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Key Kool: Nikkei on the Down Side

By Ryan Masaaki Yokota

It was a warm day down at the Japanese American National Museum as the Hanamatsuri festival celebrating Buddha's birthday moved in full swing on a beautiful Cinco de Mayo day. Crafts and entertainment booths dotted 1st Street and as Latinos passed through on the way to some downtown festivities, they mingled amongst the Nikkei (Japanese-Americans) in the area. Some just passed through, but others stayed, especially when someone announced that a Nikkei rapper was going to perform. "A Nikkei rapper," I thought to myself, "this I gotta see."

And see I did. As Key Kool and his crew stepped up on the stage, they really started flowing, inviting the street audience to partake in the cool vibes.. In the background, Rhettmatic and Tony Jr. cut it up on the turntables, generating some fresh beat sounds, as the crew passed turns on the mike. The craziest thing was that Key Kool and his crew were just freestyling in a cypher session, improvising their rhymes on the spot in a complex way that demonstrated raw talent and skill. They weren't just slinging profanity or fronting like hard-core gangstas, but their rhymes rang clean, and had a good effect on the crowd. Soon the Asians and Latinos in the audience were on a pretty good groove, and a common vibe slipped through the audience. It had proven to be an impressive first exposure to Key Kool, a UCLA English major by day and well known hip-hop artist by night.

Key Kool, also known as Kikuo Nishi, grew up near the Roadium swapmeet in North Torrance, and through early life contact, jumped into the hip-hop culture. As he said "When I was young, my first exposure to rap came through Rappers Delight. When I heard Rappers Delight I just loved rap." Key Kool at first kept connected with the scene through one of his brother's friends, who used to slide him tapes on people like Grandmaster Flash, the Furious Five, and other rap artists. Later, in about 1982 (6th grade), he got into B-boy (breakdancing), and started experimenting with turntables around 7th or 8th grade, until eventually he started playing with rhymes. "At the beginning I used to try to do raps, and would always toy with it. Throughout the years I just practiced DJ-ing and started writing raps and experimenting. Though he kept changing and perfecting his skills through the years, however, he "was always down with the hip-hop culture."

Eventually, he started getting involved with organized hip-hop crews. "Around 1989 I got picked up by the Rhyme Syndicate (Ice-T's crew), who had a group called the United Nations Committee," and eventually this experience helped to expand his knowledge of the music scene. "We started doing our stuff and we got to record in Minneapolis at Prince's studio, Paisley Park. I was really naive back then thinking that we'd get out real quick. I was really impatient, you know, the music industry's like that, you think everything's going to happen real quick." After time, things fell through with the group and eventually he hooked up with other rappers on the scene.

"I started rapping with a guy named Intellect, a Mexican-Samoan kid. We started doing stuff for awhile and started getting exposure. We really started pursuing stuff and we got signed to a record company, but things didn't work out there." Sadly, it turns out, they wanted to focus on the Latino background of his partner instead of giving equal representation to both the artists' ethnicities. "They thought there was no market out there for Asians because there haven't been many Asians representing hip-hop, even though the DJs that won the world championship for the past two years have been Asian. But that's another story. They were saying 'we want to market you as a Latino group more' and I said 'I'm Asian, why can't we just focus on all realms and be universal." The record company refused to budge on the issue and he got increasingly dissatisfied. "Things weren't really working, I wasn't happy and I felt that they were just trying to push me off to the side, so I got out of the contract." Nowadays he's hooked up with a DJ named Rhettmatic with their crew going by the name of the Kosmonauts.

"Rhettmatic, a Pilipino-American, is a respected underground hip-hop DJ on his own. He's a member of the Universal Zulu Nation, Rock Steady Crew, and the Beat Junkies. He produces most of my tracks and I do some production myself. We're causing some noise right now and we're seeing that people are starting to know who we are." A while back, Key Kool had produced a track called 'Boom-Boom' that had "caused a bit of a vibe," but over time his style have evolved. "Now when me and Rhett vibe, Rhett makes really abstract tracks and weird noises and lots of obscure samples and stuff. My lyrics have been developing where now our stuff is more abstract, its more on an underground level, because our stuff is really raw."

"Our whole concept is that we're not trying to exploit the fact that we're Asian," he said in reference to his role as an Asian rapper. "What hip-hop culture is all about is its a way for any person to express themselves, whether its through DJ-ing, B-boying, graffiti writing, or MC-ing. What's most important is that you have to have your own flavor."

"We're just trying to be ourselves, and I want to show some intelligence in my lyrics, to draw upon different metaphors than you might typically hear. I have a song called 'Brain Swell' about shrinking down to the size of a brain cell and affecting you in that manner by stimulating your mind to think in different ways." Through his music he hopes to alter and change the way people think about things.

In many ways he simply hopes to hold true to his concept of the whole hip-hop culture itself as a vital breathing organism that needs continual new impetus to keep growing. "Once you get stale, once you get stuck in a rut, that's when hip-hop is gonna fall off. But hip-hop culture's not like that, because every person that's doing hip-hop, true hip-hop, is truly expressing themselves in a different manner. As long as there's an incoming group of people creating and excelling, then hip-hop culture can keep elevating. But once you get these guys that are just worried about making money, that's when guys do stuff to sound like stuff that's already out there. It's that capitalistic and materialistic ideology that kills the culture, cause it takes away from the whole point of hip-hop, which is to express."

As an Asian-American rapper, most of his musical references to his heritage have been subtle but present. "I don't want any people to listen to me or not listen to me just cause of the fact that I'm Asian. I just try to make good hip-hop, though little things come out. I have a song called 'Kikyo can' with a line from Gangstarr where Guru says 'I'll kick your can from here to Japan,' but also part of the chorus is 'Suckers are kicking like Tae Kwon Do,' which is another sample from an underground hit by Black Moon. Those are two African-American groups and when people hear that they think that's a dope line though they can't figure out if I'm sampling that cause I'm Asian or cause it's a fat ass line. I keep people guessing in a sense but then again I also do it cause Korean-Americans can hear that and get all proud, and Japanese-Americans can go 'I'll kick your can from here to Japan', and think that it's clever." Much of the referencing that he makes to his heritage seems somewhat ambiguous, and people have to dig for it to find it.

"I want to maintain a balance, kind of like the concept of Yin and Yang. I want to make a balance between all my cultures, since I'm of Japanese descent, I'm American, but I'm also down with the hip-hop culture as well. If I were to go too far over to one end, it's gonna cut out my other end. If I step too hard with my culture, it's gonna offend some of my hip-hop peers, since they really don't understand that yet. I want to kind of work it in slowly. Once I start getting respect and becoming known I can speak a little louder and get respect, cause people will know who I am. But I'm not trying to hide the fact that I'm Asian, cause I'm really proud to be Asian-American and Japanese-American."

Later he explained his views on his heritage in greater detail. "My parents named me with a Japanese name, and it shows you that they really wanted me to stay in touch with my roots, and that's why I try to as well. I've studied Japanese culture and I've tried to stay in touch with where I'm from, and I don't want the next generation to forget. I see a lot of peers of mine that don't have any knowledge of anything and I try to tell em. That's why if I get the opportunity, I'd like Asians to feel proud of being Asian and learn more about themselves. I want people to feel proud of themselves no matter what they are. Just being yourself and finding yourself is important to me, that's basically my mentality."

Nowadays in terms of his music, Key Kool wants to take his time with getting signed to any major record labels, but instead is thinking of starting up an independent label called Up Above Records with his manager Doug Kato. It's not just gonna be some rinky-dink thing but more on a widespread basis." If they succeed in starting up a label, then they can possibly hook up other Asian-American acts, since they'll be more open to getting them signed than any other record labels.

They hope to release a record in early 1995, and will spread the word through some promoters that will make sure the Asian scene will know about it. "On our own label we'll be sure to represent ourselves correctly. If I get with another label they'll go 'oh yeah!' an Asian rapper, and want me to hold a samurai sword and do other things that exploit me, and once the initial shock is over then I'll be over and I'll be the flavor of the month." Most of all, it seems, he wants to make sure that whoever he gets signed with will represent him correctly.

When asked about the future and post-college plans he explained things pretty clearly "I think a lot of people dont realize that they have the opportunity to pursue their dreams, that's why I'm doing it, I want to pursue my dream and I dont want to be thinking in the future that I wish I did this or this. Hopefully in the future I can do something in the entertainment industry to help out other Asians."

"The most important thing is to know yourself and know who you are and just be you. I think in our generation, a lot of us haven't found our identities, and when you're lost like that you just go through the motions of life and you dont really do what you want to do. If people could find out what they like and pursue it that's what's gonna get you somewhere."

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