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A jazzy instrumental background melody mingles with hi-hats and a heavy bassline, my car and my chest vibrating from the beat. My head begins nodding as if it's compulsory, the impulse to "rock with" the song crawls through me as his deep, dense voice crashes over the piano. By the time the chorus comes—That's my shit, that's my shit/ Ride 'round the block, let it rock in the whip—I'm already hooked.
The initial track, "Thas My Shit," is a standout on Japanese-American rapper G Yamazawa's recently dropped album, "Money Is Time." "Thas My Shit" is boastful, it's full of confidence and a level of braggadocio bravado that's comfortable, and which foreshadows the themes of the rest of the album: lyrical prowess, stake claiming, and a breakaway from the underlying humbleness found in his first project.
When considering the current megacenters of hip-hop, Atlanta still reigns supreme. Hip-hop certainly isn't what comes to mind first when I think of Durham, North Carolina, but after listening to and speaking with G, that is quickly changing. The Southern city has managed to quietly, steadily convert its air of scenic sights and college town attraction into a breeding ground for DIY and underground art. Artists of all kinds, from drag queens and singers, to painters and performance artists, are redefining this Southern art scene, and rappers like G are there to sound the bull horn, documenting through sound the vibrancy of their city and creating a space for homegrown hip-hop.
"I have a pretty general introduction to hip-hop," G told me over the phone. "Mainly through my older sister. You know, in the '90s hip-hop was becoming the main language of young people, and I was always attracted to the colors, the fashion, the music, and the dance—all the elements of it."
Artists of all kinds, from drag queens and singers, to painters and performance artists, are redefining this Southern art scene, and rappers like G are there to sound the bull horn.
An appreciation for the actual history and art of hip-hop is instantly apparent in his words. He says his sister introduced him to the Fugees, Missy Elliot, Busta Rhymes, and other popular emcees from hip-hop's golden era. "My parents are immigrants, so I didn't have a strong background in American music in general, so I was like a clean slate when it came to pop culture." This "clean slate" may prove to be a potent base from which to build an artistry, because as I listen to his music, I can't help but feel a certain authenticity in each song.
An aspect of G's artistry that is distinct is his ability to blend, sometimes effortlessly, the aesthetics and cultural bearings of his Japanese heritage with that of a more traditional American hip-hop. His song "Buri Buri," a bonus track on his latest album featuring rappers MIYACHI and Pablo Blasta, is a keen example of this blending, which he says was inspired by his recent trips to Japan. "I always wanted to sort of bridge gaps internationally, because of my background, my sense of globalism, and just wanting to curate great collaborative projects across oceans."
His first track rapping in Japanese, "Buri Buri" is a spitfire standout, with a beat that's just hard. The alluring video is full of excitement, featuring flashes of fire and break-dancers in facemasks. "It's a Method Man sample slowed down," he lets me know, before confiding how difficult it can be for him to rap in other languages. But in true Wu-Tang legacy with the sample, the song transgresses cultural lines and language barriers—it makes me want to audition for America's Best Dance Crew.
An aspect of G's artistry that is distinct is his ability to blend, sometimes effortlessly, the aesthetics and cultural bearings of his Japanese heritage with that of a more traditional American hip-hop.
Owning his Japanese identity while operating within the traditional hip-hop sphere however often comes with difficult conversations, particularly considering the volcanic discourse surrounding cultural appropriation. "I've spent my whole life under that scope," he says. "It's a very intense and very serious subject, given the history of American music, and Black music specifically. It's an issue that's grown and intensified with the market, with capitalism, with commercialization of hip-hop and of culture in general, as something to be captured and sold."
Refreshingly, he doesn't shy away from the conversation, one which others in his shoes have often strongly avoided. "It's a serious conversation not only for racial politics, but it also goes into a wider conversation of culture as product. How should it be sold, should it be sold, who should be selling it." What's frustrating, he notes, is when the critiques come from purely academic spaces or places outside of hip-hop culture, outside of the people who live the life of an emcee and genuinely love hip-hop.
"It's a very intense and very serious subject, given the history of American music, and Black music specifically. It's an issue that's grown and intensified with the market, with capitalism, with commercialization of hip-hop and of culture in general, as something to be captured and sold."
This undeniable love accompanies the seemingly celebratory tone of much of his music. The Southern wordsmith says, "In a poetry sense, it's about telling your story. For me, the immigrant background, the Durham background, those are elements of my story. Naturally, these are things I've never had the opportunity to talk about in poetry directly. So being able to go into the ins-and-outs of where I'm from—Durham, North Carolina—through hip-hop is such an important element in understanding me as an emcee."
"For me, the immigrant background, the Durham background, those are elements of my story… So being able to go into the ins-and-outs of where I'm from—Durham, North Carolina—through hip-hop is such an important element in understanding me as an MC."
Recognizing he's from an "underrepresented place," without the major industry resources of typical big cities, helps encourage Yamazawa to continue creating art. As he recalls it—and accurately so—it's the tradition of the emcee to honor the place that they're from. Both in our conversation and while listening to his music, I instantly ponder the many cities that weren't household names, travel destinations, or cool to mention until a rapper began repping them. In this sense, he stands in the eclectic legacy of folks like Outkast, who once put Atlanta on the map, Three 6 Mafia, who gave recognition to an unheard-of Memphis rap scene, or 2Live Crew and later Trina, who both marked Miami's vibrant club scene. Before a place becomes a hip-hop place, rappers like G have to first wade in the painstaking struggle of putting their homes on the map.
Flip back a few years though, and , in his freshman album "Shouts To Durham," we see G begin to explore the mosaic story of place and identity with creative tact. Across the 12-track project, we're introduced to G as an artist: young, Southern, ready to pay homage to those before him and what he sees around him, and, most importantly, hungry.
On the song "North Cack," the upbeat production, with a chorus that conjures old school Southern hip-hop for assistance, listeners are invited into the world of 'Bull City cornbread, Carolina barbecue sauce and the slaw.' The song is reminiscent of the slew of hip-hop anthems and odes to Atlanta that took over the airwaves in the early 2000s, with a Durham-specific focus. When I was very young, Ludacris, Field Mob, and Jamie Foxx released the song "Georgia," a hard hitting, brassy track that sampled Ray Charles' classic of the same name, and I felt proud of my home state whenever the song played; it contoured car rides, Braves games, middle school dances. I imagine this same feeling is what Durham residents may feel when listening to "North Cack." G raps, Bull City feeds me, Bull City greezy, Bull City needs me/ Everywhere I go I get that Bull City greetin'/ That's why they throw the horns when the Bull City sees me.
Hometown pride is a main fixture in our conversation but one other thing quickly becomes clear: G Yamazawa's music is a work of passion, and love for the sport. "I would hope that anyone who's proficient in hip-hop, who listens to my music or listens to a verse from me would be able to tell that this isn't a get rich scheme for me. This is what I really love to do."
The breadth of his work speak volumes beyond just his personal identity, often tapping into the realm of social commentary like on the song "Violence," in which he indicts the very American violence which is so normalized in our society. In our current political climate, he says his social commentaries and identity-exploring tracks have "always been both a way out and a way in," finding ways to help people not to become "enraged or saddened to the point where you become immobile." But on "Violence," he takes aim at all types of violence: the interpersonal violence explored and glorified in hip-hop, gun violence, street violence, and the violence of the state.
In our current political climate, he says his social commentaries and identity-exploring tracks have "always been both a way out and a way in," finding ways to help people not to become "enraged or saddened to the point where you become immobile."
"I wanted to cover as many elements of violence as possible," he says. And he does. His track is long, straight bars: no chorus, it's discourse. "At the end [of the song] I get to the place where the greatest form of violence is against ourselves… This sense of feeling a void, feeling like you aren't enough, feeling like you have to take things from people to compensate, I think all those things are at the root of violence."
"If anything, this political climate has put it all back in our faces and said 'look, it's not quite that perfect, man.' There are things we need to continue to fight for and in ways that are unique to you. If it's organizing, if it's education, if it's climate change, or music, arts, and culture, whatever it is," G says, exploring the ways that he's been pushed beyond the music. "It's challenging me to think about more ways I can engage with like-minded individuals to just do something."
His future looks bright, and that empowering, proud Southern drawl is illuminating its own new path. On "Money Is Time," which dropped October 5, he's bolder, he's found his grounding to brag a bit, and his lyrical ability is better than ever. The beats are heavy, but he seems to be having more fun fluttering over samples and synths like an OG. "I spent so much time touring in the past five years, I'm excited to really sit still and be the best recording artist I can be."
Certainly, with Durham situated between the two hip-hop legacies of Atlanta and New York, we can see the rise of its own class of hip-hop heavyweights as exciting and long overdue. With G Yamazawa leading the call, it's inevitable.