m-flo / TERIYAKI BOYZ® Producer / MC / DJ / Designer
Aside from his work as part of m-flo, Verbal has collaborated with numerous artists through his unique connections. He is also one of the MCs for an all-star hiphop group, Teriyaki Boyz®, and has ties to overseas artists such as Pharrell, Kanye West, and will.i.am (of the Black Eyed Peas). Verbal also began working as a DJ from 5 years ago. His inimitable sense of style has caught the eye of the fashion industry, and led to him designing pieces for his jewelry brand "Ambush®" as well as "Antonio Murphy & Astro®". Verbal has recently directed his first short-film "Dead Noise", and expectations grow higher for his activities wielding a unique mix of sensibilities in various fields.
As the CEO of his newly established KOZM Agency label, Verbal manages Mademoiselle Yulia and other various artists and producers.
March 14 marks the release of the first album as m-flo in 5 years, "Square One".
Verbal formed m-flo in 1998 with Taku Takahashi, and has become one of Japan’s internationally renowned artists. He established “Ambush® Design” in 2002, showcasing his unique sensibilities with his personal jewelry brand “Ambush®” and “Antonio Murphy & Astro®”. Verbal has gained great popularity as a fashion leader. In this interview, he discusses the roots of his interest in fashion, the experiences that led to the establishment of his personal brands, and his thoughts on the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in Tokyo.
When did you first gain an interest in fashion?
VERBAL：I visited Boston when I was in 5th grade, and I remember all the kids my age there were breakdancing, and even rapping on the school bus. They were proudly wearing sportswear and sneakers of many different brands, and at that time I didn’t understand why people would wear such outfits outside of P.E. class. I was into anime and comics like any other Japanese kids my age, so seeing this culture for the first time really opened my eyes to the music and the street fashion (laughs). The culture and attitude behind it were really stimulating. After returning to Japan, I read American hiphop magazines, watched skateboarding videos, and really got into the whole street culture.
Was there something special behind putting yourself in street fashion back then?
VERBAL：I immediately fell in love with hiphop culture, and attitude and fashion that came with it. Musically, hiphop back then seemed to have many topics surrounding racial references and the state of oppression, and it dawned on me that it was a powerful medium to poetically express one’s mind. Simultaneously, I was heavily influenced by the skate scene, and it too, had an underlying theme surrounding oppression. There were these stickers that said “Skateboarding is not a crime”, and message against that attitude of “skateboarding = a social nuisance”. Back then, people who felt oppressed by society or those who simply felt outcast seemed magnetized by these subcultures. Hiphop culture and the skate scene have given me the “voice” to express myself, and the fashion followed as I partook in the movement.
Right now, you seem to have an uninhibited style not limited to hiphop fashion.
VERBAL：At first I didn’t know anything, so I totally copied whatever was “in” in the US at the time. Eventually, I realized that it didn’t look too good on me (laughs), so I started experimenting until I found my own style. I was also starting to get tired of the many unwritten rules about how things should be in hiphop. The skate culture used to be something completely foreign to hiphop, but I was equally into both so I started mixing all types of style that I genuinely thought was cool, and that’s when I started to really enjoy fashion.
Mixing all sorts of elements might be a unique trait to Japanese culture.
VERBAL：I think so too. There are lots of times when something taken from overseas is turned into something totally different and cool by the hands of Japanese people, and that is exported back and becomes popular overseas again. One of the great things about Japan is that there’s little resistance to fashion, whereas in the US or Europe, there seems to be lots of preconceptions about fashion that makes things very conservative. For instance, if you go to Harajuku you can dress however you want and people will not look at you weird. I think this sense of liberty allows for young designers to go all out, and sometimes these who do have not even had formal education in fashion. This also becomes a benefactor in garnering skills from all walks of life and backgrounds, which brings new life into the world of fashion overall.
You design your own line of jewelry. Tell us what got you into designing.
VERBAL：I couldn’t find jewelry or chains that suited my my style, so I decided to customize my own piece and that’s around the time when I met Antonio the jeweler. I would give him my sketches, and we would go back and forth until it turned out that way I wanted. Although I made them for myself, people started noticing and showed interest in placing pieces in their shops. That led me to launch the jewelry brand “Antonio Murphy & Astro®” in 2004. We started up a second line “AMBUSH®” in 2008 that that was more experimental with the materials we used. After overseas artists like Kanye West started wearing them, it gained greater recognition. Our designs are really unique and might not be for everyone, but for those who do like them, they seem to wear our jewelry religiously. I’d like to keep making the unique jewelry and accessories for those fans, and I hope to release our new collection this April.
You actively collaborate with young creators, both in Japan and abroad.
VERBAL：Young designers are bursting with ideas, and I get inspired from their energy. have all sorts of ideas they put into their pieces, and I like the possibilities I feel when I see them. Even if they’re young, I’d like designers who make pieces that strike a chord with me to collaborate with Ambush® Design. I also really love witnessing the beginning of a new movement or a scene. sharing together the start of something new. The only problem I notice, is that lots some of the young and amazing designers in Japan that are making really amazing pieces really slack off in their don’t really put much emphasis on PR (laughs). I don’t want their talents going unnoticed, go to waste, so whenever I can I assist them in their PR efforts, even order custom outfits to give them exposure when I make public appearances. I make requests for them to make my costume sometimes in hopes that it would get their name out. I don’t believe in making art just for money, but you need money to keep the art going. I think there’s a that’s important crucial difference.
Getting the word out is an important issue faced by the Tokyo Fashion Week as well. Do you have any suggestions for the Fashion Week?
VERBAL：I don’t know if this helps, but as someone who’s looking forward to the Fashion Week, I’d like easier access to information on the related events and parties. Another request I hear from overseas visitors, is to offer not just information about fashion shows by famous brands, but interesting tidbits unique to Japan. Artists and buyers visiting Japan from other countries get more excited going to casual restaurants than high-class joints. I think it’d be good to show off more of the “less sophisticated” side of Japan.
You are a man of many hats – musician, fashion leader, and designer, just to name a few. Are there any new things you’d like to try in the future?
VERBAL：Recently, I started an agency for young singers and producers, but eventually I would like for it to grow into a business platform for people of all different fields, to facilitate them in bringing their creative process into fruition. Of course, I’m an artist myself, but lately I’ve been really focusing on the development of such environment. I would also like to be a liaison or a window into the overseas market and vice versa, to help facilitate business between the different cultures.
Finally, any thoughts on the m-flo album that came out recently? It is your first album as a group in 5 years.
VERBAL：It’s safe to say that we brought the whole “featuring” thing into the game in Japan, through our “m-flo loves…” series of albums, where we put emphasis on the various types of artists we worked with. But on this new album, we took out all information pertaining to the featured vocalists, the polar opposite of what we did previously. Compared to 5 years ago, CD sales have dropped drastically, but people still want music. That’s why we decided to go back to basics and let our music and melodies speak for themselves, thus the title of the album, “Square One”. At the end of the day, I believe that if we make music that we “feel”, fans will naturally follow.