Tracing The Lost Beats: Greatness of Jun Seba
Being constantly compared to J Dilla could be seen as both an honor and a disservice to Nujabes - a little bit like a Mozart/Salieri type of scenario if you will.
You can imagine Salieri being a Mozart fan who lived on another continent. It’s not to say that the parallels and influences aren’t evident. Nujabes likely had one of those at a time ubiquitous “J Dilla Changed My Life” shirts. Unfortunately, both passed away in their primes (in February), and both probably became more famous and revered posthumously than during their lifetimes.
Both are considered icons in the hip-hop sub-genres they pioneered and operate in today. Nujabes has profoundly influenced a specific aesthetic of beat-making, whether you call it lo-fi beats, chill-hop, chillwave, or “beats to study to.” After producing his work, that style became popular through 24-hour YouTube streams featuring looped gifs of Studio Ghibli characters studying. Sometimes, the beats in those playlists do their predecessors justice, but on occasion, they feel like a more washed-down and formulaic version. Reducing Nujabes’ music to “background noise'' would not do it justice.
As a student of hip-hop, Jun Seba got his start in the music business when he opened Guinness Records in Shibuya. According to Pase Rock, a close friend, the shop was “the underground hip-hop spot. (It) leaned more towards stuff you’d sample and underground hip-hop. Soul, jazz, lots of stuff like that. 60% underground hip-hop, 40% other. Jun didn’t like commercial hip-hop, so he wasn’t with it if it wasn’t like DJ Premier, Pete Rock, or Five Deez.”
Upon launching his shop, he spent little time producing beats and establishing his record label, Hydeout Productions. In 1998, he boldly released an unauthorized remix of Nas’ legendary Illmatic track, One Love, on vinyl. He placed copies of his remix in the Nas section of Guinness Records to promote his work and attract attention, leaving people curious about this Nujabes person.
The same year saw the release of a 36-track mixtape titled “Sweet Sticky Thing ~Reload All Good Music From Old To The New~.” Funky DL, a long-time collaborator of Nujabes, revealed that the late artist was highly selective in his releases despite having recorded numerous songs. This speaks volumes about Nujabes’ dedication to quality and unwavering commitment to his craft. Such attention to detail is a rarity in today’s music industry and a testament to Nujabes’ exceptional talent. How he felt about the recording then was what dictated the tapes being released or shelved.
Jun’s popularity in the hip-hop scene is due to his ability to find obscure samples that fit his methodology of applying warm and dynamic sounds with an Eastern sensibility for melody. He also implemented hip-hop-atypical instruments like the flute into his music. Despite the slow tempo of many of his beats, he fearlessly explores the boundaries of music by experimenting with up-tempo tracks that almost verge on the realm of house music.
Nujabes’ beats stand out from the other hip-hop productions, as they not only carry a melodious tune but also provoke an emotional response beyond mere head nodding. His greatest skill lay in his ability to discern the emotional value present in the samples he unearthed and then amplify it in a manner that left an indelible impression on all who experienced it. It was truly remarkable to witness someone with such an innate understanding of the power of emotions and the ability to channel them masterfully. May that be melancholy, anguish, joy, or clear serenity. He always did it with a definitive sense of artistry and a sincere appreciation for the beauty of his source material.
It’s hard to deny that his beats possess a certain quality that lends itself well to the moodiness and emotionality of anime. Looking back, it’s clear that many of his compositions could easily be used as themes for the opening or ending credits of anime shows. Today, it is not surprising that Shinichirō Watanabe recruited him to work on the now-cult anime series Samurai Champloo in 2003. It is set in an alternate Edo–era Japan, where samurais and tea houses coexist alongside graffiti tagging and east–coast hip-hop. The plot follows three outcasts trying to track down the mysterious “samurai who smells of sunflowers.” Directing the classic Cowboy Bebop series, Watanabe has already shown that he places great importance on scores and soundtracks. (If you are unfamiliar with Comboy Bebop’s opening theme song Tank! by Yoko Kanno and Seatbelts, check out the opening sequence and the whole song.) When he came up with the idea of a samurai-hip-hop crossover, he “needed someone to take care of the soundtrack” and got introduced to Nujabes via mutual friends. Between releasing his solo albums, Metaphorical Music and Modal Soul, Jun worked with Fat Jon to create the anime’s OST.
Jun’s success and international recognition within the hip-hop community can be attributed to the groundbreaking soundtrack of the series. The soundtrack’s relaxed beat aesthetics have inspired a new generation of producers to follow Jun’s footsteps and create their unique sound. Join the wave of aspiring producers and let Jun’s music be your guide to success in hip-hop.
On February 26th, 2010, Jun Seba died shortly after being involved in a car accident. He had released only two solo albums - a third in the works, which a group of his friends finished.
METAPHORICAL MUSIC (2003)
As debut albums go, Metaphorical Music laid the foundation for all of Nujabes’ musical output in consequence. It is a milestone in lo-fi, jazzy, and melodic hip-hop production. Nujabes puts precise drums and driving baselines strictly from vinyl samples by Pharoah Sanders, Miles Davis, or Yusef Lateef. Many horn sounds, dreamy pianos arranged with strings, and the plain, honest approach create such poetic soundscapes that Metaphorical Music would have been even better as an instrumental album. Not that the verses contributed by numerous friends and collaborators are plain bad by any stretch. Still, some verses may slightly cross the line into cringe territory as they try hard to be conscious and substantial while they seem more like technical “rap exercises”. Maybe it is also caused by the mixing, but the beats always feel like the starring cast member.
MODAL SOUL (2005)
After working with Fat Jon on the Samurai Champloo OST, Nujabes started learning how to play different instruments like the trumpet or the flute and created a lot of music with fellow producer and jazz musician Uyama Hiroto. The album that was created in this time of musical exploration is Modal Soul. A big influence of jazz is very present on the record again. Jun samples the likes of Yusef Lateef or Chet Baker. Beyond that, he also manages to keep finding snippets in slightly more obscure places like the progressive-rock band Gypsy, Brazilian singer Nana Caymmi, or composer Noriko Kose for example. Stylistically you still get a beautifully produced, chilled beat album with some rap parts sprinkled throughout and at times with a little bit more dance-music-nuances put in the mix. It might be a little slower and smoother and appears to have a clearer mastering than Metaphorical Music. Modal Soul may show a higher degree of musicality and even more soulfulness [no pun intended] than its predecessor. It is a fantastic second album overall - a logical and impressive step forward.
SPIRITUAL STATE (2011)
When Jun Seba passed away, his third solo album Spiritual State was allegedly about halfway finished. To honor his legacy and make sure the last Nujabes productions would see a proper release, his close friend Shingo gathered some collaborators from over the years in his studio with the mission to finish the album and do it justice. Not an easy task as Funky DL recalls: “It took a really long time to figure everything out. Even something as simple as what you hear as a piano, it would have to be matched. Music programs these days, you can open a window and there are 50 piano sounds, so which one is it? A hard sound, soft sound, a more sustained or subtle sound.” Although it slightly lacks some of the finesse of the two previous albums and might not be the “best” Nujabes album per se, it feels – for lack of a better term – more spiritual. Maybe that is simply autosuggestion working its magic, but listening to this album as a Nujabes fan has the potential to move you deeply. While other posthumous album releases can easily give the impression of a cash grab, Spiritual State succeeds in honoring a musical legacy with genuine intentions.