City of God's Son: A Hip-Hop Soundscape

I was recently chatting with a very talented filmmaker/video artist named Kenzo Hakuta about his newest project, entitled City of God's Son (COGS). He is releasing the music for the project on January 13th at Kenzo is the apprentice of world-renowned video artist Nam June Paik and has had films screened at both the TriBeCa and Mill Valley Film Festivals. He served as Director of COGS and co-wrote the project with Academy Award-nominated writer/director Victor Quinaz.

is quite unique. It can be described as an epic, a musical, a soundscape, a movie for the blind, an art installation and a coming-of-age story. Kenzo also refers to COGS as "viral musical sound art." COGS is a blend of multiple media and art genres and it explores new grounds for unconventional storytelling and ultimately gives rise to what Kenzo terms the world's first "Beat Cinematic". Kenzo arrived at this term by combining various mediums including 3D audio, multiple musical genres, and sound bites. Using some of hip-hop's and film's greatest talents (including Jay-Z, Nas, Biggie Smalls, Samuel L. Jackson and Joe Bataan), his aim is to create his own cross-medium ensemble cast, and out of many mediums, to create something epic and new.

Here is the trailer for

Hip-hop is the perfect choice for this because, just like COGS itself, hip-hop is a genre created using only the resources available, and re-contextualizing them to create something bold and innovative. In effect, Kenzo aims to redefine remix culture, through creating a Quentin Tarantino-esque piece of pop art that uses 90's hip-hop culture as its palette. More than just a remix or mash-up, COGS comments on the icon of the gangster, the media obsession with this character, and its function within hip-hop culture. An homage to arguably hip-hop's most culturally potent era, COGS explores the mythology behind both musical icons and gangster film icons alike, and creates a world in which the two co-exist. COGS is part Sin City, part Orson Welles' War of the Worlds radio programming, and part Nas' Illmatic. Essentially, COGS ties these works together by playing off of the listener's familiarities with these genres and re-contextualizing them within a coming-of-age crime drama set in a mythical, jungle metropolis.

Set in a world of magical realism, the story explores the relationship between father and son and the struggle to define themselves in a world where their futures appear pre-ordained. COGS riffs on the icon and myth of the gangster used generously throughout the history of hip-hop and American pop culture. The story embraces both the dichotomy of such societal reverence and media obsession with the moral quandary such a lifestyle calls into question. By using the genre's most influential artists and manipulating them into characters that humanize and, at times, contradict their media persona, COGS aims to dissect concepts of machismo and push the envelope for using music as a more directly narrative medium. It also interweaves many classic crime films into the sound design and score of the piece, melding together the world of film with music into a new format of super visceral soundscape and musical narrative. In all of this there is the unique invention of self-proclamation; artists labeling themselves, touting beefs with other artists, and challenging the status quo to a sort of existential shout-out session. By exploring these themes within a familiar story structure COGS hopes to dissect the phenomena and redefine remix culture.

This project was inspired by the many evenings Kenzo spent roaming the city late at night as a graffiti artist while a kid, often listening to his walkman. He was always inspired by the transformation of space at night versus daytime, and how music and graffiti connected the two worlds. It is with this in mind that he tries to connect the mythical city in COGS to the musical and film culture memories in the listener's mind. By playing with the listener's psychological and historical associations with verses from well known songs and dialogue from films, COGS creates its own mythology threaded together and playing off of familiar stories and plotlines, and in effect sampling the listener's memories of music and films.

At that time (mid 90's), before reality TV, before hip-hop became THE commercial music format, the culture and its marquee artists were larger than life characters to Kenzo. Through this project he seeks to resurrect some of that mythology by reinserting the very personas these artists promote to sell records, and putting them in a more human and vulnerable coming-of-age crime saga where they are now the kids looking up to the gangster icon characters played by their father figures (Sam Jackson, Delroy Lindo), all within a mythical crime-ridden New York-like jungle metropolis. It has been said that film is the manipulation of space, and music the manipulation of time. Thus COGS is a manipulation of the unseen image, the unsung song, the space in-between image and sound that connects the two. It is "Synesthisia" -- which is by definition the crossing of senses, seeing what you hear and hearing what you see.

Many of the beats Kenzo produced for this project have a layered meaning to them. The sample, the arrangements, the artist on the song, the verse, the placement within the story, the tone -- all of these factors play into a larger dialogue, cultural commentary and narrative function. And while not everyone will catch that on the first listen, part of the function of this project is to change the function of music today from a disposable single-based format to a longer-form, more meaningful experience that may require several listens to fully digest, similar to how one would watch a film. After all, it with this ear for detail that Kenzo first heard Joe Bataan's music (which was used as background music in a skit on The Fugees' The Score album) and sought it out. He wanted to flip the function -- instead of Nas rhyming over a Joe Bataan sample, he wanted Joe Bataan to tell a story over a re-interpreted Nas record, and to create a dynamic soundscape that has its own cultural/historical meaning behind it completely unique of the original song's tone or message, and connecting the past to the future, all within an epic greek tragedy.

Kenzo adds this description about his unique work:

Being primarily a visual artist for most of my life, it always struck me that there was some kind of disconnect in what vision I had in my head and the process of how that translates to the canvas. I always appreciated the process of creating that image and the execution, but I always found that there was no such thing as the exact image in your head being on canvas. In fact, I found that most of the strongest points in creating work were in the unintentional mistakes that pushed the piece in another direction. And while you may love the interpretation and process of that thought, what about grasping that thought in its original form? It is with this in mind that City of God's Son aims to create within the listener's head their own completely original visual interpretation, based on a combination of visual associations with films and their own personal association to rap verses they recognize. Through visceral sound, created through an intricate mix of sampled sounds, sound bites, and rap verses, one can create something completely unique.

Kenzo is launching a web-site ( on Tuesday, January 13th. Music from COGS and additional information about Kenzo's unique soundscape will be available on this site.

In Summer 2009, Kenzo will be creating a new form of cinema, theater, and opera, based on COGS, in an outside gallery space in New York's Chelsea art district. There, the listener will be able to experience City of God's Son in the form it was initially intended -- as a psychedelic, abstract combination of visual and audio sensory over-stimulation and deprivation in a unique outdoor setting. The installation is not a literal interpretation of the narrative, but rather a space that will help drive the listener's own visualization of the story through a mix of color, live-action movement and gesture, sound, and space.

Kenzo is also devoting special marketing efforts to blind youth who love hip-hop music since COGS functions as a musical/sound film. He is currently in contact with several non-profit organizations which are going to help him to publicize the project.