20 years ago today the Japanese hip-hop scene was introduced to one of the most extraordinary groups that would ever grace their musical landscape. At the time they were a modest success, but in only a few short years Taku Takahashi, VERBAL, and LISA would take Japan (and the world) by storm with their unique sound and experimental style. Their first single as a trio, "The Rhyme Brokers", was also the US's earliest exposure to the group, having appeared in the first entries of Konami's beatmania IIDX & Dance Dance Revolution franchises. It didn't take long for their follow up, "Been So Long" to come out and blow up in a serious way, leading to a legacy that is still being written by 3 ultra-talented friends who aren't afraid to try different things and love what they do.
Since Taku Takahashi is also one of the founding fathers of OTAQUEST, I asked him if we could get some statements from the 3 of them about those early days. Thankfully all were happy to oblige. Continue reading for some first-hand insight on the early days of m-flo, the recording of "The Rhyme Brokers", and a look at what the future holds.
OTAQUEST: It's been 20 years since your first single, "The Rhyme Brokers" was released. Can you tell us a bit about how you all got together, and what it was like working together in those early days?
VERBAL: Taku and I used to be in a band together in high school, so we go way back. I think about like a high school dance party where Taku would bring out his turntables, and I don't even think they were meant for DJing. But we had records and I remember him there DJing, there was a point where we got together and starting jamming at these high school dance parties. That's how we originally got together and started our band. Fast forward a couple of years when we got together and started m-flo, we recorded our first song and that was called "The Rhyme Brokers".
Just to give you some context on what it was like in the late 90's in Japan, hip-hop and R&B were booming at the time so there were a lot of new acts coming out. It was a very prime-time for us to release our kind of music and do what we had aspired to do. When we made that first song together, it was around that time that we figured "hey, this is going to be a new group, so we should give it a new name." The name we originally came up with was "Mediarite-Flow", which eventually became m-flo.
Anyways, I remember us making a demo cassette and we would drive around banging it in Taku's car. It had an open roof, and we would just be banging it, we thought it was the shit. Soon after that Taku approached me and said: "You know what, we want to add another element to this, so let's ask LISA." LISA was somebody we knew from high school, she was a year above us. She was the queen boss, you know? We knew she was a singer too, so I thought that was great, I was like "Bet, she should sing on it!" That became "The Rhyme Brokers" that everyone has heard today. It gave m-flo a new life, and is safe to say was really the beginning.
Taku: So 20 years ago VERBAL and I were doing a group together when we came up with "The Rhyme Brokers". At the time I knew LISA was singing as a professional, so I asked her to sing on our track. I thought the result was really good and that we should make another tune. That next song was "Been So Long", and after that, we asked LISA to officially join the group as m-flo.
LISA: 20 years ago, oh wow. Taku was always making music. Taku's always doing his thing. He had asked me to come to his house and listen to a bunch of his music. One song he had said "Listen to this rapper, it's like really out there." When I heard it I was like "Woah. Taku. Who's this guy?" and was like "Oh, it's Young-Kee." I was like "Young-Kee!? Like that Young-Kee in our school? Really!? No." So a few weeks went by and Taku said "You know what. Why don't we try to do something, us three together?" so I asked him what he wanted to do. He told me to come up with something like a loop tune, something repetitious, like a killer hook or melody that would latch onto people's ear so they won't forget us. I told him I would do it and he said "Just write something really crazy, like you." crazy like me? You got it! I had done that and then we met up at the studio.
That was the first time I had actually met VERBAL. I had seen him here and there in school and everything, but to really really meet him that was the first time. It was the first day of recording for "The Rhyme Brokers" too, so can you imagine how nervous I was? So then here comes VERBAL and I was shaking because I was kinda nervous, I don't know what he's going to say to me. The first thing he told me, I don't know how to say it in english, but he was like "なんかヤンキーぽいな" so I was like "Yankee? What! Man what!? How could you say that to me?" In English that's probably like "Oh, you're kinda raggedy" or "you're kinda street-ish" like a really street kind of girl. So you know, I did not feel good about it. But you know, brother was very young and you gotta let that go *laughs* because if I didn't let that go then we would have never come up with "The Rhyme Brokers" so there it is. Rhyme Brokers, 20 years ago! Wow.
OTAQUEST: Did you have any image at the time of how the future might turn out for m-flo?
Taku Takahashi: I had an image that we would be really successful. I never had a doubt, to be honest. I thought we were bringing out something different to Japan and that was my goal. I knew we would do it in the best way. I never thought we would be doing this for 20 years, but I thought we had a bright future. We were very fortunate that we have been able to do this for so long.
LISA: What we were thinking back then was not really like "OK! We're going to move on like this and move on like that!" It really wasn't like that. We were such an experimental group, every song is strictly experimental. But we wanted to put our best into every song we make. Whether we had the chance to release it nor not, record company or not, it didn't matter. If we got together we wanted to put together something really hot. So that's how it happened, we were just concentrating on "The Rhyme Brokers" and that went really well. Not as in the charts, but our staff that listened to it all really liked it and hey encouraged us to make another song together. That song was "Been So Long", and a lot of people everywhere really liked that so that brought us out into the world and let people know that m-flo exists. "Been So Long" was our first hit, but "The Rhyme Brokers" was the beginning.
OTAQUEST: Does it feel like it's really been 20 years since it all started to you?
VERBAL: I did not expect 20 years of m-flo because I was thinking about quitting rapping before I hit 30. I thought that was the cool thing, start a new business or do something else. But life takes form in different ways and I'm really thankful that I'm able to be creative to this day. I get to work with Taku & LISA, make tracks, make songs for the fans out there. I would say it was like a quick 20 years, and we really feel blessed to be doing what we love for so many years.
Taku Takahashi: 20 years, I still can't believe it. The best word to describe it is "weird". *laughs* I just couldn't imagine that 20 years have passed. Being a professional musician, although I had mentioned that I had faith in ourselves, it's still very surreal to me. Recording with, and meeting artists, even meeting with new artists I feel like "Oh my god, I'm seeing this popular person!" or "Oh wow, this singer is so famous and I'm talking to her!" It's always surreal and I think it will be that way for me forever.
LISA: Yeah, It's been 20 years. Oh wow, very long but at the same time very fast. You can't imagine how life just goes so fast, oh my goodness, it's just scary sometimes. It does feel like 20 years too sometimes because wow when you sing those songs from 20 years ago over and over and over again you think "This song has taken me places!" And you know, a lot of gratitude to that. I Just appreciate everything, every moment, and what happened even though times were tough sometimes. Even though we didn't agree all the time, or even though we bump heads and all kind of stuff, you know? Good times, and bad times, everything together still equaled up to m-flo and whatever we put out.
Wow, there's so much to look back on, but at the same time so much to look forward to. Yeah, we have 20 years under our belt, but we still have 20 more to go! I'm thinking "Taku! VERBAL! Can you do it! Can you do it with me! Oh, you guys are crazy!" Gotta be crazy to go running with me for another 20 years, my brothers. Stay healthy, please!
OTAQUEST: Where do you see m-flo heading in the future?
VERBAL: I don't know, I mean I definitely didn't think we would be doing this for 20 years but I'm happy that we have and I feel like looking at the way m-flo has evolved; from Taku & me having a high school band to starting with m-flo, LISA joining and then leaving the group, m-flo starting the "loves" series where we collaborate with a bunch of different artists, to LISA coming back and us doing what we're doing now. I mean who knows what the future holds, I'm just excited and I know that this group is here to stay.
Taku Takahashi: Honestly I don't know what's going to happen for m-flo in the future, but I can tell you about what's coming up next. We're working on an album right now and we've been releasing stuff recently. We have a project called "Prince Project" where we're working with a bunch of different artists and producing covers of songs from the 80s. Really we just always want to be free and do something fun! We just released "Mars Drive" and "Piece of Me", the next single coming up will be available on Spotify, iTunes, etc. and the new album is coming out next year. Hopefully we get to go to more cities in the US and perform soon too!
LISA: Our future is bright. I always try to take everything positive. *laughs* I dunno, I just want my brothers to be healthy. And they need a lot of energy to bear with me too, so I don't know how my brothers are going to keep on moving with me and everything but they gotta drag me along with them! I don't know, I just love them very much and m-flo, we're such a fun group. We're always experimental like I said, and we're just going to keep doing that. We're not gonna be like "This is m-flo style, so this is how you're gonna listen to it!" No, we don't work like that. We always try to put a whole of challenges in it, and we're always challenging ourselves. Who knows where we're gonna go, we're still beginning and still moving forward, running too! Hey, please come along with us for another 20 years. Big up m-flo! Whatcha talking about!
OTAQUEST: Do you have any words for your fans in America?
VERBAL: First and foremost, when we performed in Los Angeles at Anime Expo's OTAQUEST LIVE this past July, it was a very enlightening experience for us because it was the first time m-flo every performed in the states, and honestly it was an away game you know? We thought the crowd would be super quiet in the seated arena, but much to our surprise a lot of the people knew our lyrics, and most of the people there were an actual American audience, not like Japanese people who had come to the states. I would say over 90% of the crowd was non-Japanese, so for them to know the songs and the hooks to songs, to be rocking with us, I mean it was a blessing and really encouraging to see. That got us really juiced up to want to go perform more oversease, especially in the US. So to the American fans, we're making new music and we're gonna bring back some of the old music to perform for the people who have been listening to us since day one. Be on the lookout, that's probably going to start as early as the beginning of 2019. Stay tuned.
Taku Takahashi: I really appreciate your support! Some of you know us from beatmania or Dance Dance Revolution, some might know us from YouTube, or even OTAQUEST. Wherever you found us and listen to our music, it really means a lot and I really appreciate that. Thank you so much. I would love to meet you all as soon as possible!
LISA: Mad love to all our fans, mad love from me. You know me, I'm all crazy and everything but crazy love, I have that too. From the bottom of my heart. Yes, we've been around 20 years, but another 20 years coming your way! Oh, be careful! I love you guys so much and I hope to see you soon! Be well and take care.
After the comments from the group I wanted to ask Taku a little bit about their first indie release, "The Way We Were", a cover of a Barbara Streisand song that was released alongside "The Rhyme Brokers" back in 1998. The original version of the release featured vocals from Ceybil Jefferies, with a version featuring LISA coming out a few months later. There isn't a lot of information about this particular song online and it's generally an unknown track to m-flo fans in the US so I was hoping he could shed a little bit of light on this mysterious song.
OTAQUEST: m-flo isn't a group known for performing covers, so how did you end up recording "The Way We Were", originally a Barabara Streisand song?
Taku Takahashi: So "The Way We Were", that's our first single. We had "The Rhyme Brokers" and "The Way We Were" together. Originally it was a GTS project, and GTS was recording it. What I was doing was almost like doing a remix for them. Our producer back then, Masaji Asakawa (G from GTS), liked the remix and said it should be an m-flo tune. While I was doing the remix, VERBAL was in town from Boston, I was already back in Tokyo, and I asked him to rap on it. G (Masaji Asakawa) loved our synergy, so we played him "The Rhyme Brokers" and he liked that too.
OTAQUEST: You recorded 2 versions of the song that were released at slightly different times, one with Ceybil Jefferies and one with LISA. What's the story behind that?
Taku Takahashi: After "Been So Long" we thought we needed a version for LISA. So that's why there are 2 versions, one with Ms. Ceybil Jefferies and we have the one with LISA. The original recording with Ceybil Jefferies was already there for the remix, so we just added VERBAL's rap. That was the first song played on Japanese radio & TV, but soon after "The Rhyme Brokers" hit and that led to "Been So Long".
As someone who counts himself amongst m-flo's earliest fans in the US, it's really amazing to see how far they've come and comforting to know that there's more planned. If you're one of the many out there who also enjoy their music & work, regardless of the era, be sure to look forward for more from this mega-talented group and as always we'll be here supporting and reporting any new developments they might be working on!