Nujabes: The J Dilla of Japan?

Nujabes: The J Dilla of Japan?

When a traffic accident in February 2010 claimed the life of independent hip-hop amateur Nujabes (pronounced “noo-ja-bes”), even some of his closest collaborators didn’t find out until a few weeks later.

However, by the time of his death, Nujabes at 36 had become one of Japan’s most prolific hip-hop producers and had built a substantial international following. Nujabes, whose name is an anagram of birth name “Jun Seba”, was considered one of the kings of nostalgic, neo-jazz hop. Nujabes, in some hip-hop circles, was the J-Dilla of Japan. Aside from their music production similarities, they were both born on February 7; and they both died in the month of February (Nujabes left us four years after J-Dilla). And like the late J Dilla, Nujabes’ posthumous fame has surpassed the renown that he enjoyed during his lifetime.

Nevertheless, his unique style, blending hip-hop with a heavy jazz influence, is truly unlike anyone else, and that is really what makes him a legend. Seba’s early material reflected his close attention to the “golden age” jazz-rap stalwarts like Pete Rock and A Tribe Called Quest, as he quickly began to hone in on a signature sound: warm and unabashedly emotive. Plangent piano lines dominated, sometimes ornamented by flute or soprano saxophone, with a mood that hovers between melancholy and uplifting without ever tipping over into schmaltz. Nujabes’ productions lack the high-definition sheen of much contemporary hip-hop; many are mixed to achieve the worn, faded quality of an old record cover.

His true gift was to identify, project and quantify the emotional elements of a piece. He managed to do this with such a level of artistry, inviting the listener to develop a personal bond with the song, so much so that they demand an emotional response, whether that be joy, sorrow, or anything in between. Nujabes’ music can be heard through countless artists, and it’s instantly identifiable by their attempt to provoke an analogous emotional response. Examples such as nitsua or Leehahn are only scatters in a genre that has been completely transformed since Nujabes briefly passed through it.

Both Jun and J-Dilla departed early, as did many greats before them. It is a testament to his skill that Nujabes managed to influence the world for the better, inspiring a whole generation of musicians, beat-makers and listeners. 

 

Dan Sharp - President