Music News

Big on Japan

It's a Saturday afternoon, and the Atomic Comics location in north Phoenix is a hubbub of rampant geek activity. Dozens of nerds of varying ages and belt sizes mill around the store looking for back issues of the Amazing Spider-Man, trading gaming tips, or participating in Yu-Gi-Oh! collectible card game tournaments.

Standing amidst all this spazzdom is Maja (a.k.a. H. Vincent Payne), who calmly sips a Japanese milk-based soft drink called Calpico as he looks through the store's selection of Asian candy. Then he takes an interest in a tall rack of anime soundtracks, video game music, and J-pop (geekspeak for Japanese pop).

The 24-year-old Phoenix rapper peruses CDs from Dir en grey and Dragon Ash and explains how the imported J-style jams aren't just for blasting out of his Mazda 626. They also help fuel his unique brand of hip-hop, which overflows with allusions to his passion for anime, video games, cartoons, and Japanese culture.

"All of this stuff is an influence on my music," Maja says. "I watch a lot of anime, and when I'm listening to the soundtracks and start liking a song, I'll be vibing to the beat and start rapping to it. And the next time I go to create something, it's in the back of my head somewhere. It's like I compile data as I listen."

Maja dubs his music as "otaku hip-hop" (which references the Japanese slang term for nerds who are particular fans of manga and anime) and describes it as a fusion of urban culture and dorkdom chic, in which he raps and rhymes in both Japanese and English about Optimus Prime, Dragon Ball Z, and Nintendo, set to a phat soundtrack of ghetto-fabulous backbeats.

His genre-crossing jams are similar in style to nerdcore, and have been embraced by followers of that subgenre (which is populated mostly by fly white-boy nerds like MC Chris and MC Frontalot, who spit rhymes about such things as Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings). Maja is one of the few black rappers who blast the nerdcore style, and fans have purchased his debut CD, The Amalgam Project, and cheered him on during performances at recent anime conventions around the Southwest. He's has also received plenty of worldwide play on YouTube, as tens of thousands have been peeping vids of his raps, from Japan to Jersey.

For instance, Maja's video "Transformer," in which the MC tromps around the Arizona desert and through downtown Phoenix riffing on the '80s robot cartoon ("'Cause this is my stage/Toe-to-toe versus Soundwave/ He need to upgrade instead of usin' them cassette tapes"), has gotten more than 40,000 views in the three months since it was posted.

But the exploits of Megatron and Starscream aren't the only obsessions Maja had growing up, as his childhood was spent rocking his Nintendo Entertainment System. After his parents divorced when he was 2, games were one of the few constants he had while being shuttled back and forth between his father in Texas and his mother in San Francisco.

"My mom worked a lot, so I'd just come home and sit in front of the TV all day," Maja says. "In Texas, it was hot all the time, so I just played Final Fantasy a lot. They'd usually be, like, 'Where's Vincent? Oh, he's just in his room playing video games again.'"

His love of Japan also started in his youth, after catching violent anime flicks like Vampire Hunter D and Akira late at night on cable television in the early '90s. "I was like, 'What the hell is this? They're chopping people up and killing 'em. This doesn't seem right,'" he says. "I was hooked. After that, I started renting stuff like Dominion: Tank Police and Ninja Scroll. It was cool, crazy stuff."

Maja dug anime and Japanese culture so much that he started learning the language in high school so he could watch undubbed films without subtitles and play imported video games like Shenmue. (He admits, however, he's only "45 percent fluent.") Around that time, Maja also started performing hip-hop at various rap battles, aping heroes Biggie Smalls and Tupac with lyrics about "cash money, getting ice, and hurting people." It felt somewhat hollow, though.

"I listened to a lot of hip-hop then, and that's what I knew to rap about, what I heard. But I think it was, like . . . you're young, you hear rappers and what they're saying is tight, so be like them, and boom, the first words that come out are, 'Fuck these people; fuck these other people; I got bling in my ear,'" Maja says. "I realized at some point that I didn't want somebody to come up and call me on any of the shit that I was rapping about. You know, asking, 'Maja, where's your Hummer at? Where's your diamonds at?'"

So after moving to Phoenix in 2001 and trying to study anime production at the Art Institute (he quit after one semester when he realized he couldn't draw), Maja eventually decided to rap about what came naturally. He changed his style and hooked up with LES735 of Soul Collectables and Ill Al the Anglo-Saxon to create his backbeats.

Maja's impressively clever lyrical flows are almost completely devoted to anime, cartoons, and gaming. There's all the braggadocio and inflated self-ego of any urban tune you'd hear on Power 98.3, but he's more likely to give shout-outs to Mario (in "UUDDLRL") and Cowboy Bebop (in "Anime Miru Toki") than to Cristal and Hennessey.

He'll also drop some Japanese on your ass, whether it's rote phrases ("My Rhyme") or taking up half the song (both "Janglish Speak"). "I'm probably one of the few rappers to flip it like that. I've never heard anyone mix it together like that," Maja says. "There's a J-rapper named Zeebra that does the exact opposite; you'll hear a lot of English word riddled in between all the Japanese."

Maja was initially wary of using the foreign language, afraid Japanese people might see it as a sign of disrespect ("I was afraid they could've been, like, 'Go away, gaijin'"), but his YouTube videos have been posted on Nippon-style blogs.

The rapper's equally proud of getting people who might not usually be fans of hip-hop into the genre. He's sold hundreds of copies of his CD to (mostly) white peeps after performing at conventions like Anime Vegas and the Anime Expo in Long Beach. While he agrees that his lyrics are more accessible to a geek audience than ghetto-fabulous tales of urban life (à la Fifty Cent), it doesn't rob him of any street cred, in his opinion.

"My coworkers heard the album and think it's tight, but one said, 'Black people won't listen to it.' And I thought, 'Are you fucking ridiculous?' Why wouldn't black people get into it? I feel like my music is hip-hop first and geek second," Maja says. "Black people have purchased my album and have liked it. Other black people have listened to my album and have been, like, 'Damn, that's good.' I feel like right now, I don't have a machine behind me to promote my music. So there's a buzz in the nerdcore and geek community about me, but I haven't had enough exposure with regular hip-hop cats. I think my stuff would work for anybody, no matter what — you just gotta hear it."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.