How a Samurai Anime Made a Japanese Producer a Hip-Hop Household Name

Hip-Hop culture has always been about eclecticism—introducing people into entirely new worlds whenever it found a way to incorporate another.

In 2004, renowned anime director Shinichiro Watanabe released his second cult classic, Samurai Champloo. Champloo (a play on the Okinawan word “champuru,” which translates to “mix” in relation to cooking) would become an international hit, creating its own subgenre of anime referred to as “hip-hop anime.”

Shinichiro’s first series, Cowboy Bebop, had achieved the same kind of international cult following and acclaim, blending sci-fi and Western genres while being soundtracked and influenced by jazz. Music has played an integral role in Shinichiro’s animes, and like many hip-hop productions, his decision on musical direction was not a premeditated one, but rather an inspired one.

“When I first come up with the idea of what I am going to create, quite often the music appears at the same time. So, with 'Samurai Champloo' it wasn’t that I had the story in mind and then added hip-hop to it. When I came up with the character of Mugen I heard hip-hop at the same time, and I thought he was going to be a rapper samurai.” —Shinichiro Watanabe (EasternKicks)

In the first episode of Champloo, the character Mugen, his loose fighting moves resembling that of a b-boy, is immediately established as wild—something like ODB with a Typhoon Swell sword. His opponent and co-protagonist, Jin, is much more reserved and collected, yet extremely lethal—a more GZA-like figure. The final protagonist is Fuu, a young girl without a family who unites the two swordsmen in a quest to find the samurai who smells of sunflowers. We can call her the manager of the group, who sees the potential and offers the two vagrants direction.

Mugen is from the island nation of Ryukyu and is portrayed as an uncivilized societal outcast. Jin is a ronin (a samurai with no master), making him another societal outcast in Edo-era Japan. Fuu brings the group together, creating a sense of family and belonging amongst the three. The cultural and musical influence of hip-hop is fitting for the characters, given the genre’s historical roots of Black and Latino youths that used the culture to create their own belonging.

But the usage of hip-hop isn’t only fitting for the characters. It is, thematically, the quintessential music genre for the show.

Set in Edo Japan, the show is anachronistic, blending medieval culture with modern culture by featuring things such as graffiti tagging, baseball and even beatboxing. Thus, the show’s themes mirror hip-hop’s anachronistic conventions of using samples from all time periods. Think of how artists mix classical jazz with modern trap.

When asked why he didn’t stick with his successful Cowboy Bebop composer, Yoko Kanno, Shinichiro responded:

“I wanted to use hip-hop music in 'Champloo' and since Yoko Kanno is not a hip-hop musician, I decided to use other people. There were some people that suggested we ask Yoko Kanno to create some hip-hop music, but I felt that that would be more of an imitation of hip-hop music than the real thing.” (ToonZone)

Keeping it real, Shinichiro assembled a team consisting of Fat Jon, Force of Nature, Tsutchie and Nujabes, along with a few emcees, such as Shing02, featured on the opening track, “Battlecry.” However, of all the contributors, Nujabes, known for his soul and jazz sampling production style, has become the most renowned.

“The composer Nujabes was the first name that came to mind when I thought of creating music for 'Samurai Champloo,' so I think we were able to perform a great, spectacular collaboration together. I had a dialogue with him after we finished working on the show. Until then, he had been working almost exclusively in Japan, but after 'Samurai Champloo' he got a lot of great positive feedback from many people outside of Japan, so he was very happy with that.” —Shinichiro Watanabe (ToonZone)

Born in Tokyo, Japan, Seba Jun (Nujabes) began his music career in the district of Shibuya in 1995 when he opened his own record store, Guinness Records. The store consisted of music that Nujabes himself enjoyed, as he curated the selection to his personal liking. According to The Japan Times, when JAY-Z released crossover hit “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem),” Nujabes only stocked a few copies because he didn’t personally like the song.

In a rare interview, he told Sound & Recording Magazine that he “started making tracks because [he] wanted to hear music that sampled the old soul and jazz [he] liked.” In 1998, he would start his own record label, Hydeout Productions, under which he would release his solo debut, Metaphorical Music, before going on to work on Champloo and afterward releasing his most popular album, Modal Soul.

On February 26, 2010, at 36 years old, Nujabes was killed in a car accident in Tokyo. Word of Nujabes’ death would not become public for another month, but when it did, the loss was felt around the world.

In his lifetime, Nujabes developed personal and working relationships with many of his collaborators, such as Shing02, Substantial, Cise Starr, Uyama Hiroto, Five Deez and C.L. Smooth. An incomplete documentary about the Japanese star features many of his collaborators speaking about his legacy and their personal relationships with him. An emotional Uyama Hiroto claimed that Nujabes worked like every day was his last.

All of his collaborators admire him, each displaying eternal gratitude for allowing them to be a part of his legacy, but the admiration goes beyond those he was close to.

Aside from the impact that Nujabes had on those around him, he maintains a cult following in underground hip-hop today. With the help of the internet, his music has spread far and wide, even attracting artists such as Joey Bada$$, Dave East and Ari Lennox, as well as countless SoundCloud and YouTube emcees. His music remains an inspiration for producers, spawning several “Nujabes type beats,” and a series of Nujabes tribute beats by Australian producer Ta-ku.

The fact that not only were Nujabes and J Dilla born on the same date—February 7, 1974—but that Dilla died on February 10, 2006, and Nujabes on February 26, 2010, contributed to the mythos of the Japanese artist. Some hip-hop enthusiasts love to compare the two, claiming some sort of spiritual connection, while others absolutely hate the comparison. What we can confirm the two had in common was that their fame peaked posthumously, and during their lives, each kept away from the limelight.

In a memorial piece for The Japanese Times, James Hadfield wrote about Nujabes:

In a genre famous for its braggadocio, he was unusually private; he avoided interviews and promotional activities, and photos were so scarce that many of his fans weren’t even sure what he looked like.

“Please just remember, that was all by design,” says “Fat Jon” Marshall, producer and MC with the Cincinnati hip-hop crew Five Deez, and a close friend and collaborator. “Nujabes really didn’t want people to know him like that.” (The Japan Times)

Like Dilla, Nujabes maintained focus on the art, and very little is known about him outside of his career in music. Even so, his art continues to speak for itself.

It’s no surprise that Nujabes was the first person that came to Shinichiro’s mind for Samurai Champloo, his music itself an anachronism. His sound was a medley of old and new, making Nujabes and Samurai Champloo a match made in heaven, and resulting in a show which hip-hop and anime fans alike enjoy and bond over to this day.

Hip-hop culture has always been about eclecticism—introducing people to entirely new worlds whenever the genre found a way to incorporate another. In the very same way, Nujabes’ work on Samurai Champloo introduced many hip-hop fans to anime and many anime fans to hip-hop. In this way, Nujabes and his legacy have truly captured the spirit of hip-hop, and it's because of this that he remains so influential so many years after his tragic passing.


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