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Now that the sake and Sapporo have worn off, why is the up-and-coming New Yorkbased producerwho's crafted subtle, album-introducing beats for Jay-Z and 50 Centso stoked? Because he's not based in New York anymore. In April, he arrived in Japan to DJ a brief cross-country tour with Queens' Mic Geronimo; he now has no plans to return. "I'm going to try to stick it out as long as I can," Hughes says. "Maybe [indefinitely], if I can get an artist visa. Honor, integrity, and efficiency are highly valued here, and once you get placement with a known artist, you can get work for 20 years."
Swap honor for back-biting and integrity for arrogancesubtract efficiency, too, while you're at itand you've pretty much got Gotham's hip-hop scene, he continues. "There are too many artists, and there are too many yes-men," he says. "New York has a lot of opportunity, but it's also a very competitive industry. And the people I dealt with there have no sense of businesssome of them can't even speak properly. If I have [a beat] you want, don't come in and talk to me like we're on a corner. I'm 33 years oldthis is how I make my living. I don't have time to talk to you about how many vials of crack you have in your pocket."
Hughes was doing pretty well here before his abrupt departure. Arriving in Queens from his native St. Louis in 2000, he scratched on a Jennifer Lopez single in 2002; three years later, he palmed a top rung on the career ladder when his reeking-of-disco track "Hustler's Ambition"on which Hughes also lends background vocalsled off 50 Cent's Get Rich or Die Tryin' soundtrack. Last year, Jay-Z chose his down-tempo track "The Prelude" to open Kingdom Come. Built around a Mel & Tim sample, it's typical of a B-Money beat: refined and complex enough that you might not shake your hips until the third time you hear it.
But despite the big-name placements, Hughes says he spent most of his time waiting around for industry philistines to return his e-mails. Even worse, his advance for the Kingdom Come track was extremely tardy, and to this day he says he hasn't seen a royalty statementmuch less any actual royaltiesfrom 50's G-Unit. "When you do a job for somebody, don't you usually receive payment right away?" Hughes asks. "You don't grab a package of toilet paper in a supermarket, put a quarter on the counter, and then say, 'I'll give you the rest later.'"
Visiting Japan for the first time during Golden Week 2006, he was so inspired by the sights and sounds that he returned nine months later. He promptly hooked up with DJ Hazime, a genre-crossing, populist producer known for his work with Japanese hip-hop pioneers Nitro Microphone Underground. Hazime introduced Hughes to independent label owners who, impressed by the big names on his résumé, immediately requested his services. He also produced the driving, Engrish-heavy remix of J-Pop star Kumi Koda's song "But/Aishou." (It's called "But ~ The Ghettobots Remix," and it's available for only 1,400 yen from your favorite Internet distributor.)
"I was making more money in three weeks' time than I had in two years in New York," Hughes says. "Even with the major placement."
A tall black man with crooked teeth and faint eyebrows, Hughes will surely stand out when he soon settles at a friend's pad in Soka, a short ride from Tokyo. But he says his Japanesehoned through a couple months of stateside courseworkis quickly coming up to speed. Philosophically, he already speaks the local language. "People work hard 12 to 13 hours with each other, and then go out and drink all night together," he says. "All the hip-hop artists know each other, and even though they don't always agree, they're always in the club supporting one another."
Japan's syrupy pop landscape is often seen as an ATM for American musicians who can't hack it here, as the Japanese masses seem eager to swallow whatever cotton candy Jennifer Love Hewitt and Alyssa Milano serve up. But Hughes swears the country's rap fans are better informed, if fewer in number. He notes that his shows with Mic Geronimothe critically regarded Queens MC with a nearly flawless flow who worked with Irv Gotti and Diddy but never really caught on herehave consistently sold out 300- to 500-capacity venues, making the rapper perhaps more beloved in Japan than at home.
"They know what's good and what isn't out here," he says. "A lot of people think Japanese people are dick-riding American hip-hop, like they are trying to copy everything. But this culture isn't based on violence. I won't call it na ïveté, but they kind of have a more pure acknowledgement of the music. Some cats want to be gangster, but some cats who are older keep it pretty real, rootsy."
He contrasts the genre's rising popularity in Japan with falling U.S. rap sales, and bemoans the American trend toward producing blockbuster albums on the cheap by employing no-name beat-makers. (Ironically, this is how Hughes got his starthe says G-Unit is a notorious practitioner of this technique.)
"I'm not trying to say one country is better than the other, and I know a lot of my people are going to complain when this article comes out," Hughes concludes. "I love my people, but the thing about it is, hip-hop is kind of overflowing right now. There's a new producer popping up every day. The U.S. is good for making you into an icon, but no star in America lasts forever."