Interview with Jorscan: Eclectic Hip Hop Anthems, Banned In Japan

When Jordan Scannella gets up on stage, as he will later this month at New York City’s Rockwood Music Hall, he does it as a bass player who’s paid his dues. He also does it as an emcee who’s paid his debt to society. Japanese society, that is.

Scannella records and performs under the name Jorscan, backed by a funky hip-hop outfit after spending years as a session artist and touring sideman. The inspiration for his self-titled debut came while playing a five-month gig with the Sam Hooper Group at a club in Shanghai, China in late 2005, early 2006. At the end of some nights, he would hop on the mic and freestyle, which ultimately became an amusing rap that offered a foreigner’s perspective on living and partying in the Asian city.

The song, “Shanghai, Shanghai,” is the first one he wrote for the album, which he self-released earlier this summer. There is swagger in Jorscan’s rhymes, not obnoxious, but wise. And the complex, keys-heavy, funk-rock that underscores it gives the music so much crossover appeal that it hardly seems fair to classify it as hip hop. The arrangements and orchestrations are all original, all fairly involved: horns, percussion, background vocals. It’s a sound that would fit in perfectly on college radio. Think: Midnight Vultures-era Beck meets the Beastie Boys meets Frank Zappa.

Jorscan’s lyrical material is as deep as the music. If Shanghai served as the seed of his inspiration, a Japanese prison cell was the soil in which he planted it. Unwillingly, of course.

Leaving that five-month Chinese gig on his way back to the States, Scannella thought he’d stop for a beachside vacation in Okinawa, but airport security had a different plan for him. Their canines sniffed out the weed in his pocket and took him into custody. The fear of being trapped, of not being able to speak to anyone was overwhelming. He used the subsequent 48 hours to compose his thoughts into the next Jorscan song—a song whose lyrics he had to immediately commit to memory since, as the story goes, “my request for pen and paper was denied.”

“Baka,” which is Japanese for “stupid,” is a slow groove with a floating narrative that explains how he ended up behind bars. “Man, that was stupid,” is the refrain as he illustrates his regret. Still, Scannella thought he’d only have a few days to contemplate his situation before his release. And though his offense was minor, Japanese authorities refused to grant him bail since he had omitted his herb on the customs questionnaire. He ultimately spent more than three months in lockup awaiting trial.

This period spawned “Birthday In Jail,” the breakout song of Jorscan’s album and live performances, where he mans the bass while he raps. It’s an upbeat jam that makes light of spending, yes, one’s birthday in jail. The transition from “Baka” to “Birthday” is like flipping a switch, as if the sullen Super Mario has suddenly disappeared down the pipe to a flashing bonus round. And, its laugh-out-loud lyrics show Scannella’s smart flow:

“Birthday card from my girl: straight confiscated. And the picture inside for my eyes only was hastily duplicated. Can’t sing Happy Birthday ‘cause it’s always quiet time, so I’m solitarily confined to this birthday party in my mind.”

The song happily bubbles along as Jorscan leaves his incarceration behind. Adventures in Asia are not his only source of inspiration; the album took about four years to write and complete, and in that time he wrote songs that borrow from and mock various brands of hip hop.

“America (And Other Tales Of Horror)” and “Theater Of The Mind” recall the story-driven, rap parables that were prominent in the pre-gangsta days. He addresses the “check out my [insert expensive material possession and/or sexual partners]” beef hip hop by satirizing it in “Dis Jam.” And in “Back To Bean,” comes a catchy road anthem that amusingly incorporates highway signs on the drive up to Boston.

Perhaps the thing that sets Jorscan’s music apart is its accessibility. The organic compositions show it’s not just a sampled track with some arrogant rhymes laid over it, and the raps betray a daring, where less hip hop-inclined artists would not be so bold. It seems Jorscan’s style would be welcome most any place.

Well, maybe not Japan.

Jorscan is performing at Rockwood Music Hall in New York City on August 24.