We interview the hip-hop duo Green Street to get the lowdown on Tokyo’s hip hop scene.
The most common language in the world is not English. It’s music. And there is perhaps no other genre of music in the world whose culture permeates so many corners of the globe like hip-hop.
So we decided to interview the successful hip-hop group Green Street who love traveling the globe almost as much as they love making music. The Boston-born, now New York City-residing duo, popular for their progressive messages, jazzy backgrounds and international swagger, has been featured in numerous magazines such as Vibe and XXL. And they have performed everywhere- from some of the hottest venues in New York City to the most heart-breaking slums in India.
In 2011, A-Live and Soupa, who make up the members of Green Street, spent weeks performing in Tokyo’s most popular hip hop clubs and venues. Check out their interview to find out where to find the dopest hip-hop spots in Tokyo, who the most talented Japanese deejays are and how to “kick game” in Japan.
You guys have such an eclectic sound that reflects your love and respect for global culture and travel. Which culture has had the biggest influence on your music?
Soupa: My father emigrated to the U.S. from Jamaica, so I grew up listening to a lot of roots rock reggae and early dancehall like Buju Banton. The main themes I took away from growing up with reggae were rebellion against systems of government, spreading peace and love, and just being cool on the basis of attitude and lifestyle and not so much about money and possessions.
A-live: First off, thank you, that is a huge compliment for us as artists. Though I was born in the states, I spent a few summers as kid in India, which had significant influence on my how I perceived the world around me.
What are your ethnic backgrounds? How has your own culture affected the way you look at the world and your musical style?
A-live: Both of my parents are from India. As a kid, I would spend summers visiting my family in the Calcutta, located in the eastern part of India. I learned, at a very young age, the magnitude of struggle that people around the world are faced with and it helped ground me in my values. This was when I learned the true importance of love, family and faith. I always make sure that these values are clearly expressed in my music. I always tell people “Calcutta taught me how to love.” If you have ever visited or travelled there, this quote will make a whole lot more sense to you.
Soupa: I’m half Jamaican and half Italian. My father was in a reggae band and to this day freestyles around the house on a regular basis. My mom grew up in Catholic household and always preached to me the importance of being humble. I understood at an early age that many people globally are living modestly, so my approach to music is really about giving the perspective of the underdog and speaking for those people.
Why do you guys have such an interest in incorporating different genres in you music? Why is important for you guys to take your music around the world?
Soupa: I think it’s important to be seen as artists and not just rappers. Hip-hop has so much to offer musically aside from just the lyrical aspect of it, so having Renaissance and Ken Ross behind the boards is a blessing because they have a very diverse understanding of music. I like to feel at home wherever I am, not just in my hometown. I think it’s important to bring that same feeling to people everywhere. When you listen to Green Street it just sounds like you’re at home no matter where your speakers are.
A-live: I completely second what Soupa said. I think music is truly a universal language, and so a global perspective can really enhance the reach of your music. There is so much to learn and experience from cultures around the world, and we are always trying to incorporate that in our music. Seeing the effect of your music in different places around the world is an extremely moving experience. Taking our music around the world is a constant source of inspiration for us as well.
Why is travel important to you and your music?
A-live: I think travel is the MOST important aspect of being an artist, besides creating content. Before we started touring internationally, we were constantly on tour domestically, racking up nearly 75 shows per calendar year. Traveling with your music allows you to connect with the people who support you. It allows people to see different dimensions of you as an artist, things that aren’t necessarily decipherable by listening to a record.Throughout my adolescence, my dream (literally) was travel the world with my music. Think about it, you get paid to see new places while doing what you love to do. I think that is one of the most beautiful things in the world.
Soupa: Travel is important to me because staying at home forever is boring, especially when there are so many beautiful cultures around the world. Traveling is learning. Learning is inspiration, and all that is fuel for the music.
How would you describe the hip hop scene in Tokyo? How is it different from the States? Is the scene more mainstream or underground?
Soupa: The hip-hop scene in Tokyo seemed pretty small compared to the States, like less of a commercial enterprise and more of community.
A-live: I agree with Soupa, in that the Tokyo hip hop scene is smaller than it looks. However, the hip hop scene in Tokyo is really interesting. It is similar to the states in some ways, in that it is segmented into “mainstream” and “underground”. However, a major difference is the amount of traction that underground artists have in Tokyo. It is not uncommon to see underground artists have their material for sale at every major CD retailer, such as Tower Records and HMV in Tokyo. Also, most importantly, people in Japan still buy music and support the artists. The line at a Tower Records on a Tuesday is literally out the door. This strong support allows artists to be able to keep creating genuine, honest music with the knowledge that they will be supported by their fans.
What are 3 adjectives that you would use to describe Tokyo?
Soupa: Clean, Expensive, Vibrant.
A-live: Dynamic, sensational and efficient.
What are 3 travel items you can’t leave home without?
A-live: Besides the essentials, I always need my Blackberry, iPad and Rayban Wayfarers.
Soupa: I don’t know what constitutes a “travel item” but I can’t travel without luggage, music, and beverages.
Who are some of your favorite international artists?
A-live: Kojoe, SLACK and Budamunk are two of my favorite artists coming out of the Tokyo/Japan scene. To see the progress they’ve made over the last couple years is really exciting. In terms of artists outside of Japan, I’m a big fan of Little Dragon, SBTRKT, and The Weekend.
Soupa: Gregory Isaacs (RIP). I’ve been listening to SBTRKT and Air a lot lately. I have love for so many artists; they’re all my favorite really. It all depends on the situation and my mood.
Name 3 great places to eat on a budget in Tokyo.
A-live: Believe it or not, it is possible to eat on a budget in Tokyo. If you are a fan of tempura, make sure to find a Tempura Tendon Tenya. Cheap sushi is also pretty easy to find, look for a “kaiten-zushi”, or the Japanese term for conveyor belt sushi. At Y150 a plate, you can get pretty full for around Y700. Mos and Freshness burger are the popular Japanese burger joints, except they use real meat and the food is amazing. A little bit pricier for those on a budget, but nothing too crazy.
Soupa: The supermarket nearby was my usual place.
Name 3 great clubs for hip hop and music lovers in Tokyo.
A-live: Hm..this is a tough one, as it changes on a nightly basis. I would recommend 27 Destiny in Shibuya. The fact that they always have gogo dancers for every hip-hop show doesn’t hurt, haha. The Game in Shibuya was a favorite during our 2010 tour, we definitely had some epic nights there. Also, if you are trying to be wild for the night, Roppongi is the place to be.
Do you have any favorite late-night spots?
A-live: Haha, quite a few. The great thing about Tokyo is most things are open 24/7 (except the train), so the options are endless. Our favorites include the ramen spot in Shibuya on Senda-gai, the udon place opposite the H&M in Shibuya, and any Freshness Burger. Cant go wrong.
Soupa: We bounced around to a lot of different places. They were all cool with me, but my favorite late night place was definitely wherever we could locate some food.
What 3 things you must do while in Tokyo?
A-live: Go to the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Tower. Visit the traditional section of Asakusa and see all the shrines. Make the trip to see the Buddha of Kamakura. Absolutely breathtaking.
Soupa: Fall asleep on the train, make friends, and eat sushi.
3 foods/drinks you must try in Japan.
A-live: Wow. This is tough. For drinks, I would go with Calpis Soda and Umeshu Sour (plum wine). Also, buy beer/whiskey from a vending machine..just to be able to say you everywhere they never been. For food, definitely try yakitori salmon at a sushi spot, curry udon, and the mini milk bread packets from Family Mart or Lawsons.
Soupa: Calpis soda, the bottled coffee-flavored milk tea, and uummm….CALPIS SODA!
For people looking might be looking to hook up in Japan, what are the biggest differences in approaching (picking up) a girl/guy in Tokyo as opposed to New York?
A-live: Hmm..in terms of picking up women, it is definitely easier for artists in Japan. Women are genuinely interested in artists, especially if they happen to be from the states, so this makes conversation a lot easier. One of the major roadblocks is the language, but if your Japanese is as fly as mine, you can make magic happen. Also, women in Japan are generally well put together and better dressed than their counterparts in the states, so its important to be presentable when you step out. When it comes to ladies in Japan..they love Green Street. I cant explain it.
Soupa: I wasn’t even looking for women out there, but if I had to identify a big difference it would be the language. Make sure your Japanese game is proper!
Is the sushi as awesome as people say it is? Do you have any must try sushi spots?
A-live: Haha, yes it is. Sushi in Japan is significantly fresher and tastier than anything I’ve had in the states. For beginners, I would try the famous kaiten spot at the top of Dogenzaka Street in Shibuya. Let me know your thoughts!
Soupa: Yes. The sushi is phenomenal. You must try all of it.
3 things that might surprise people who have never been to Tokyo.
Soupa: Tokyo is extremely clean. You’ll find diamonds on the streets before you see trash, but the weirdest thing is that there are no trash receptacles. I ended up walking around with trash in my hand for miles haha. I was surprised by some of the clothing shops trying to imitate the most heinous items of American fashion. I was also surprised by the all-night party scene. I definitely didn’t see that coming.
A-live: English is much less common than you think, therefore it is recommended to have some basic Japanese phrases in the arsenal when trying to navigate the city. No one in Tokyo knows where anything is. What I mean by this, is that the street signs/layouts are so confusing, it really hard to find specific buildings according to their printed address. Always travel with time in hand. Also, nightlife is so intense in Tokyo, it is extremely common to see people fully passed out in the middle of the street/sidewalk during the early hours on the morning. Many times, they will have their wallet and phone neatly placed next to them as they “nap”.
If someone is traveling to Japan, what are some performances by Japanese deejays and artists that should not be missed. Drop some names!
A-live: If you are in Tokyo, you MUST check out the talented duo of DJ Tomoko and Ucca-Laugh. They are a J-Pop/hip-hop duo, and they make amazing music. Also, tell them A-live sent you and you’ll be good for the night. Also, definitely make sure you see beatbox sensation Chuseii. Words can’t describe his talent and energy. If you are looking for some true school, boom-bap hip hop make sure you look for Budamunk, SLACK, OYG and the whole Itabashi posse.
Name 3 great retail where you can buy really dope gear.
A-live: Ah, one of my favorite reasons to tour in Japan. Also, the quickest way to go broke. One of my favorite designer brands, Comme Des Garcons, has their flagship store in Aoyama. Not only are the clothes amazing in quality, but the architecture and designing of the store alone makes it a trip worth taking. Be prepared to drop around $100 on a t-shirt, though.The Ralph Lauren store in Omotesando Hills is, in my opinion, the eight wonder of the world. The styling and selection of clothes in that store is unparalleled. It know it sounds strange, but trust me on this one. For those not as interested in designer and high-end fashion, Tokyo provides a lot of alternatives. There are a bunch of vintage and thrift stores in Harajuku, right behind Takeshita Street. We found old Keith Haring shirts, autographed Run DMC Adidas Jackets, and the such in that area.
What’s the craziest/strangest thing that has ever happened to you guys while performing or traveling in Japan (or world, whichever makes a better story)?
Soupa: I got followed by this one-eyed pirate looking pimp in Tokyo. He relentlessly made his case about why I should check out his girls. This dude had to have time traveled to Tokyo right from Harlem sometime in the mid-70s. Gold chain and all.
A-live: I’ll go with a story that’s appropriate for all ages on this one. I was in a club called O-East in Shibuya. There were probably around 200-300 people in the club. I was there with my people, not to even to perform. This guy comes up to me, showing me his phone screen which was displaying my Twitter profile page, pointing at me and asking “You…Green Street??” Getting recognized by strangers on the other side of the world in a dimly lit club…I don’t know, I thought it was pretty cool.
If you could pick any place in the world to perform, where would it be and why?
Soupa: On a beach in the most remote corner of the world. I would bring all my friends, fans, and artists I mess with, make it a three-day festival, and have it all on film. Then I’d show that to my grandchildren someday and say “You’re grandfather was the man, see. Don’t be a lame and let people tell you how to live your life.”
A-live: One of my dreams, which recently came true, was to perform in the slums of Kolkata, India. Though it was for a music video, it was an absolutely exhilarating experience. Indescribable.
Hopefully you have read our ‘about us’, so what makes you guys ‘Nomadik’?
A-live: Being an artist is about so much more than just creating material. It is about seeing the effect that your material has on the world. To me, being “Nomadik” means being willing to go wherever your talents takes you, and to be open to sharing your experiences with complete strangers with the hope of creating friendships in the most unlikely places.
Soupa: We’re open to travel anywhere in the world and rock out. Give me a backpack and a surface to sleep on, and I’ll be there.