The ethos of ukiyohi is best expressed with an anecdote. Dateline Minneapolis, the Dakota Jazz Club. October, 2023.
But before we go there, let’s back up. I started work on the ukiyohi brand back in early 2022 as a spin-off of STØBERI, a boutique jewelry and accessories business I co-founded years prior. In 2019, we began tinkering with a unique dugout design. And as the materials and design evolved, so too did the intent… to create a true heirloom quality keepsake, capable of being used, cherished and, when the time comes, shared with another.
The M1 “Woody Edition” is the culmination of this pursuit. In its simplest form, it’s a study in minimalism and the natural union of solid wood and brass. The story it tells is a simple one, but it can be embellished with all types of custom engraving on the box, as well the pipe, itself. This ability to customize each piece is, in part, why this item has become so popular.
Fast Forward to October, 2023 and the GZA show set for the Dakota Jazz Club. It felt essential to come to the concert equipped with a custom dugout for the ‘Genius’ GZA, just on the off chance we’d be able to get it in his hands on that Friday night.
Levi, our design director, has had his hands full with an ever-expanding punch list of projects for ukiyohi, but he was down to play a little bit. After some back-and-forth, we landed on a text-focused tribute to the groundbreaking Liquid Swords record, with a quote that felt right for the moment – and the medium.
Rhyme thoughts travel at a tremendous speed
Through clouds of smoke of natural blends of weed
Only under one circumstance, that's if I'm blunted
Turn that shit up, my Clan in Da Front want it.
Other embellishments were incorporated, including the prominent “G” icon, a popular variant of the iconic Wu-Tang logomark. And, finally, additional hits of GZA iconography were added to the matching wood/brass pipe. The final product felt elegant, and refined, yet still very Wu.
As Amanda and I settled into our seats and chatted with the couple next to us, the room was right.
Even before GZA took the stage, his band set the tone by opening with a funky rendition of ‘Apache’. Most in the audience likely recognized the song, or at least the famous drum, horn and guitar loops sampled by everyone from the Roots to the Sugarhill Gang to Nas and beyond. It was clear, though, that this take was honoring the 1973 classic rendition by The Incredible Bongo Band, from which all those hip-hop loops can be traced back to.
note: There have been countless versions of Apache recorded since the first true hit was released by The Shadows in 1960. For a glimpse at some of the hundreds of songs that have samples The Incredible Bongo Band's version of apache, check out this list from whosampled.com.
This song carries a lot of special meaning in our house, as it was one of the first songs Kristoff associated with his growing interest in breakdancing, which began at the age of 5. Since then, his passion has seen him progress to one of the elite crews in the Midwest – team ‘Break Fluid’ from the House of Dance studio. His hip-hop IQ has also evolved over the years, too, with love for all manner of foundational cuts from James Brown, Erik B & Rhakim, Sly and the Family Stone, Beastie Boys and beyond. We can wind back Kristoff’s earliest cypher moment to the Hamilton Soundtrack, but if there was ever a breaking anthem for the two of us, it’d be Apache.
It was shaping to be one of those nights where meaning and symbolism is placed upon random moments. Serendipitous significance. Once it begins, it can then start to snowball. And so it happened on this night, starting with Apache.
Then GZA casually walked on stage, looking all of his 58 years. A little less raw, not quite so rugged. But he had that Chapelle swagger about him. The unhurried manner of an elder statesman with nothing to prove. And nothing to gain, but a few hearts and minds. His walk-on music wasn’t music at all – but the iconic opening speech from Liquid Swords, where a young boy tells the story of his samurai father’s exploits.
This was an especially gratifying way to kick off the concert, since the song features the lyrics we had laser-engraved on the dugout just a few hours prior – and would be presented to GZA’s team later that evening.
Once on stage, GZA began by paying respect to the venue – the Dakota – which he likened to the Blue Note. His set spanned the spectrum. Some of his deep cuts, some Wu favorites, including an emotional, toned-down version of “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” from Ol' Dirty Bastard. His voice carries a similar gravel and richness as his cousin, ODB. The song hits a bit different following ODB’s passing in 2004. On this night, you could close your eyes and, for a split second, feel his presence on stage.
Now, at this point, I’m getting all the feels and my head-bob was in full effect, supported by a pair of Utepils ‘Ewald the Golden’ tall boys. This detail, in and of itself, requires a bit of additional color.
You see, ever since my previous “go-to beer” – ‘Farm Girl’ by Lift Bridge Brewery – switched its basic recipe away from a true Saison style, I’ve been waiting to be inspired by another brew. Lately, the love has landed on this golden, smooth-drinking hefeweizen from Utepils Brewery. It's rare for me to order this beer at a bar or restaurant, so discovering it on the drink menu, felt serendipitous. Stoke factors started to reach extremely high levels, as I settled into my second 16oz can.
That’s when GZA took a turn into spoken word. I wasn’t familiar with the rhyme, but I was instantly riveted. A very articulate telling of the birth of the universe unfolded. The next day, I was able to connect the dots to a song called “The Spark”.
And that’s the moment when it hits me: while GZA was sharing THE creation story, I was, in real time, living the creation story of ukiyohi. Mind blown, right? Perhaps I’m placing significance where there is none. Except for not really. Stick with me…
Let’s rewind back to Fall, 2022, as I’m starting to give some shape to the ukiyohi brand. A lot of mood boards and Pinterest searches… some play with type and color… and a little experiment with a packaging label that tried to introduce the intersection of all my disparate influences I was intent on infusing into the brand. A basic list:
- Danish Minimalism
- Mid-Century Modernism
- Japanese Graphic & Industrial Design
- Hip-Hop (specifically, the glory days of mid-90s era)
- Movie Theater-Sized Candy Servings
- Streat Art
- BBoy Culture (poppers, breakers, writers, exciters)
- Creative Play
- Wes Anderson x P.T. Anderson x Anderson Cooper
- Garage Sales
- Funk (Sly & the Family Stone, James Brown, Prince)
- Antiques (specifically, retro kitsch, 70s, 60s, 50s)
- Surf/Skate Culture(s) & All Things Radical
- International Travel
- Nerdy Stuff (LEGO, Star Wars, LEGO Star Wars)
- Social Justice
That list isn’t exhaustive, but it’ll give you an idea of where we’re headed – rather, where I’ve been. And, with all of that in mind, I began experimenting with a mash-up of ideas, distilled into a 3”x4” label. A visual brief, of sorts, for hand-off to a more skilled hand. The result can be seen below. A far cry from what the brand look and feel would evolve to, but a great look into the mind of a restless creative.
The first thing you might notice is the use of Hokusai’s Great Wave Off the Coast of Kanagawa. It’s, perhaps, the most iconic piece of art to emerge from the Ukiyo-e art period of Japan. The art was a product of the broader ‘ukiyo’ philosophy of the “floating world” – which celebrated the pleasure-seeking aspects of urban culture. Like, say, seeing an intimate GZA funk show at the best Jazz Club in Minneapolis. For instance.
Eventually, you’ll notice the footnote: *in no way affiliated with any member of the Wu-Tang clan, living or deceased. In the moment, it was simply an attempt to weave in some hip-hop flavor into this visual brand brief. But now, having experienced this show… at this moment… well, it feels prescient.
Now, ukiyohi really is affiliated with Wu-Tang. Not in the true business sense or even collaborative sense. But, we’re connected cosmically, if by no other way. And certainly, for anyone reading this rambling article, WuTang and ukiyohi will be eternally intersecting each other’s orbit – while we all keep searching for the next spark.