Hip-hop artist Juice Lee is a breath of fresh air in a music genre whose commercial appeal has been stale for quite some time. The 27-year-old Ohio native isn’t the type of rapper who’ll tell you how much money he’s making, how big his guns are, or how many ladies he’s doing, but he will spit rhymes over an instrumental from anime or video game. “My music is the soundtrack to the montage that people have in their lives when they are training to advance their position in life,” he says. “Or the music for getting revenge on the man or organization that killed your parents/teacher/brother/sister/dog, etc.” All jokes aside, his interest in anime and manga figures prominently in his new CD, Epos, which is “loosely inspired” by Xam’d of the Lost Memory. Squee! caught up with him before Epos drops this summer to talk about his favorite characters, similarities between anime/manga and hip hop, and why live-action movies will always suck.
Squee!: So how/when did you get into anime and manga? What drew you to it?
Juice Lee: Back when I was about 6 or 7, I was introduced to it through my brother. He would go to the video store and rent the Robotech movies. I watched them in awe because I never had seen any type of animation with such rich storytelling. At that point, all I knew was Looney Tunes and The Disney Afternoon (which is funny because most anime creators credit their inspiration to Disney).
Squee!: What’s your all-time favorite anime?
Lee: Movie? Castle in the Sky but realistically damn near anything Studio Ghibli made because Miyazaki manages to make such amazing stories without resorting to gratuitous violence or sex or even profanity. It’s pure imagination. I’ll take that over the goriest series out right now.
Squee!: What’s your all-time favorite manga?
Lee: That’s hard to say because I haven’t read a ton of manga in the last few years, but for a while I was reading Claymore. It was one of the ballsiest manga to hit since Berserk. It took a lot of risks by actually killing important characters unexpectedly. So many times nowadays in manga and anime, the writers aren’t bold enough to kill off a popular character. Why? Because the magazine editors have control of what gets published, so even if the writer of the manga has an idea to logically kill a prominent or really popular character, if he/she can’t be brought back via some loophole, then the idea never comes to light. In other words, the manga creator no longer controls the fate of his/her story once it’s published in a magazine.
Squee!: I feel you on that. People went apesh*t when Kishimoto killed off Kakashi in Naruto Shippuden a few years ago. It’s probably why he had to bring him back to life a few chapters later, although I can’t say that with any certainty. So what are you reading and watching these days?
Lee: Honestly, I haven’t been up on the latest series. My friend keeps pestering me to watch the new Fullmetal Alchemist. The last two series I watched were Eden of the East and Xam’d of the Lost Memory. Very short series and straight to the point.
Squee!: Live-action Cowboy Bebop: thumbs up or thumbs down?
Lee: [sighs] Just like the proposed Robotech movie and that thing called Dragonball, anime SHOULD NEVER BE MADE INTO LIVE-ACTION MOVIES!! We’ve all seen our fair share of cosplay and it’s a stark reminder that most outfits that are drawn need to stay on paper. CGI? Well, if they put in the time to make it as pretty as Advent Children, then we can have an open dialogue [about live action].
Squee!: I agree but most of them are done in English, right? Isn’t that really what makes them especially awful? I’m thinking specifically of the Death Note movies here. To me, the difference between live action in English and live action in Japanese is so dramatic. I would say it’s better in Japanese. Which leads me to my next question: What’s your position on subs versus dubs?
Lee: I’m a fan of subs because 1) I get the show almost immediately after it airs in Japan; 2) the dialogue and pauses are better in Japanese because Japanese voice actors take their craft very seriously whereas English VAs just want the check (there’s going to be only the needed emotion when the character requires it); and 3) I think a lot of Japanese humor is lost in translation unless it’s an obvious gag.
Squee!: So who’s your favorite anime character?
Lee: I always respect the intelligent villains as well as tragic characters. For example, Orochimaru was a superb villain. He was a dude who simply couldn’t be beaten by anyone. (I hated that they never kept that moniker up in the second Naruto series). L in Death Note was another masterful guy. His unorthodox reasoning and thinking was great.
As far as tragic characters go, nobody tops Lucy from Elfen Lied. She may have been the ultimate gemini [laughs]. Lucy was pure evil, but Niu was innocence personified. All while your watching the series your wishing for Niu to completely takeover and everyone can be cool, but whenever Lucy showed up you were reminded of the grim nature of the story being told. Mayu (also from the series) was tragic because she was the sweetest girl you could ever imagine who had just had absolutely horrible things done to her. There were so many times in her backstory I was just mad at everyone around her, like, “What the hell did she ever do to anyone to deserve how she was treated?” Your heart has to go out to her.
Squee!: Do you see any similarities between hip hop and anime/manga?
Lee: Not really. Not until you start to be creative enough to make similarities artistically. On the business side? Yes, because once you’re dealing with corporations, your artistry becomes their business. So if you think of every song as a character in an anime/manga series, the audience will vote on a character poll to determine who is the best character. The same would be said for how Billboard or iTunes charts are now. So if you have this one character or song everyone likes then the company expects the manga writer to do more with the character, just like the label expects the artist to do more songs like the popular one. That’s where the corporate thinking and artistic thinking go their separate ways. The company/label wants to ride the hit until the wheels fall off while the artist just wants to be experimental and be free to do whatever.
Squee!: If you could pick any anime theme song to rhyme over, which one would it be?
Lee: That’s hard. I couldn’t say. But there are some anime soundtracks that I have sampled and flipped into songs. I did a song called “The Alien Chain” in which I sampled Kajiura Yuki’s “I Talk to the Rain” from Tsubasa: Resevoir Chronicle. And there’s a song called “Nah” where I sampled the piano theme from Innocent Venus. I’ve sampled a few video game tracks as well. For example, the title track sample on my last album, Metanoia, was from a song called “Ephemeral Dream,” from the Soul Calibur 3 soundtrack. I would love to one day do the opening theme for a new series and maybe have one of my ideas for a series come to life.
You can check out Juice Lee’s work at http://juibrand.squarespace.com/juipod/