It started out as an inside joke: Rappers of a certain tax bracket, at pains to impress peers who had all the same jewels, watches and cars as them, instead signaled their status by telling people “I know Nigo.” Before long, it happened enough that the Japanese fashion designer started printing the words on t-shirts for his industry friends. Pharrell Williams is the elder statesman of this club, which also includes Pusha T, Kid Cudi, A$AP Rocky, and Lil Uzi Vert, all of whom appear on I Know Nigo, an album out March 25 that memorializes their friendship with the Tokyo streetwear legend. Tyler, the Creator, Gunna, and Pop Smoke also appear on the record, which is the Bape founder’s first album since 2005’s Nigo Presents: Return of the Ape Sounds.
“I first met Pharrell through our mutual friend Jacob the Jeweler,” Nigo told me in a recent Zoom interview. “Jacob was making some pieces for me and I mentioned I was a fan of Pharrell’s music, so he introduced the two of us.” That was 20 years ago, just shy of a decade after Nigo founded Bape in Tokyo’s Harajuku neighborhood. Initially a cult brand built around limited-edition t-shirts, Bape gear became ubiquitous in early aughts hip-hop, worn by artists like Beastie Boys, Busta Rhymes, Clipse, and Kanye. Nigo’s legend grew in tandem with the brand, and before long his Tokyo atelier became a kind of mecca for rappers on tour in Japan.
“I was getting the clothes for so long and hearing these tales about him and then finally meeting him in Japan was crazy,” Pusha T told me.
These tales often revolved around the fact that Nigo, born Nagao Tomoaki, collects everything, or at least all the best things — stacks of century-old Levi’s jeans, Eames chairs, Jean Prouvé tables and vintage Louis Vuitton trunks by the dozen, and one-of-a-kind items like Pee Wee Herman’s iconic suit. (And, of course, a breathtaking array of diamond and ruby encrusted necklaces made by his good friend Jacob the Jeweler.) “When I worked at his studio I realized it was a whole world,” Pharrell told me recently. “One floor was a [recording] studio, another floor was like a showroom for apparel, the next floor a showroom for footwear, and the next floor a photography studio where he shoots all his campaigns. I mean, the guy was just unreal.”
In that recording studio, Nigo had already crafted the first chapter of his own singular musical journey. His debut album, Ape Sounds, very much reflected his place in the culture at the time of its September 2000 release: an experimental, genre-bending pastiche of trip-hop, pop, and psychedelia, put out on the British Mo’ Wax label founded by James Lavelle of UNKLE. The album also reflected its maker’s custodial style of working, with Nigo curating beats, samples, and song ideas which he then realized through collaborators like Money Mark, DJ Shadow, and a range of other guests from throughout the U.S. and Japan. Occasional singles featuring luminaries like Rakim and Biz Markie presaged Return of the Ape Sounds, and in 2005 Def Jam released the debut album for Nigo’s own hip-hop group, Teriyaki Boyz, which featured a roster of producers for the ages: DJ Premier, Dan the Automator, Just Blaze, the Neptunes, Mark Ronson, and Cut Chemist, to name just a few.