“Lovesick like a dog with canine sensitivity
Developing this new theory of relativity
Connecting our souls resting in captivity
Positive life sacrifice what it is to me”
With those first lines, rapper Shing02 and producer Nujabes’ worlds would become forever intertwined. Shing02’s voice punches with battle rap intensity while the kick drum pounds underneath dazzling fusions of jazz piano and Richard Pryor stand-up. The two artists’ first collaboration, “Luv (Sic)”, was released as a single and appeared on a compilation called First Collection released by Nujabes’ own label Hydeout Productions. It was the first of many to come throughout Nujabes’ catalog as one “Luv(sic)” turned to “Luv(sic) pt 2” which turned to “Luv(sic) pt 3” and then suddenly you have a hexalogy of songs on your hands.
It’s hard to talk about Nujabes, the moniker of Jun Seba, without talking about his untimely death. Like many of the iconic artists who’ve passed at a young age, Nujabes’ story felt like it was just beginning in 2010 when he was killed in a car accident in Shibuya at 36 years old. But his death isn’t what made him great. His blend of hip-hop, jazz, and breakbeat techniques spoke for themselves.
It’s often you’ll hear his style compared to landmark artists like J Dilla (curiously enough, the two producers were born on the same day). The comparisons make sense, but there’s a different spirit the sound of a Nujabes beat. Something otherworldly wafting overheard, romantic and sad – it’s no wonder that “Luv(sic)” became one of his calling cards. While Seba isn’t here to share his music with the world, Shing02 has continued on. And now he’s paying tribute to his friend with a new tour performing Seba’s songs with live band The Chee-Hoos. He plays tonight, March 7, at The Crocodile in Seattle.
Shing02’s story doesn’t begin with Nujabes, however. Shingo Annen was born in Tokyo, but his father’s job took the family all around the world. He spent his early youth between Tanzania and London before landing in the San Francisco Bay in his teenage years. While he says he considered himself casual listener in high school and liked sample based acts like The Pharcyde and Del the Funky Homosapien, it wasn’t until he went to college at the University of California, Berkeley that Annen really began to explore rap.
“First day I moved into Cal Berkeley, my dorm mates were already super hip on everything underground,” Annen says over a Skype call from his current home base of Honolulu, HI. “My good friend David, who's a teacher now in Oakland, he just hooked me up. Soon afterward it was freestyle battles in the dorms and I got forced into it.”
It wasn’t long before Annen found himself immersed into the scene, saying he and his friends “cling to Telegraph Avenue” where he saw legendary Bay Area acts like Hieroglyphics, Hobo Junction, and Living Legends as they made their ascent selling tapes. He describes himself as the “Asian kid doing art for them.”
“I was just completely mesmerized by the whole culture of it all,” Annen says. “At first, I felt like an outsider. But over time I just became immersed in the scene. Everyone was cool.”
Annen adds, “I just have to say, the turntable scene was coming up in the mid-90s, so guys like DJ Qbert and D-Styles and Apollo and Shortkut, those guys paved the way for Asian-American presence in the scene.”
Annen stresses the welcoming nature of the Bay Area scene and the lack of prejudice toward any ethnicity participating in their music. Saying, “If you were creative, that's all that mattered.”
“Well, generation-wise, [we were] basically the children of these people who were in the middle of the civil rights movement,” he says “So it was natural for us to talk about history and be politically aware.”
The whole time he was making art for artists, he was still doing those dorm room freestyles. By 1998, he’d release his first EP Pearl Harbor, a tenacious record exploring the complexities and atrocities of World War II. At this point in his career, he was rapping over breakbeats sampling rock records. The EP also showed off on of Annen’s most impressive skills: being able to rap in both English and Japanese. The same year he also appeared on a track called “A Day Like Any Other,” one of the few tracks Annen switches back and forth between English and Japanese in the same song while he freestyles alongside El-P, Murs, and Yeshua Da Poed over beats by Siah and Mudfoot (the latter would eventually change his name to The Alchemist).
He was steeped in this aggressive sonic realm when Annen got an email out of the blue from Nujabes. Annen had never heard of him. To this day, he’s not sure how Nujabes found him. At the time, Seba owned both a record store so there were plenty of options for him to run across Annen’s work. On Annen’s next trip to Tokyo, he met up with Seba. The first time he ever heard a Nujabes beat, he was sitting in Seba’s van. Annen says he thought it sounded cool and he liked it, but he didn’t quite jump on it. Seba offered to do a single together and Annen said he’d think about it. Seba left him with a tape and they parted ways.
“I had the cassette for a few weeks probably and then one day I just popped it in and there was one track I really liked,” Annen says “And that turned out to be the instrumental for the first 'Luv(sic).' I remember calling him and being like, 'Hey, I want to do this – now!'"
It turned out that Seba had already promised the beat to another one of his frequent collaborators, Pase Rock. Seba left it up to Annen and Pase Rock to decide. Pase Rock was gracious after talking with Annen and let him have the beat. However, the beat was still far different than anything he’d rapped over previously with its jazz samples and delicate atmosphere. He says it was a challenge, but he embraced other aspects of himself to write what he’s called his “love song to music.”
“I always felt like I had a knack for poetry so it was more like writing poetry rather than worrying about saying the most outlandish lines,” he says. “It was more about what was in-between the lines. The rhyme schemes could be simple, but you can say something honest and deep without sounding corny...It was more about being very sincere about wanting to have a relationship with music but I'm not super confident, but I really want this thing. It was metaphorical, however, it was very honest at that time.”
The first “Luv(sic)” 12-inch dropped in 2001 on Nujabes’ Hydeout Productions. That same year Annen found himself back in Tokyo. On September 11, 2001, Annen was getting ready to head back to California after working on his next Japanese album. But with the attacks on the World Trade Center, Annen’s flight wouldn’t be able to leave Japan. A day or so later, Seba reached out Annen again asking him to come over to his studio and work on a track.
"I basically wrote everything I was feeling post-9/11,” Annen says. “It just came out of me, like, 'Once again, now where do I start, dear love.' So it just felt like a sequel to part one, so I called it [‘Luv(sic)’] part two. And that was that."
Annen and Seba continued to be frequent collaborators after that, with Annen appearing on “F.I.L.O.” on Nujabes’ solo debut, Metaphorical Music, in 2003. Around the same time, Nujabes was approached to contribute music for a new anime called Samurai Champloo. Nujabes, in turn, approached Annen to work on the theme song, “Battlecry,” together. The show proved to be a huge hit both in Japan and overseas. With the music playing such an integral role in the mood and attitude of the show, it meant even more exposure of both artists to the rest of the world.
Nujabes’ production began receiving even more acclaim as he released his sophomore masterwork, Modal Soul, which found Seba’s work sounding even more confident and leaning deeper into his jazz influences. The flourishing pianos, lounge horns, booming hip-hop drum samples, and the occasional guest verse makes the album a defining moment in Japanese hip-hop and jazz hip-hop production in general. And right in the middle of it is “Luv(sic) pt. 3.” This version is maybe the most well-known of the "Luv(sic)" series, partially in part because of its placement on Modal Soul, but it also encapsulates so much of that elegance and woe that defined these collaborations. On the hook, Annen belts, "It's funny how the music puts time in perspective, add a soundtrack to your life – perfect it." The song certainly captures that moment in time, especially as Seba and Annen's love of music began to bring in a bigger audience. Annen thought the third iteration seemed like the logical end, but Seba wanted to keep going. So Annen offered an ultimatum.
"It was kind of a challenge I issued him. Like, 'Hey I don't want to just keep adding on and doing this, unless you give me three beats that I can't refuse. Let's just make a whole other set,’” Annen says.
Seba held his end of the deal. It was around this same time that Seba began working with Uyama Hiroto, a multi-instrumental jazz musician and producer. Hiroto emerged as a right-hand man to Nujabes and the two’s energy began to play off each other and Annen could sense the shift in his music. In those early collaborations came the beat for “Luv(sic) pt. 4” and just like that another set was beginning to emerge.
The three of them worked on the fourth and fifth installments at the same time. After losing his close friend and beatboxer Jeff Resurreccion to cancer, Annen approached Seba about dedicating the track to his friends and making the song about loss. He says the Seba was skeptical at first but was talked into with a promise from Annen that they’d “bring it back up in part six.” But it was mid-process of making these records that Seba had his car accident in February of 2010 and suddenly was gone.
"Those were really trying times,” Annen says. “I remember when I was writing pt. 5, I had just set up a memorial page for [Nujabes] on my server and I saw condolences pouring in from all over the world on my screen while I was finishing that song."
The first verse of “Luv(sic) pt. 5” is dedicated to Resurreccion, the second Annen dedicated to Seba.
"It was really hard and disappointing. A lot of different emotions. And still...eight years and still...," Annen says.
The remaining “Luv(sic)” tracks seemed like they would remain unfinished, with only two out of three started in the set. Later that spring, Annen visited Tribe Records – one of the record stores Seba owned. The manager of the shop told Annen that they’d found a looped beat on Seba’s phone with the track name “Luv(sic) Grand Finale.” They played the beat over the store speakers and Annen says he knew right away that he needed to finish it.
With parts four and five still only partially done, Annen and Hiroto decided to finish the tracks alongside the newfound sixth installment. They did everything in Seba’s own studio, using only selections from his personal vinyl collection to record breaks and scratches. The pressed the final installments on 12-inches and later released the entire collection as the Luv(sic) Hexalogy.
In talking about part one, Annen mentions that the entire overarching concept of each hexalogy installment centers on indirect but being honest. When listening to the songs chronologically, a narrative begins to reveal itself. From infatuation, through trials, and even at the final call, the love of music perseveres. It’s a simple idea and maybe it would seem cheesy in other hands. But there’s something special about how these songs come together and the sweet finality when he raps on the chorus of part six, “Gotta finish what we started, so I cut the tape as our records will stay on rotate.”
Annen considers himself part of a fraternity of rappers who worked with Nujabes, including Substantial, Pase Rock, Cise Star, and others - thus making him a torchbearer. And while he does voice excitement about the tour and the new arrangements, he adds that he wishes he wasn’t paying tribute to a fallen friend. Nujabes’ legacy has only grown since his death. Since he never played in the United States, Annen’s tribute shows are the closest many fans can get to seeing the legend himself perform. Even with the new live band arrangements, Annen says fans have been receptive to their new interpretations of Seba’s beats.
“I really appreciate not only the audience knowing the songs and knowing the words, a lot of times when we play these songs with the band and people taking turns with solos, people like it. I definitely appreciate that so much,” he says.
Annen’s story doesn’t end here, either. He’s steadily released installments of his For The Tyme Being mixtape series and plans to release another Japanese album in the future and a collaboration with sauce81 called S8102. But much like the nostalgic and melancholic sound of Nujabes own beats, there’s profound beauty sometimes found in looking back.
“I would say on stage, when I'm [really] rapping, I'm thinking about those times that I wrote those songs so I can get back into that little space where I'm just being honest," Annen says.
Shing02 performs tonight with The Chee-Hoos, Cise Star, and Sabyu at The Crocodile. Tickets are available now.
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