VERBAL has built a music and fashion empire that has amassed a global cult following. VERBAL was just 10 years old when he went to the United States for the first time for summer vacation, and encountered hiphop. Instantly enthralled in the honest and raw lyrics of Run DMC, then subsequently Gang Starr and the East Coast / West Coast scene in the 90s, he became a young hip hop head. After completing highschool in Japan, he returned stateside to study at Boston University where he majored in Marketing and Philosophy.
From there it all took off, in 1999 he moved back to Japan to launch the immensely successful Japanese Pop group m-flo. Throughout all of his ventures, he is always humbly collaborating. VERBAL’s second group, TERIYAKI BOYZ was the first Japanese band to be signed by Def Jam in the United States.
In 2014, along with DJ DARUMA and DJ MAKIDAI (EXILE), VERBAL formed the hip hop/dance and design collective PKCZ® (pronounced “Pee-Kay-Seez”. Now, the collective has joined forces with CL and Afrojack to release their latest summer anthem Cut It Up. At New York’s Flora Bar, the multidisciplinary discusses his latest single, the Met Gala and how showing in Paris was a pivotal career move.
TREY GASKIN: You just came from the Met Gala, how was it?
VERBAL AMBUSH: Out of this world. Everyone who you could imagine was there. You know I’ve always seen it on the media and heard about it from people who’ve been so it was very exciting.
TG: You went to Boston University, for Philosophy and Marketing, did studying philosophy help you work in fashion?
VA: Wow, I never had anyone ask me that before but it probably did. I think it helps me in all creative processes and angels. So I think philosophy helps me set my mind in a certain way because I’m not really a musician or designer purse in the—you know I didn’t go to music school to study music and I didn’t go to design school to study design so I think our way of engineering each project and putting it into space is I guess my studies in philosophy was helpful in some sense.
TG: In your career with AMBUSH you’ve worked a lot in collaboration, whether it’s Nike or Sacai what is it that makes you want to collaborate?
VA: Usually it’s just organic, and there is an energy there. With Sacai we just always respected Chitose [Abe] and we had the pleasure of meeting her and she’s the one who came to our exhibition when we were up and coming and she looked at our pieces and said ‘We’ve got to collaborate’ and we were like “For real” and she said 'Yeah'.' And that’s when we went on to do a few seasons together. [With] Nike we’ve always known people at Nike and had conversations. Over the last few years, Yoon has had this spark with the collabs and it took off from there. She’s on! She knows what she wants and it just really resonated with the Nike staff they were like “Yo, that’s fresh”. We did the apparel first, then the sneaker drop happened later. It’s been really great.
TG: Who do you want to work with next?
VA: Everybody! Anybody who we feel the same energy with. There are so many people who are obviously super known to the world but also underground that we are inspired by so we are looking forward to that.
TG: Working in different mediums, do you have to compartmentalize “Okay I’m doing music, now I’m doing fashion”? What inspires you?
VA: If we could work with anyone we would love to work with Syd Mead. He did Blade Runner and The Odyssey, right? He’s a futurist. He’s doing his exhibition in Japan now. I’ve always been inspired by him, looking with his illustrations like, how did he come up with this in the sixties? It’s almost like the world is catching up with him, I get inspired by people with the minds of the future.
TG: I wanted to talk to you about your childhood and how you were inspired by Hip Hop?
VA: The way I got into hip hop was when I came to Boston when I was a kid from Japan and had no past exposure to American music. I’m talking about literally none! I saw people break dancing in the streets with boom boxes, it sounds so cliche now but back then I was like, why would you put cardboard on the ground and spin on the back and have all of that? So that just flooded into my life and it was so fresh and that day I went back and asked my mom to get me a Run DMC album, that was my first love. So Run DMC; what really got me into writing was this group Gang Starr. NAS, his first album, Illmatic, I know every song. I was really into N.W.A, the whole speech thing was so new but back then it felt like me looking in from Japan it was like a different culture. There are so many groups that are inspirational, but Gang Star was really at the root.
TG: Both your music and clothing have crossed cultural lines, you often cite “remix culture for this success, but why do you think that is?
VA: First of all thank you for that. It’s been a privillege to be able to do what we do and resonating with people. I have to credit Yoon for all of the energy and the designs you know. I think people can tell if you follow her, she works so hard-I mean we live together so I know. But she would get up at 4 in the morning and she is already, [and] ready to go to the office at 6 and she’ll work until 11 or 12 pm at night she’s a madman, she’s crazy. It’s always on her mind, when we’re at breakfast she’s always on about “What do you think about design”? She just texted me about this [points to his screen] just now. She’s always, always always on the move. We never try to appropriate or adjust to certain cultures because we come from different cultures, she’s a Korean woman raised in the States. I’m of Korean descent, raised in Japan. I had an international background. We have different influences and just do what we think is cool, because we don’t have that “”designer-musician” background, we are quite liberal we don’t have pre-conceived notions about what we should do and what we shouldn’t do, [which] allows us to be silly or just do what we think is cool.
TG: Your success did not happen overnight, but as we are living in this world of the instant, where people think things happen- and success happen overnight, what advice would you give to young fashion students and young creatives?
VA: I think going back to what I had said about not having preconceived notions or prior training it kind of made us jump into certain decisions, ones that maybe a careful person wouldn’t. It forced us to be where we are right now. If anything I would say jump into it, and when you start moving forward you will attract people who think like you and want to support you. So one crazy thing I look back and felt was the best decision was when Yoon said “Hey let’s show in Paris because we have a lot of foreign accounts that are interested” I was like ‘Paris?", "We’ve never been to Paris so how are we going to do it.?" And she said “We’re gonna do it”. I said okay, let’s go to Paris. Subsequently, we would have people come into the showroom that we never thought would come and we felt the energy because when your showing in Paris it shows that you're interested in going global, and you want to reach a certain audience they see you, they feel you. But it was great, just jump into it.
TG: Switching gears to the single, how did CL come to be on Cut It UP?
VA: I was in L.A producing a bunch of songs with people and we came up with this song “Cut it Up." CL was in L.A so I just hit her up and we were just hanging out and I was like “You have to listen to this song”. And she was like ‘I have to be on this song’. So that’s how the whole CL thing started, then after her vocals were sorted I let Afrojack listen to the song, who I work with extensively on different music projects. He’s not known for the hip hop but he obviously loves it- and he actually makes hip hop tracks that aren’t out in the world in stock of tracks and when he listened to it he was like ‘I’ve got to jump on this track and play with it and do something.
TG: What was the concept for the video?
VA: Because it was cut it up I was thinking what would be a cool music video concept and I thought about there was always this idea I had that never came into play but was the whole Kill Bill concept. It could come off across cliche if not done right but because CL is in it and because the song is called Cut it Up I thought it would be interesting to have the whole sword fight scene, And in Kill Bill when Uma Thurman is fighting in that yellow outfit, it’s so memorable for me, I wanted to reenact that scene so that’s when the whole video came about.
TG: What’s next for you and the group?
VA: We are in the studio now working on a bunch of tracks, features. Again, I can’t say too much right now but it’s going to be good. It’s a whole different type of vibes of songs and different genres.
"Cut it Up" is available to stream now on all streaming platforms.
This interview has been edited for clarity.