Aztech grew up on anime and hip-hop. He never thought he’d wind up rapping at their crossroads
I’m double-fisting double IPAs and dumplings in North Quincy talking with Aztech about being all grown up and still working in the orbit of the hip-hop universe. I’ve covered him for years, mostly as a member of the Mass-born unit Hybrid Thoughts, and there’s an unspoken agreement that we are both remarkably living the working class rap monger’s dream of being at work talking music wearing fitted hats on a school night.
In chatting about the indie hip-hop hustle, Aztech brings up the 2015 documentary Adult Rappers. The opening scene of which features celebrated independent rap artists, including Boston representative Esoteric, explaining why they typically abstain from telling strangers that they spit for a living. The conversation gets me thinking that if Aztech, a Korean-American MC from the North Shore, already had a tough time explaining that he is a rapper before, it must be especially hard now that he’s specifically known for writing over Japanese cartoon soundtracks.
Aztech’s story begins in subterranean Mass in the late-’90s. He started rapping in and around Lynn at open mics, specifically at a youth center called Club America. Fast-forward to the mid-Aughts; over time, his Hybrid Thoughts crew emerged as one of the hardest-working acts in Greater Boston’s underground, regularly opening up shows and getting busy on the early social media channels.
“I was young, so I had that ignorant mindset like I was gonna make it and things were gonna happen,” Aztech says. “But then as I got even just a little older and became immersed in the scene, I realized that shit wasn’t going to go further than a certain point. But it was just something that I loved to do. I knew that I was going to [rap] forever, I just needed to find a viable way to make it work. I mean, I make underground hip-hop, I’m not going to be a star.”
He continues, “No matter what, I always knew that I needed to find a way to do it. Even though back when there were labels like Def Jux, a lot more people were eating off of it. They toured, they sold a lot of records. Now, underground hip-hop doesn’t even really exist.”
Before he landed on your television via soundtracks for shows including Blood Blockade Battlefront and Adult Swim’s Dr. Stone, Aztech had to navigate beyond the New England rap scene. And while places like Atlanta and Los Angeles held some promise, he ultimately detoured down another path.
“I always knew that people overseas respected hip-hop,” Aztech says. “First, it was Europe—fans would hit me up, they were finding me on SoundClick and MySpace and all that kind of stuff. But back then, I didn’t know how to go about [touring overseas]. Now it’s easier, everyone is touring in Europe.”
The next piece of the global puzzle came via Boston DJ and funk-disco do-it-all Saucy Lady, as well as her partner, Yukihiro Kanesaka, a Berklee-trained producer and founder of the Boston-based Komugiko Studios. It was around 2015, and the former was modeling for Aztech’s wife, star vintage clothier and stylist Nicole Lyons, while both Saucy Lady and Kanesaka were looking for new musical outlets.
“At the time, Hybrid Thoughts was kind of on hiatus,” Aztech says. “I really wanted to bring it back and shift it to another direction, and [Kanesaka] had the perfect sound. We became a new kind of a group, and with Saucy Lady too. It was more of a Native Tongues jazzy kind of sound, and then we decided to do a full album together.”
That reinvention and subsequent album landed Hybrid Thoughts a deal with Space Age Design Works in Japan in 2016. The label gave the project a proper push, and eventually recognition from those tracks caught the ear of TV and film honchos at Toho in Tokyo. The rest is anime history; if the name Toho rings a bell, or perhaps a bell tower, that’s because it’s the powerhouse studio behind three-dozen iconic Godzilla films and various other cultural touchstones.
“The first show [Blood Blockade Battlefront, whose producers contacted them] wanted like a boom-bap kind of track,” Aztech says. “Hip-hop and anime have always gone together, so I was psyched to do it, it was dope. I thought that was going to be it, but it went pretty well, so I used the attention to piggyback off of it a little. I put out a solo record in Japan in the meantime, and then we got a call for another [show].”
“The second one was Dr. Stone, a Japanese manga, and at the time I didn’t know how big it was.” He continues. “We got a call for that all the way here in Boston, and I went to [Kanesaka’s] studio and the entire team from Japan was here in Boston. One of the guys there was Tatsuya Kato, who does a lot of the composing for the big animes. For the first one, they just wanted a regular hip-hop track, the same shit I do anyway, but the second show was where it became a whole different thing.”
This was not the career Aztech had originally planned for—he never figured that the route to a sustainable income in music was going to be through another continent—but he went for the ride. Five years later, he has the kind of fanbase that he truly never thought he would attain, with digital spins in the hundreds of thousands and climbing, as well as a whole new stylistic aura that he naturally morphed into.
While hip-hop heads especially tend to measure success in dollars and Range Rovers, any rap world lifer knows that the real prize is longevity. Aztech’s recent animated output hasn’t simply found new fans because he’s in the right place, but also because he has the right rhymes. The tracks he has composed with Toho and others for action features are a break from the sample-heavy traditional boom-bap style he’s favored, and are far more futuristic in their lack of formal structure. Aztech does what he does best, stacking battle raps on top of metaphors with the occasional parable dolloped on top. But his nimble flow and malleable cadence allows him to bob and weave around sophisticated interplanetary rhythms (ask your friend who raps, everybody has one these days, and they will explain in more detail why this is such an impressive feat).
“Sometimes I’ll get a bit of what the show is going to be beforehand, but mostly I don’t know what I am walking into,” he says. “Of the eight times I have done this, I only knew what one of the shows was about ahead of time, and that’s because it was the second season of a show that I had already recorded music for. I did a Netflix show called Beastars, and they simply told me to base my song around the number four.”
And then there are the beats. On “I’m A Human,” one of his biggest streaming tracks, Aztech boxes over phrenetic flutes and unpredictable bagpipes. “It’s literally me rapping over an orchestra,” he says.
“A lot of people aren’t quick enough, they wouldn’t be able to do this,” he adds. “But I come from a freestyle background, so I can quickly come up with something that doesn’t sound like a pile of shit. A lot of these are freestyles. I didn’t know what it was about ahead of going in there, and I don’t have a lot of time, since there are all these people in the studio with me trying to get it done. They play a beat, they tell me the vibe, and to keep the content on a certain level, and then I have to write something.”
“A lot of the time, I don’t even feel like I’m making hip-hop when I’m doing these tracks.”
Whatever it feels like, sometimes Aztech has to pinch himself to make sure he’s not in a childhood fantasy state. He’s 37 and grew up on Mobb Deep and Samurai Champloo. The way things have turned out still seems surreal.
“Originally, my [Spotify numbers] were only from the [anime projects], but that also helped out a lot with the new shit,” he says. “[Toho] has been really great about making sure I’m credited properly and able to benefit from this.
“I was just in San Francisco to do an in-store signing at an anime store, and people were buying soundtrack CDs for seventy bucks. It’s nuts.
“And then I autographed them, and they’re selling those ones for ninety bucks.
“I got a discount—the price before I signed it.”
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.