In the 19th century the French coined the term Japonism to describe the growing influence of Japanese art, culture and aesthetics on their European counterparts.
More than 140 years later a new wave of Japonism has emerged in modern music. This time however the influences are bi-directional: Japanese artists are taking aesthetic influences from the West, reshaping them into something distinctively Japanese and sending them back to the West in what can be thought of as an aesthetic feedback loop.
You can trace the origins of this movement to the ’80s and ’90s with the emergence of hip-hop and dance music in Japan and the worldwide notoriety of acts like DJ Krush and Major Force. In recent years this feedback loop has intensified, with a new generation of Japanese musicians building on the inroads made by the pioneers before them.
My lifelong fascination with Japan started as a child thanks to French TV programming, itself a strange, modern mutation of the idea of Japonism. For more than a decade Japanese culture and aesthetics were subtly piped into our unconscious via anime packaged as afternoon children TV. It turned a large section of my generation into inadvertent, lifelong Japanophiles. I could never quite tell those that asked why, but I always knew that Japan meant something to me that was much more than simple youthful infatuation.
Having spent most of my teens devouring manga and anime I began to feel a similar appeal for Japanese music. It started with the likes of DJ Krush and Major Force in the ’90s and then intensified about ten years ago when I stumbled across parts of the country’s nebulous music underground thanks to Soulseek. Since then I’ve regularly involved myself with various Japanese scenes and artists – working with, releasing music and touring some of the artists mentioned and featured in this piece.
The original drive behind this work was my aforementioned fascination with Japan, which slowly mutated into a fascination for what I felt was a quintessentially Japanese quality to the music I was hunting down: a bi-directional aesthetic feedback loop between East and West. As I discovered obscure electronic and hip-hop artists in the early ’00s – DJ Baku, Goth Trad, Numb & Saidrum, O.N.O and DJ Klock – the idea that all their music had a unique quality started to emerge and I slowly began to see its roots in the works of Krush and others.
If I was to try and pinpoint some defining characteristics of this aesthetic quality there are two that are perhaps easiest to hear – even if they remain deeply personal, intertwined with my own, complex relationship with Japan. The first is the melodies. There is something about the way Japanese artists treat melodies, and the frequencies they place them in, that just stands out for me – from DJ Krush’s anthemic ‘Kemuri’ to DJ Klock in the early ’00s and more recently the work of Daisuke Tanabe.
The other characteristic is more abstract: incubation. In many of the stand out works from modern Japanese producers, you can hear that they’ve taken something from the West – a rhythmic pattern, an arrangement template – and internalised it before making it their own. For me this translates into a strange duality where the music feels both familiar and alien at once. And it sucks me in even more. Tracks like Baku’s ‘Chikusatsu’, Quarta330’s ‘Sunset Dub’ or Goth Trad’s ‘Back To Chill’ take clear inspiration from Western aesthetics and tropes – experimental hip hop, dub, grime – yet twist those to a point where you know what you’re listening to while simultaneously feeling like it’s something new, and exciting.
For a long time this quality was also tied to Japan’s geographical and cultural isolation. The idea of incubation as I describe above was made possible because Japanese artists could stumble upon Western music and consume it with little historical or cultural context, something that has become increasingly rarer as the internet broke down cultural and geographical boundaries in the post-Myspace age. This has lead to more copycats appearing quicker, fortunately quality always rises to the top.
Since the late ’00s a new wave of Japanese artists are continuing to mutate and evolve this new Japonism, taking it further than before sonically, but also physically. Over the next seven pages I’ll introduce a selection of new artists who I feel best represent the latest wave of this movement.
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DAISUKE TANABE | Chiba
Daisuke Tanabe is one of the better known artists on this list. An alumnus of the 2010 edition of the Red Bull Music Academy, he’s released on Tokyo’s Circulations Records, Berlin’s Project Mooncircle and Cologne’s Ki Records, spanning everything from twisted hip-hop to dreamy electronica and eyes-down techno. He’s also remixed for Ninja Tune and BBE.
Tanabe takes inspiration and influences from the entire canon of electronic music, particularly more experimental work – whether that’s ambient or chopped-up breakbeat mentalism. He spent years honing his craft during the ’00s, even spending time in London where he attended the CDR nights at Plastic People, a key stepping stone in his career alongside RBMA. After years of private experimentation he started officially releasing at the tail-end of the ’00s.
His debut album for Circulations, Before I Forget, was when I really discovered him. The music on there was a fascinating blend of electronic and hip-hop sensibilities woven together in compositions made of intricate layers that invite you to get lost in the sound. Since then the producer has continued to refine his approach, continuously turning out work that sounds like no one else and seems to be equally effective in the club or the headphones.
More than any other artists on this list Tanabe exemplifies this melodic characteristic I mentioned in the introduction. The way he constructs and deploys melodies in his music defies accepted norms, especially in terms of frequencies, yet feels totally natural. Most recently he teamed up with the UK’s Kidkanevil for the Kidsuke project, where together the pair have found a sweet spot between bass-heavy, hip-hop-minded beats and childlike, ethereal melodies and sonic treatments.
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YOSI HORIKAWA | Chiba
In their music and approach, Tanabe and Yosi Horikawa are kindred spirits. They both also happen to live in Chiba, on the outskirts of Greater Tokyo. Where Tanabe’s electronic compositions can be harsh and cold, Horikawa imbues his own music with a warm, organic quality, a direct result of his use of found sounds as a primary musical building block.
Horikawa began making music at the age of 12, inspired by the cover of KRS One’s The Return of the Boom Bap. Taking his cue from the Blastmaster, he used a pair of headphones to record sounds from his bedroom and overdubbed these on two tape decks. Thus was born Horikawa’s unique approach. He relocated to Tokyo in his late teens and began working in architectural acoustics, an occupation that has continued to fuel his love for and fascination with sound.
He first came to my attention in 2009/2010, when Jay Scarlett (of Beat Dimensions fame), Fulgeance and French label Eklektik began to release and support his music. As we got talking and he sent me more music it soon became clear that he was another unique voice cut to fit in this Japanese tradition I’d become obsessed with. Horikawa’s music is built on minutiae yet transcends these intricacies, offering entire sonic universes in which to get lost. The music might appear better suited to headphone or home listen at first but don’t let that fool you: I’ve seen him set dancefloors on fire with the same ease as a DJ playing the latest bangers.
In 2012 Horikawa was picked for the Red Bull Music Academy where he turned numerous heads, from his fellow students to lecturers and staff including Benji B. Since then he’s signed to London’s First Word Records for his debut album – Vapour, which dropped earlier this summer – and is about to embark on his first major European tour from late August following from appearances in Asia and Oceania.
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JEALOUSGUY | Sapparo
Unlike what the name might lead you to think, Jealousguy is in fact a female producer from Sapporo, the capital of the northern island of Hokkaido. As I think I’ve mentioned before, Sapporo and Hokkaido bear a resemblance to Glasgow and Scotland in terms of geography and weather but also music. In the past few years, the city has fast become one of the country’s most exciting hot spots. Sapporo is also home to one of Japan’s hip hop and electronic godfathers, O.N.O.
Jealousguy makes the most bugged out hip-hop you’ve heard since you got high and discovered Flying Lotus (or Prefuse, or Mo’ Wax for the older heads among us). Just as importantly, if not more considering the current state of live electronic music, she makes and performs her music entirely live: with no clock, no grid, just her two hands and two pad controllers.
She tarted making music ten years ago, flirting with the more experimental electronic side of things at first – releasing two albums on local Japanese labels – before settling into her current groove where hip-hop rhythms anchor a crazy hodgepodge of melodies, sounds and bass. In recent years she’s opened for the likes of Four Tet, Gold Panda and Low End Theory, and recently appeared on a split 7″ with Daisuke Tanabe on Original Cultures as well as a compilation of Hokkaido talent we featured in our July Bandcamp column.
Watch her perform the track from the 7″ live at the Red Bull Studios London below.
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BUDAMUNK | Tokyo / Los Angeles
Hip-hop producer Budamunk spent time in L.A. before relocating to Tokyo in the late ’00s. As such his work fits snuggly between L.A’s beat renaissance and Japan’s long-standing love of classic hip-hop.
Having spent time establishing himself via beat tapes and self-released projects on Bandcamp, he was picked up by Japanese powerhouse Jazzy Sport where he’s been releasing for the past few years, hopping between instrumental and vocal projects featuring little known American MCs such as Joe Styles. In the last couple years he’s also been collaborating with Mabanua as Green Butter, which sees the pair indulge their love of loose beats and warm keys. I saw them live at Sonar Tokyo earlier this year and they proved one of the highlights of the weekend, playing the sort of blunted, laid-back grooves one would usually associate with L.A or the more soulful side of Detroit.
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HIMURO YOSHITERU | Tokyo
Himuro Yoshiteru is the elder of this list, with his first release dating back to the late ’90s on UK label Worm Interface – also home to a Squarepusher alias. Despite having been active for over a decade he’s remained surprisingly under the radar, both in his native country and abroad, though he did receive support from the late John Peel on BBC Radio 1.
Yoshiteru’s music is hard to pin down. Since I discovered him five years ago the bulk of his work has been axed around the meeting point between hip-hop and dance music, drawing from jungle, dubstep and rave for energy and hip hop for swing, grooves and sampling. At times he also throws in a good dose of editing and processing in the IDM tradition. The result is music that can sometimes feel quite overwhelming – a characteristic that occurs often with Japanese artists – yet still hits pretty hard.
In my introduction I mentioned melodies and incubation as two key characteristics of this aesthetic quality I’ve been fascinated by, and where Tanabe best exemplifies the former, Yoshiteru owns the latter – much like another older Japanese head, Goth Trad. The more you listen to his music, the more you can tell that this is someone who’s really done their homework and who has spent a long time making the sounds he was fascinated with his own.
In recent years Yoshiteru has accumulated releases on Japanese labels Murder Channel and Oilworks as well as the net label Bedroom Research. There’s a lot of his music out there, but it’s worth hunting down and piecing it all up for yourself.
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KAN SANO | Tokyo
Berklee Music College alumnus Kan Sano is perhaps best understood as Japan’s answer to Dorian Concept – what this man can do with keys is seriously impressive.
I first discovered Sano after the Circulations label picked him up for a debut album release in 2011. Despite coming out shortly after the March 11 earthquake, the album – titled Fantastic Farewell – managed to make an impact both at home and abroad, putting Sano on many people’s radars as a seriously funky musician capable of bridging the worlds of jazz and hip hop with the same sort of ease as some of his L.A and European contemporaries.
Since then Sano has kept busy, releasing a string of EPs, singles and remixes on both Japanese and European labels. He’s played for an impressive list of artists – including Mabanua’s band (the same who’re now collaborating with Budamunk) – and recently he set up a new live project under the name Bennetrhodes, with a debut album titled Sun Ya out now via runtStyle. Sano is a man on a mission.
Where Tanabe really stands out in the way he twists established melodic ideas around, Sano is equally powerful by staying within more traditional melodic approaches while the rest of his compositions take more risks, blending his experience and understanding of traditional and modern, east and west.
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The five acts I picked for this feature are just a small taste of this Japanese new school. There are more artists deserving of your time and attention, spanning yet more styles and variations. Here are some additional names for you to look into, all of whom are related to the featured artists in various ways.
INNIT | Osaka
INNIT are an Osaka-based collective who have been running parties inspired by the same ethos that drives London’s long-standing CDR night coupled with the energy and excitement surrounding the L.A. new school. They’ve also set up a label called Day Tripper, releasing music from new Japanese talent. Three of their members – Seiho, Madegg and And Vice Versa – have begun to attract attention in Japan, with productions and live / DJ sets that take their cues from the popular sounds of the west and boost it up to 11 on the madness knob. They’re clearly onto something as Sonar Tokyo invited them to host a stage this year.
BROKEN HAZE | Tokyo
Tokyo’s Broken Haze is the founder of the Raid System label and collective, which also includes legendary scratch DJ Ken One and European exile XLII. After years grinding on the Tokyo underground Broken Haze has begun to make more inroads into the west in recent years most notably with a split EP alongside B.Bravo, a release on Finland’s Top Billin label and a remix for his friend XLII’s EP on London’s Civil Music. As with the INNIT guys, his music takes its cue from popular western trends, spitting them back out through a filter that can be as hectic as rush hour in Shinjuku station.
SAUCE81 | Tokyo
Yet another RBMA alumnus, Sauce81 is a Tokyo-based producer and DJ, and one of the men responsible for the Cosmopolyphonic collective. He’s released on Japanese labels Wonderful Noise and Catune, with his latest EP cementing his unique blend of house, hip hop and rnb grooves. Equally active behind the scenes as behind the decks, he’s rightfully been supported by the likes of Onra and Grooveman Spot.
OGIYY | Tokyo / Melbourne
Ogiyy is another young Tokyo producer who recently relocated to Australia. I first discovered him during my 2011 trip, but it’s in the last year or so that he’s really come into his own, with his latest EP Blackout really standing out. Late last year he also released an album via INNIT’s Day Tripper label, after a couple of more straight forward hip-hop albums with both Japanese and American MCs. One to watch for sure.
The last two inclusions in this list are actually not Japanese producers, but they deserve a spot considering that the new Japonism is a bi-directional movement. Repeat Pattern and Magical Mistakes are two U.S. expats who have cemented themselves within the local scenes, the former in Tokyo – working with the likes of Kan Sano, Cosmopolyphonic and most recently UK producer Submerse – and the latter in Osaka – working with INNIT and Day Tripper as well as his own Perfect Touch nights (under which he organised the recent Sweatson Klank tour and EP). Not only do these two act as international glue within the scenes, they are also accomplished producers: Repeat Pattern releases via French label Cascade and was recently invited to the Low End Theory beat invitational in Tokyo, while Magical Mistakes released his debut on Day Tripper last year.