I don’t expect the pastoral in hip-hop, but I’ve learned to throw aside my expectations in the presence of Yuka Honda.
Honestly, I didn’t like her music when I first heard it, in 1996. That summer, I worked at Whole Foods Market as a cashier/customer service rep, and discovered to my happiness that my co-workers were some hard-partying fiends. I ended up at great, impromptu parties—some of which involved video cameras, most of which involved marijuana (to which I’m unfortunately allergic), all of which involved beer “gifted” from our site of employment—nearly every weekend. Sometimes, the weekend extended to Wednesday. The Whole Foods crowd, at least the Dallas variety, wasn’t as hippie-ish as you’d imagine (several employees scoffed at my Phish t-shirts), but most were either musicians or hardcore music lovers with obscure, oddball tastes.
At one of these parties, I heard Cibo Matto. The group—Miho Hatori on vocals, Honda on everything else—sang about food. A lot. Seriously. “Cibo Matto” means “crazy food” in Italian. The group’s big hit was entitled “Know Your Chicken,” and the chorus was: “Know your chicken! You’ve got to know your chicken!” in vocals that were sung in halting English. I hated it. I hated it even more when I noticed the partygoers all singing along, and laughing in broken English and mimicking Japanese. I wondered if anyone would give a shit—Cibo Matto was all the rage in 1996; Sonic Youth loved it, and you can’t get more hip than that—if it consisted of two white girls from north Chicago. (Robert Christgau noted that Cibo Matto “signify their commitment to innovation by hanging out in the right neighborhood,” and that sounded right to me.) There was a “you’re pretty good for being Japanese” condescension at the party that irritated me about love of the band. The beats were marginally catchy but, I thought, self-consciously opaque, as if putting a distance between the music and hip-hop so as to be all the hipper. If you were down with Cibo Matto, you were cool that year, and I guess I wasn’t cool in 1996.
My opinion began to shift in 1998, when I heard Honda’s remix of Medeski, Martin & Wood’s “Sugar Craft.” The original track comes from the beat-heavy jazz band’s lone misstep, Combustication—the hot beats and keyboard noodling doesn’t quite meld with the samples and DJ Logic’s limp-wristed turntable scratches, with the exception of the sexy and slow-burning “Just Like I Pictured It”—and is flaccid for all its instrumental layers and sonic effects. Medeski’s Hammond B-3 organ sounds hesitant, as if he wants to start playing but doesn’t know when he should come in; the sampled screams, laughs, and other vocals seem slapped on, and not integral. Everything’s effect but there’s no center. The track wants to sound sinister and slinky but instead is perfunctory.
Honda’s remix—okay, let’s call it Cibo Matto’s, since Hatori and Honda’s then-boyfriend Sean Lennon appear as well—is delightful. (In fact, the Combustication Remix EP is half as long and twice as good as the original album.) She takes the basic ingredients, but raises everything to a couple octaves higher. Honda tosses aside the vocal effects, and instead adds Hatori’s soul-drenched singing—no, I’ve got no idea what she’s saying—which brings the swagger that the original track was missing. What was once a swamp-bottom piece, tonally, becomes bright and poppy. Honda filters the drums through something that makes them frayed and propulsive, so the tempo moves us along even if it’s not technically any faster than the original. Around 2:15, Honda abandons the original song altogether, and instead dives into a shimmering, acoustic-guitar-driven beat that’s so happy that you grin alongside the notes. (The beat keeps Billy Martin’s original rhythms.) The samba strum of the guitar and the piano plonk are new dimensions—we’ve left “Sugar Craft” far behind.
I started paying attention, and looking back. Honda did production work and keyboard playing on Los Lobos’ terrific 1996 album Colossal Head; I’m pretty sure, but can’t definitively prove, that “Life Is Good” (the record’s best song) belongs to her. Michel Gondry’s visual palindrome video for Cibo Matto’s “Sugar Water” must be seen to be believed, and the song’s good to boot.
In 2002, she released her first solo album, Memories Are My Only Witness, a suite of multi-movement songs—some crossing the seven-minute mark—that show as much sweep and melodic range as anything by DJ Shadow. There are beats galore, but her pieces are truly aural landscapes, tracks that are intended to have the depth and explorability of physical places. There’s rainfall, bird calls, wind rustling through trees, and children laughing. Harmonies reign here. The samples and keyboard flourishes sound like part of a natural environment. She evokes long walks through the countryside rather than through closed-in city streets. Her work is expansive. All this (and more) runs through pop-song structure with head-bobbing rhythms and snapping drums.
Those drums. I’ve intentionally referred to Honda’s work as hip-hop, as opposed to techno or electronica, and I meant it. The beats lope and swagger, and she believes in the bass drum and tom-tom fills rather than the high-register and thin-sounding snares and cymbals. (Sure, she uses the latter—she uses all percussion, and even makes bird chirps into beats—but low tones dominate her sound.) She builds layer upon layer of melody and rhythm, but each always feels thick and funky. The tracks are epic in thematic scope, but always grounded in specificity. Hence the long, detailed titles: “Driving Down by the Hudson River, We Saw the Blood Red Burning Sky,” “You Think You Are So Generous, But It’s the Most Conditional ‘Anything’ I’ve Ever Heard,” “Some Days I Stay in Bed for Hours.”
Two years later, she emerged again with Eucademix, a collection of shorter pop songs—nothing goes over five minutes—that varies more in style. Still, there’s the string section of the gorgeous “Humming Song (Alone Together)” and the pretty folk of the nevertheless danceable “Parallel.” “Seed of Seed of Peach” is a solo piano piece, searching and earnest and played by Honda. The album is chamber pop seeped in a hip-hop producer’s mindset. “Limoncello” feels like the soundtrack for a Super Mario Bros. Game—it’s that MIDI-primitive and synthetic—but “When the Monkey Kills” (with Timo Ellis’s mangy, raw guitar) sounds like raw meat being torn into.
Somehow, none of it sounds urban. (Well, okay, “Limoncello” couldn’t be countrified if it tried.) It’s too Big Sky, too ocean-like, too cloud-embracing to be confined by asphalt and soot. Yuka Honda, time and time again, has taken hip-hop into the sunshine. We’re all better for the brightness and warmth.
I’m writing this as a sort of response to Girish Shambu’s post, “Films: Evaluation & Value,” in which he asks: “Does your evaluation of a film change over time? Are there examples of ‘revisionist evaluation’ of films or filmmakers in your viewing history? And what might’ve caused or catalyzed these revisions? I think our stories might make for interesting sharing and reading.” These are great questions, but I got to thinking: Why can’t we broaden the horizon of this line of questioning to all art forms? What makes cinema inherently different from, say, our experiences with literature or music or architecture? And so here we are.