Shinichiro Yokota and Soichi Terada have been offering a Japanese take on house music since Terada established his Far East Recording label in 1988. In 2015, the Sounds From the Far East compilation introduced the rest of the world to two of Japan’s greatest house producers, and now they’re finally getting the attention they’ve long deserved. Diskotopia boss Brian Durr meets them in Tokyo where they tell their shared story for the first time, shining a light on Tokyo’s under-documented house scene.
Meeting Shinichiro Yokota and Soichi Terada for the first time is like reuniting with long-lost friends you never knew you had. The camaraderie between the two is contagious, and it’s easy to see how these long-standing legends of Japan’s underground house scene have been collaborators for nearly three decades. Yokota has an unassuming yet effusive demeanor; someone who, once opened up, will talk for hours from the heart, reflecting his soulfully melodic compositions. Terada is more forthcoming, with a wide smile and a knack for inciting conversation that has helped him win the hearts of house music fans across continents.
When we meet in a bustling southeastern suburb of Tokyo and head to a relaxed cafe for curry, I learn that this is the first time both of them have sat down together to discuss their musical history. Several anecdotes during the conversation are met with surprise and bemusement by the near life-long friends, which adds to the already genial atmosphere they exude between them.
Terada launched Far East Recording in 1988, where he began developing a strand of Japanese house that up until recently was only championed within select circles. The sounds of the label – an outlet for Terada and Yokota’s own productions, largely – have a glossy sheen; light-hearted and fun but distinctly soulful, expertly produced and absolutely incendiary on the right kind of dancefloor. There’s a nuanced swing to the productions, as heard to full effect on Terada’s burning ‘Saturday Love Sunday’, for example.
Far East Recording evolved into a beacon of essential Japanese house music in the ‘90s, but it wasn’t until Rush Hour DJ and producer Hunee got in touch a few years ago with the idea of putting out a compilation that the world at large was finally exposed to the Far East catalog. The response to 2015’s Sounds from the Far East was a worldwide awakening to the label’s aesthetic, bringing Terada and Yokota droves of new converts from various corners of electronic music. Suddenly they were both being asked to perform the music they’d made some two decades ago.
“We tried hard to make music close to the U.S. or European house sound, but we couldn’t do it”Soichi Terada
Their music wasn’t exactly intended to sound so singular when they started out. “In those days we tried hard to make music close to the US or European house sound, but we couldn’t do it,” say Terada. “But an accent may [have helped make our music] sound like something fresh – an Asian accent sound.” That accent isn’t as obvious as a koto synthesizer patch or taiko drum sample, however. Instead, tracks like Yokota’s ‘Do It Again’ evoke images of a night drive through neon-lit Shinjuku, with its glistening synth flourishes and neatly-tucked percussion; the tinny clang of Terada’s ‘Hohai Beats’ feels custom-built for the sweaty, smoke-filled basement clubs of Shibuya.
As a student at Chidori Elementary School in south Tokyo during the early ‘80s, Yokota credits hearing Yellow Magic Orchestra as a formative musical moment. “There were many fake Japanese Beatles bands that I was listening to, then YMO came out with cool synthesizers,” he remembers. “They were the first group that really impressed me musically – there wasn’t anything else like it before. They had the strongest influence on my musical taste.”
Soon after his synthesizer revelation, Yokota quit playing baseball and started taking classical piano lessons across the street from his house. He studied for two years before using his otoshidama, money that Japanese children receive as a New Year’s gift, to buy his first synthesizer in Akihabara, the Tokyo district famous for its electronics stores. “The first keyboard I bought was a Casio MT-40, which was polyphonic but I just couldn’t make it sound like a synthesizer,” Yokota recalls. “A lot of reggae producers were using it and it had a wide vintage feel to it. It was the only keyboard I could afford with the money I had at the time. After a year or two I was able to get a Korg Poly-800 and later a cassette recorder.”
Although originally from Tokyo, Terada grew up in the adjacent suburbs of Kanagawa and Chiba prefectures. As a child he enjoyed activities like football and swimming, but he also harnessed his creativity through his father’s electric organ, a fixture of his childhood home. He echoes Yokota’s claim about the importance of Yellow Magic Orchestra, but his own impressions of the ‘80s electronic revolution were especially furthered by his love of Tomita Isao’s Planets, a synthesized reimagining of composer Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite which made heavy use of Moog equipment and a Roland System 700 modular system.
“A lot of the music we made wouldn’t have been possible [without] what happened with Japan’s bubble economy”Shinichiro Yokota
As the decade progressed, hip-hop started seeping into their music collections and eventually helped bring the pair together. “After YMO broke up in 1984, hip-hop from America took over,” says Yokota. “I saw [classic 1983 hip-hop movie] Wild Style and stopped doing synthesizer music to focus more on turntablism. Japanese radio was really pushing hip-hop and my friends were into all of it – rapping, breaking, DJing, all aspects of the culture.” Both Yokota and Terada took part in the DJ battles that swept Tokyo as hip-hop entered its golden age; Yokota scratched over raw TR-606 drum tracks as MCs rapped over the beat, while Terada did live performances with an Akai S-900 sampler and computer. “I preferred using a sampler and computer than focusing on DJing with records,” adds Terada. “I was going to DJ competitions to perform and a mutual friend introduced me to Yokota and we got to know each other.”
Terada’s subsequent exposure to house music came through his friend and local promoter Connie E, who was running a weekly house party above a Chinese restaurant in Tokyo in 1988. After hearing the latest records from the US, Terada would try to distil what he was hearing into his own early productions. “I had no idea who was making these songs, but in those days I [was paying back a loan] to buy my sampler and computer so I couldn’t buy many records. I’d listen to what the DJs were playing and when I got an idea to make a song I would suddenly leave the party and go back to my house to start programming. And later on I’d play what I made to Yokota and other friends.”
Up and running in their respective home studios, Terada and Yokota began navigating the world of music production together. “We’d exchange floppy disks with sound files and sessions that we made,” says Terada. “In those days there was no internet so I remember making phone calls to listen to each others’ music or meeting up to share what we made.” While Terada paints a picture of an even exchange, Yokota adds playfully: “I was watching what Terada was doing and went home by motorbike to try it out before I forgot. I stole his techniques!”
“I was addicted to drum and bass”Soichi Terada
From 1986 to 1991, Japan was in a “bubble era” thanks to the inflation of the stock market and real estate prices. Much of the country enjoyed the lifestyle spoils of a prosperous economy, and the entertainment industry in particular was booming. Yokota thinks its eventual collapse in 1992 was a blessing in disguise. “After the bubble era, the price of equipment went down and we were able to get expensive gear that we couldn’t before,” he says. “Even the unusable equipment that came out was available in large quantities. These days we search for vintage equipment, but back then we never thought about buying old stuff. A lot of the music we made wouldn’t have been possible [without] what happened with the bubble economy and inexpensive digital technology.”
Though there were were other Tokyo producers in Yokota and Terada’s circle, such as Hiroshi Matsui, Manabu Nagayama and Takashi Sekiguchi, Far East Recording operated much as it does now, as a distinct and singular entity. During the ‘90s, even with a busy release schedule, live performances and DJ gigs were rare, with Terada preferring to hone his craft in the studio rather than go record-digging for DJ sets. “We just had one party that we did ourselves when released the first Far East Recording album,” he remembers. “Yokota did a DJ set as well as a live performance, and I also performed live. I sometimes played in clubs with my sampler and computer – but it was hard to get the same sound as in the studio, so there were very few opportunities.”
In the mid-90s, a massive influx of drum and bass caused house music to fall by the wayside in Tokyo. Terada was was enamored by the excitement and sub-bass pressure of jungle. “I was addicted to drum and bass [from] 1995,” he says. “It was so fun to experience the sub-bass sound in a club. I loved to go the drum and bass parties much more than the house events – in the late ‘90s I had a drum and bass disease, personally.” He went on to produce what he calls “sumo jungle”; sampling sumo fights from TV and utilizing the huffs, smacks, gongs and chants into his own strain of drum and bass, as heard on 1996’s Sumo Jungle LP.
“It’s important to keep a homegrown element in house music to keep it authentic”Shinichiro Yokota
While Terada has been producing and releasing music since 1988 without pause, the cusp of the millennium found Yokota in a less invigorated state. He puts his subsequent absence from music down to the technological advances in home recording; paradoxically, the more options he had, the less creativity he could muster. “In the past, sampling time was limited so you had to be really creative when you had an idea. But with hard disk recording the possibilities were endless, and around 2000 I lost my motivation to make music.” During his musical downtime, he focused his energy into another of his passions, Night-Pager – a custom car parts company he had launched 1992.
Terada kept busy through to the mid-00s by taking on soundtrack work, composing music for video games such as the Ape Escape series, commercial jingles for the Japanese convenience store Circle K Sunkus, and TV themes for projects including Cartoon Network’s Samurai Jack. When he got the email from Hunee in the summer of 2014, the two-decade-old Far East Recording was ready to be introduced to a new generation. As Terada recalls, their exchange was simple: Hunee proposed to reissue the Far East Recording back catalog via Rush Hour’s international distribution, with Hunee selecting tracks for the Sounds from the Far East compilation. The rest is history.
Thinking about the strangely future-proofed sound of “ancient” Far East Recording tracks, as they refer to them, Terada and Yokota are intrigued by their newfound global recognition. “I found it curious in a good way,” Yokota says. “Terada and I spoke about it before and we don’t really know why [the reissued material] struck such a nerve. I was surprised and overwhelmed at all the support from around the world after the reissue release.”
“House is a simple language: drum, bass, chords and some effects could be OK for a track”Shinichiro Yokota
“At first I was just surprised,” adds Terada. “And then I felt so happy to play those songs that I couldn’t play much 25 years ago. [It] makes me a joyful old man.” Yokota concurs that the reissue has been a blessing. “I am very glad that [our] music has spread and it is an honour to be played in clubs and radio all over the world,” he says. “There have been many requests [to perform again], so my lifestyle has changed drastically.”
Both believe in the age-old mantra that less can be so much more. Yokota’s personal hopes for the future of house music come down to a simple sophistication in songwriting and production. “Technology made it possible for anyone to make music. House is a simple language: drum, bass, chords and some effects could be OK for a track. Adding too much can weigh it down. New software and equipment with unlimited tracks can be too complicated, but I think even with four tracks you can make sophisticated music. Simple but well-produced music I think will become more commonplace. I’m excited for music that sounds simple but make me wonder, ‘How did they do that?’ like Lil’ Louis’ music. House will be sophisticated like a three-piece jazz trio, not like big band music.”
Yokota’s latest release, Do It Again and Again, comprises unreleased tracks from the ‘90s as well as newly recorded material, with the liner notes declaring that the music is inspired by his “synthesizers, cars and ways to survive in South Tokyo.” Meanwhile, Terada is currently working on new solo material to be released by Rush Hour and he also has a separate house project to be unveiled later this year. He’s optimistic about future innovation in house music as producers become more mindful of their own surroundings and influences when contributing to the global dialogue of such a deep-rooted culture. “Making music with the least amount of elements is really interesting. To express something with a limited vocabulary is interesting. [Going forward] it would be nice to hear those different cultures’ domestic elements in the music,” he confirms. “It’s important to keep a homegrown element in house music to keep it authentic and push things forward.”
Listen to Shinichiro Yokota’s FACT mix.