I’m Bad at Understanding Rhythm, but the Manga “Wondance” is Changing That

For the life of me, I’ve always had trouble with musical concepts like rhythm and beats. Even though I was in a couple of band classes as a kid, and even when I’ve tried to read up on it or look up videos, I just couldn’t wrap my head around these things. But recently, I think that’s starting to change, and I actually have manga to thank.

I recently began reading a new hip hop dancing-themed series called Wondance. Because that genre of dance is likely unfamiliar to many readers, the manga uses its main character as a way to introduce ideas. Kotani Kaboku is a basketball player with a speech impediment who discovers that dancing might just be a way for him to express himself, and he even applies some of his b-ball knowledge to his new interest.

In Chapter 4, titled “After-Beat,” Kaboku’s dance teacher talks to her class about a crucial difference between the music they might be accustomed to (J-Pop, anime songs, etc.) and the kind they’re dancing to now (hip hop, R&B, and funk)–what part of the beat the music (and thus the dancing accompanying it) emphasizes. If a basic beat is “1-2, 3-4,” then pop music tends to emphasize the “1” and the “3” while hip hop emphasizes the “2” and the “4.” The “2” and the “4” are called the “after-beat. To put it differently, if the beat track of a song goes “bumm-chh, bumm-chh,” the “chh” is the after-beat.

For anyone who’s into music and dance, this is probably child’s play, but this one page was actually the catalyst for me to actually “get” ideas that I knew of but could never actually understand. That simple explanation above, as well as the demonstration of dance moves at the bottom of the page, opened up a window I thought would be forever inaccessible. I listened to both anime songs and hip hop, my ears now aware of that difference in emphasis. When I watched videos teaching about beats, I had a better notion of what they were saying.

There’s even a moment from Chapter 3 of Wondance that subtly introduces these ideas, and in hindsight it’s actually brilliant. Kaboku notices something about the rhythm of hip hop dancing, and he compares it to dribbling in basketball: if the rhythm of the basketball is down-then-up, then hip hop feels like the “up” is being emphasized, and it’s the prime moment to make a steal. In other words, the ball hitting the floor is the “bumm” and the ball returning to the hand is the “chh.” When I remembered that scene, it hit me like a sack of potatoes.

While I highly doubt that I can ever truly feel the beat as so many others can, or apply it to something like rap or dance, I feel like a new world has opened up to me. It’s almost like learning a new language. I also think it might say something about me that it took reading a comic in a foreign language to finally comprehend something as pervasive as music, but maybe that’s part of the beauty of comics. And between Wondance in manga and Tribe Cool Crew in anime, I hope we see this genre continue to grow.

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Hip Hop Manga: “Change!” and “Wondance”

Whether by chance or perhaps some broad editorial intent, it’s a curious thing that hip hop culture would be a prominent theme in two currently serialized Kodansha manga in Japan. Change!, running in Monthly Shounen Magazine, is the story of a Japanese poetry-loving girl named Shiori who ends up being drawn into the world of rap battling. Wondance, from Monthly Afternoon, focuses on an athletic boy with a stutter who discovers hip hop dance as a way to express himself. Each series, almost by necessity, takes a very different approach to their respective subjects, and juxtaposing the two highlights the power each work possesses.

Change! naturally places great emphasis on verbal dexterity, and as a series about Japanese rapping, there are also certain aspects to the language that make it differ from English. Japanese has fewer vowel sounds, which means that many more things in the language can technically rhyme, which in turn means that the rhymes that do occur can be even more varied yet precise aurally. The heavy emphasis on syllables also gives Japanese a certain sense of rhythm, especially because extending those sounds can change the meaning of a word entirely.

All of this needs to be effectively conveyed in the manga, and the approach Change! takes is to place more emphasis on word balloons than most manga. Words and syllables can appear larger or more erratic in order to highlight what key words in one line are being correlated with in the next line. The classic staple of many manga, furigana to aid in the reading of difficult kanji, take on added importance due to both the sheer number of homonyms that exist in Japanese and to make sure the reader keeps track of what’s being said syllable by syllable.In the images above, the male rapper connects the word “underground” with “Alice in Wonderland,” working off the fact that andaaguraundo and Arisu in Wandaaraando both start with an “a” and have the similar raundo vs. rando. He then follows up on the next page with Atama no naka made pinku iroka? / Orera no otogibanashi wa Kingu Gidora!, or, “Is even the inside of your head the color pink? / Our fairytale is King Ghidorah!” Pinku iroka lines up perfectly vowel-wise with Kingu Gidora, and the talk of fairy tales follows up to his comparison of Shiori as being as out of her depth as Alice is in her story. While the passionate expressions and the metaphorical imagery shown contribute to the atmosphere and to hammer home the meanings behind the words, the actual word balloons do a great deal of heavy lifting.

In contrast, although Wondance can be fairly wordy at times, when it comes to dancing, the manga is very much in the “show, don’t tell” category. Characters move with grace and intensity, and panels highlighting their steps litter the pages, turning them into virtual collages that practically crackle with energy. Text is sparse, and primarily brief glimpses into how the characters are thinking in the heat of the moment.In the pages above, the main character and Hikaru—the girl who brings him into the world of dancing—are dancing together in a class. The paneling supports the character artwork, emphasizing a sense of the two as a duo in sync with each other on some deeper level. This visual approach calls to mind the elaborate paneling of 1970s shoujo manga such as Swan, where panels cascade and climax in beautiful ways. The drawings capture not just the dance but the emotions of the dancers as well, making their moves the central vehicle for storytelling. In a sense, one doesn’t even need to know Japanese (or have a translation handy) to get the essence of Wondance.

Thus, on the one hand, you have a series where the words are of the utmost importance and another where images hold the power. However, they both draw upon the visual language of comics and especially manga in fundamental ways through their particular emphases. Change! and Wondance capture some of the magic of hip hop culture itself as a multi-medium, multi-angle fusion of various ingredients.

Geek Reference Culture vs. Rap Reference Culture: A Personal and Meandering Comparison

Introduction

Geek culture has a conflicted relationship with making references. It can be the lingua franca of geeks—reciting lines wholesale from Star Trek, Monty Python, The Simpsons, Mystery Science Theater 3000, and other nerd favorites has long been a way to identify like-minded individuals, especially when those interests might not have been considered popular in a schoolyard or office. But that same geek culture, once characterized by references to living in family basements, is now integrated into mainstream culture. It’s to the point that the distinction between hardcore and casual is blurred, inviting never-ending debates about whether that line truly exists, let alone where it might fall. The most successful sitcom ever is The Big Bang Theory, a show about a bunch of brainy dorks who hit every stereotype this side of Steve Urkel.

In this environment, reference humor in geek culture is now being criticized in popular culture as overly insular, perhaps even symptomatic of gate-keeping out women and certain ethnic groups. References are seen as a crutch, a way to siphon off the value and humor of others in absence of one’s own. Unfavorable reviews of the book Ready Player One may be justified in pointing out its misogynistic themes and awkward prose, but it’s also viewed as a prime example of reference subculture gone too far in its arrogance and alienation.

Yet, there’s another example of a once relatively small cultural movement that has established itself in mainstream culture, one that also thrives on references to itself in ways that can seem inaccessible to outsiders: rap and hip hop. In that respect, I find it fascinating that both geek and rap cultures share a lot of similarities. In addition to the heavy focus on references, they’re also grappling with the fact that while they have helped to provide voices to the voiceless, they’re also avenues for misogyny and racism to rear their ugly heads. Despite their stereotypes being virtual opposites of each other—the 98 lb. pasty white nerd living in soul-crushing suburbia vs. the hard-edged gangsta in the life-threatening inner city—there’s a good deal of resonance between the two, and that’s before taking into account the fact that nerd references actually do show up in rap on a regular basis. However, while the use of references in hip hop seems to elevate it in the eyes of the general public, it’s considered something of a strike against geek culture. The question is then, what causes this difference in perception?

Hip Hop’s Reference Culture

The spark for this essay came to me thanks to a book I recently read: Original Gangstas: Tupac Shakur, Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and the Birth of West Coast Rap. Among other informative things for someone unknowledgeable about the subject like myself, one aspect it points out about west coast rap and hip hop is that it grew partly out of the rappers’ desire to make songs that spoke to their lived experiences, as opposed to what they were getting from New York City, where rap originated.

The key example the book gives of this desire to express west coast authenticity comes from a line in Eazy-E’s “Boyz-n-the-Hood”: Cruisin’ down the street in my ’64. Westhoff himself describes his youth, listening to this song and dreaming of riding a “Six-four” without knowing what that actually was. But to a certain audience, especially those who grew up in areas like Compton, Eazy-E was quite obviously talking about a 1964 Chevy Impala. Though more a way to speak to those on the streets, there was perhaps another inadvertent takeaway for those who weren’t familiar with this experience: “This is a west coast thing. You probably wouldn’t understand.”

Information like what “six-four” means might be taken for granted by those intimately familiar with rap and hip hop. But speaking personally, my relationship with these genres was, for the longest time, largely limited to memories of what my siblings would listen to. It’s why I found Original Gangstas so potent, as it helped give me perspective on things I only tangentially understood: the significance of Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” in popularizing the style known as G-Funk, the old differences between east coast and west coast styles, etc. As a relative outsider, I’ve long found that the propensity for rap to throw out references to culture without explanation, couch them in rhythm and lyrics, and use callbacks to other songs (whether in praise or as an insult) made it difficult for me (who grew up not terribly music-inclined in general) to make heads or tails of. I didn’t reject it as music I was supposed to “hate,” nor did I believe that “rap isn’t real music.” Rather, I felt that it was the popular kids’ music, and that it spoke of things I, as an out-of-shape Asian kid who couldn’t win a fight against a hamster, perhaps wasn’t “supposed” to be able to connect to.

That was the past, and I now feel more open and receptive to hip hop, thanks in part to David Brothers, who writes about the connection between geek culture and rap on a regular basis. Yet, I still feel that time away has affected me by stunting not just the potential knowledge of hip hop that’s in my head, but also the potential feeling of it in my heart and soul. With respect to this complicated sensation, one song I keep coming back to is Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’s “Empire State of Mind.” It’s about as famous and popular a rap song as it gets, but as someone who was born and raised in New York City, there are references in it I intrinsically understand and some that I had to look up. I know that going from Harlem to Tribeca is essentially traveling from the top to the bottom of Manhattan. I know that being so “Spike’d out I can trip a referee” is referring to Spike Lee’s propensity for getting front-row tickets to Knicks games while simultaneously talking up Jay-Z’s swagger. I had no clue what “paying Lebron” and “paying Dwyane Wade” meant, having next to no knowledge of drug culture, nor did I know that “BK” being from Texas is about Beyoncé, Jay-Z’s wife. Listening to the song feels somehow both deeply familiar and unusually foreign.

Contemplating “Empire State of Mind” relative to other rap songs, it makes me wonder if this is how many people feel similarly about nerd reference culture. If there’s enough to chew on, it becomes a relatable experience. If there isn’t, it might be downright alienating. “It’s a geek thing. You probably wouldn’t understand.” Whether by accident or by intent, this can transform into “You’re not supposed to understand.” But unlike west coast rap, which was originally tied to a certain region and its surrounding cultural and economic situation, the fuel for geek culture was all over the place. I was surprised to find out (thanks again to Original Gangstas) that a young Snoop Dogg and Warren G were in a group called Voltron Crew. (There’s also a video of Snoop Dogg reminiscing about playing with Voltron toys and pretending they could move.) Moreover, at a panel at New York Comic Con 2018, DMC (of Run-DMC) talked about how he was inspired to express through his rap the entertainment culture he saw: Godzilla, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff movies, etc. One gets the impression that geek culture was never truly rooted in those pasty white suburbs, and with each passing generation that image gets reclaimed and transformed.

Rap’s references don’t just end with talking about the streets or various aspects of pop culture, either. There’s also a tradition of calling back to previous rap songs, which rewards those fans and listeners who avidly follow the genre. Original Gangstas describes how “Hit ’em Up,” the infamous diss track that is just five minutes of venom directed at the Notorious B.I.G., Tupac makes numerous references to the enemy camp’s music, twisting them into dark parodies such that anyone who recognizes the originals can feel the vitriol hitting even harder. Notably, the line “Grab your dick if you love hip hop” from “Player’s Anthem” by Notorious B.I.G. and Junior Mafia becomes “Grab your glocks when you see Tupac.” You don’t need to know the specific references to pick up on the sheer anger Tupac has for Biggie, but it helps.

The Desire to Affirm Geek Identity, and the Hurdles Created in Consequence

Geek reference culture still carries a legacy of wanting to legitimize one’s own experiences, and in that respect it mirrors a lot of what rap and hip hop have done. However, where I find the key dissimilarities begin to manifest is in how attached the purveyors and fans of geekdom and rap get to their source materials. While plenty of creators allow their influences to show through in subtle ways—Steven Universe clearly has the DNA of Sailor Moon in it—the most visible parts of geekdom are those whose umbilical cords have never fully detached from the things they reference. Many of these works, while excellent in their own right, fall apart almost completely when divorced from their immediate contexts. The ones most absolutely dependent on showing off their callbacks, i.e. the Ready Player One‘s of the world, are too busy showing themselves as “nerdy” to build towards anything more. There’s a kind of clumsiness that makes people bristle.

In contrast, rap, even when one doesn’t get all of the in-jokes and shout-outs, still tend to convey enough meaning in other ways that those songs don’t live or die by the number of references contained within. But that might just be because referencing and remixing have been a part of hip hop since day one, before rappers even rose to prominence. In the earliest days, it was the DJs who commanded all the attention, and their craft is based in mixing together bits and pieces of various existing soundtracks. When Grandmaster Flash talks about getting rid of the “wack parts” to make a more enjoyable experience, he’s recalling making those old vinyls into his own. Incidentally, in this same video, he talks about the science of DJing being this incredibly geeky thing, but that he couldn’t express it as such back then because it wasn’t cool to be a geek. Hip hop has a legacy of creators not being afraid to take what’s out there and put it directly into a song, but also trying to transform them for their own unique purposes.

One point of convergence and then divergence is how nerd references get into rap and hip hop. Along this vein are two general categories: nerdy rapping and nerdcore rapping, i.e. songs with nerdy callbacks in them vs. songs where geek culture is the primary subject matter. Before I proceed, however, I want to make one thing clear: What I’m discussing is not a matter of talent of performer or quality of song; I have neither the musical expertise nor the familiarity with hip hop to cast that kind of high-and-mighty judgment. It would also be quite unfair to pit a small-time YouTuber against Snoop Dogg literally doing a song for Tekken and expect the former to live up to the latter in terms of raw ability and experience.

However, if we look beyond talent or quality and just at subject matter, nerdcore’s reputation (for better or worse) is that it’s hyper-focused on celebrating nerdiness. In contrast, nerdy rapping is about incorporating those geek references to make a point. MC Frontalot is not considered to be unskilled as a rapper, but “I’ll Form the Head” mainly requires the listener to be in on the joke—that it’s a parody of Voltron. On the other hand, when Soulja Boy raps, “Bitch I look like Goku,” he’s likening himself to the Dragon Ball protagonist to instantly communicate his power and confidence. Even if you don’t know who Goku is, the delivery tells you that it’s someone who’s a big deal. The same song (titled “Goku” of course) also references the 1964 Chevy Impala, as if to equate their cultural symbolism. It’s not a matter of “reality” vs. “fiction,” either. A lot of non-nerdy hip hop is about presenting fictionalized versions of oneself, such as Eminem’s Slim Shady.

A Crucial Difference?

One major disparity might be that while references in hip hop convey a sense of mutual understanding and experience to often self-aggrandize, traditional geek culture places much of its subcultural cache in the accumulation of nerdy knowledge—i.e. nerd cred. It’s one thing for Jay-Z to talk about how he “made the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can,” or for Snoop Dogg to explain, “I got the Rolly [Rolex] on my arm and I’m pouring Chandon [an expensive sparkling wine].” It’s another to operate as Ready Player One does, and tie the hero’s success to his mastery of 80s pop culture. This even extends to how hip hop and geek cultures try to suss out “fake” fans. In hip hop, like with other forms of music, a lot of it has to do with taste. If you like Macklemore or Vanilla Ice, you’re supposedly not a “real” fan because you can’t handle the hard stuff. However, it’s not like hip hop fans expect everyone to have encyclopedic knowledge of rap. In contrast, when someone is accused of being a “fake geek” or a “fake geek girl,” it’s more to do with the idea that their kung-fu isn’t strong enough—that they lack the extensive study of trivia and information that’s long been expected of nerds. For hip hop and rap, references are the doorway. For geek culture, it can often feel like the destination, and as long as that reputation persists, there will always be a sense of impermeability between geek and non-geek cultures.

You Should All Check Out the Street Dancing Anime Tribe Cool Crew

I’m not a dancer. In fact, I don’t have a single rhythmic bone in my body, and the only reason I can or will ever dance is because I’m fairly shameless when it comes to humiliating myself. That’s why it might come as a surprise that my favorite anime out of the current season is Tribe Cool Crew, a show about street dancing. Though only a few episodes have aired, I find myself looking forward to Tribe Cool Crew every week because of how it combines the best of boys’ anime and girls’ anime for children.

The thing that really drew my attention to Tribe Cool Crew from the very beginning is the dynamic between the main characters, a boy named Tobitatsu Haneru, and a girl named Otosaki Kanon, both of whom love to dance. The two complement each other well not only in terms of personality and style, but also because they’re essentially the typical morning boys’ anime protagonist and typical morning girls’ anime protagonist who have met up in a single show. Haneru is small but energetic with a constant in-your-face attitude, and his burning desire to be the best and to meet his idol, Jey-El, wouldn’t be out of place in shows like Mushiking or Yu-Gi-Oh! Zexal. Kanon is shy but comes alive while dancing as the anonymous internet celebrity “Rhythm,” utilizing her great height and long limbs to accentuate her moves. In many ways she reminds me of Hanasaki Tsubomi, the main heroine of Heartcatch Precure!, especially because the show takes time to focus on her gradually building confidence.

Essentially, I find that it combines the ambition of the boys’ anime with the care and consideration of the girls’ anime. Though Tribe Cool Crew is still incomplete, it gives me the same general vibe as anime such as Battle Spirits: Shounen Toppa Bashin and Ojamajo Doremi, both of which I consider to be among the best of children’s anime. As the dances are all done in motion-captured CG, it’s also clear that the show is a response to popular CG dance anime such as Pretty Rhythm and Aikatsu!, taking what was previously solely the realm of idol anime and giving it a bit of a hip hop twist. It’s the kind of expansion of a genre or trend that I can really get behind, even if I don’t quite understand dance.

One aspect of the show that might be difficult for people looking for more plot-centric or character aesthetic-focused shows is that Tribe Cool Crew is still a show meant for kids at the end of the day. For example, the show sometimes features lessons for young, aspiring dancers on topics such as isolation. That said, the anime does feature some characters that an older audience might relate to better.

The look of the show might also take some getting used to, as the character designs are somewhat unusual for anime. They appear to take lessons more from Disney or other American cartoons that emphasize heavy variation in silhouettes to a heavy level of caricature, which can be a bit jarring. It has its own charms, however, such as in the case of Kanon, who is portrayed as an awkwardly lanky girl that perfectly fits both her personality and age, looking as if she just hit puberty and is beginning to feel conflicted between how she believes her upper-class family wants her to be and her inner passion for dance.

You can watch the show on Crunchyroll. Overall, I think Tribe Cool Crew is a really solid show and perhaps the sleeper hit of the season. It has a lot of potential, and I look forward to seeing where it all goes.

On the Usage of Profanities

It’s about my persona ain’t nothing like a man
that can do wha he wanna
Ain’t nothing like man on that you knew on the cornna
See ’em come up and fuck up the owna
See ’em throw up Westside California

-Ice Cube

Personally speaking, I do not prefer to curse. Even on this blog I usually try to find other avenues. But years ago I asked a relative with a similar stance towards profanity a simple question: If you’re quoting someone who cursed, do you quote them exactly or do you still put in your personal filter? His response was a hard-line  “absolutely not.” It was at that point that I began to think about the nature of profanity as a part of the English language.

We can substitute for cursing all we want (and I do), but that doesn’t take away from the fact that curse words carry a lot of meaning with them that is specific to the fact that they are considered profane. There is a certain and special kind of impact that comes from their context in society, and so when you decide to curse, you transmit a message well beyond the surface meaning or even the fact that it’s a profanity. It hints at emotion and personality and any number of things.

You might think that my description is vague, and that it applies to all words, but that’s exactly my point. They can be treated as a part of your vocabulary, like a tool from your toolbox to use when the time is right and when you want to or even need to convey a specific meaning. They can be misused and overused (as was the case with the act of “fifteening,” the addition of excessive profanities in old anime dubs in order to bump up their ratings), but that doesn’t take away from the fact that they say something.

At this point, my non-usage of curses is simply a personal and stylistic choice.

I occasionally find myself in an odd position where I am defending rap and hip hop from criticism. Now while I like rap well enough, I am not a particularly big fan of it, and so I feel kind of out-of-place doing so. However, I think that a lot of people misunderstand rap and hip hop specifically because of that liberal use of profanity on top of the general image of violence portrayed in a great portion of it.

So for me, my non-usage is merely a stylistic choice.

These days, I refer detractors to Ice Cube’s “Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It,” as an example of how words and phrases that can be considered offensive can be used to conjure up certain meanings and images in order to send a specific socially relevant message. If you’re unsure yourself, go ahead and have a listen.

Obviously, there’s explicit content.

I think this sort of thing is relevant to anyone who writes, and that includes anime bloggers.