When East Los Meets Tokyo: Chicano Rap and Lowrider Culture in Japan

Earthquakes aren’t the only thing that California and Japan have in common. For years Japanese youth have adopted and emulated lowrider culture and Chicano Rap as their own. This peculiar phenomenon attracted a promotional tour to Japan in 2006 by Always Running author Luis J. Rodriguez who brought along with him Gomez Comes Alive!, as well as Quetzal Flores and Martha Gonzalez of the East LA band Quetzal.

The invitation came by way of Shin Miyata, the outskirts of Tokyo based-owner of the Barrio Gold label that distributes reissues of classics from the Chicano Soul era to contemporary Chicano rap artists. In an article by Mark Guerrero, son of the legendary father of Chicano music Lalo Guerrero, Miyata offers a theory that the phenomenon, at least in his own personal case, started with imported media depictions from television and film coming out of the United States citing scenes from Chips and Boulevard Nights among them. Cal State Northridge Chicano Studies Professor Denise Sandoval was taken by surprise when she came across a Japanese car magazine that displayed the affinity for lowriders in the country. She started her academic inquiry into lowrider culture from that point on.

A cursory sampling of the comments left on YouTube videos show different opinions on Japanese performers emulating Chicano Rap/Lowrider culture. Some Chicanos express supposed “poser” dismay, but a greater majority are seemingly imbued with a certain sense of pride that their cultural expression has been adopted from far away. Chicano Rap artists and the hustlers behind the scene are among the more grateful. “Japan has been more of an avenue for profit,” says Jaime Diaz, President and CEO of Urban Kings Music Group. “We distribute to stores out there and it has helped us out a lot. Japan will be the first place to buy product from independent artists.”

The consumer appetite there extends to shows as well giving artists an opportunity to tour abroad. “There’s people who go out to Japan every month to perform,” Diaz says. “Out there it’s more mainstream while over here it’s more underground. They are a really observant people.”

On this side of the Pacific there has been notable examples of Japanese and Chicano collaborations. Tex Nakamura, one of the best harmonica players around, was a member of funk legends WAR and Monte Carlo ’76 helping to lay down the firme sounds. DJ Lady Tribe was born to a Japanese mother and is a prominent player on the LA scene. Hell, we can even take it back to OC civil rights history and the internment camp-prompted leasing of the Munemitsu farm to the Mendez family who later became lead plaintiffs in the Mendez, et al v. Westminster et al case!

Before taking it that far back, here’s a compiled list of five videos from Japanese artists that illustrate the phenomenon of the affinity for Chicano rap and lowrider culture there. The rolas gravitate towards G-Funk and talkbox, with performers going as far as to adopt stage names the likes of MoNa aka Sad Girl, EL-REY, and EL LATINO.

Don’t understand the lyrics, save for when English is peppered in? It’s all good! G-Funk mixed with talkbox, when done right, sounds good coming out of the speakers in any language!

1. MoNa aka Sad Girl – For Life f/ MK THE CiGAR

2. EL LATINO – Sunny Day f/ Jae-P

3. GARCiA – Respect Lowrider 

4. Phobia of Thug – 213 To The 052 f/ Kid Frost

5. NORA – Sea Side Walk f/ DESTINO

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