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Friday, Jan. 14, 2011
More than words: Triune Gods' rap speaks volumes
Special to The Japan Times
Five years ago, Masayuki Yoshimoto found himself rapping at a gig in a Vancouver basement. Few of the crowd had ever heard of MC Sibitt, as he likes to be known, and even fewer could understand anything he was saying, but they seemed to appreciate it all the same. Afterward, one question kept coming up: "That's a beautiful-sounding language. What is it?"
Adventurous overseas listeners who stumble across Sibitt's latest project might find themselves wondering the same thing. Triune Gods are a bilingual, intercontinental indie-rap supergroup, assuming that "supergroup" isn't too grandiose a term for a unit whose members fall far short of celebrity status. Their debut album, "Seven Days Six Nights," pitches the rapper's Japanese verses against the rhymes of American MC Bleubird, with Canadian producer Scott Da Ros supplying the beats and assorted sonic weirdness.
The trio first met when Bleubird was touring Japan in 2008, but he and Da Ros were already fans of Sibitt's work, having been introduced to it by their Japanese label, Granma Music. "There was a period where American hip-hop was getting stale for me, and I felt like Japanese musicians were really pushing the envelope and doing something different," says Bleubird. "Sibitt was my favorite by far."
At the time of his Vancouver gig, the rapper was one of the most exciting forces in underground Japanese hip-hop, both solo and with his group Origami. The two monikers trade on sophisticated puns: the Japanese rendering of Sibitt, shibito, would usually mean "dead man," but the characters used translate instead as something like "man of will." Origami employ a similar trick: their name has nothing to do with the art of folding paper, but rather means "falling god."
The group released a pair of albums in 2004 that drew immediate comparisons with the verbose, psychedelic missives then being filed by America's Anticon collective. Sibitt's first — and, to date, only — solo record, "Heaven's Renbun" ("Heaven's Love Letter"), came the following year. All three showcased raps that were rich in allusions, archaic terms and hidden meanings, though it would take a thorough reading of the lyric sheet and a hefty dictionary to help tease some of them out.
Sibitt was, and remains, an anomaly. "I don't feel like it's my place to be talking about the Japanese hip-hop scene (in general)," he says; "but if there wasn't any scene I wouldn't be here either. If you were to compare me to a planet, the scene has given me a universe in which to drift."
Little of this is likely to resonate with foreign listeners. What does stick is Sibitt's delivery: a high tenor that shifts from quizzical to wide-eyed to urgent, each syllable enunciated with the precision of a drama-school grad.
"I feel that in my life I've listened to so many rappers from all over the world that language no longer plays a factor in my understanding," says Bleubird. "It's more of a feeling, an emotion that I'm searching for in someone's voice. For me, Sibitt's music resonates on a higher level that's so melodic and heartfelt, I feel it and I understand it."
It was Da Ros who initially came up with the idea for Triune Gods, and Granma Music who did the logistical legwork. Rather than work remotely from their respective corners of the globe, the trio convened in Montreal last spring for a weeklong recording session — hence the "Seven Days Six Nights" of the album title.
Sibitt says that the two MCs worked "like latter-day beatnik poets," composing their rhymes together in concentrated bursts of activity, language barrier be damned.
"Bleubird and I wrote at the same time, straight after hearing the tracks," he says. "Each day we'd get up in the morning, write lyrics until Scott had prepared everything, record in the (studio), make a salad, clean up, write some more lyrics, and record again. Scott's music has the lyricism of a film score, so I think a lot of our words were evoked by the atmosphere of the pieces.
"I was surprised to discover later on that Bleubird's lyrics referred to the same sorts of issues as mine," he continues. "The languages were different, but during those seven days together our spirits were in sync."
In the course of their Montreal trip, the two MCs also found time to perform at a show with local act Heliodrome, who marry French-language rap with instrumentation more befitting a klezmer band. A YouTube video captures part of the performance, Bleubird and Sibitt grinning wildly as they trade 16-bar verses.
"It was an emotional experience," recalls Sibitt. "There were people doing folk dances during the show, and even though they probably didn't understand the words, there was loud applause at the end."
"When you hear a foreign language in rap music for the first time it is quite interesting no matter what," says Da Ros. "But it's keeping the audience's attention for a whole set that seems to be the hard part. Sibitt had everyone completely into the set from start to end."
It's a trick that they hope to repeat when Triune Gods embark on a Japan tour this fall, accompanied by a revitalized Origami. The latter's long-delayed third album is finally due to drop this year, with an overseas tour also promised. "It's all going to take shape in 2011," says Sibitt. "There's a lot of new material that's about to rise to the surface." And, perhaps, a lot of new listeners — whatever the language.
"Seven Days Six Nights" is released by Granma Music on Jan 19. Keep an eye on www.triunegods.com for details of the group's Japan tour later in the year.