Anime and hip hop are unlikely bedfellows; both borrow from sundry sources, putting existing pieces together to form something fresh. Hip hop, as well as sampling music from myriad other styles, absorbs pop culture in its fusion of social commentary, political allegory and spirituality. Despite vastly different origins, intentions and methodology, there are definite cultural similarities between the spheres of hip hop and anime.
Each began life as outsider art, giving a voice to the disenfranchised lost in the whirling cogs of a capitalist society. Since the Allied occupation of Japan towards the end of World War II, there has been a social umbilical between America and the Land of the Rising Sun – a two-way introduction of media and commodities. The rise of hip hop in Japan coincided with the introduction of anime in America, and the rest of the world by extension. With the assimilation of anime, rappers now had a new language to explore and incorporate, with many making direct references or using its unique imagery.
Kanye West’s ‘Stronger’ from the 2007 album Graduation paraphrased philosophy and resolve in the face of adversity, and adopted Akira inspired imagery for its accompanying video. Although the result doesn’t correspond with Kanye’s original vision, it still pays heavy homage to the seminal 1988 cyberpunk flick, with the tail lights of a Japanese motorcycle gang streaking across screen – a shot that had been revolutionary. Director Hype Williams, who has worked with Kanye on a number of other videos, said at the time:
“He was always inspired by Akira. There was a point where we really dove in and wound up filming parts of that movie for the video, but we decided to back off of it and do something a little more abstract for the final version.”
Further championing his love of the medium, Kanye announced Akira is his joint favourite film, alongside Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, and defended it after a YouTube video dared claim Spirited Away was a better film. To be fair, he’s got a point.
And he isn’t alone; there are plenty of other hip hop and R&B stars who profess to love anime as well as incorporating it in their work. Pharrell Williams wears his love on his sleeve, the video for ‘It Girl’ contains a number of nods and references to various anime and video games. It was produced by artist Takashi Murakami (alongside Animation Production NAZ), who went on to produce a number of other collaborations. The word’s still out on whether ‘Happy’ has anything to do with Natsu’s best bud, though.
Rapper and R&B soul singer Frank Ocean made several references to anime throughout his 2012 album Channel Orange, including a crowd-pleasing nod to Dragon Ball Z on ‘Pink Matter’ – “This great grey matter/ Sensei replied, what is your woman/ Is she just a container for the child/ That soft pink matter/ Cotton candy Majin Buu.” Lupe Fiasco also makes a few subtle references to anime in his music, most famously with his verse on Kanye’s ‘Touch the Sky’ where he raps “Yes, yes, yes guess who’s on third? Lupe steal like Lupin the Third.”
But none come closer in passion than RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan, a tough call given the whole group readily confess to their love of video games and comic books. RZA produced the soundtrack for both Studio Gonzo’s Afro Samurai series and the follow-up movie Resurrection. Moreover, in his book, The Tao of Wu, he argues that Dragon Ball Z can be read as a representation of the black man’s journey through America.
Daft Punk, collaboration and integration
Daft Punk, the French house duo made of up producers Guy-Manual de Honem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, borrow heavily from anime, introducing thousands of their fans who might otherwise overlook this artform. Given the magnitude of the duo’s success, the new millennium was soundtracked with their mash-up of funk, disco and techno. Although their success is indebted to their infectious inventive beats and synth sound effects, it would count for nought without their visual aesthetic and iconography.
The duo themselves appear in stylised gloves and helmets in the place of skin for roboticised personas, and adding to illusion by rarely giving interviews or appearing on TV. Given the diversity of their musical influences, it’s little surprise they would count disparate other art forms and media among their inspirations. Their self-confessed childhood hero is Leiji Matsumoto, the mastermind behind such manga staples as Space Battleship Yamato, Space Pirate Captain Harlock and Galaxy Express 999. Captain Harlock was an especially pertinent influence, so it was quite a coup that the duo fulfilled their teenage dream of working with Matsumoto for Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem, the animated realisation of their acclaimed second album, Discovery.
This sophomore effort was Daft Punk at their most self-conscious, favouring a visual language over audio, in terms of their own personas and the album itself. The duo even unveiled their newly inaugurated robot personas to American audiences in an ad break during the Toonami timeslot on Cartoon Network back in 2001. Interestingly, the record’s most iconic single, ‘Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger’, was later sampled by Kanye West, serving as the backbone for the aforementioned ‘Stronger’ and bringing the anime effect full circle.
The production of Interstella 5555, however, was far from easy. It was the culmination of two years’ worth of work between the duo, Toei Animation and Matsumoto, who joined as visual supervisor. There was even a language barrier to overcome, with Daft Punk relying on a bilingual friend. No wonder the end result is all but bereft of dialogue! Given that Discovery served as the soundtrack for the entire movie, it was clear the collaboration was more than just wish fulfilment, or a gimmicky publicity stunt. The album is intended to be heard specifically within the context of Interstella 5555, and uses the truly universal languages of music and visual media to tell its story, capturing some of the magic that only animation is able to accomplish.
The film debuted at the in-Cannes film festival Quinzaine des Realisateurs in May 2003 and received generally favourable reviews on release. For some, this would have been the gateway into the world of Japanese pop culture, and seeing the French duo cameo in full robot regalia is truly a watershed moment. The meta references to Matsumoto’s own work and representations of his changing art style legitimised the film among even among seasoned anime fans. Despite becoming something of a curiosity in the 13 years since its release, it’s surprising there haven’t been more collaborations of this kind.
Gorillaz, imitation and appropriation
Gorillaz were a virtual band concept dreamt up by Tank Girl co-creator and 2000 AD alumni Jamie Hewlett, and Blur frontman Damon Albarn in 1998. The four piece consisted of 2D, Russel, Murdoc and Noodle, but unlike Daft Punk, these characters were purely imaginary rather than personas of performers.
The concept was inspired by and born of the super capitalist side of the music industry. At the time, Albarn and Hewlett were sharing a flat, and the idea arose out of watching MTV for hours on end and the realisation of its immaterial, ephemeral nature. A cartoon, non-existent band was reactionary, a means of commenting on and satirising the vacuous nature of the pop machine, at a time when we needed an antidote to the asinine backdrop of manufactured boy bands and reality TV.
Tank Girl was likewise a countercultural comment, as subversive in its statement as it was in its influences. Anime was one part of its overall anarchic blend of art styles and cultural movements. Despite not being born from anime directly, Tank Girl is itself steeped in manga-esque character designs, meaning the look of the ensemble drew from this hybrid style. The idea of a virtual band may have been crystallised in the mainstream with the Gorillaz (they do hold the Guinness World Record for most successful virtual band, after all) but the phenomena dates back to the late fifties and Alvin and the Chipmunks. The Archies followed a decade after, then we later had Josie and the Pussycats, and Jem and the Holograms. But there was also the strange phenomenon of real life bands using cartoon counterparts to reinvent and explore themselves, The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine chief among them. It could be argued that David Bowie helped lay the architecture for this idea, especially with Ziggy Stardust and his ongoing exploration of identity through personas – something later adopted by Daft Punk. It was a distinctly post-modern relationship between performer, music and audience.
All musical and cultural movements rely on imagery to convey their message and rally the masses, and while the Gorillaz captured the zeitgeist, the virtual band also appealed musically. Their debut shifted six million copies on release, with its blend of electronica, reggae dub, indie, trip hop and hip hop. Its follow-up, Demon Days, further solidified the musical legitimacy of the group.
Perhaps the biggest surprise the Gorillaz had to offer was their longevity. With five albums under its belt and no signs of slowing down, the virtual band are as much a part of the musical mainstream as Daft Punk and Kanye. What a strange world we all live in.