‘Zwanger In Japan’, our brand new documentary in which we follow Zwangere Guy on his first trip to Japan is out now. Other than a notebook of rhymes and a boatload of boundless energy, the Brussels-based rapper brought his friend, producer and DJ, UM! (pronounced as ‘Umi’) with him. The 22-year-old Umi Defoort is a special case. Born in a family of professional musicians and raised in a city that breathes hip hop, it was always clear which path he was going to take. Before summer, UM! dropped his first single, Enelix, which features Jazz, Le 77 and Zwangere Guy himself, plus a Class-A video by Kurt De Leijer – and a debut album is just around the corner. We were curious to see how he met Zwangere Guy, how he experienced this insane trip to the land of the rising sun and what he learned from going back to the land of his roots.
It seems that music production is a talent that runs through your family. Did you learn the ropes from your dad?
"Yes, exactly. I was interested in a wide variety of music from a very early age because of my family. My dad is a classical composer and pianist (jazz legend Kris Defoort, ed.) and my grandfather was a choirmaster and played the organ in Bruges."
Since when did you start taking your interest in music to the next level?
"I went to the Royal Conservatory, where I first started taking music production seriously. A lot of people over there focus on their studies but don’t have any contacts once they’re out of school. I really wanted to avoid that situation. But once I met Gorik (Zwangere Guy, ed.), everything changed for me. As a part of STIKSTOF, Zwangere Guy was just his side project at first, but since I’ve been working with him we really hit it off. Our whole collaboration has been a determining factor for the direction I want to take in the music industry."
Where did you first meet the guy?
"I knew about him for a while, but I didn’t know him personally for a long time. Like so many people, both our crews would hang out on Place Sainte-Catherine. About 3 years ago, I was booked as the opening DJ for STIKSTOF somewhere. One of their members, Jazz, then introduced me to Gorik and proposed me as a DJ for him. From that moment on, things went naturally – we felt we were tuned in on the same frequency. It’s not just business, we’re really good friends."
You dropped your first real single, Enelix (featuring STIKSTOF and Le 77), back in June. Was that enough to get a taste for the music game?
"I think I already had the taste for it before that! But in terms of the level of production, the nationwide attention and the effort we’ve put in it: yes, this was a delicious first taste. I mean, the video really brought everything up to a new level – and I’m not going to get down from here now."
So how did you experience the trip to Japan with Zwangere Guy and Lefto?
"It wasn’t my first time over there, but it had been a very long time since my last visit, around 2009. Travelling back there now felt like a completely different experience, so much has changed. For example: because of the tragedy in 2011 (the dramatic earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Fukushima, red.) the country was in huge debt and so the government decided to open up the country to tourism a lot more. That makes a huge difference: everything and everyone is so much more ‘open’ now. So for me, it felt like a complete rediscovery, especially because I was there for music purposes this time. It felt so euphoric, I was there with my friends you know? It was the experience of a lifetime – I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way."
In which way do Japanese rappers, producers and fans differ from those here in Belgium?
"In terms of hip hop, there’s a big difference in attitude, compared to the Western point of view. Back here, people have some notion of English, so artists and fans pay a lot more attention to the rhymes and lyrics. So when we were there, we thought: ‘they are never going to understand what we’re rapping about’. And that’s exactly right, they don’t – at least for non-Japanese rap. Instead they pay so much more attention on the vibe, the flow and the music. It’s such an open and positive attitude, which is such a delightful thing really."
Any local names we should keep an eye on?
"You should definitely pay attention to Kikumaru and KGE, both of which we recorded a track with in Tokyo – as you can see in the documentary. Other than those guys, check out KOHH and Nujabes. As far as jazz goes: Takuja Kuroda."
Are there lessons you took back home from this trip?
"On a music level, I think I rediscovered the importance of being able to translate the vibe you’re going for in the music you produce or perform. On a more human level, my appreciation for Japanese culture and society has grown incredibly. They take ‘respect for each other’ to a whole new level. The biggest insult you could give someone is to say something like ‘do you know who you’re talking to’? People really value the collective society. There are two sides though: because in many ways it’s super individualistic too. For example: no one really talks in the subway because they respect silence for others who might have had a long day at work - or they wear these surgical masks because, not because they are afraid to get a virus, a common misconception, but because they are sick and they don’t want to contaminate other people. There’s just so much respect."
So now you’re back: what’s next for you? Didn’t we read somewhere that you would release your debut album around this time?
"That’s true. I was going to drop it on my birthday, December 4, but together with my manager I decided to take things a little slower. I don’t want to rush things too much. Additionally, I don’t want to steal the spotlights from Gorik! Sometimes you have to adapt yourself in this business, you know? But don’t worry, it’s coming – I’m super excited, it’s almost finished!"