In 2007 I was living in a cozy one-bedroom apartment in Kingston, Ontario, unemployed and more than a little lonely. I had left the only city I’d ever known to hang onto a girl, a decision I’ve never regretted for a moment, but the repercussions of which started to press on me once I realized the business owners in a college town were not eager to give work to someone who would be bailing at the dawn of the Christmas rush, plus I had no social circle to speak of besides a cat and the beautiful woman I shared a home with. I was writing a blog for a newspaper back home, which tossed enough money to cover my share of the rent but not much else. So I spent a lot of time online, searching out things to watch or listen to or read about. One of the things I discovered was Samurai Champloo.
I’d been an anime fan for a number of years, back when it was hard to come by and acquiring it still carried that ‘thrill of the chase’ excitement. The online community then was small and tight knit [I think we’re talking ’98, ’99 here] and soon enough I was tape trading with people in Georgia, California, Illinois, just devouring anything I could get my hands on. But as with all things underground, it reached the surface and certain powers realized there was money to be made. On top of that, the shows that were coming out seemed to be nothing more than retreads of popular formulas, nothing that challenged a viewer the way Evangelion or Utena did, so I fell out of love and sold off most of my collection. But one show I will always love is the space opera/jazz mashup known as Cowboy Bebop. So when I learned years later that most of the creative team behind that show had performed a similar bout of thematic wizardry combining samurai stories and hip-hop, I knew I had to see it.
Now, I don’t own Champloo, frankly because I don’t think it ever fully realized its potential. There were flashes of brilliance [Mugen’s fighting style, that episode where they tag temples with graffiti], but the combination of styles never fully synthesized for me. But the one thing they got right top to bottom was the music, composed by a four- man crew of Japanese and American underground hip-hop producers. One of them, the man who wrote the theme song, was Jun Seba, aka Nujabes. Acquiring the Champloo soundtracks showed that Nujabes was responsible for most of the best music used in it [Fat Jon was behind the rest], I went on the hunt for both of his albums, his recorded DJ set and his compilations. His soulful and melancholy, piano-laced, beat driven tracks are what got me through that hard winter in Kingston. He dropped two more albums in quick succession after I got to Toronto, like he was welcoming me to the city I was more than ambivalent about, his music calming me as I waited for the train home on the Yorkdale platform, telling me it was cool, I could be happy here. And he was right. His music is what I seem to go back to over and over again, and I’m taken back immediately to that time in my life when I first heard them.
Getting antsy for new material from the notoriously private producer, I hit the web this week only to find that he had been killed in a car crash on a Tokyo expressway. The crash had happened in February, but his family had kept the news tight until this week. He was 36 years old. To say the online community of people who love his music was shocked would be putting it mildly. I was far from alone in my respect for an artist who so seamlessly fused classic jazz sensibilities with an ear for the boom-bap that rivaled the best of legendary producers like Premier, Jazzy Jeff and Pete Rock.
I hope he had an understanding of how much his work on Champloo had impacted fans of the show, how we voraciously devoured anything he put his name to, how he achieved a global reach few can ever hope to see in their lives. Word has it he left about 30 tracks behind when he passed, and while there’s some consolation knowing there will be more music to come, it is still so sad knowing we’ll never see how his talent would have been fulfilled.
Rest in peace, Jun Seba.
Tributes and Remembrances