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Steph Pockets: Philly’s Export to Japan.

April 10, 2013

StephPocketsSmall02Text by Brian Wilensky. Images by Michael Bucher.

Around here, Steph Pockets might just be another smiling face on the block and or a big name to a select crowd. But in the Far East, she’s no small-town celebrity.

She broke out in Japan in 2004 with her biggest song to date, “My Crew Deep,” which was recorded in 1999. She has since toured up and down the island and sold countless records there.

Steph knew she was bound to pursue a rap career ever since she was a child growing up in West Philly.

“I brought Will Smith to career day in fifth grade,” says Steph, noting that this was shortly after Smith’s first album dropped. “That was around the time I knew I wanted to be a rapper.

When I told everyone at school, they laughed. Everyone else was bringing in doctors and lawyers but my family didn’t know anyone like that. Will Smith was living on my block at the time so I asked him. So when I brought him in everyone thought I was cool.”

StephPocketsSmall01“My Crew Deep” came out on a record of the same name and Steph went on to produce some tunes for Japanese pop star AI. Steph generously gave the same hook to AI for her version after Steph’s was starting to blow up from her original release. Steph’s following album, Flowers, is what really lit the fuse for her in Japan though. It sold 30,000 copies in the first week. According to Steph, for an American artist to sell around 2,000 copies in Japan was considered good at the time.

Steph has written songs half in English, half in Japanese, but label pressure kept those tracks from being released for being “too Japanese.” She now raps mostly in English, the liner notes of her albums include the lyrics in both languages so speakers of either tongue can rap along at her live shows. Most of her material is feel-good and upbeat but her deepest connections with fans are made when she’s a bit more serious.

“They latched on to me from the beginning because I was rapping about things they’re not allowed to speak of,” Steph says of her Japanese fans. “It’s frowned upon over there to show weakness or cry. But when I rap about being sad, it’s just what I’m feeling. I think they needed to hear that.”

She’s done numerous tours up and down Japan, as recently as last year, hitting every giant arena and major city. But she also shows love for the smaller venues, where she gets to interact with fans more easily, even despite the communication barrier.

“It’s funny when people come backstage to meet me,” she says. “I see them rapping along in the crowd but usually they can’t speak English so we don’t talk when we meet. I make sure to use a lot of body language when I perform so those  who can’t understand have an idea what I’m saying.”

Steph says there’s just as much of an independent music scene in Japan as there is in America. But she never understands why other big artists in Japan won’t travel here. Similarly, when she tells her Philly friends about her Japanese successes, they usually reply, “Then I’m going to put my music out in Japan so I can make it big.”

She insists it’s not that simple. Their society is so into fashion, Steph says, that Japanese pop stars have to stay up on it much more. Steph has managed to avoid that because she’s an American artist.

Sean Lennon is producing Steph’s next record, which he wants to release in America. That doesn’t sound like it’s her priority.

“I don’t perform around here much because there’s so much talent here that I’d rather give that opportunity to them,” Steph says. “Too many artists don’t get to play in other countries like I’ve been lucky to do.”

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