Tassho Pearce with the sake-making crew at Dewazakura Sake Brewery in Yamagata. (Photos courtesy Tassho Pearce)
Tassho Pearce with the sake-making crew at Dewazakura Sake Brewery in Yamagata. (Photos courtesy Tassho Pearce)

The Rap Veteran Sets His Sights on the Sake Industry

Joe Udell
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Tassho Pearce has been a household name in Hawai‘i hip-hop circles for more than a decade and a half. But over the last six years, Pearce has quietly been carving out a new reputation in the world of sake.

“Sake has kind of been a spiritual journey for me,” he said. “It’s brought me back to my Japanese roots.”

Pearce recently moved back to Honolulu after spending eight years in Las Vegas, San Diego, Orange County and Japan. He’s working in the family business now — for World Sake Imports, the company his father, Chris, founded in 1998 with the goal of bringing premium sake to the United States.

When he isn’t working with sake, Pearce can be found recording or performing music. 
When he isn’t working with sake, Pearce can be found recording or performing music.

“I’m just learning more about the ins and outs of the company since I moved back,” said Pearce, who was born in Ishigaki in the Yaeyama islands of southern Okinawa and moved to O‘ahu when he was 2.

“I’m helping with sales here in Honolulu and I’ve been helping with the marketing, bringing the younger generation into it.”

Pearce has also been hosting tasting events at restaurants around town and has made television promotional appearances for “The Joy of Sake” — the biggest sake event in the world outside of Japan — on Hawaii News Now and Good Morning Hawaii.

“We do a lot of events and, for a lot of people, it is their first time trying premium sake,” he said. “Once you get a little bug in you and you appreciate it and enjoy it, you want to learn all about it. There’s a lot of curiosity and interest.”

While the 42-year-old Pearce grew up around sake, it was his hip-hop music that caught the attention of the public. The Kalani High School graduate was a member of a group called the Hoomanakaz before he released his 2004 solo album, “Rhyme & Punishment,” under the name EMIRC. Buoyed by the album’s lead single “Honolulu,” Pearce opened up for nearly every major hip-hop act traveling to Hawai‘i for the next few years, including Kanye West, Method Man and Redman.

At the same time, his clothing company, Flip the Bird, started gaining traction in the streetwear scene. Pearce’s T-shirts, which were originally designed to promote “Rhyme & Punishment,” became fixtures in urban boutiques and were spotted on rappers such as West, Eminem and Drake.

“Some really big names in the industry got behind the brand and it was totally organic; there was no sponsorship,” Pearce said. “Some of them would just buy the clothes at a store and I’d find pictures of them wearing it.”

Pearce parlayed that popularity into a 2007 collaboration with Russell Simmons’ Run Athletics company on three limited-edition sneakers featuring Hawai‘i-themed designs — Humuhumunukunukuapua‘a, Bird of Paradise and Shave Ice — that sold out in stores in the United States, Japan and Europe.

As Flip the Bird continued to thrive, Pearce released another album in 2008, “The Opening Act,” under his real name and toured across the country, as well as Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

Eight years ago, however, Pearce and his wife, Tracie, shifted their priorities towards family.

“We wanted to try and grow and get a house,” he said. “It was just way too expensive here, so we moved to Vegas and we were able to do that there.”

Pouring sake at “The Joy of Sake” event in Tökyö. 
Pouring sake at “The Joy of Sake” event in Tökyö.

Pearce worked a series of “regular” jobs in Las Vegas, including a stint at Y-3, Yohji Yamamoto’s fashion line with adidas, in order to finance his house. He also tried to keep Flip the Bird operational, but the distance made it difficult to communicate with his design team and he ultimately decided to halt production.

“I think of it more as a hiatus,” he said. “I still want to come back and revisit it. I have a lot of ideas and designs.”

In 2013, Pearce pivoted towards a sales job at World Sake Imports, which had grown from a small Honolulu operation to a company with offices in New York, San Francisco, Miami and London. The position, however, required him to make a five-hour commute to his sales territory in San Diego each Sunday, stay in a hotel until Thursday, travel back to Las Vegas and then do it all over again.

“For the first two years, that’s what I would do every week, so that was kind of a crazy lifestyle,” Pearce said. “It was a lot of driving, a lot of time away from home and just building relationships with people in the San Diego food scene, the sake scene out there.”

Pearce’s determination eventually paid off as he established himself in the city.

“It started to grow after a while to the point where I realized I had to be there more often,” he said. “We got an apartment in Mission Valley, San Diego, for two years — I still had my place in Vegas; I was still going back and forth, but I would stay in the apartment instead of a hotel for five days.”

Pearce continued to excel and later expanded his sales territory into Orange County. He attributes part of his success to his ability to “immerse” himself in sake culture and learn its traditions. That education didn’t take place in the pages of books or on the internet, but in the actual sake breweries themselves.

In early 2013, Pearce traveled to Yamagata Prefecture to work for the Dewazakura Sake Brewery. Founded in 1892, Dewazakura is relatively young by sake standards, but made its impact on the industry in 1980 by becoming the first brewery to make a premium ginjo sake — known as Oka Ginjo — available to the public at an affordable price.

The brewery, which is surrounded by the tall mountains of Tendō, is also known for being very cold in the winter.

“That was an unbelievable experience,” Pearce said. “They had just received record-level snowfalls — like the most snow they’d had in 20 years — and I was living in the sake brewery for three weeks, just freezing cold.”

Pearce’s hands-on apprenticeship illuminated the nuances of sake-making, where something as simple as water temperature is actually “super labor-intensive.”

“Everything is done by hand, even just heating the tanks,” he said. “You don’t just flip a switch and it warms up. You have to go down to the well, fill up a metal canister with boiling hot water, put a wet towel on your neck, throw the canister on your shoulder and run to the stairs. Then you’ve got to take off your work boots and put on slippers because of the wood floors. The whole time you’re holding the tank. Then you go upstairs and you kind of hang the tank inside a larger tank, and that’s how you warm it up.”

Pearce continued his training in 2015 at Nagano’s Miyasaki Brewing Company. The brewery, which makes the well-known Masumi brand, is known for being the birthplace of yeast number seven. That yeast helped Miyasaki sweep the country’s top sake awards in 1946 and was quickly adopted by breweries across Japan. While the modern-day yeast number seven is known to be milder than the original version, it is still the most widely used sake yeast in the world.

Pearce with his mother, Fumie Ushijima, who lives in Kumamoto, during a trip to Hiroshima in 2016.
Pearce with his mother, Fumie Ushijima, who lives in Kumamoto, during a trip to Hiroshima in 2016.

At Miyasaki, Pearce got to see yeast number seven in action, as well as the important role that koji, or sake mold, plays in the brewing process by converting rice starch into sugar.

“When you stick your hands into the koji tray, you can feel pockets of heat where koji is very active and you have to spread it out so it doesn’t overheat,” he explained. “Each tank is really a living, breathing organism. You hear brewers compare brewing sake to raising a baby, and that’s why.”

Pearce working at Dewazakura Sake Brewery.
Pearce working at Dewazakura Sake Brewery.

Pearce’s time at Dewazakura and Miyasaki gave him a deeper appreciation for sake and the people who make it. He said that understanding translated to his work at World Sake Imports, which places a premium on handcrafted offerings as opposed to mass-produced ones dominated by automation.    

“When you have those experiences, it’s easier to talk to people about sake,” he said. “You can explain to people, ‘This is why this sake is so special; this is how hard these guys work on it. These guys are super passionate about it, they leave their families for six months out of the year — a lot of them are farmers, then they brew sake in the cold season and it just takes a huge amount of dedication and hard work.’”

Pearce said he still considers himself a student — someone who is continuing to learn about sake as well as the Japanese language. His original plan was to “keep grinding away” in California and Nevada indefinitely, but the birth of his son, Johnny, last December once again made him and his wife think about what was best for their family. That meant returning to Honolulu with a new life perspective.

“We realized we were kind of out there on our own on the Mainland; we didn’t have a lot of support,” he said. “We have a lot more ‘ohana here to help out and it was a great reason to come back. I feel that I really appreciate Hawai‘i more after leaving.”

As Pearce has become more of a figure in the sake industry, he has also integrated that part of his life into his hip-hop sphere.

“I kind of kept it separate for a long time — my sake career and my music stuff,” he admitted. “But, lately, I’ve been sprinkling a lot of sake stuff into my regular (social media) feed and vice versa. I always let my customers know that I’m also a hip-hop artist and they find that interesting, too.”

Indeed, music has been a constant in Pearce’s life, whether he was splitting time between California and Nevada or brewing sake in Japan. In 2016, he released the album “G.O.O.D. Company,” his most star-studded production to date, with Kanye West and Common on the intro and outro, respectively, and the single “Satellites” featuring Kid Cudi.

Since then, Pearce has been ghostwriting for some hip-hop “heavyweights” and recording music in his home studio during his free time. His forthcoming album, which is currently in the mixing stage, is set for release in the coming months and will even feature sake somewhere in the music videos.

Pearce acknowledges that his approach to music is “more casual now,” but the balance that he has found has given him something invaluable — a sense of inner peace as he moves forward with the next phase of his life.

“As far as music, I’ve never stopped. I’m always recording. It’s something that I love,” he said. “My life kind of revolved around it for a long time, but now it’s family first. Knowing they are happy and healthy gives me a different sense of fulfillment.”

Joe Udell is a freelance journalist and former staff writer for The Hawai‘i Herald. He is the co-editor of Suikei Furuya’s World War II memoir, “An Internment Odyssey: Haisho Tenten,” as well as a contributor to “Asian Americans: An Encyclopedia of Social, Cultural, Economic, and Political History.”

Tassho Pearce in a photo shoot for his music video, “Young Hemingway,” a song featured in his “G.O.O.D. Company” album.
Tassho Pearce in a photo shoot for his music video, “Young Hemingway,” a song featured in his “G.O.O.D. Company” album.


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