The center of Tokyo’s youth movement, Shibuya has served as the unofficial dance music capital of Japan for years, with record stores, nightclubs and vibrant fashion. Mike Sunda investigates the borough’s history in a short documentary.
Home to the world’s two busiest train stations, Shibuya, a bustling commercial borough in Tokyo, is where young Japanese music fans connect with the city’s nightlife. Shibuya has long been a center for fashion and art and in the 1990s became the go-to place for interested listeners to hear the burgeoning dance sounds emerging from the US and Europe. “Shibuya was the place you would buy vinyl,” says M-Flo’s Taku Takahashi. “It became a cultural melting pot.”
Jounralist and producer Mike Sunda has put together a short documentary highlighting Shibuya’s importance, from the early ’90s, through the opening of superclub Womb in 2000 and to 2018, where young artists such as DJ and producer Mars89 are looking to break into the wider Tokyo scene and beyond. The film is part of a series of short documentaries called Tokyo 20XX that highlights the city’s diversity and the artists responsible for its importance.
Watch the film below and read an exclusive interview with Mars89.
What’s exciting about the Tokyo scene in 2017?
Unfortunately, I can’t really say that much of the current scene is that interesting, but it will be soon. It feels like it’s the calm before the storm at the moment.
How has it changed over the last few years?
There’s three big scenes: one inspired by UK soundsystem culture, one inspired by internet-style ‘future sounds’ and one focused around US hip-hop. Until a few years ago they weren’t each properly established, so it was all a jumble of sounds. Now there’s clear separation between the scenes and it’s lost the chaos that there was before and also, with that, the potential for interesting things to occur almost unintentionally.
Because these big scenes are now established, it also feels like there’s a clearer silhouette emerging around an alternative layer that doesn’t belong to any of them.
Looking to the future, how do you think it is changing right now and what might the future hold?
Because of these big scenes, if the level of saturation continues, there’s bound to be the emergence of a new, interesting style that will break them down. I think that’s going to happen soon.
What’s Tokyo’s attitude to drugs around the club scene?
With the Tokyo scene up to now, people have mostly been ignorant about drugs and everything from soft to hard drugs has been considered taboo in the same way. People will get wasted on alcohol and smoke cigarettes and yet they’ll still say that weed is outrageous. When society has that attitude, even in the club scene it’s hard to have an open-minded discussion around drugs.
Would you say the Tokyo club scene is safe for women and non-binary clubgoers – or are there at least initiatives to make club spaces safer, as there have been in Europe and the US?
I don’t think you can say it’s completely safe. Clubs and musicians with conviction around rights for women, the LGBTQ community and so on, are working to make it safe for them. I think in many ways clubs have taken individual steps to ensure they’re accommodating for minority groups and that’s great, because there’s no fun to be had in an environment where everyone’s completely the same, and I personally also want to ensure that I do my part to make sure all sorts of people can enjoy the scene.
What do people expect and hope for from clubs and live venues?
This isn’t unique to Tokyo, but when I went to clubs before I started DJing or producing music myself, I wanted to hear tracks I’d never heard before and meet interesting people. And also to be in a physical context that itself is a space that you can’t experience elsewhere – pitch black with smoke and the flashes of strobes. That’s something I still want from clubs even now, and I believe that other people are the same way.
How does this differ from places like London or Bristol?
I think there are similarities, but you’d be surprised in Japan how many people just want to hear and react to tracks that they already know. When they don’t know the tune, it’s like they almost don’t know how to react. If that attitude goes too far then they might as well just go to karaoke instead.
Is there a big difference playing to crowds in the UK and crowds in Japan?
When I DJ, I always want to play tracks that people don’t know and surprise them and elicit a reaction that way. When I DJed in Bristol, even without playing any well-known tracks, people still reacted really positively to the set. With Japanese people that approach can be tough sometimes, but if you’re a skilled DJ then you’ll find ways to manage either way.
Your music blends a variety of different sounds – from gqom and Jersey club to hip-hop and ballroom – is this diversity common in the Tokyo scene?
No it’s not the norm at all! But luckily there are lots of DJs around me who’ll play a wide variety of styles, and I get inspiration from their approach. In Japan there’s no native ‘club’ styles like reggae or afrobeat, cumbia or baile-funk that are rooted in local culture – traditional Japanese music is harder to bring to the streets.
The UK scene has taken in sounds from countries all around and, through trial and error, created some of the best club music in the world out of that. I try to do similar, but I try to add in a certain level of disorientation that is somewhat typically ‘Asian’, and maybe one day that’s going to become the sound of Tokyo.
Who are the Japanese underground artists we should be looking out for at the moment?
They’re senior to me, so it’s a bit odd to call them out in this way, but the likes of Foodman, Fulltono and Kuknacke. In terms of my own generation, I think that CVN, CEMETERY, and Suburban Musïk who have released tunes on CNDMM have a real sharpness and energy to their music, and they’re great.
I also think Albino Sound, who is influenced by the Bristol sound, has a very powerful live performance, and I think it would be great if he could do a show in Bristol. There’s loads of other really unique and talented DJs and musicians, so I’d love for people abroad to come to Japan and check them out in person.