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I Know NIGO: the Inside Story of the Debut Album of the Year

  • Words: Grant Brydon

  • Photography: Kazuki Nagayama

NIGO's accomplishments as a pop cultural force are legion. And yet the iconic designer has found another industry to stake his claim with the release of ‘I Know NIGO,’ his debut album as a musical artist launching next Friday, March 25. In this FRONTPAGE interview, we speak to NIGO and his collaborators about bringing the project to life.

Few designers are as synonymous with hip-hop as Japan’s Tomoaki Nagao, better known as NIGO. A pop culture obsessive and founder of seminal streetwear brand A Bathing Ape, NIGO’s impact on the American rap scene traces back to a 1996 photo of The Notorious B.I.G, where legend has it the late Shawn Mortensen snapped the Brooklyn icon wearing the renowned photojournalist's own BAPE jacket.

It would take a few more years for NIGO to begin participating. In the mid-2000s, Pharrell Williams - who’d heard from Jacob the Jeweler about a Japanese guy commissioning brightly colored remakes of his own chains - ended up meeting the man himself in Tokyo while looking for a recording studio. He was invited to NIGO’s magical atelier, and shortly after, the American hip-hop scene was splashed in colorful camouflage while Air Force Ones were remixed and replaced with patent leather Bapestas.

Far more than a passing trend, NIGO’s personal bond with the culture has proven to be robust. After he stepped away from A Bathing Ape in 2013, he has continued to maintain relevance with new generations of hip-hop thinkers and creatives, collaborating with Virgil Abloh (who once called BAPE his generation’s Chanel) on Louis Vuitton collections and continuing the growth of his Human Made brand, including collaborations with Pharrell, Kid Cudi, and Lil Uzi Vert.

Now, in his latest act as the Artistic Director of KENZO, he’s celebrating his ongoing relationship with the US hip-hop scene through I Know NIGO, a brand new album comprising original music from Pharrell, A$AP Rocky, Kid Cudi, Pusha T, Tyler, The Creator, Lil Uzi Vert, Gunna, and the Teriyaki Boyz. Across several interviews, we spoke to NIGO, project-collaborator Steven Victor, and Pharrell about bringing the year's most hyped debut to life.

GRANT BRYDON: What are you most proud of about your career so far?

NIGO: It's been 10 years since I left BAPE and pressed the reset button in my life. Starting a new life, HUMAN MADE, the collections at Louis Vuitton, becoming the Artistic Director of KENZO: I'm proud to still be standing on the frontlines.

BRYDON: What does success look like to you?

NIGO: Whenever you think you're at the top, there's always further to go. If you're looking for success, it's probably still very far off.

While NIGO has remained a participant in music through various forms (including creative direction for J-Pop bands like BILLIE IDLE® and Happiness), it’s been two decades since his last globally released solo record, the trip-hop influenced Ape Sounds via James Lavelle’s Mo’ Wax label. NIGO’s return to the international music scene came off the back of a phone conversation with Brooklyn-born record executive Steven Victor in 2020.

A long time fan, Victor’s personal relationship with NIGO came through his role as Pusha T’s manager. The pair would run into each other at festivals and in-store events around the world, and it was at one of these where Victor - who was preparing to launch his own Victor Victor Worldwide joint venture with Universal Music Group - dared to make a half-joking request to NIGO to design the logo. Perhaps also half-jokingly, NIGO told Victor to come to Japan. Not long thereafter, Victor boarded a flight.

Victor Victor Worldwide has since made an impact worthy of its NIGO designed logo, releasing culture-shifting records like Pop Smoke’s breakthrough Meet the Woo mixtape and his chart-topping posthumous debut album Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon. So it was only natural for Victor - during that call in 2020 - to enquire about what the current musical landscape would look like through the lens of NIGO.

NIGO was interested in the offer, but he wanted the project to be just two songs: one with Pharrell and one with Clipse. It was vital that the record was a family affair. Victor wanted to do something bigger, but he decided to take the bait and start working. Once he had Pharrell and Pusha down to be involved, he approached NIGO with a few more suggestions. “What about Kid Cudi?” Victor asked. “The same thing happened with Rocky and Uzi. We just took it slow, like song by song. My vision was always for it to be more than two or three songs. It just took some work for me to get NIGO involved.”

The pandemic - which continued to drag out the intended release timeline - played a part in the expansion of the record. “I was afforded more time to work on it, really, because of the situation,” explains NIGO. “It naturally became a bigger project. There’s been an exchange of ideas between Steven and me, and I think we’ve arrived at something much better.”

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Highsnobiety / Kazuki Nagayama

BRYDON: How would you define creativity?

NIGO: It's a process of daily cumulative practice. Understand the rules in order to break them. To attempt to break an old form without first knowing it is just the same as having no form.

One place where things wouldn’t budge was in the concept of the record centering around genuine relationships. When word began to spread through the music industry that NIGO was putting together a record, people naturally wanted to be involved. However, if they didn’t know NIGO personally, they were turned down - no matter how big of a name they were. “Everything that he does, it has to have some meaning to him, and it has to be authentic to who he is,” says Victor. “He conceptualizes it and then this is what it is. No more, no less.”

But this doesn’t mean that we won’t hear more artists being presented through NIGO’s work in the future. “The idea for this record was to make it with my friends,” he says. “I hope and expect that I’ll meet more new friends in future and I’d be very happy if they could join me on the next album.”

BRYDON: What do you love most about collaboration?

NIGO: There is a lot of use of that word in the fashion business these days to describe what is really just co-branding. I don't find that attractive. If collaboration is to make sense, it should be between people working in different areas of specialization. The real meaning of collaboration is to help one another create something that you couldn't otherwise make alone.

Of course, some names came naturally. The creative synergy between NIGO and Pharrell at this stage supersedes language, and the pair communicate on an almost weekly basis. If something that NIGO is working on would be improved with Pharrell’s input, he shares it, and vice versa. NIGO never even considered his return to music without Pharrell, who took a hands-on role in the project by contributing beats and vocals and co-executive producing the record as well as appearing in the video for the lead single “Arya”, which features A$AP Rocky.

When Rocky heard about the project, he offered to help NIGO in any way he could. Rocky would join Victor and NIGO on conference calls to discuss concepts for songs and videos, and brought his enigmatic AWGE collective on board to assist with creative direction. “I don’t really have words to express my gratitude for the support they’ve given me…” says NIGO. “Providing the first single, of course, but also the video became a big focus of people’s attention. I’ve really learned from AWGE’s creative process.”

This required quick adaptation to adhere to ever-changing rules and regulations that were presented by making work on an international scale during the pandemic. Although the intention had been to shoot all of the videos in Japan, plans were diverted to Paris NIGO was working there in his role at KENZO, and France was more lenient on allowing non-citizens into the country at the time. So one day in December, Kid Cudi made a day trip to Paris to shoot the “Want It Bad” video.

The second video “Arya”, which was the first to be released, was shot later with some scenes in Paris and others during an eight hour layover that NIGO had in New York on his way back to Tokyo. Victor remembers the call that would lead to Cudi’s cameo: “I’m actually in New York. I have this fly ass fit on, and I have nowhere to go,” he recalls Cudi saying. “If you guys are shooting a video then that’s perfect.” Through the videos, AWGE communicates NIGO’s vision of togetherness in art, fashion, and music, combining elements of luxury with playfulness, such as a walking piano against a backdrop of frescoes and chandeliers.

BRYDON: Like a lot of the work that you do, it feels like there is a world building element to this project that stretches beyond the music. What attracts you to make things that are more immersive and multi-dimensional?

NIGO: It's about learning a lot and then mixing what I've learned together to have fun in the process of making things.Whatever has absorbed and entertained the creator of a work will emerge in their output.I'm always trying to make something that I've never seen before.

A new album also presented a natural opportunity for a reunion of NIGO’s much-hyped rap crew the Teriyaki Boyz. From the outset, he knew that he wanted to hear them back on Pharrell’s production. The group - which comprises Japanese rappers Ilmari and Ryo-Z from Rip Slyme, Verbal from M-Flo, and Wise, with NIGO as their DJ - have been somewhat dormant since the release of their 2009 album Serious Japanese, which boasted features from a bunch of NIGO’s US rap friends including Pharrell, Kanye West, Pusha T, Big Sean, Busta Rhymes, and Ad-Rock of Beastie Boys.

Prior to the pandemic, there had been plans for the Teriyaki Boyz to perform their The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift soundtrack contribution “Tokyo Drift” at Coachella for 88rising, a record label and media company that platforms Asian artists in the West as well as the Asian diaspora living in the US. While this wasn’t able to happen, the track nonetheless continued to enjoy a resurgence thanks to a 2020 TikTok trend and a freestyle from Indonesian rapper Rich Brian during the pandemic, which kicked off a series on the 88rising channel showcasing a new generation of talent each giving their take on the iconic Neptunes instrumental.

“Morë Tonight” came together quickly, as NIGO took flight for France. “I got the beat from Pharrell a couple of days before I was due to be in Paris for KENZO work, so I had to leave the track with the rest of the TBz for a few days and leave it up to them,” recalls NIGO of the session that produced the track. “It's the essence of a TBz song, I think - a metaphor for the current times in Japan. I've been told that 'Tokyo Drift' is the most streamed song by any Japanese artist. There seems to be a lot of interest in a new TBz song in Japan.”

I Know NIGO is testament to his ability to traverse generations. It sounds as nostalgic as it does contemporary. Tracks like the Pusha T-featuring “Hear Me Clearly” hail back to mixtapes like the Re-Up Gang’s We Got It 4 Cheap series or Pharrell’s In My Mind: The Prequel from the mid-2000s era, in which NIGO first began actively participating, while elsewhere he takes the opportunity to collaborate musically with friends like Kid Cudi, A$AP Rocky and Lil Uzi Vert for the first time.

“I see it as nostalgic for my generation yet fresh for the new generation… An album that transcends generational gaps and can be listened to anywhere on this Earth,” NIGO explains. “Just as there is a kind of cycle in fashion, I feel that there is now this natural cycle in hip-hop. Each new generation of creators in hip-hop reflects a feeling of and evolves from the music they grew up listening to. It’s an environment of mutual respect between the generations.”

NIGO intends for the album to enter that cycle and become a catalyst for further creative progression. “I’d like it if this album could be a sort of textbook for young listeners who will go on to make the sounds of the next era,” he says. “I’m excited to hear what might be made by the generation who’ve been influenced by this record.”

Despite NIGO’s decades-long career in fashion, he’s surprisingly new to runway shows. KENZO’s Fall 2022 show at Paris Fashion Week in January was in fact his debut. Initially, NIGO had been discussing with Victor the idea that drill producer Axl would score the show. However, he began to realize that I Know NIGO had truly been the soundtrack of the collection. When the show’s stylist, Marq Rise, mentioned that people were in the comments for the fashion shows trying to find out what the music was, NIGO realized that this was an opportunity not just to preview the album, but also to involve as many friends in the show as possible. NIGO put together a condensed 12-minute mega-mix of the record to give the world its first taste of the music he’d been working on.

“I’ve wanted people in the music world to know fashion and for people in fashion to hear the tracks - so the show music became a kind of album sampler,” explains NIGO of his decision to connect his two biggest projects. Victor ended up with only 48 hours to clear all of the tracks with labels and management, which he describes, laughing, as “a whole nightmare.”

The show took place at the Galerie Vivienne paying tribute to Kenzo Takada himself, who made his own fashion show debut there in 1970, the year NIGO was born. Many of NIGO’s friends and collaborators were in attendance, including Kanye West, Julia Fox, Pharrell, Tyler The Creator, Pusha T, and J Balvin. “That day was like reaching the summit of Mt. Everest for me,” reflects NIGO. Unsurprisingly, Rise was correct: when clips of the show emerged later on YouTube, there was as much excitement in the comments about the soundtrack as there was for the new collection.

BRYDON: You were a huge inspiration to, and a collaborator of, the late Virgil Abloh. What did you learn from or admire about working with him?

NIGO: It's hard to believe that I really was so influential, and it's a great honor that he'd say so.I was like Yoda having retired to Dagobah and he invited me back to the main stage.This current version of me, this album, would never have existed without him. He had told me that he wanted to help with 'I Know NIGO' in some way.I'd like to deliver the record to him in heaven as soon as possible.

NIGO is living proof that there are no bounds to someone’s creativity: “Pharrell said it one time,” recalls Victor. “He said he went to Japan and saw NIGO and went to NIGO’s atelier, and it changed the way he looked at everything from a creative aspect,” he reflects. “I feel like NIGO’s given so much to the world.”

“NIGO’s natural talent for curation comes from the innate lens and filter through which he sees all things…” Pharrell agrees later, via email. “His perception is effortlessly organized.”

Victor’s mission for I Know NIGO is accomplished in having helped to bring more NIGO into the world, which he believes can only make a positive impact on creativity and youth culture across the globe. “NIGO’s whole futuristic teenager thing… I feel like never growing up is the greatest thing,” he states, just as we’re about to hang up our call so that he can rush off to the organized chaos of his next meeting. “If you can always maintain your creativity and your curiosity, I feel like that’s the goal in life.”

BRYDON: How do you think you have been able to retain a child-like curiosity about fashion, music, art and pop culture throughout your life?

NIGO: Everyday new information and objects are entering the world. Honestly, it's a real effort to try to maintain constant curiosity. But, I am also afraid to stop: it's important for me to keep up with what's happening - to stop doing that gives me a feeling of “the end.”

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