December 26, 2010

My Gut Reaction / Something Different: Ski Beatz - 24 Hour Karate School Japan (October 20, 2010)

Producer Ski Beatz spent the majority of 2010 trying to finally release his 24 Hour Karate School compilation, meeting obstacles every step of the way, including record label reluctance (even though Ski's artist collective worked in conjunction with former Roc-A-Fella showrunner Damon Dash) that resulted in release dates appearing and disappearing from the calendar.  But Ski's biggest issue was with his artists themselves, specifically Dante "Mos Def" Smith, who recorded a number of tracks for the project (and shot a lot of videos, both behind-the-scenes clips for blogs and actual music videos) and still elected to pull out of 24 Hour Karate School at the eleventh hour.  This decision changed the course of the album, altering it from what it might have been to the final product I reviewed earlier this year, one which was still pretty good, all things considered, but one which didn't really live up to the standards that Dante's earlier-released verses (all of which were unleashed by Ski himself for free shortly after the album hit stores) promised.  Then again, any casual hip hop fan could have figured that shit out when they realized that Jim Jones was a featured guest.

However, while undergoing this very public struggle (everything a rapper or a producer does in the United States seems to be done in the public eye, thanks to never-ending blog coverage that only rivals TMZ when it comes to promoting the most inane shit), Ski Beatz quietly assembled a companion project for the Japanese hip hop audience, conveniently named 24 Hour Karate School Japan.  Now that's a move you didn't see coming, right?  (Unless you've already read about this project on another site, in which case, feel free to get a snack before starting with the actual write-up.) 

Dame Dash's vanity label DD172, which released the original 24 Hour Karate School with help from Def Jam Records, teamed up with the Japanese hip hop label R-Rated Records to craft this album, which features some of the best rappers from the Far East (I'm assuming, anyway, since I don't follow Japanese hip hop that often, thanks to the language barrier)  over the exact same production Ski gave his American counterparts.  Yep, that's right: the exact same beats he gave the likes of Curren$y, Camp Lo, and Jay Electronica on the original project were also given to some of Japan's finest emcees, almost as an insurance policy in the event that Def Jam flaked and failed to release the first album, so as to make sure that the music was heard somehow.

Even more interesting is the fact that 24 Hour Karate School Japan is actually readily available in the United States, thanks to Amazon.  Sure, you could spend fifty or sixty bucks to actually have the compact disc shipped to you (and get rewarded with a bonus track for your effort), but why bother when you can get the album for less than ten bucks by downloading it legally?  For those of you keeping score, this would be the only reason I'm writing up 24 Hour Karate School Japan: this blog doesn't make me nearly as much money to justify purchasing Japanese imports on a regular basis.

Okay, let's see what we've got.

24 Hour Karate School Japan kicks off at an unrelenting pace, as the instrumental to the discarded title track from the original project (which featured Mos Def and is easily found online via a quick Google search) is utilized by the group Infumiai Kumiai for a posse cut that transcends language barriers and just sounds dope, even though I'll be the first to admit that each artist on here could be bragging about fucking my mother, for all I know. It's good to hear that Ski's beat (and its nice little homage to A Tribe Called Quest's “Oh My God”) doesn't sound diluted or altered to match his collaborators: if anything, the rappers modify their own flows to keep up with him, which is the way it should be. Nice!

This song, on the other hand, was a muddled mess. Over the same beat as the American version of “Go” (as originally performed by Curren$y and Jim Jones), Seeda mixes his native tongue with random English phrases, causing this track to sound like an aural interpretation of the seventh level of hell. It doesn't help that Ski's beat (which didn't sound that great to begin with) comes across as fucking excruciating within this context. The rhymes themselves sound alright (Seeda is apparently classified as a “gangsta-slash-conscious” rapper: yes, they do have gangsta rap in Japan), but the forced conviction behind them make it extraordinarily difficult to power through them. As a result, there is absolutely no reason for anybody of any nationality to ever listen to this particularly shitty song again.

According to Discogs, the title translates literally to “general election of Japanese rappers”, but Hannya, a solo artist who has worked with Kool G Rap in the past, is the only guy to appear, so I assume this was meant to be a musical version of his own personal political platform. Hannya uses his Guru-esque monotone to ride all over the same instrumental Ski gave The Cool Kids and Stalley for “Do It Big”, but it isn't the best fit for him, as the beat is a bit too busy to support that type of voice work. This song was alright, but “Do It Big” was never one of my favorite tracks (I think The Cool Kids are overrated, although to be honest, I've never paid that much attention to them, so my opinion is pretty much based on their lackluster performance on a single song, which may or may not be very fair), and “Nihonjin Rapper Sousenkyo” follows suit. Hannya would probably sound better over a much slower, far more dramatic beat anyway. Oh well.

The beat for “Prowler 2”, which originally featured Jean Grae, Jay Electronica, and Joell Ortiz (alongside Mos Def, depending on which version you're familiar with) is used again for “24 Bars To Kill”, proving that nearly any group of emcees, regardless of nationality, will sound fucking great over it. The bluesy boom bap just sounds really goddamn perfect for posses to record to, as Anarchy, Rino Latina II, Kan, and Maccho come across as what the Wu-Tang Clan would sound like, had they been from Japan instead of Staten Island. This was pretty fucking nice.

Remember how awkward Camp Lo sounded on “Back Uptown”? Ski gives the same instrumental to this quartet, who actually do the beat justice. Perhaps the experimental staccato simply works better for rap artists who aren't lyrically stuck in the 1970s (in no way is that meant as a dis toward Camp Lo). This sounds so good, I wouldn't be surprised if Ski gave this to Tetrad The Gang of Four first, and then allowed Geechie Suede and Sonny Cheeba to lace it after running out of other beats for them to use for the original 24 Hour Karate School.

Since “Arials” (which featured Curren$y, Stalley, Whosane, Terri Walker, and, surprise surprise, Mos Def, although in a limited capacity) failed to make the final cut of 24 Hour Karate School, “My City” may actually sound to you like a brand new song. (I don't understand how, though, since I believe the only people still reading this write-up are the two of you who (a) picked up the original project, and (b) are computer literate, meaning that you could find the “lost” songs fairly easily.) The instrumental is pleasant enough, but I'm not sold that Gazzila was the best outfit for the day: his verses sound alright, but the corny hook, performed in English, makes Kool Keith choruses sound sane. Still, kudos to Ski for going green and recycling all of these beats, eh?

I can only assume that Ryuzo and B.I.G. Joe are using the jazzy “Nothing But Us” beat for a mediation on death or as an ode to fallen comrades: remember, there's this whole “language barrier” thing that I'm working through. The artists pepper their verses with enough English words so as to not completely lose the American audience that may only seek this out because of this very write-up, but the bars performed in their native language sound the most natural (obviously) against the Ski backdrop, which sounds a lot better than it did when it was supporting the rhymes of Curren$y and Smoke DZA. This was pleasant enough.

Ski's attempt at theme music for an 1970s Saturday morning superhero cartoon series that never existed, originally handed over to Wiz Khalifa and Curren$y (for “Scaling The Building), finds its way into the clutches of Baragaki and Zeus, who both sound okay, as they praise Ski himself and talk some shit (I'm assuming). “Runnin'” doesn't fare much better than its predecessor did, but it sounds decent enough, as the music really carries the artists over the threshold and into their marital bed for some deep-dick cuddling.

This is the rare song that dilutes the potency of its predecessor, but not because it is so mind-blowingly transcendent or anything. Instead, this song just exposes the fact that most rap songs are not collaborative efforts: typically, an instrumental is crafted first, and then sold to the highest bidder, who then writes about whatever the fuck they want, usually without any input from the original producer. Most of your favorite songs feature instrumentals that could have gone to absolutely anybody. As such, Stalley's “S.T.A.L.L.E.Y.”, which originally felt like the man's personal theme music, now comes across as an incredibly average song by KGE The Shadowmen. True, this song still sounds okay, save for the awkward hook, but it sounds powerful for all of the wrong reasons. I almost feel the need to retroactively adjust the original review of Stalley's track from 24 Hour Karate School, since now it sounds just so fucking generic. If I were Stalley, I would be really pissed at Ski for giving the beat to a second group of artists. Their quick homage to Camp Lo's “Luchini (This Is It)” was unexpected, though.

During my write-up for 24 Hour Karate School, I stated that “I Got Mines” sounded like a companion piece to “Prowler 2”. “Roc Rated” serves the same function for “24 Bars To Kill”, and not just because Anarchy appears on both tracks. This guitar-driven, highly-caffeinated instrumental sounds much better without Nicole Wray's chorus, which didn't even sound all that bad to begin with, which is a testament to Ski's ability to wrangle the best out of his collaborators when he so chooses. “Roc Rated” and “24 Bars To Kill” should be added to your Ski Beatz 24 Hour Karate School playlist immediately. No, I'm not joking.

Rugz D Bewler's “Super Bad” is repurposed for this song, which sounds exactly how a rip-off of Lil' Wayne's “A Milli” would in Japan, funnily enough. I've always liked the way Ski adds or subtracts elements from his instrumental every eight bars or so. However, this track is only alright: it isn't bad by any means, but the calm line readings of Twigy and Dabo don't mesh as nicely with the simple, gimmicky musical backdrop.

Uses the “Not Like Me” beat and warrants an overall “meh”. It is what it is.

Since the album version of “Taxi” ended up being an instrumental-only affair, this is one of the few efforts on 24 Hour Karate School Japan to not sound like a retread. (True, the original version of “Taxi” was supposed to contain a Mos Def performance, but that ended up being deleted, as did all of Dante's performances, in case I haven't mentioned that fact enough today.) Issugi and S.L.A.C.K. take Ski's driving music and turn it into an aimless ride through downtown Tokyo, and I mean that in the best possible way. Mos Def's version sounds much better, but I'm just glad that someone was officially able to capitalize on this aurally pleasing instrumental. And with that, I'm done.

Physical copies of 24 Hour Karate School Japan contain a bonus track, a remix of “24 Bars To Kill” that features completely different artists. Picking this up off of iTunes or Amazon is one thing, but I'm not in a financial position anymore to drop fifty-plus bucks on an import just to get an additional song. So I'll leave it to the readers: if any of you live in Japan and own a physical copy of 24 Hour Karate School Japan, let me know if the extra song is any good by leaving me a comment below.

THE LAST WORD: Obviously, Ski Beatz's 24 Hour Karate School Japan isn't for all tastes. Just as there are many people who (incredibly fucking stupidly, in my opinion) avoid foreign films because they hate to read subtitles, there will be American hip hop heads who refuse to listen to music that originated outside of their comfort zone. While this project isn't perfect, it does serve as an effective gateway into Japanese hip hop culture, aided and abetted by Ski's original 24 Hour Karate School instrumentals, which act as a bridge between two separate audiences. For the most part, the artists involved with the Japanese chapter of the academy adhere to a similar curriculum as their American counterparts, and they certainly talk as much shit as some of your favorite artists do. Aside from the language barrier, 24 Hour Karate School Japan could easily blend into the rest of your iTunes playlist: the acts involved don't sound as abrasive as you may have feared, if your only exposure to Japanese culture thus far has been anime, Gojira, and the first volume of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill. Ski Beatz allows listeners to have a unique look into a parallel universe that we can visit while still currently enjoying our current lifestyle, which is rare in hip hop, mainly because most rappers would become apoplectic if they discovered that their producer sold the same beat to an entirely different artist. 24 Hour Karate School Japan comes with a built-in handicap: the instrumentals you're probably already familiar with help ease the transition into an entirely new world, and as a result, this curious experiment actually works.




  1. While i'm not fluent in japanese, i might check this out just out of curiosity. The original was nice but i can't help to think it could have been so much more...

    Btw Max, since you're reviewing this, you should peep Curren$y's "Pilot Talk I and II". Both of them had large support from Ski Beatz as far as production is concerned and while the themes he raps about aren't exactly new, his charisma and style certainly helps. Although his flow might be getting old sooner or later. Overall, he's a good artist IMO.

  2. How come you don't do the 'BUY OR BURN' thing anymore?
    I loved that :/

  3. Um, the 'Buy Or Burn?' thing appears on write-ups that aren't marked 'My Gut Reaction', 'For Promotional Use Only', or 'Not Available In Stores!'. I still do it on nearly every write-up.

  4. AnonymousMay 10, 2012

    Just wondering how you are reviewing this unless you're fluent in Japanese and can understand it? Are you just rating this on their flow, their voices, or how "nice" and smooth they sound? Since you don't really understand Japanese(if you do, please excuse me), I find it hard to find that you rated this legitly, since you wouldn't understand what they're saying or their lyrics, which is half the song(otherwise the American version/instrumental version would suffice).

    Even I who understand enough Japanese to catch what they're saying(somewhat) don't really know how to go about rating this, as I'm not into Japanese hip hop. I also found that Japanese rappers like to muddle English/Romaji into their songs(such as saying "speed" as SPEE-DO) so it's hard to even get what they're saying between all the Japanese oriented English, Japanese, and Japanese slang blended in unless you're a native Japanese. Just some constructive criticism.

  5. Do you know that AraabMuzik released a Japanese rap album last year? It was a collabo with him and DJ Munari and they made all the beats, and have Japanese rappers on them.

    And this time it's all original beats, no recycling beats.

    Let me know if you're interested in reviewing it, I can send you the album.

  6. Also, VIKN is another Japanese rapper who released an album this year with all beats from American producers (even Statik Seletkah).

    If you're interested let me know.