It was about two years ago when you first came to Japan. You’ve been influenced by Japanese culture for a long time, but it took you more than 20 years to come to Japan.
AK: Honestly, it was surreal, blew my mind, and blessed. It was like visiting your home that you’ve never been before. Just being in Japan was unreal. And meeting people over here and the hospitality you guys gave me, it was unmatched from everywhere else. I’ve never been to anywhere in the world that treat me as good as you guys do. And that hospitality seems genuine, so I fuck with it. I literally cried mad times when I first got here (laugh). I really fuck with Japan. Japanese culture changed my life. Without Japanese culture, I wouldn’t be here like what I’m doing right now”.
What did you think of Japan’s HIP HOP culture and how HIP HOP has taken root in Japan?
AK: I didn’t know about the HIP HOP culture here, but I’ve traveled around the world a lot. I’ve seen HIP HOP culture influenced around the world. I pretty much knew that you guys are into HIP HOP and there are HIP HOP artists who are passionate about their craft. So I expected that, but listening to Leon’s shit though, that was different. He’s probably the best international rapper that I’ve ever listened to. The way he flows and his voice… I appreciated the way he approached HIP HOP.
Leon: Well, that’s a great compliment (laugh). I’ve been listening to THE UNDERACHIEVERS since I was in junior high school. It’s dope that I was able to collaborate with him this way, and I’m very happy that he gave me a compliment. Ever since I started rapping, I’ve been aiming to perform with artists I respect overseas, and to rap in Japanese so that people overseas can enjoy it. I feel like I’m at the starting line in a way.
You were a heavy listener to New York rap from the 2010’s onwards, such as THE UNDERACHIEVERS and BEAST COAST, weren’t you?
Leon: New York is still special to me, and I got my start listening to HIP HOP when I had a friend from New York. The first HIP HOP I heard was JAY-Z, and my friend let me check out all the rappers in New York. The way the guys like THE UNDERACHIEVERS and FLATBUSH ZOMBIES are rapping, that’s what made me want to rap in the style I have now. As for THE UNDERACHIEVERS, when I started listening to rappers like DENZELL CURRY, RONNY J produced a mixtape called “IT HAPPENS IN FLATBUSH”, and I listened to it a lot.
AK: That is my favorite mixtape as well.
Leon: I was listening to guys like A$AP FERG, THE UNDERACHIEVERS and DENZEL CURRY back then, so I was convinced that I wanted to do it in this style too.
You met AK in September of last year, when he came to Japan for the second time, right?
Leon: When I went to a record bar called BLOODY ANGLE, I saw AK, and I was like “wow”, but Ito-san (the author of the interview), who was with him, introduced me to him. I’ve always been a fan, so I took a picture with him. And the next day, we recorded together.
AK: Coincidently, Leon was there, ANARCHY was there. It was lit. That’s when we met and the next day we hit the studio, and recorded 2 songs which became “PICCOLO” and “LIGHT WORK”. It was really organic. When we were at the studio, every beat this guy played were fire as fuck, and once I heard his flow, I was like “Yo, this shit is crazy. He sounds like a lyricist from America”. We instantly connected, and it was so easy and able to write the music effortlessly. I mean, we recorded those 2 songs in one day, in couple hours and they became our lead singles.
Leon: I’ve done a few sessions with overseas artists, and I got the impression that AK was “playing with sound” more than other rappers I’ve collaborated before, and that he was willing to talk about what kind of music he wanted to make. I felt that the awareness of “Let’s make things together” is stronger than other people. I don’t think I’ve often felt this way in sessions even with Japanese artists.
AK: Yeah, I agree. We had a bunch of concepts. On “INTRO”, we wanted to rap back and forth. On “KONNICHIWA”, we wanted to use a Japanese word that’s universal so both American and Japanese listeners understand. And on our last song “YOKOHAMA 2 FLATBUSH”, we rapped about our inspirations from each other’s country. So yeah, the project is conceptual, in terms of just creating songs together with actual topics instead of writing random bars. It really reminded me of how I work with ISSA (THE UNDERACHIEVERS).
Is this the first time you’ve collaborated with a rapper from outside the US?
AK: First time ever collaborating fully with an international artist. And if I’m not mistaken, this is probably the first time an American rapper collaborated with a Japanese rapper on a full project. It’s a blessing. Me & Leon just wanted to bridge the gap between American rap and Japanese rap”
After recording two songs in Japan, LEON went to New York at the end of last year to continue working on the album.
AK: When Leon came to New York last December, I booked a bunch of studio sessions for like a week. We were in the lab every single day, just recording, coming up with the ideas to finish up the tape. We probably finished recording in 3 or 4 days. It was a beautiful experience because everything happened naturally. We were both very excited to do this project, so we were on it and made it better and quicker to finish. He would show me a beat, and if we like it, no matter if we’re outside or in the studio, we would write a verse right away whenever the beat is played”
Leon: I went to New York with the goal of going there to record songs, so of course I’m going to do a lot of work… The environment of New York inspired me a lot, and there are no sessions in Japan where you can blast the volume in the studio like in New York. It’s probably not possible to live like New Yorkers in Japan, where there’s so much rap and HIP HOP culture everywhere. So I was really aware of that, embraced the environment and that inspired to make music. Also, since it was New York, of course no one spoke Japanese. So I had to be more conscious of the rhythm and vibe, and I also tried to come up with words in Japanese that could be conveyed to people overseas. In the studio, few of my friends including VA$￠0, who’s featured on my 1st album were there to translate for me, so their presence was a huge help.
AK: The environment (of the place you’re having a session) really matters, because it affects your vibes, and the vibes are what you use to create music. So it definitely plays a huge roll — where you at, who you with — everything. It’s funny that he’s inspired being in New York. When I came to Japan and did recordings here, since I love Japan so much, I was super excited just to record. So ideas and words just fell into my iPhone and was very easy to write.
What do you think is special about listening to Leon’s raps, even though you don’t understand his language?
AK: Of course I don’t speak Japanese, so it’s hard for me to understand what he’s actually rapping about, but Leon has an amazing flow, sometime reminds me of myself. Just listening to his shit, I can vibe to it, like “Oh shit, this nigga’s going HAM right now”. His flow is so amazing, even my American friends that don’t love Japanese culture like I do, when they hear his verse, they get it. Also, good thing with Leon is that he would say some English words so I might not understand the whole sentence but I can understand and imagine what he’s talking about. For example, the hook on ’LIGHT WORK’”
Leon, if you were to analyze AK’s rap from a rapper’s point of view, what would it be like?
Leon: He is really well balanced. He raps hard, but the style isn’t just TRAP, and it’s not like he’s overstuffed with words, but there’s an addictive rhythm to it. He’s very good at coming at those angles, isn’t he? Also, the quality of his voice is great. I also like that there’s originality in his ad-libs. Sometimes when we’re recording together, it’s like, “Shit, he’s so good at this…” and I feel like I’m going to give up (laughs)”
AK: Same shit, bro (laughs).
What’s the future plans for both of you guys, after the release of “FLATBUSH ¥EN”?
Leon: I’m going to release my 2nd solo album this year, and I think there are quite a few changes from the 1st album. My voice has also changed quite a bit in my opinion. Also, I think the next album will probably have a lot of intense and aggressive songs.
AK: For me, I got a whole lot on my plate this year. I recently started a jewelry company, and I’m planning to do pop ups and sell jewelry in different countries. I’ve recently signed an artist name KENNETH CASH. He’s a singer / songwriter / producer. He’s a golden child. And for my career, I’m gonna probably come back to Japan again soon, cause I wanna release my manga, collaborating with manga artists here and translate the words into Japanese. Issa has his solo project coming out soon, and so am I. We’re also planning to release THE UNDERACHIEVERS’ project as well. I’ve also ventured myself into modeling, so I’m trying to expand my brand and make our name bigger.
Leon: Also, with the release of this album, we may be able to perform in New York, and I would like to expand my career overseas with this project.