Some people remember their first schoolyard fight. Orukusaki remembers his first rap battle. It's been a long day — his car broke down five minutes from work, and is in a shop in El Sobrante — but Orukusaki summons every detail:
"[A friend] showed me a flyer to a show," recalls Orukusaki. "It had Souls of Mischief, Tone Loc, Rahzel, this whole hip-hop line-up. At the top, in graphic, electronic letters, I thought it said 'Breakfest,' [like] hip-hop and break-dancing. We drive all the way out to Mountain View, and we get there and I'm [seeing] the people and the styles, and I'm like, 'This kind of looks like a rave.' Then it dawned on me that it wasn't called 'Breakfest,' it was called 'Freakfest.'"
Nevertheless, Orukusaki found his way to the hip-hop stage. He wound up battling, and easily dispensing with, four amateurs, before winning a hundred bucks from judge Tone Loc.
"What's your name?", asked Tone "Funky Cold Medina" Loc.
Some people think — mistakenly — that Orukusaki's name it derives from Master Shredder, villain of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise, who was born "Oruko Saki." That would be fitting, the rapper said. "I kinda do be shredding folks — lyrically," he explained. But in reality, "Orukusaki" translates to absolutely nothing. It's neither a Japanese word, nor a direct pop culture reference. The El Sobrante-raised rapper was born Alfredo Griffin. He's half-black, half-Italian. His stage name originated as an alter-ego he used when playing the sci-fi video game StarCraft. Not only did "Orukusaki" have a nice lilt — it also conjured images of a Japanese general.
"Somehow that merged into my emcee name," Orukusaki said. And seeking a definition for himself, he decided it means "He who walks the path of truth and follows his dreams."
The battle rapper is a sub-species of the emcee. His path is a crooked one, roaming cities, seeking worthy opponents to test his skills. His weapons are speed, lyrical dexterity, and pre-prepared quips about current events that can be tailor-suited to any adversary. This tradition comes from much earlier than Eminem's big-screen battles in 8 Mile, before Nas TKO'd Jay-Z with "The Ether," even before KRS-One and Marley Marl led their troops — from South Bronx and Queensbridge respectively — into all-out lyrical war.
At the basis of each of these battles is the simple boast: I'm better than you. Orukusaki took his boasts to local battles, made a name for himself, and battled across the land, as far as New York. From the get-go, Orukusaki tried to take battling beyond the insults that help slay an opponent. He recalls, "I've said my fair [share] of fucking ridiculous jokes, but I've also dropped down hella real science in battles, which is quite rare... I'd address the crowd directly, 'We need to bring hip-hop to real battling, not just wack-ass jokes,'" — before adding the requisite diss — "And this motherfucker looks like Herman Munster.'"
Although Orukusaki battled nationally-known emcees like Rhymefest (Rhymefest won after demanding an extra round) and Jin (the match was left undecided, but Ruke felt victorious), the emcee's crowning achievement was winning the SF MC Battle:
"[The SF MC Battle], for me, was the epitome. Even before I started battling, these were the battles I'd look up to. When I won that, I was like, 'All right.' I realized that if I wanted to go all the way with it, I'd have to actually sit down, methodically think of this guy, [and] write a 'Mad Lib' rap. Insert: race, gender, style, and name. "
With a record boasting more ticks in the "W" than the "L" column, Orukusaki tired of the prepackaged jokes and stopped battling in 2007. "I never officially hung it up," he said. "I just went more like a monk/samurai/kung-fu master into seclusion to focus on other elements and factors of life." However, he keeps his wits sharpened to defend against and vanquish any challenger that emerges.
Last year Orukusaki dispensed of a foe outside an art gallery on Haight Street, after the other guy got unruly in a rap cipher. He recounted the incident smugly. "It's like a sword that's always there."
At this point, Orukusaki has more room to speak his mind on record. His album Japan-Francisco, released in limited edition CD in Japan, and now available locally through record label Thizzler on the Roof, reaches deep into politics and spiritualism. True to its name, the album features beats from Bay Area producers, as well as their Japanese counterparts.
At the end of "American Aftermath," a song that deals with the Hurricane Katrina fall-out, Orukusaki replaces the shouting-out of friends with a list of "corporations that are in the government's back pocket," including "Halliburton, Blackwater, Lockheed Martin." On "Could Have Been," a smooth, horn-laced beat from Yakkle (residing in Berkeley, by way of Kobe, Japan), the emcee raps, Trigger happy PD is how my brother got shot/And left bleeding/So I'm just glad that he's still breathing/'Cause he almost got killed for no reason.
Orukusaki says those lyrics are autobiographical. The incident began with a domestic dispute, which led to a near-tragic misunderstanding — and a cop putting two through his brother's body. Orukusaki's recap is long and involved, but it ends with a clear moral. "For cops to think they can do that, whether it's cops shooting my brother, cops shooting Oscar Grant, it makes me kinda mad. I'm not a violent person, but I'm like, 'Yea, you know, maybe someone needs to just jack two cops and shoot 'em in broad daylight. Leave a little note. Post it on YouTube.'"
He laughed, looked around the nearly-empty restaurant, and added, to no one in particular, "I'm not an advocate for shooting police, just to throw that out there."
On "Previous Me," a nostalgic, game show-sounding beat by the Bay's Unagi, Orukusaki delivered his take on the after-life: My soul came back to planet Earth in the form of a baby/And that's what has these skeptics straight up calling me crazy/Scientists can't prove me wrong, there's always a maybe.
Orukusaki's quest for enlightenment has him continuously looking to the past and keeping an eye on the future. On "Secrets of Self," which was released with an eight-minute video in 2007, he depicts the Romans ransacking Egypt, They burned the scrolls that explained the soul ... Hieroglyphics, highly-scientific/Sacred arithmetic, borderline mystic ... When humanity is ready for the secret of self/It just might be two-thousand-and-twelve.
So does he really think the apocalypse is coming in 2012?
"I don't think it's like a Y2K thing, it's more like based on just evolution of the planet, and then there's certain astronomical stuff that's gonna happen as far as certain planets moving into alignment. And I've done some research on this too [...] There's unexplainable shit that science can't even explain. Dreaming, for one."
Regardless of whether the world comes unglued, Orukusaki won't be able to get to the next stop on his path — be it work or a battle — until he gets his car fixed. "I was never rapping to get hella money or get paid or drive big cars. I'd just like a car that wouldn't fucking overheat. That's about it."