Verbal, aka Ryu Yong Gi, is half of m-flo, one of Japan’s biggest hip-hop acts. Verbal and his m-flo partner, Taku Takahashi, have been working together on their “m-flo loves…” collaborations with an array of guest artists, including some of the biggest names in J-pop. Their fifth album, Cosmicolor, was released in Japan in March. They’re a Monocle favourite.
“I love multi-tasking. For three years I’ve been dividing my time between m-flo, Teriyaki Boyz, Ambush Design and my jewellery brand, Antonio Murphy & Astro. Since I built this studio last October, I’ve been here nearly every day. It’s almost like home. It’s a tight unit: usually me and my wife, Yoon, who’s a graphic designer and the two other guys who do the jewellery. I’ve been the most creative I’ve ever been since I opened this place. I always feel under pressure when I use other people’s studios. I can come in here and ask the engineer to help me record and stay as long as I need to. Everything’s within reach and I’m surrounded by things I like, my books and records.
I was born and raised in Tokyo and my folks live in Meguro. I’m third-generation Korean Japanese and Yoon is Korean American, raised in Seattle. Being Korean is like being in a clique. You might be in Africa but if a Korean guy spots you it’s like, ‘you’re my brother’. My mum would say to me: ‘You could change your nationality but you’re always going to be Korean’. I think it’s helped mould me into who I am as an artist today. Had I not been Korean – and I don’t like to say too much about this – I don’t think I would have experienced discrimination. It gave me a drive to try harder than other people. It was harder when I was younger. My real name is totally Korean. I’d go for a part-time job, say my name on the phone and they wouldn’t call me back.
I’ve known Taku, my partner in m-flo, for over 20 years; we went to grade school together. I’ve been rapping since I was 14; I was always listening to hip hop. Taku and I made our first band around 1990. We got record deal offers but we didn’t take them. We were like ‘it’s just not realistic’ and we went to college instead. My mum was really into education; she said it was important that I spoke English, so I went to an international school here and got a degree in business and philosophy at Boston College. I became a Christian during my college years and went to study in a seminary. I didn’t want to become a pastor but if I said I believed in something, I wanted to know what I was talking about. So I went there and started studying Greek and Hebrew. It sounds pretty crazy, but it was really fascinating. I haven’t graduated from the seminary yet. My professor still calls me up and says: “When are you coming back?” He always told me: “make sure you keep your mind clear.” He was like a mentor, not just in studies, but in life.
M-flo started around that time. I came back to Japan during winter break in 1998 and Taku was back from college. He was doing a remix of Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were” and he asked me to write a rap for it. I did, then went back to the US to keep studying and that’s when things were starting to cook up in Japan. Taku was like: “Come back – we need to record!” So I’d record during vacations and go back to school. It wasn’t until the third album that I was here all the time. Yoon was living in the US until then, so it was a long-distance relationship. It was stressful for her here at first – a foreign culture where everything’s different. She picked up Japanese so fast; I’m ashamed that I don’t speak better Korean.
There’s no such thing as a typical day. When I’m recording I usually wake up around noon, because I’m up till late; I might have meetings or interviews or I’ll stay here and write songs. I might step out to see Taku at his studio, in a different part of Shibuya. Taku programmes and makes melodies; I write the lyrics and work on melodies with him and whoever we’re featuring on the track. We’ve asked many different artists and most have accepted our offer. To use a Bruce Lee term, we’re like water – we just go with the flow. My ideas come from anything: magazines, images, intelligent sentences, things that make you think.
For lunch, we keep it practical. I eat nearby, maybe something from the cheap yakiniku shop round the corner. When we have a day off we go to our friend’s place, Porta Portese; he’s Japanese but he went to Italy to learn about food. Taku’s the real gourmet. He’ll go to the middle of nowhere to eat good food.
My work and free time are totally intertwined. When we get stuck on something we run to the record store, or go to a movie. I like action movies; I like hip-hop movies too, even though intellectually I’ll be thinking, ‘this really sucks’. About 80 per cent of my music is hip hop and R&B, but recently I’ve been listening to people like !!! and Jarvis Cocker – he’s so to the point. I love things in minor keys: Portishead; Company Flow, dark stuff.
I’m surprised how well known we are considering how little we’re on TV. I can do what I like, go anywhere and people don’t usually recognise me. I feel bad for some of my friends who are really famous – they can’t even go on the street. It’s fun at first but it takes a toll on their private lives when they get too famous.
M-flo is not like a rock band; if we go on tour it’s for two or three months at a time – we’re getting ready to tour the new album in June and July. We’ll finish up the album tour in the Yokohama Arena. It’s the biggest venue we ever performed in – 15,000 people. We never play gigs with seats: we don’t want people sitting there watching us with their mouths open! We only started doing summer festivals two years ago. We weren’t really outdoorsy artists – we’re usually in suits – but we love it. That’s where we meet foreign artists, like the guys from The Rapture and Daft Punk.
We love doing DJ sets in clubs with 300-400 capacity. We can go to cities we couldn’t usually tour in, places like Wakayama where the venues aren’t big enough. The crowds are great. One time in Kagoshima, we were in a club on the seventh floor of a building and it was so crazy that the whole floor was shaking and we had to stop. It’s funny that my image is as a front man. Really I’m a management kind of person. I like doing things from behind the scenes, connecting artists and being like a matchmaker. My A&R man says I’d be great at his job.
Taku is a real artist – if he doesn’t want to do something he won’t do it, even if he’s told it makes commercial sense. I’ve learned over the years that when you do what other people want, you lose yourself. The people who do whatever the hell they like, they’re the ones who make the most money and love what they do. I would like to believe that even if something’s lucrative, if it’s not fun, I won’t do it. With my work now, I go home and think about it; I talk about it with my wife; I dream about it; I sleep-talk about it; that’s exactly the kind of job I want to be doing.”
Other than m-flo’s famously collaborative patchwork productions, Verbal teamed up with four other Japanese superstar MCs and BAPE-founder Nigo to form Teriyaki Boyz, a side-project produced by hip hop’s Vatican council: The Neptunes, Dan The Automator and Kanye West. Here is DJ Verbal’s albumography:
Planet Shining (Avex)
Expo Expo (Avex)
Beat Space Nine (Avex)
2006 Teriyaki Boyz
Beef or Chicken (Ape Sounds/Def Jam)