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.