Do you really have to quit?' I always say we were the Guns N' Roses minus Axl Rose at that point."

Inspired by U.S. hip-hop group The Neptunes, the duo started collaborating with numerous artists while releasing the records under their own name. Thus, m-flo entered a second phase with the "m-flo Loves" project, teaming up with various leading vocalists rather than finding a permanent replacement for Lisa. Their debut double-header was with R&B singer Crystal Kay, on tracks "Reeewind!" and "I Like It."

"She was 17 or 18 and getting mature, when I first met her she was 14 or 15 and she was already taller than me," jokes Verbal. "Taku and I thought about what m-flo fans would expect next, [because] Lisa shoes were hard to fill. We came up with this theme and Crystal Kay had a good vibe and a great voice."

Collaborating with multiple artists was something of a logical step, since by 2003 both Taku and Verbal had plenty of experience producing other artists. The trio of albums, "Astromantic" (2004), "Beat Space Nine" (2005) and "Cosmicolor" (2007) featured such luminaries as Ryuichi Sakamoto, Akiko Wada, Namie Amuro and Bonnie Pink.

Verbal admits that despite the impressive roster of guests lining up to work with them, it wasn't all plain sailing.

"There are some vocalists that we thought were nice but were hard to work with, that are very picky because they are used to controlling people. But you'd be surprised with people like Akiko Wada; on TV she is telling people to do things but in the studio she was almost like a little girl asking if she was singing it right. She was so serious about music."

Verbal says this year's 10th Anniversary Best would mark the end of the "m-flo Loves" era. "I haven't actually sat down and talked with Taku about the future. When we get together we are usually just drinking," he says.

Verbal has recently enjoyed some success in the U.S. through hip-hop "supergroup" Teriyaki Boyz, who have worked with Pharrell, The Beastie Boys and Kanye West, but he rules out a crack at the U.S. market with m-flo.

"Before we even debuted I knew there was no space for Asian people in hip hop. [Americans] are consumed in their own world and even Asian Americans are not really in there. That's why I always thought that being in Japan doing this type of music is easier to market the brand, with an advantage for fashion and music because it's such a cutting edge country."

Verbal is known for his often eccentric fashion, which he fusses over right down to his underwear.

"For me fashion links directly to music," he says. "I even care what color underwear I wear. When I'm tired, people ask if I use vitamins and supplements and stuff, but I just wear red underwear to remind myself 'today I'm going to be hot!'

"I have superman underwear if I need lots of energy or am going to close a big deal."

Verbal did not say which pair he'll wear at the 10th anniversary shows.

"MF10 - 10th Anniversary Best" is out now on Rhythm Zone. m-flo play Yoyogi National Stadium, Tokyo, on Nov. 14-15. For more information call, (0120) 85-0095.

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