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Anime & Hip-hop with Rapper Kirk

Anime has long since had a deep and symbiotic relationship with hip-hop music, and Hybrid Thoughts, a Boston-based hip-hop group whose tracks has been prominently featured in anime like Dr. Stone and more recently BEASTARS, is another exemplar of the special connection between the two artforms. Like many hip-hop artists, Hybrid Thoughts founder Kirk “Aztech” Yi grew up as an anime fan, and Anime News Network had the opportunity to talk with him about his incredible journey from being an aspiring hip-hop artist in Boston to producing music for a medium he loves.

Could you tell me Hybrid Thoughts‘ origin story?

AZTECH:
Yeah, for sure. So, I formed Hybrid Thoughts in 1998. I grew up in the north shore of Boston, which is between a couple of towns called Landon and Peabody, about an hour north of Boston. Hybrid Thoughts was originally just like a collective of young people from around there that all did hip-hop. I kind of became the one that kind of pursued it a little further. Then, I went through the usual trials and tribulations that a hip-hop artist goes through, going and trying to get deals and getting denied. This is before social media and all that stuff. Like, I really did the backpack full of tapes and CDs and trying to hand them out. I did a lot of traveling to do shows and things like that.

Once I got a little more established, I actually brought Hybrid Thoughts back with a couple of the original members, but it ended up being a little bit of a different group. While we were trying to respark Hybrid Thoughts, I ended up linking with a person who became a producer; he’s from Japan. That’s kind of how the introduction to like, the Japanese audience started.

Yeah, that was definitely my next question. How did you go from Boston to your music appearing in ads in Japan? Was anime already a part of your–

Oh, yeah.

What got you started on anime?

I lived in South Korea in ’93 and, at that time, there was something called Super Granzor [Madō King Granzort] out there. That was like my introduction to anime and how cool it was. It was like, “these aren’t like regular cartoons,” you know what I mean?

That’s like a giant robot show, right?

Yeah, yeah giant robot samurai. Now Dragon Ball Z, I actually had not seen it at all in the States at that point, but it was out in Korea. I remember, my aunt worked at like a slap-on bracelet factory and she brought me all these Dragon Ball Z bracelets. I’d seen it in Korea, but I had never heard of it here. Over there, it was on television. Slam Dunk too, which now people in America will be able to watch because of Netflix. Watching that over there; Ninja Scroll, I was huge into Ninja Scroll. Then there’s your typical ones, like Samurai Champloo and all that stuff.

So, you were watching those growing up then, but now you’re making music for them.

Yeah. So I mean that happened. I’ve got to attribute that to my man Yuki Kanesaka who’s my main producer. I’m sure, if you’re anime fan, you’ve seen his name pop up on credits all the time. He became my producer – I want to say around 2015, when we started working together. Then, that’s when I kind of decided to like, full force, bring Hybrid Thoughts back. I decided, “Let’s record a Hybrid Thoughts album,” because we had him there and he was like a mastermind. He plays like, 36 instruments.

Wow.

It was a way to reignite Hybrid Thoughts, but in a completely different light, rather than just a bunch of people rapping on beats, you know? It was a lot different. From that we ended up getting a deal in Japan. We started working on a Hybrid Thoughts album in Japan in 2016 and ended up coming out over there in 2017. From that – since Yuki does so much licensing work for TV over there – came the first anime. He knew I was such a big anime fan, specifically me and one of the other members from my group, Paranom. The first anime we got the call for was Blood Blockade Battlefront..

That was our first one and we did one song for that. It was your typical like 90s hip-hop kind of track, but it was just so perfect for us. It fit the pocket so much. That sparked the rest of them. To be honest, I still obviously continually make my own music, but the anime stuff has kind of taken over.

Well there’s so much produced over in Japan now, too. There’s a lot of opportunities to get your tracks out there on new stuff. It sounds like – between 30 and 40 shows every three months, I think it is? Yeah, so Blood Blockade Battlefront, that was pretty popular when it came out, too. It was well known for its music. At this point, how many anime soundtracks have you appeared on?

Well, Sakugan will be my sixth and that comes out in the fall. I mean, I guess you could say six. One of them was two seasons of a show, so five different shows, but two seasons of one, which was Dr. Stone. I ended up on both seasons of that.

What can you tell me about working on music for Sakugan so far?

Tatsuya Katō is the main composer for that, shout out to him, that’s my homie. I had worked with him on Dr. Stone as well, so we’ve developed a pretty cool working relationship.

Sakugan was cool because I actually was a little more involved in this one than I had been previously. Usually with other shows I’ll do a track, two tracks, up to like three or four. For Sakugan I did about eight. Almost the majority of the soundtrack was myself and Paranom. A lot of times when I do these soundtracks, I’m sometimes unfamiliar with the show. I kind of just get a call and I’ll go there and record. They’ll give me like, a brief description of a plot, but I learned more about the show after I recorded the songs for it, just because I wanted to make sure what I did made some sense with the show.

What I know about Sakugan, it’s more on like the sci-fi side, which is cool. I haven’t really done much sci-fi. Like I know Dr. Stone‘s based around science, but it’s not as “science fiction” as Sakugan is gonna be. I got to do a couple things that I haven’t been able to do yet. Like growing up as an anime fan, the music you hear; those kinds of slower, more emotional love songs. I hadn’t gotten to do one yet, but I got to do one for Sakugan, which was really cool.

A couple more songs were like a little more hip-hop beat based, where like a lot of the anime stuff I do is not really centered around a hip-hop sound or have me like, rapping on them. But like for Dr. Stone, I was rapping over an orchestra, you know?

I listened to the song that sounded like it had a lot of traditional winds in it.

Bagpipes and stuff like that.

Yeah, it was a unique sound. I hadn’t listened to a lot of hip-hop that had that kind of backup sound to it.

Which is great – I love that. But for Sakugan I got to be a little more comfortable and like, do what I’ve been doing for two decades. It made it a lot easier and a lot more fluid to produce. So, I’m looking forward to that.

I think they’re keeping a lot of Sakugan under wraps. We’ve got plenty of information about who’s going to be in it, but I don’t think we have a plot summary for it yet. But Satelight is doing it and they do great animation work. Sometimes it’s more fun to go into something with no preconceptions, as a viewer. I’m sure it’s harder as a composing artist.


What were your instrument inspirations as far as working on Sakugan? Did you get to experiment? What kind of new sounds did you get to play with due to its sci-fi setting?

In my music that I make for myself, I base it a lot around abstract lyricism. Since it was more like a sci-fi show, I got to play with that a little more. When I say the beats were more hip-hop based, I mean that I got to kind of tap back into how I started. Tap back into like, the old influences, like Outkast and Wu Tang and bring that back. It’s a lot more comfortable when I’m just able to not have to try to focus and, portray something that I don’t normally do. Less like work that way and more just doing what I do.

That’s why this one was a lot easier for me to do and a lot more comfortable. I feel like my homie that’s on this with me, Paranom, probably feels the same way too. It’s just, we’re just right in our pocket. We recorded like six, seven, maybe eight tracks all in the span of like two, three hours.

I was curious as to what you thought about hip-hop having more prominence in anime in general. We’re seeing more hip-hop artists getting in the spotlight. Shinichiro Watanabe has been working with Flying Lotus and Thundercat. LeSean ThomasYasuke just came out on Netflix and Flying Lotus is on that as well. It definitely seems like there’s more hip-hop in anime than ever before.

Yeah. I mean, I love it. I always feel like hip-hop and anime have had a relationship. Even if you tap back into stuff that came out in the 90s to early 2000s, you had rappers throwing anime references in so many songs. It’s almost like a part of the culture like that. We kind of grew up with hip-hop and anime. Like not everyone that’s in my circle is into anime, but a good amount of them are. And, that’s kinda how it’s always been for me.

Just to see that it’s getting so much cohesion together now. For instance, the Samurai Champloo soundtrack was like a core base for hip-hop and anime. Especially the fans, because people like Nujabes had such a distinct sound. Us, as hip-hop purists or whatever, who were familiar with him and saw his work flooding an entire soundtrack? I was like, “Oh, maybe I can find some new hip-hop by listening to anime?” I mean, case in point that’s how a lot of people have found me now. I mean, 20 years in and I’ve only been doing anime soundtracks for a few, and it’s opened a whole new like pathway for me. I attribute that to just hip-hop and anime having a closer relationship now. It’s really dope.

I was meaning to ask this: you contributed a lot of that door opening to meeting your producer, but how did you guys actually first get in touch – you and Yuki?

So, his wife, she goes by the name of Saucy Lady and she’s appeared on quite a few soundtracks as well. She’s an artist from out here in Boston. She does more like funk, disco kind of stuff. And, we’d been seeing each other just in the scene for a while. And my wife is actually a professional stylist and Saucy modeled for her at a show where Yuki was kind of controlling the sound. I was performing at that show. He was kinda just like, “Damn, I love your stage presence, let’s work.” So that’s kind of how it happened. I ended up on one of his albums and then I loved the way he worked and I was like, “You know what? I got this group I’m trying to bring back. Can we do it with you?” And he was more than open and that’s it.

Are you guys mostly collaborating together in Boston, or have you been over to Japan to work with him?

We both live here in Boston, so it’s been pretty much all happening here. Then, we have usually the production team from TOHO or whoever we’re working with at the time on Zoom or something, overlooking it. But, to be honest, since I’ve been doing this, I haven’t gotten a chance to go out there [to Japan]. I was supposed to be out there in 2020, but the state of the world blocked that from happening. Hopefully once the borders open up, we’ll be over there. But, it’s mainly just been us and Yuki in-person doing it. Then, a lot of back and forth.

The only time that I worked directly with [the team in Japan] was the production team for the first season of Dr. Stone. They flew to Boston to do it with us. So that was really cool. That was the only time we were all in the same place working on it

It’s kind of just the new way of doing things. I don’t know if things will go back to normal after this. What do you have upcoming that you’re really excited about or is there a specific track from the Sakugan soundtrack that you really want people to listen for?

Yeah, there is. So the main characters are a father and a daughter who are burrowing through this hell? I got to do the theme that describes their relationship with each other. It’s much more emotional than the songs that I usually get for soundtracks. I was really pumped to hear it and see the reactions to that. That’s what I’m most excited for about that. I know it’s out in Japan already, but the song I did for BEASTARS Season Two is one of my favorites that I’ve done.

I’m really pumped for the rest of the world to hear that. I mean, their response over there for that track has been crazy. Definitely pumped to see here, because that’s another one where I got to just tap into my, old school hip-hop and just kind of go off. Did you watch BEASTARS?

Yes. I watched the first season.

It’s actually Louis’ theme.

Yeah, he’s a complicated guy. That show has so many good characters. It’s really easy to just get pulled into the world of it. I liked Louis a lot. I feel like I could kind of understand where he was coming from. Was there a character in that show that you felt like you could really relate to them?

In BEASTARS? I mean, probably Legosi, as far as being relatable. Even before I did the song for him, I really did like Louis, just cause I feel like he’s a little misunderstood. He’s looked at as like that typical cocky, jock kind of guy,

Yeah, it’s a defense reflex for him. He’s a prey animal, so he’s perceived as weak. That’s why he’s teaming up with lions and running in the mafia now.

Exactly. So, I did the song for that show probably almost a year before it came out. I had just started watching BEASTARS when I was recording that. I had no idea what it was for. Then, as the show progressed in season one, I started to pinpoint certain things that they told me to talk about in the song with him. I was like, “Oh, 90% sure. I did a song for this guy!” Then second season comes and then there it is.

Is there anything you want your fans to know or maybe aspiring hip-hop artists?

Sometimes it’s almost like an impossible dream or aspiration to do this full-time, but someone like me who has been doing this for so long – I mean 2021 is, shit, my 23rd year doing hip-hop – I have just now gotten to a place where I’m comfortable and I’m cool and I’m happy with where life is. You never know what’s going to come your way. There’s been millions of times where I just wanted to quit and things like anime soundtracks happened to me. Now it’s sparked a whole ‘nother thing for me. So, you never know what’s going to come your way, don’t lose sight of that.

It’s normal to fall into depression or fall into where you feel like you’re not doing the right thing, or you’re failing at what you love. You know, everyone goes through that man. That, that’s just it.

#Anime #Hiphop #Rapper #Kirk

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