Kohh's "If I Die Tonight" has all the vocal whoops, yelped choruses, and dark, minimalist beats you'd expect from a trap track in 2016, with a dash of 1998 — a Legend of Zelda sample. The song starts with Navi — Ocarina of Time's fairy helper — yelping "hey, listen!" Anyone who ever played the N64 classic will know the sound well, but you might not expect the cheerful sprite to pop up in a moody trap song about death and wasted life, its lyrics spat by a heavily tattooed rapper.
Kohh references yakuza movies
But that's not the only thing different about Kohh's take on trap. The genre was born in America's south, refined by Gucci Mane, Young Thug, and Migos, but the Tokyo-born-and-based Kohh spits his bars in Japanese. There's reference to drugs, booze, and living the high life in his words, and the production shares the same bloodlines as trap beats originating across the Pacific, but Kohh's background adds something unique to his music.
"If I Die Tonight," the video for which arrived on YouTube last month, uses the imagery of Japan's yakuza movies: steel-gray skies, unglamorous executions, a body tied up in the trunk of a car. Kohh even acknowledges the references directly, remembering a movie in which a man in the trunk of a vehicle was shot to death. Against that background, Navi's cutesy "hey, listen!" is a warning to live life to the fullest because you never know when your time up up — "YOLO," delivered via computerized fairy.
The topic is one Kohh revisits regularly. The rapper produced his own version of Fetty Wap's "Trap Queen," switching the language of last summer's smash hit to Japanese, and changing the subject matter so the song became an ode to his friends and his blessed life. Kohh's visibly tattooed in a land where ink is still associated with organized crime, but rather than cover up, the more recent "Dirt Boys" shows him shrugging off disapproving glances to enjoy fine dining and luxurious clothing. In "Paris," one of his earlier videos, Kohh seems genuinely thrilled just to be able to say he's in the French capital, happily listing places in the world he's been.
Paris is certainly a long way from his birthplace, in Oji, north Tokyo. Kohh's background was chronicled in a Vice Japan documentary short in 2014, in which he described growing up with a drug-addicted mother in one of the city's vast apartment blocks, described in the video as Japan's "projects." Compared to the US, Japan's rate of crime and gun ownership is much lower, but Kohh says the shit he's seen informs his songs and helps him make his take on trap. He also hopes that Japan's tastes for hip-hop change, from anodyne groups like the 20-year-old Rip Slyme, to harder-edged material.
Rap has traditionally been an import for Japan
Hip-hop and rap has traditionally been an import for Japan, flown in from America, but Kohh's growing foreign fanbase shows that internationalization is starting to go both ways. As Kohh boasts that he's been to London, London's hottest grime artist — the towering Stormzy — has trekked over to Japan, appearing against a bank of Tokyo's ubiquitous vending machines in his most recent video. Like Kohh, Stormzy adds a uniquely UK flavor to his tracks — where Kohh throws in sound effects from Japanese video games, Stormzy uses samples for long-running British soap Eastenders.
Through the internet, both are hitting wider fanbases than their niche scenes once seemed capable of supporting, and appealing to people that might not understand immediately understand their references. But as hip America's current infatuation with Korean rapper Keith Ape shows, trap, grime, rap, and general music nerds are looking further and further abroad for their new favorites.