Shing02 (left) got his start rapping in the Bay Area, and went on to collaborate on several cult-classic records with influential Japanese beatmaker Nujabes. (Left: Michelle Mishina/Right: Yoshiharu Ota)
Earlier this week, Shingo “Shing02” Annen should have been performing at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall with his band, the Chee-Hoos. For the past seven years, he has led “A Tribute to Nujabes,” an annual tour that honors his work with his late friend, the Japanese producer Jun “Seba” Yamada, better known as Nujabes (pronounced New-jah-base). Their March 26 and 27 concerts would have served as a small homecoming for an artist whose lifelong love of hip-hop culture began nearly three decades ago in the Bay Area.
Instead, the 44-year-old rapper is back at his home in Honolulu, Hawaii. In some ways, his band was lucky: they started the tour “riding on this cusp” of a wave of coronavirus-fueled venue closings that led to thousands of canceled concerts across the country. “We were the last bands to perform” at a given venue before it shut down, he explains. He and the Chee-Hoos managed to finish nearly half of their dates, including a show in New York and a final gig in Boston.
Now, with their tour postponed indefinitely, they’ve scheduled a live-streamed performance on March 31 at 5pm PST.
Names like Shing02 and Nujabes may ring unfamiliar. Yet as collaborators, the two pioneered a sound that inspired the viral “chillhop” phenomenon, and popular YouTube programs like “lofi hip hop radio – beats to relax/study to,” an ongoing stream that gets tens of thousands of listeners at any given moment. A search on Spotify unveils dozens of playlists dedicated to Nujabes, who crafted lushly immersive arrangements of hip-hop, jazz fusion and house tracks before passing away on February 26, 2010 at the age of 36 in a Tokyo car accident.
A recent Genius.com video on Nujabes’ influence points out how modern-day rappers as disparate as SahBabii, Jaden Smith and Joey Bada$$ have shouted him out in rhymes. Fans compare Nujabes’ to James “J Dilla” Yancey, another lauded beatmaker whose greatest impact came after his untimely 2006 death, at the age of at 32. “They both have the same birthday, [February 7],” says Shing02.
Together, Shing02 and Nujabes made fan favorites like the “Luv(sic)” 12-inch series, music for the Adult Swim anime hit Samurai Champloo (Shing02 raps on the hero’s theme “Battlecry”), and Nujabes’ classic 2005 album, Modal Soul.
“We happen to have the luxury and the privilege of being identified as one of the forefathers of this movement that started retroactively,” says Shing02. “[The Chee-Hoos] didn’t set out to do these tributes. From our end, it was done by popular demand.”
Before Shing02 connected with Nujabes, he was a Japanese émigré involved in the Bay Area indie rap scene. He remembers discovering hip-hop as a self-described “art kid” when his family moved to Menlo Park in 1989, and then getting schooled by classmates when he enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley as an engineering student in 1993.
In the early ’90s, Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue thrived with independent hustle. Musicians circulated around record stores like Amoeba, Rasputin and the now-shuttered Leopold’s. Shing02 recalls the presence of local heroes like Del the Funky Homosapien (who he gifted with an illustration in 1994, leading to a friendship), Invisibl Skratch Piklz, Saafir and Hobo Junction, Fanatik, Rasco and Planet Asia.
“They would teach you the actual hustle of how to get records pressed or where to get blank tapes,” he recalls. “It was truly inspirational.”
Shing02 immersed himself. He drew album art for Living Legends and Kirby Dominant, submitted illustrations to local rap zines like Dave Paul’s Bomb and the Legends’ Unsigned and Hella Broke, and developed his own music. He recorded his first tape, Evolution of the MC/MC No Susume, with local B-boy and musician Bas-1 and Japanese turntablist DJ $hin.
That activity blossomed into a career that spans two languages and continents. Shing02’s strongest quality is as a conceptualist who uses images, lyrics and production to craft memorably esoteric ideas. Standout work like 1999’s bilingual Homo Caeruleus Cerinus and last year’s Japanese-only 246911 (with producer Spin Master A-1) reverberate in spite of potential linguistic differences. On the former, he retells the story of The Little Prince with hauntingly meditative calm. Meanwhile, 246911 is festooned with traditional Japanese drums and melodies and breakbeats.
He’s proficient at English and Japanese rapping, but in different ways. “As far as the English goes, I’m more of a writer than a crazy chopper,” he says. “As far as Japanese, it’s more a syllable language, so I can chop it up a lot more and be experimental with it.”
In 2000, Nujabes contacted Shing02 via email with a 12-inch proposal. The former owned a record store in Tokyo’s Shibuya district and a label, Hyde Out Productions. He was developing a reputation as a producer of jazzy, sampled beats by collaborating with American artists like Substantial, Pase Rock, and Apani B. “If you remember, this is the golden age of independent 12-inches,” says Shing02 of that era. “That was the only way you could gauge how popular your song was: how many represses you got and how thousands of vinyl you were able to press.”
Shing02 was already making semi-regular trips to Japan to visit his family and do business, so the two planned to meet in Tokyo. Nujabes gave him a tape of instrumentals, and one of the tracks reminded him of Common’s seminal 1994 lament about the death of positivity in hip-hop culture, “I Used to Love H.E.R.” That inspired their first collaboration, 2001’s “Luv(sic),” where Shing02 proclaimed he would “always love her” in spite of the genre’s convulsions.
Asked to describe Nujabes personally, Shing02 responds, “He was very calm and introverted in a way. But he was very particular, I would say, and very meticulous with his process. He already had the environment of being a record store owner because of his family’s support. So he had access to massive amounts of records, and somehow he turned it into a viable business where he would set up his own label and sell his own records at his own store. At the core, I think he was like any other person, really fun-loving. Like, always looking for something to do.”
By September 2001, Shing02 was living in Japan working on his album, 400. “9/11 happened. I lost my ticket. I couldn’t go back to California,” he remembered. “Nujabes sent me a beat. He said, ‘Let’s do another collaboration.’” The resulting “Luv(sic) Part Two” showed that Nujabes had improved rapidly as a producer, learning how to sustain longer chords and develop a sound signature unique from the melodic throwback loops that marked his initial work. Shing02 responded with poetic thoughts about how the world was changing in the shadow of the World Trade Center attacks.
The third installment, “Luv(sic) Part 3,” appeared on Nujabes’ Modal Soul as a protest against hip-hop’s increasing commercialization. Around the same time, Nujabes recruited Shing02 to make “Battlecry” for Samurai Champloo: Departure. “I remember being in a shed in [Berkeley’s] Rockridge working on that song,” says Shing02. “I’m so fortunate that I even got the call to that. It’s a good look, if you will.”
In the ensuing years, Shing02 relocated to Los Angeles, while Nujabes got married and had a child. The producer’s best-selling CDs inspired a horde of imitators who made “squeaky-clean,” adult contemporary variations. From his “bird’s-eye view,” Shing02 observes, “I think being the figurehead of the ‘jazzy hip-hop’ movement gave him a lot of pressure.” He adds, however, that Nujabes found new inspiration with multi-instrumentalist Uyama Hiroto, leading to a sound that was “a little bit next level. It was arranged better.”
The two emailed a final time in January 2010. Nujabes expressed condolences for Shing02’s friend, a teenage L.A. beatboxer named Jeff Resurreccion who died from throat cancer. Shing02 responded, “I’m going to come over to your studio. I don’t care if I have to sleep there. Let’s bang these songs out.” A month later, Nujabes was gone.
Afterward, Shing02 and Uyama completed three more “Luv(sic)” installments for limited-edition vinyl. Parts 4 and 5 consisted of music he and Nujabes had discussed. The beat for “Luv(sic) Grand Finale” was found on Nujabes’ cellphone by his manager. In 2015, all of the tracks were compiled into the album Luv(sic) Hexalogy.
“Luv(sic) Part 5” is especially poignant. Shing02’s first verse is a dedication to Jeff Resurreccion, while the second is for Nujabes.
By the way I got your letter, you said you were fed up
Well I second that, and I reckon that you tried
So I don’t place the blame that you took the fifth
And the first flight out of town into the mist.
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