Interview by David Cirone
May 19, 2019
BALLISTIK BOYZ from EXILE TRIBE is a 7-member dance, vocal, and MC unit, the first ever group within LDH where each member contributes vocals to the performance. With their debut CD BALLISTIK BOYZ out this week and their music video for “TENHANE 1000%” topping 1 million views on YouTube, the group talks about their multi-cultural approach, the pressures of living up to the standards set by EXILE TRIBE, and traveling overseas to shoot their first music video on the streets of Los Angeles.
Your music video for “TENHANE 1000%” was shot in L.A., and it showcases a modern, international vibe in your choice of fashion and locations. Why was it important to show BALLISTIK BOYZ as a “global artist” in your first MV?
Ryuta Hidaka: Since we took on the challenge to innovate, being the first group at LDH with all 7 members singing and dancing, and including members who speak English and Portuguese, I think that type of style was a perfect choice for us. It sums up BALLISTIK BOYZ as artists who engage in the global scene representing Japan.
Yoshiyuki Kanou: Since there are group members who have experience overseas and speak English, as well as a member who speaks Portuguese, it’s inevitable that we would set our sights on the global scene in the future. Also, it’s our dream to become artists who play an active role in this world, and because of that, we decided to go full force in that direction right from the start in our debut.
Miku Fukahori: All of the members have been working hard to make sure we can make a solid impact on the world. We’re thinking about how to deliver entertainment not just to Japan, but to the world.
Rikiya Okuda: It was important for us to spread our wing and fly right from the start in our first music video. We’re ready to move forward onto the world stage without holding anything back.
Riki Matsui: We all share these thoughts, these same goals and ambitions, and we were unified in communicating these through the image and music of “TENHANE 1000%”. We wanted to prove we could do it.
Ryusei Kainuma: We’re definitely ready to compete with anyone.
Masahiro Sunada: And of course, as BALLISTIK BOYZ, we’re working to make our will even stronger and stay focused on our mission. We’re going to move forward without hesitation.
BALLISTIK BOYZ – “TENHANE -1000%-”
What did you do for fun while visiting L.A.?
Ryuta: Our schedule was packed every day with rehearsals, photo shoots, and making the music video. We made a few trips to some fun places recommended by our members who had studied in the U.S. Just walking around the city was really stimulating.
Yoshiyuki: We’d heard many stories about restaurants in L.A., and it was fun to explore all the different shops, too.
Miku: When I was studying in New York, I got to visit Los Angeles a little bit, and it was fun to walk around the city and revisit those memories.
Rikiya: Three of our members had studied in New York, and they talked a lot about their own favorite foreign foods, so naturally we couldn’t resist trying them. It was a lot of fun to sit in these L.A. restaurants and experience them together.
Riki: For me, it was exciting to meet so many people from America during our filming and photo shoots. It was fun to communicate in English, though I’m not yet particularly good at it. Whenever I had the chance, I would meet new people on the set and talk about things like, “Today we shot at this place or that place.” I tried my best, and people were so friendly and patient and always smiled during our talks, so I’m very grateful for that. But I’m still not sure how well I did! (laughs)
Ryusei: I enjoyed meeting local people, too. Their response was very kind, and they opened up to us immediately even though we were strangers who couldn’t speak English.
Masahiro: When we would go to the park near the hotel or wanted to go to the supermarket… we would end up going all together, and just walking down the street in this new place made us feel like brothers.
BALLISTIK BOYZ is the first LDH group where each member has a microphone. What pressure do you feel with this challenge?
Ryuta: In recent years, there many K-Pop groups where each members sings and dances, and they’ve made a huge impact on the global scene. It’s not easy to do, but I have confidence in our abilities, and I feel we can definitely match that level of performance. It’s time to show what we can do.
Yoshiyuki Kanou: Among our seniors in EXILE TRIBE, there are no groups with a similar style to ours, so there are lots of times when we make decisions about our performances without any example to rely on. We worry sometimes about what will be best, and we feel the pressure to get it right.
Miku: When you’re the first, you have no choice but to take on the challenge of going forward without a model. Yes, there’s pressure, but it’s because we’re focused on creating something we’re really proud of. After all the time we’ve put in, we want the result to be the best that we can achieve.
Rikiya: Because we believe in ourselves and we’re supported by so many people, that’s how we can go forward with all our strength. When there’s a moment of doubt, you have to power through it with your fighting spirit, and we have each other’s strength, too.
Riki: Whether it’s a good or a bad thing, this is an unknown world for us. Without an example to follow, I think new obstacles will keep coming up, but still, I trust in our true colors and our hearts, and I would like to try to keep opening new paths.
Ryusei: With seven people taking the microphone, each member’s personal responsibility increases. Songs can be expressed through dance and voice, but when everyone is doing both, you feel the pressure from so many different directions.
Masahiro: There’s no one we can directly imitate or follow as a model, so it’s up to us to find new things to incorporate into our performances. But I don’t feel pressured at all by this situation, it’s quite the opposite. Because we’re starting something new, we get to discover our identity as a group in a whole new way, and it’s really fun.
As members of EXILE TRIBE, fans expect you to have deliver level dance moves and energy. How much physical training and rehearsal do you do every week?
Ryuta: In order to increase the precision of our performance, rehearsals are scheduled almost every day before events. Additionally, since I personally like physical training, I do it 3 or 4 times a week without fail.
Yoshiyuki: In addition to the gym once a week, I also do muscle training and running on my own. When we have events coming up, we sometimes go through every single day rehearsing all day long.
Miku: It depends on the schedule, but I usually have rehearsals for around 5 hours a day.
Even though I train at the gym once a week, when I have some time on my own I do it at home too.
Rikiya: Even when there aren’t many performances back-to-back, I have to keep up my training, but when events or live performances are coming, I train even more with an emphasis on increasing stamina.
Riki: I don’t have a regular time for it each day, but there’s always a certain minimum of rehearsals and training, and when I have some time at home, I practice even more.
Ryusei: I try to rehearse every single day, and I train once or twice per week.
Masahiro: Between rehearsals, live performances, and training at the gym, I’m moving my body almost every single day!
Miku, Rikiya, and Masahiro -– you trained in the U.S. as part of Project Taro. What was the best part of that experience?
Miku: I have many great memories, but right now, I think that the best results from that time are my experiences in choreography and English. I was able to develop my own personal style of choreography during that training, and learning English gave me a powerful tool for reaching out to the world.
Rikiya: I started to rap and sing in America, and that gave me something unique to share with the other members of the group. We’re always looking for ways to stimulate each other’s creativity, and I’ve been teaching them the style of the original hip hop that I’ve experienced, and in exchange, they’ve taught me about Japanese hip hop.
Masahiro: Above everything else, it was a life-changing experience. I attended a local school and saw local street performances, and I learned to act by taking acting classes.
Ryuta and Yoshiyuki joined the group from the VBA VOCAL competition. Ryusei and Riki joined from the VBA RAP competition. How does the sound of BALLISTIK BOYZ benefit from combining these two styles?
Ryuta: By having voices that not only sing melodies, but rap, too, I think that our music’s range of expression increases.
Yoshiyuki: Mixing styles makes us more powerful, but at the same time, since we can create songs that use only rap or only singing, we’re not bound to anything. Since we have that freedom, I think we’re going to challenge ourselves with all kinds of songs and create an exciting identity.
Riki: It’s really cool to watch the way all of our different styles come together when we’re in rehearsal, and it just seems like we’ve got an unlimited number of possibilities that come out of that. And because we’ve got different styles, we can help each other build really special moments in our performance.
Ryusei: Through singing, we can express such a variety of sounds in high notes and low notes, but incorporating rap makes it possible to release a powerful kind of energy that you can’t find in traditional vocals.
Yoshikiyuki, you experienced the Great Tohoku Earthquake. How were you inspired by EXILE’s reconstruction activities? How did this experience affect your desire to become a performer?
Yoshiyuki: I was in the 8th grade when the earthquake struck. I immediately had the desire to do anything I could to help the people who were suffering at the time. I started volunteering, and while doing so, I started to think about getting a job where I could do more to support to the people affected by the disaster. That was when I learned of EXILE’s visit to the affected area, and gained so much respect for them. In college, I focused my studies on preparing for a job in the area of earthquake recovery, but I still held the dream of becoming a singer, and as I remembered EXILE’s visit, back in the hard times, I got the feeling that I could also help people through music. That ignited my dream of becoming an artist who can give courage to the people, just like EXILE gave courage to so many when they visited.
Ryuta, you competed in VBA 4, but did not achieve your goal. You trained hard in Tokyo to return to VBA 5. How did you find the courage to come back and try again?
Ryuta: I’ve hit many walls, and there have been days when my stress was almost overwhelming, but the dream of becoming an LDH artist was the only thing that always stayed clear for me. My family, my friends, so many people gave me their support, and that made me feel that I had to respond to their kindness by working really hard, every single day. No matter what, I wanted to prove that if I never surrendered, that dream would come true.
Ryusei, you have a mixed heritage of Japanese and Brazilian. How do you show these two cultures in your performances with BALLISTIK BOYZ?
Ryusei: I think that, since I was a kid, I’ve always had a feeling about music and rhythm that’s different from that of a normal Japanese person. There’s a special energy in my approach, and I’m bringing that into our performances whenever I can.
Miku, you have a lot of dance training, but you also work in visual arts like sculpture and drawing. How were you inspired by all the street art you saw in L.A.? What advantage does a visual artist have when it comes to dancing and singing?
Miku: I saw a lot of really unique artwork on the streets of Los Angeles, but I didn’t want to copy any of that. I always like to do things my own way, so I used the energy and local feeling I experienced to make something original in my work, something only I could produce. As for singing and dancing, I think imagination plays a big role in the creative process, so I take the same approach as my art, even though the result takes a different form. I’m looking for inspiration and influences all around me, but in the end, it still has to represent my true self.
Rikiya, you started your career as an EXILE kids dancer at 8 years old (11 years ago). Why are you so passionate about dancing? What have you learned from your international experiences, such as winning the prize at New York’s Apollo Theater?
Rikiya: Originally, my parents guided me in that direction, so I really have them to thank for starting me on this path. When I was a kid, I practiced martial arts too, so it took me a while to decide what I wanted to focus on professionally, but I’m really glad I chose dance and I’ve dedicated myself to it one hundred percent. When I got up on stage at the Apollo Theater, I really became aware of the high expectations of the American people, but there were times when I was able to perform quite well and received a standing ovation from the audience. Those moments were really special to me, and they encouraged me to push myself even more.
Riki, you’ve also been dancing from a young age, and you’re also a skilled rapper. How do these two different styles of expression connect to your personality? What goals have you set for yourself as a member of EXILE TRIBE and BALLISTIK BOYZ?
Riki: Since I was a kid, I was always inspired by seeing foreign dancers from all around the world. In the same way, I would listen to the songs and watch the music videos of rap artists from overseas and from Japan, too. Then I’d create a mix of the parts that hit me most powerfully, adding my own point of view. As a member of BALLISTIK BOYZ and EXILE TRIBE, I’m aiming to create music and performances that you’ve never seen before, and maybe someday works of my own, too. Keep your eyes on me as a rapper and a dancer!
Masahiro, you’ve also spent time in New York City and competed at the Apollo Theater. What are the most important things about studying in the U.S. that have helped you as a member of BALLISTIK BOYZ? How does your acting training help you as a performer on stage?
Masahiro: Holding to your own views firmly, and thinking about your dreams in a concrete manner.
I’ve been taking lessons in America, and have been doing a lot of performances as well, so I think it would be good for BALLISTIK BOYZ, to learn techniques that aren’t used in Japan, so we can present new things visually that excite the audience. I feel that the methods of expressing emotion that I learned in acting classes can be translated into singing and dancing as well, especially the ability to create a mental image of the story from the lyrics and convey that to an audience in a physical way.
BALLISTIK BOYZ is a very young group (average age under 20 years old). How do you feel about representing the next generation of EXILE TRIBE?
Ryuta: As artists who are part of the first EXILE of the new era, I strongly feel that we want to take on the next generation, so I hope that we manage to create a new tradition, pursuing our own unique personality, while also holding firmly to the things that our seniors built.
Yoshiyuki: There are times when I feel the pressure, but since there are things that only a group with our unique characteristics can do, I want to keep putting all our strength into moving forward, day after day, without losing our challenging spirit.
Miku: Our youth is also one of our strengths. I’m focusing on the things that only we can do, and taking as many lessons from our seniors as I can.
Rikiya: It’s been just one year since our formation, but I want BALLISTIK BOYZ to become the kind of group whose debut everyone, our seniors and fans included, sees as a top level example of what can be achieved. And since we’ve inherited the name EXILE TRIBE, we want to live up to that standard. And now, because of the events of this year, we have the privilege of debuting together with the coming of the new era “Reiwa”, It would be great for us to take in the spirit of the Reiwa generation and become representative artists of Japan.
Riki: I’m at the place where I always aimed to be, and so, I feel incredibly happy. I want us to become a group capable of always exceeding the expectations you put on us, living up to the name of EXILE TRIBE.
Ryusei: Even though we’re a young group, I want us to move forward to create new entertainment that reaches fans all over the world, just like our seniors have.
Masahiro: I’m the youngest member of the group, so I feel the responsibility to take up the challenge more than anyone. I want to live up the examples that are set by our seniors in EXILE TRIBE, and also my seniors in BALLISTIK BOYZ. I want to add my energy to boost our activities to even higher levels, so everyone will know us!
What do you each say to yourself to get ready for a tough day of rehearsals and performances?
Ryuta: It’s important to work on the things that are right in front of you, but I make sure to always visualize my objectives and future prospects, doing my best in the present for the sake of achieving my own ideals for my future self.
Yoshiyuki: I always make sure not to forget the mindset I had right at the beginning. I’ve had experiences that I could never have imagined when I started, and those were only possible because of what our seniors built up to now. We’ve inherited that, so we have to give our best effort and put all our spirit into expanding the scope of our dreams, even if just a little.
Miku: Whenever I’m having a hard time, I always set my mind toward giving my best, thinking about the family and friends who are always by my side, supporting me. So, I say things like “I will give back to them,” and “These are not just my dreams, I’ll make them come true for everyone.”
Rikiya: Since I want to give everything back to my family and to everyone involved, I always say in my head that “I will not lose to myself!” I think that even if I’m tired, it’s still nothing compared to the people who struggle more and go through rough times. I also think that after doing your best, you get to see the true version of yourself.
Riki: “Whatever you do, do your best!” That is the single most important phrase for me. From here on too, whatever I do, I will engage with all my strength in order to keep growing more and more.
Ryusei: In the words that we received from HIRO (the CEO of LDH and leader of EXILE), “The future will soon become the present, and the present will soon become the past”. Even if we do our best and our dreams materialize in front of us, those experiences too, will soon be in the past. For that reason, I always tell myself to do my best, looking straight ahead.
Masahiro: “Let’s have fun!” I always say those words to myself!
BALLISTIK BOYZ – PASION (documentary)
Self-titled debut album BALLISTIK BOYZ
Releases May 22, 2019
BUY AT CDJAPAN!