“[My love for anime] all began many years ago with a simple trip to the USA to visit some family in New York. I remember hanging out with my cousins in my aunt’s living room when a show appeared on the television, a show that would change my life FOREVER…am I dramatising this enough?”
That’s how my interview with UK Rapper, Shao Dow began. I’m always fascinated by how people take their passion for anime and turn it into a career, and Shao Dow has done exactly that. He’s basically an anime protagonist at this point, something he takes great pride in. “I guess I just present my thoughts, ideas and overall ethos to the world but use anime and games as the vehicle or packaging in which I deliver it,” he says. “It’s probably because I know I’m an anime protagonist that I feel I can get away with it. I mean, my life has pretty much been a shonen storyline up until this point.”
Shao Dow won the AIM Independent Music Awards in 2017 for Hardest Working Artist and won the AME Awards the same year for Music Artist Of The Year. In 2022, he was nominated for the AIM Independent Music Awards for Best Live Performer . You may have heard Shao Dow while playing Fortnite or bopped your head to the likes of “NANI” or one of his anime character raps (if you dare approach DIO BRANDO). You also may have caught him on Ninja Warrior UK or picked up a copy of his manga The Way of Shao. This is a creator who wears a lot of hats, and each one stems from his love of anime.
But like a lot of us who discovered anime decades ago, Shao Dow had no idea what it was, he just knew that he loved it. “We didn’t have anime on mainstream TV in the UK yet, it was all still very niche so this was my first exposure to Japanese cartoons,” he said before going on to describe his introduction to his first anime: Dragon Ball Z. “It was a bunch of dudes with weird hair, shouting, punching each other in the face and firing highly telegraphed energy beams whilst shouting the name of the attack for some reason. I LOVED IT. I spent the rest of my holiday trying to learn how to do a Kamehameha.”
Shao Dow also spent that time training in Lau Gar Kung Fu four or five times a week. At 18, he traveled to China and trained in Shaolin Kung Fu. “My artist name Shao Dow pays homage to my time spent training and discovering myself. After that, I did my law degree at university, started my career as a full-time rapper, traveled the country touring and at some point along this journey began teaching myself to speak Japanese.” This would eventually lead him to rap in both English and Japanese.
Shao Dow has been into rap, hip hop and grime since his teenage years. “I am a child of Hip Hop as much as I am a child of anime,” he says. “Initially, I started rapping just to represent myself and my worldview. It was my time training in China that helped formulate my style and direction. To be honest, I’ve always included references to martial arts and my favourite anime in my music, but they were light references. I guess I was nervous to fully embrace the nerd that I am and really let that shine through in my music and lyricism.”
After working as the main supporting act for Tech N9ne’s UK Tour, he got a piece of advice that would shape the direction his music went in. “He told me to just be myself through my music, embrace the weird and find my niche rather than trying to appeal to a generic mass market. It was like one of those lightbulb moments. Rapping about anime, games and other ’nerdy’ things felt like something that I as a young Black rapper from South London shouldn’t have been able or allowed to do. But, as my fanbase grew, I guess I slowly realised that I should just make what I’m passionate about.”
From there we talked about how he comes up with the ideas for his songs, his work in video game music, his collaborations with other nerdy rappers and, of course, who he’d want to see in a rap battle. Check out the rest of our interview below!
One thing I noticed is that your songs vary. Sometimes you rap about a character (i.e.: Levi from Attack on Titan or Inosuke from Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba), and other times you rap about a topic (ie: your song about shonen protagonist dads). When you approach a broad topic like shonen protagonist dads, how do you decide which characters to pull inspiration from for your lyrics?
I watch A LOT of anime, so my knowledge is pretty broad across titles, especially the shonen ones. It’s quite fun to sit down and watch a show like BLUELOCK or Chainsaw Man and enjoy it from a viewer/fan perspective but also know that I’m “at work” at the same time. My job is to watch anime and then make a song about it. Maybe? Nah I do a lot more than that, but it sounds cool to say.
For “Shonen Pro Dad” this was a subject that had been on my mind for a while. I often speak on panels in addition to performing at events such as MCM Comic Con London and I’m sure that I’ve mentioned more than a few times that there’s a suspicious lack of fathers in shonen anime, they’re usually either dead or deadbeat or just Shou Tucker… so it was a subject that I’d wanted to cover for a while and with the birth of my first son around the corner, a song dedicated to him under the guise of a song about anime fathers seemed like a great idea.
That track in particular, “Shonen Pro Dad,” covers so many series. My Hero Academia, One Piece, SPY x FAMILY, I even saw Pokémon and Ash setting off into the world at such a young age. These series are so different from each other. How difficult was it to make them all flow together and relate to each other?
It was actually a lot easier than it sounds. There are so many characters across those shows that present fathers in different lights that it was just a case of tying it all together. I did A LOT of research before starting to write, though.
I was lucky to have a fantastic instrumental to work with made by Blizzard and after calling on fellow nerd and proud father NemRaps for the feature, it almost felt like the song wrote itself. I think I just had a lot of thoughts, worries and excitement rapped up in my journey toward fatherhood and this was my opportunity to un-rap it (see what I did there?) whilst also saying something meaningful to my soon to arrive boy. I feel that viewing it all through an anime lens makes the video far more enjoyable to watch and the song much more of a relatable listen.
Incidentally, two of the ending themes from SPY x FAMILY helped inspire the harmonies and background melodies during the “Shonen Pro Dad” choruses. I didn’t copy any of them (don’t sue me!) but I definitely took note of the vibe and movement of the melodies and added my own spin to them in order to create the finished record.
You also dabble in video games as well. You did a God of War-inspired song and you just had a song featured in Fortnite. Is it any different coming up with lyrics about something you experience through gameplay compared to how you feel when watching particular moments in anime?
I’ve never really thought about it as different, perhaps just a longer process. There’s no way I could’ve written a God of War–inspired song without knowing the game inside out and that’s something like a 21-hour commitment AT LEAST. Although… One Piece IS my favourite anime and there are over 1000 episodes of that, so maybe I just like commitment?
For God of War it was my opportunity to work with YouTube animation superstars Mashed on a project, the word “Boy” was just stuck in my head and I knew I wanted a chorus that had a similar intention to 50 Cent’s “What Up Gangsta,” so I constructed the chorus around that and then loosely summarised the game (not the rapper!) whilst making it catchy and aggressive. It works REALLY well when I perform it live and I think the biggest validation I received was when Sony Santa Monica retweeted the video and then PlayStation included footage from it in one of their promo videos for God of War Ragnarök.
The Fortnite track was a different beast. Without saying TOO much, I had a brief for a character that wasn’t even in the game yet. I was given information on his clothing, personality, likes and dislikes and some early concept art. It’s a lot more difficult to construct a song based on a character that doesn’t exist yet, but I was lucky enough to work with Thirty Two Music and Keiran Merrick.
Long story short, we worked it out! And, based on the feedback from the Fortnite community, I think it’s safe to say that we nailed it! It’s wild to think that I wrote a song that is heavily featured in the biggest game in the world, to be honest! My next goal is to write music for a popular anime series!
You also have your own manga series. Can you tell us a little bit about The Way of Shao?
I do! It’s set in a world where musicians have special powers and abilities that strengthen as their fanbase grows, it’s basically my autobiography in the form of a shonen-style manga, just with A LOT more fighting!
Like I said earlier, my life has been an anime up until this point.
I always knew that I wanted to tell the story of how I got to where I am and manga seemed like the most obvious choice. I took the time to really study the art of creating a manga, I read a LOT of different titles (what?? I was working!) and watched a lot of anime, taking note of what I felt worked, what I didn’t like so much and what made the best mangas the BEST mangas. I then took all of that, squished it together stirred it around and infused my own personal experiences into a highly entertaining (if I do say so myself) series. It’s my opportunity to show aspiring artists the amount of work that goes in behind the scenes in order to turn your dream into a reality.
I grew up in a time when it was less usual to see main characters with my skin colour on the TV, difficult to get toys that looked like me. So representation is very important to me. I LOVE anime and manga (in case I hadn’t made that obvious), I’m aware that it’s a Japanese art form and Black and Brown people don’t tend to feature too heavily within it. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to see characters that look like me in the shows that I love. It’s probably why I enjoy seeing Black and Brown people cosplaying their favourite characters.
Photographer: Hannah Anketell
So The Way of Shao with its Black main character is also just my way of saying. “Hello, we enjoy manga too and we’d definitely like to be included more. Thanks!” It’s ALSO because I’m incredibly narcissistic and wanted my face on the front of a book!
It’s probably worth noting, that when it comes to drawing, the best I can do is stick figures. So for the book, I write the storyline and then work closely with an illustrator to translate that into pages. Volume 1 of The Way of Shao is out now and Volume 2 is currently being illustrated by talented artist Dune Peterson and will be out later this year. One day I aim to turn it into an anime!
As a creator how do you balance watching anime for fun and watching it for work so you can release a new song?
I very much live what I love and love what I live. I don’t know what I’d be doing if I wasn’t a rapper (and manga author and ninja). It absolutely feels like I’ve found my life’s purpose. Being able to watch anime, read manga, play video games, travel the world, make music and somehow get paid for it is a blessing that I will never take for granted. I eat, sleep, breathe, sweat, bleed, train and live the anime protag life, the only balance I need is the one that helps me stay steady on the tightrope that I’ve been walking on towards my goal. I’m also REALLY good at multitasking.
What anime are you looking forward to in 2023? Are you already looking at what’s coming and going, “Yeah, gonna have to rap about that one.”
Definitely the new season of JUJUTSU KAISEN! I know BLUELOCK has only just finished, but I need that back now. I’m looking forward to the final, final, FINAL season of Attack on Titan. I also want SPY x FAMILY, One-Punch Man and Chainsaw Man back as soon as possible. Oh! Tomodachi Game, too, I was really enjoying that one.
I don’t normally plan a song before watching an anime though, it kinda just happens. I’ll be watching a show and it’ll inspire an idea, a concept or a phrase and I just go from there. It’s a very organic process and I try my best to keep it that way. Having said that, I’m currently rewatching Naruto, fillers and all, and LOVING IT. I can feel more than a few Naruto–inspired songs coming out of my head very soon.
For fun, if anime characters used rap to settle their differences, what’s a rap battle you’d love to see happen? Bonus: who would win?
I’d like to see a rap battle between Light Yagami and Eren Jaeger for the title of biggest psychopath/edgelord. I reckon Light would win by default just because he’d definitely write all his lyrics in the Death Note. Plus, that guy doesn’t know how to take a joke!
Briana Lawrence is the Senior EN Features Editor here at Crunchyroll. When she’s not writing she’s taking care of her three butthead cats and playing Hades for the 100th time. You can check out her writings and her book series over at her website and give her a shout over on Twitter.