Anime spent decades out of the spotlight, enjoyed the world over, but outside of Japan, it was often difficult to locate working copies of Macross or Bubblegum Crisis, and now it’s hard to go anywhere in the country and not spot a t-shirt or keychain referencing the latest hit series. The same is true for hip-hop, which exploded out of the underground to now, decades later, influencing everything from pop to country.
The two mediums have now reached a point where rap artists are creating anime soundtracks, and series from Attack on Titan to Soul Hunter are directly referenced in the lyrics of top tracks. This is the best combination since peanut butter met jelly.
Ever since Akira, anime has influenced American hip-hop, with the themes of rising from nothing and standing against authority figures enforcing unfair societal rules, finding an audience in each medium.
Shonen anime that is, the sub-genre that focuses on action with clear distinctions between good and evil, is the most popular in the world. From Dragon Ball Z to One-Piece, tales of a hero that rises from nothing, frequently getting told by authority figures how the world is supposed to work and why it doesn’t include them, have resonated within the hip-hop community.
NWA Straight Outta Compton and the original Dragon Ball are strikingly similar, so it stands to reason that artists raised when Cartoon Network’s Toonami was bringing anime to the masses would be heavily influenced by Japanese animation.
The concept of hidden power unleashed by the strength of one’s convictions fueled a sense of what’s right, even if it goes against society, is universal, and it’s fueling decades of cultural exchange.
Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson’s collaboration, “Scream,” arrived in 1995 and included clips of the seminal classic Akira in the music video. It wasn’t just the Wu-Tang Clan that dropped bars shouting out Goku and Tetsuo. Soon after, the influence of anime on hip-hop started going in the other direction, with Japanese creators creating series from the ground up that are steeped in the Western hip-hop aesthetic.
Japanese anime creators have been influenced by hip-hop, resulting in series developed with the music and aesthetic baked into their DNA.
On Medium, the musician beipana interviewed the creator of Samurai Champloo, Shinichiro Watanabe, about the anime’s hip-hop influences: “The way of rappers also influenced me. It is said that Japanese people read between the lines so that they do not feel out of place and keep their heads down. But I always have the suspicion like “is it always been so? Is it just a behavior of such a modern Japanese?” It brought me to create an opposite character who boasts like a rapper with a microphone, and it should be like a samurai.”
The anime Samurai Champloo is credited with pushing forward the sub-genre of lo-fi hip-hop, but it’s not the only series that was built from the ground up with hip-hop in mind. Afro Samurai, about a lone warrior seeking to possess the Number One Headband, came about from creator Takashi Okazaki and his love for hip-hop and soul music, along with a fascination for how American culture was reflecting Japanese society back at him.
With Samuel L. Jackson on board as the voice actor for Afro, Afro Samurai was a smash hit on both sides of the Pacific. Beyond the incredible animation and voice cast, which includes Lucy Liu, Ron Perlman, James Marsden, and Mark Hamill, was the soundtrack by the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA that stood out as the best part of the show. From rapping about Dragon Balls to putting together the music for a Japanese anime, RZA’s work became the result of a fusion dance between the East and the West.
From American rap stars inspired by anime to anime creators including hip-hop in the DNA of their projects, it’s becoming impossible to separate one from the other. More recently, Megan Thee Stallion cosplayed as Shoto from My Hero Academia for one of her first photo shoots, and she even performed in Japan dressed up as Sailor Moon while Lil Uzi Vert owns decked-out cars stylized with anime characters including from Sword Art Online.
“The way of rappers also influenced me. It is said that Japanese people read between the lines so that they do not feel out of place and keep their heads down. But I always have the suspicion like “is it always been so? Is it just a behavior of such a modern Japanese?” It brought me to create an opposite character who boasts like a rapper with a microphone, and it should be like a samurai.“Shinichiro Watanabe, creator of Samurai Champloo
The cultural exchange between America and Japan through anime and hip-hop has been going on for generations now, and it shows no signs of slowing down. Each is stronger with the influence of the other, and there’s no telling when the next rap star will drop a Demon Slayer reference or a manga launch that includes another samurai swinging the katana to a backbeat.