Meet chelmico, the best friends making fun and frenetic Japanese hip-hop
Rachel and Mamiko have ascended from internet notoriety to major label rap entities in their home country. Here, they unpack how the pandemic has changed their practise.
You may have heard their music on Apple commercials, or over the opening credits on the hit anime series Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!. Right now, chelmico’s brand of frenetic, fun rap music seems to be a constant presence in Japanese pop culture. Since we first caught wind of them three years ago, their surroundings have transformed. The duo -- comprised of Rachel and Mamiko Suzuki -- were once a rap unit born from a close friendship, fairly low key. In 2020, though, they’ve adapted to become one of the most cool and influential artists on Japan’s music scene.
But as with most artists, the coronavirus pandemic has forced the duo to stay cooped up indoors for a few months, and so we called them via Skype as the sun set over their building to discuss their state of mind, how their music has evolved since their early days, and what they miss most about performing to crowds of people. Despite the current circumstances, the girls seem happy, and stay true to themselves. For that reason, we need chelmico now more than ever.
Since signing your contract with a major label and releasing two albums, you two have come quite a long way. Have there been any changes in chelmico’s activity since then?
R: Fundamentally it hasn’t changed that much. We’re still working with the same people on both music production and live concerts, and we still do everything the same way.
M: There have been some changes, depending on what we’re talking about. For example, we used to think that the best way to make songs was to do it while having fun, but recently we have been thinking about how to make our listeners enjoy our music more.
Why is that?
M: I think it’s because we want our music to also reach those fans who don’t normally listen to hip-hop. After we rapped on a Sokenbicha commercial, we found out that teenage girls started listening to our music, so we began wondering what kind of rap they would appreciate more.
R: I mean, we were never the “Yo, me and my squad hangin’ in our hometown, man” type of rappers from the beginning, so it makes sense.
R: I think our fans expect us to be the sort of musicians who don’t lie in their lyrics or stiffen up in general. It’d be nice if we could keep it that way forever.
You’re protecting yourself from becoming something else, right?
M: Exactly. If chelmico unnaturally changes into something else, our fans will probably be weirded out, and we would hate it too.
R: But if we still want to have fun while making our music, we need to make something that is easier to express. I guess our mindset changed in that regard.
M: Compared to our old selves, we’ve gotten better at listening to other people’s opinions and adapting them without getting too stubborn about it.
R: For example, now we can look at our live performances objectively, and if there’s something we need to fix, we do that.
M: I guess we’re still bad at bragging, so that hasn’t changed. We always have that tiny feeling of embarrassment. Still a bit shy.
When did you first notice your fanbase was changing?
R: Probably around when we release “Balloon”.
M: From that time, we started having a lot of young girls in our audience at live performances too.
R: It’s definitely because it’s a love song. They’re so powerful!
R: Also, I’m really happy we get a lot of English comments on Youtube. Even though we sing in Japanese, I guess many people still understand our flow or our feelings and mood in general.
When writing lyrics or making content, do you talk about what fits chelmico’s image and what doesn’t?
M: A lot, right?
R: Yeah, we do. Even when we speak on the radio, but also when we write lyrics, we’re always careful not to sound like we’re lying or bragging about stuff.
Words have the power to convey one’s image.
M: I know, right?
R: That’s why we’re actually very careful about them.
How do you decide the order of your verses?
R: It depends on the song. If it’s uptempo we’d probably start with my rap, which sounds more biting, while on a more mellow track Mami-chan would probably start, since she sounds smoother.
M: Sometimes, the person who finishes writing the lyrics faster goes first.
When you can’t meet in real life, does it ever happen that by reading each other’s lyrics you understand what the other person’s going through without talking about it?
M: Well, we mostly talk about this stuff before rapping, so we already know.
R: If one of the two of us writes sad lyrics, it usually happens that we remember talking about it beforehand.
Are you still embarrassed when sending lyrics to each other?
R: I’m still embarrassed after sending my lyrics to her. I send them on the LINE (Japanese text app) group chat we share, and then I find myself nervously thinking, “Just hurry and read them!” until I get a reply.
R: Sometimes I feel anxious about them too. I start thinking “Are these lyrics actually good?” Then, when Mami-chan gives me her approval, I can feel good about them. I get so nervous just waiting for her to read them. When she takes too long to reply, I start talking by myself on the group chat, like “Did you see them? I think I wanna fix this part”. Then I add something like “I guess I’ll fix it later” as an excuse. But Mami-chan totally gets it!
M: That’s because I also get embarrassed about some stuff.
Now that you can’t perform live, is there anything that you recently found out from your fans’ reactions?
R: We recently started a fan community, and the people there are constantly posting new threads on the board, so sometimes I’m taking a peek. For example, they have threads where they post their favorite lyrics, and it’s interesting to see what parts they like best.
M: It’s surprising how the hardcore fans tend to prefer mellow songs better than the more uptempo ones. Also, now with Instagram fans can tag us and directly express their thoughts, and it feels like I’m getting positive energy from their reactions. In the past, I used to be pretty scared of how emotionally close to me that felt, but now I can just honestly say thank you.
Do those reactions become your inspiration when producing content?
M: I don’t know about that. Maybe it just feels good not having to change?
R: I guess so. It feels pretty balanced. But I like to make slow-paced songs too, so I feel validated to make more.
What’s chelmico’s biggest ambition from now on?
R: I want to make more radio-friendly content! Right now, we’re doing whatever we want on YouTube, but I’d love to be on the radio again, it’s really fun to share the music we like with everyone.
M: I think I want to organize a live concert. Like some big, open-air summer festival, with us performing a bit as headliners, and the rest of the time we would just listen to the other artists we called.
R: Then we should plan the timetable so that we can see all the other acts.
M: Definitely gonna do that.
R: Yeah, let’s do that.
Were you reading some books or listening to music during self-quarantine?
R: Ishii Shinji no Gohan Nikki by Shinji Ishii, Murakami Mieko’s Sora Atama ga Dekai Desu, Sekai ga Sukonto Hairimasu, and Masamichi Inoki’s Kyousan Shugi no Keifu. I have these three books next to me right now. Shinji Ishii’s one feels like his own personal diary, and it makes me sobby. I love Mieko’s novels, so I wanted to try one of her essay books. I love her Kansai accent. The last book is about communism, which I always thought was scary, so I’m trying to understand it now. it’s really hard though, so it feels like a challenge.
M: Hiroshi Homura’s Ano Hito ni Ai ni. When I was in high school I was incredibly introverted, and Hiroshi Homura saved me. So I started wondering who saved Hiroshi Homura himself. That’s why I’m reading it, I want to know.”
R: Music-wise, I’ve been listening to The Beatles Yellow Submarine and Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters. Usually I prefer new music, but recently I have been trying to just listen to whatever I want. I found myself humming The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, and Fiona Apple’s newest album is my favorite of this year. Her mood really resonates with me.
M: I’ve been listening to Hanne Hukkelberg’s Birthmark. Hanne Hukkelberg was one of my favorite artists in middle school. I found out about her in a compilation album that I used to listen to on my way to school. Recently, I looked her up and listened to her new music, and got into it again. The balance between the cheaply recorded instrumentation and her beautifully recorded voice is cool.
After this all blows over, what do you want to do?
R: I want to go to the movies after lunch, buy some fish at the store in the evening, and later grill it at home and eat it.
M: I think I just want to buy a Shichirin (Japanese charcoal grill), so I can feel like I’m camping even at home. I want to be somewhere spacious, like on a mountain or at the beach. We can’t really go out right now, so I’m trying to power-up my balcony and my room by buying rocking chairs and stuff!
Photograph by Rachel and Mamiko, Courtesy of the artist.
Interview and Text: Hiroyoshi Tomite