The Experienced Listener Presents: Modal Soul, by Nujabes
It’s never the ones I want dead that die. …Whoa, I’m sorry, ya’ll didn’t hear that. I don’t want anybody dead; I wouldn’t wish death on anybody. Especially not on Jun Seba, the Japanese hip hop producer formerly known as Nujabes. When I find out he has passed away— late, though it is— it hurts me badly. His music has ministered to me in a way and at a time that was just… I hope he’s spinning records in that city where the streets are paved with gold right now.
I first hear the music of Nujabes while watching the anime Samurai Champloo on [adult swim]. As an animehead, I’m used to hearing incredible instrumentals on anime soundtracks, no big deal. What catches my attention is that, through my younger sib,
I discover this particular soundtrack isn’t the usual collection of sporadic songs from many artists; it’s all coming from one source— the combined efforts of producers Nujabes, Tsutchie, and Fat Jon. And it seems that Nujabes is somehow the core element of the project. Plus his name is unique— Jun Seba spelled backwards (I think it’s pronounced NOO-jah-bess).
Still, I think nothing of it; it never crosses my mind that an anime themes producer would have projects outside of anime themes. How could I have known that my favorite student would be a huge Nujabes fan? One fateful day, he hijacks my classroom computer and begins to play some of the most beautiful music I’ve never heard. I’m hooked. It feels like my ears are opening up for the very first time. My student then proceeds to play one particular song, World’s End Rhapsody. 5:41 later, all I can say is, “You are officially my favorite student… ever,” and “Now, tell me where can I find this…”
The song is on Nujabes’ Modal Soul album. Instead of it being a soundtrack to an anime, it’s a personal project initiated by Nujabes himself, which is why I’m reviewing it. This way, you get more artistic incite into Nujabes, as he’s expressing himself rather than telling someone else’s story in sound.
Feather opens the album, a hip hop track featuring MCs Cise Starr and Akin from Florida-based group C.Y.N.E. As a Georgia native, I’m proud to say that these southern MCs bring soul and intellect to the Nujabes project.
I’m just a vagabond with Flowers for Algernon/
Average Joe who knows what the f#ck is going on/
It’s the hope of my thoughts that I travel upon/
Fly like an arrow of God until I’m gone…/
I love these lines because, though spoken by the MCs, I have a feeling that they also speak for Nujabes. Surprisingly, the beat says very little about Nujabes; by the time you’re done listening to the rest of Modal Soul, it hits you that a simple, looping piano, kick and snare, and bassline merely represent the tip of the iceberg for Nujabes. And this track, though graced by the performances of two great MCs, truly is “light as a feather” in the context of the entire project.
Being a high school educator can be an abusive job. For that reason, I play the second song on the Modal Soul album on my way to work almost every morning. Ordinary Joe, featuring Terry Callier, is a track about being an ordinary, working person: taking crap from higher-ups, salvaging your little portion of humanity, and watching those with advantages carelessly waste away their blessings. The chorus goes
I’ve seen a sparrow get high/
Wasting time in the sky/
He thinks it’s easy to fly/
He’s just a little bit freer than I/
After the first verse, Nujabes elevates the song to a higher level. Over the muddy bass and the timing cymbals, he takes flight with a flute solo that gives wings to the Ordinary Joe. …Did I mention Nujabes is nasty on the flute? The song is not original, but the rendition is; the vocals of Terry Callier combined with the production of Nujabes creates a groovy, soulful song that’s both heavy and light. Easily one of my favorites on the album.
Before I go to the next song, I should tell you that I don’t cry easily. But I can’t be authentic if I don’t admit to having been choked up over the track Reflection Eternal. Especially once I find out that Nujabes had passed. A fan on YouTube posts a video of him in memoriam and, as this song is plays in the background, it messes me up. So often we see DJs being loud and boisterous as they work the tables. Yet, as this song plays, you see a picture of this humble-looking Asian cat, barely any expression on his face at all except peace and serenity. And he’s in the middle of giving freely to the people some of the most expensive sounds they will ever experience. I guess what cuts me so deeply is the fact that this guy will never get the recognition he deserves… because he didn’t ask for it. He just made dope music.
The song opens with a beautiful and simple piano melody that’s full of… not sadness, but melancholia. Then a sample comes in of a man singing, “Head high up/ High, up high”. The cool thing about the sample is that, if you listen wrong, it sounds like he’s singing, “Hip hop” instead of “Head high up”. And I wouldn’t be surprised if this was done deliberately; masters know the value of subtlety and that subtlety is a sign of mastery. A simple kick drum, a simple snare, a touch of bass, and the song progresses into a walking instrumental for freestyle fanatics. But it’s hard to drop a superficial freestyle when you’re forced in a state of deep reflection. Sometimes it’s better to just listen, even when there’s barely any words. The only other lyrics heard are the voice from before returning to sing, “You’re a flower, you’re a river/ you’re a rainbow…/” …I know hardcore hip hop heads and streets-oriented cats might think it’s funny; I think it’s sad that human beings forget to be human beings and feel. Can you say #BRAINWASHED…
Japanese hip hop in its purest form next takes the stage as rapper Shing02 and producer Nujabes come together for the fourth track of Modal Soul, Luv (Sic.) Pt. 3. Firstly, let me say that I, myself, have come across four parts/versions of Luv (Sic.), and they’re all dope. But this one is my favorite. Shing02 uses a unique delivery that I think is very poetic. Check this out:
Like a movie that you can’t predict/
Like a book that you can’t resist/
I sing along a song that’s oh so sensual/
bring along a sip to make it all so sexual/
verbally that is, making love to the music means vibing to the beat at night/
with the whole city fast asleep, out cold…/
true words seem to rise to the lips, take hold/
Like your moves that I can’t predict/
Like your look that I can’t resist/
The ting-a-ling feeling was oh so mutual/
the lingering appeal was so unusual/
herbally what is, medicine to a lone soul can become poison to some/
with the whole body fast asleep, out cold/
true vision seem to come to the eye, take hold…/
To use the same rhyming sounds over the course of two separate verses like this… I’ve only seen it before in non-instrumental poetry. I love it here because an instrumental like this Nujabes masterpiece needs a special kind of lyricism; not just dope words, but dope verse structure. Regarding the instrumental, Nujabes, drops a haunting piano melody that circles like a pace of despair. He uses a filter to dampen the keys as the MC comes in, then strings to move the song into its chorus. It’s a repetitive loop that doesn’t get old… and, last time I checked (which was just a few minutes ago), that’s exactly what ‘lovesick’ feels like.
I admit that I am one of the unfortunate souls who has been seeking this instrumental for my own disgusting purposes… it’s hard to find. Yet, I’m at peace with not rhyming over it, because Shing02 fulfills the purpose of the instrumental when he drops this simple-yet-cataclysmic bar:
How far do we have to stretch the picture/
Before it pixelates into human texture/
Once you let that sink in, you realize that this instrumental isn’t meant to be touched again. It’s finished. Done. Kaput. Finito…
Moving forward, if I haven’t emphasized it before, I’m emphasizing it now: this album is a little of everything, not just hip hop. On that note, Music is Mine is best described as… bottom jazz. And by ‘bottom’, I mean jazz 4 ya AZZ (pardon my French). When I say it’s bass-heavy, you’ll seriously lose yourself if you don’t watch your ears and keep in step. Bongo drums begin the song playfully enough, but then the kick drum and toms come in, and they’re not playing at all. Fortunately, a piano guide shows up to escort you through the carnival of sound. As the song is warming up, you get some improv standing bass that’s just vicious; survive that, and there’s some oboe for ya to sip on. Then comes my favorite part: a barely audible vocalist (possibly Nujabes himself) jumps onto the dogpile; you can just barely make out the phrases, “We got down, we got down” and “Love is mine, love is yours”. It takes a very sad, lonesome, sad, despondent, sad, unhappy, sad sack of a person to not find enjoyment in this song.
I almost don’t want to review this next song because rapper Substantial has a collaboration with Nujabes called Hikari from a different project that’s one of my FAVORITE Nujabes tracks. But I can’t let Eclipse be eclipsed, because Substantial delivers on this song as well. From hearing both tracks, I can say that Substantial is a very “honest” rapper; he’s not one for juiced-up punchlines or complex rhyme schemes, but direct, and sincere words. And love seems to be one of his major themes of interest; in this song, he talks about missing his significant other:
Whatever you want name it and I’ll make it reality/
To see my baby’s face nothin’ means more then that for me/
This is far from flattery I ain’t trying to impress you/
truth is I miss you and I’m hurtin’ internally/
Sometimes these long trips feel like eternity/
But they say distance makes the heart grow fonder/
And in this case it’s proven to be fact/
So I’ll be back like a T100/
As is the case with many songs on the album, Eclipse features a lot of piano presence. But the piano is sampled into the song, and you can hear the ‘cuts’ in the melody, which adds a very hip hop feel to the track. That, and the fact that it has very traditional East coast hip hop drums on it; this seems to be a staple of Nujabes’ rap-oriented tracks. He doesn’t innovate like a Timbaland or Scott Storch as much as he refines and perfects a somewhat-more classical style of hip hop instrumental. And to me, that’s the essence of Japanese culture— taking simple things, developing a true and full appreciation for them, then taking ownership of those simplicities to do things that haven’t yet been done with them.
Artist Pase Rock makes an appearance on the next song, The Sign, to send an urgent transmission to the people over yet another Nujabes instrumental; I would like to personally thank Pase Rock because his spoken word poetry on this piece really connected with my students. He speaks:
There are children playing in the streets
And they cannot read the signs
They are only children
I fear there is no U-turn
And that this road dead-ends
Because we cannot read the signs
Do you not see the signs?
We must read the signs
And we must turn around
The jazz influence on this track is, again, very heavy. Flute, piano, maracas, bass, and cymbals come together to create the feeling of people bustling up and down a busy street. But the steadiness of the melody and rhythm creates the image of the ‘prophet’ Pase Rock standing in the midst, admiring and acknowledging the signs that the traffic has long forgotten. (I felt a Matrix Trilogy reference coming on, but I’m gonna leave it alone this time.)
Featuring veteran rhymesayer Apani B. Fly Emcee, the track Thank You offers a more gracious hip hop experience than one might get from radio nowadays. With a crisp and heartfelt delivery, Apani gives thanks to her fans for their love and support, and tells of her feelings and anxieties as she journeys to Japan to collaborate with Nujabes. A strange thing about this track— as well as many other tracks that Nujabes does with MCs— is that the vocals are very low. They moreso blend in with the beat than sit on top of it, as if voice is no different than drum or brass or woodwind. You can hear every word clearly if you listen, but you do have to actually listen, as if you’re trying to pick out a specific instrument from a symphony of sound. It’s different, but different certainly doesn’t mean bad.
Speaking of not bad, I love Apani’s voice on this track. It’s a very bright, youthful, ‘pretty’ sound; makes me wonder why I haven’t heard more from her. Perhaps the Nujabes picks up on this too; when you have such an inviting delivery, you don’t necessarily have to be loud and brazen to draw attention.
Young ladies, there’s an important lesson in here somewhere.
…Now, to the track that started me on my journey into the body of work produced by the Japanese hip hop secret known as Jun Seba. The song World’s End Rhapsody comes out of nowhere, sampling an old, obscure disco track, Betcha If You Check It Out, by the Quadraphonics. It begins as an earthy techno/house/dance track with a thick, muffled, wah-wah bassline (which is very funky, by the way). Through a filter, you can just barely hear voices in the background of the song singing, “Betcha if you check it out, you’ll find that I love you”. To set the song apart, pianos are introduced to the song; pianos which are more layered and somewhat more heart-wrenching than the typical house track. Similar to the style of Junior Jack, the vocals phase out of their filters and rise to the surface of the instrumental, also revealing the string section from the original sample. Suddenly, the pianos return and explode into a kaleidoscope of melody.
About midway through the song, live bongos come in and the voices retreat a bit. You can imagine Nujabes’ hands dancing along with the track, now in full swing. But the greatest part is what happens just after the bongos run their course— the bridge from the original sampled song interrupts the groove, fumbling into the track as a hi-hat helps to keep the time. A quick drum break and open hi-hat, and the beat splashes back in to a chorus of “La-la-la-la-laaa-la-laaaa…/ La-laa-laaaa…. La-la-laaaa… YEAH!/” The overall experience is very optimistic and uplifting. As if to say, “At the end of the world, we’ll all discover that love is the most important thing of all.”
…Alright, I’m finished. There are four more tracks on the Modal Soul album, including the title track of the same name. But a 7 page review is a bit much, even for me as the writer. Plus, I don’t want to ruin every pleasant surprise on this album. I will say that the remaining four tracks make for a great slowing to an otherwise musical juggernaut; they provide balance. And the last track, Horizon, sounds like a credit roll if I ever heard one.
In closing, I would like to say that I am honored to be able to bring light to the life and work of this man. Jun Seba, aka Nujabes, is an example of what music ought to be about. Not celebrity, fame, or fortune. But art and ministry. This album literally became the soundtrack to my year when I heard it, and I can’t believe I’ll never get to attend a Nujabes concert and that there will never be a new masterpiece made by this unsung hero.
Rest in Beats, Soul Brotha Nujabes