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Japanese DJs feature – Published in Japanzine, 2007

This piece is the first work I’ve had published in Japan since moving here. It’s based on the work I’ve done and keep doing with various members of the Japanese DJ and tablist scene. Big up to James at Japanzine for giving this some space. Visit spinscience.org.uk for a series of features and interviews with various Japanese DJs and producers mentioned in this piece.

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Ichiban DJs

If you speak about a Japanese DJ culture, and especially a hip hop and turntablist tradition, then the one name that will always crop up is DJ Krush. A godfather to the Japanese hip hop and DJ scene for 20 years, both in and out of the country, the man has become synonymous with the scene for many people outside of Japan. However since the turn of the century a new breed and generation of DJs, turntablists and producers have come out of the shadows and showed that Krush and the other Japanese pioneers planted the seeds for a new revolution that is now in full growth.

Leading the pack of this new generation is Kentaro, the diminutive tablist powerhouse who won the DMC hands up in 2002 and has since built a worldwide reputation as one of the finest and most interesting club DJs of the last few years – finely blending his tablist roots with the kind of selection and appeal that hasn’t been seen since DJ Craze and the Scratch Perverts left DMC and turntable geekery behind for more popular, and better paid shores. On the eve of the release of his first solo album, Kentaro seems to have a bright future ahead if the last 5 years are anything to go by.

While Kentaro has grabbed the world’s attention like Krush did before him, there are other Japanese DJs who may not have achieved such worldwide recognition but who have kept pushing things forward. In the process showing that there is a definite and unique Japanese aesthetic that is all their own and which has grown from what the country’s pioneers did in the 80s and 90s – blending turntablism, DJing and production into one in a way that is rarely seen outside of Japan.

Amongst them is DJ Baku, possibly the most interesting such Japanese artist at the moment. Having shunned the lights of DMC fame for more underground badges of honour like releasing mixtapes, collaborating with MCs and producers and doing live shows, Baku came out of the shadows in 2005 with his Kaikoo DVD, a captivating look at an unseen side of the Tokyo hip hop scene which featured Kentaro, Goth Trad, MSC and many others. The DVD was the catalyst that would eventually lead him to release his debut album, ‘Spinheddz’, in the summer of 06 and prove that he had well and truly mastered the lessons of the past by delivering an album that sounds like nothing and no-one else. ‘Spinheddz’ did incredibly well in Japan, notching up some 5000+ sales and earning Baku the kind of recognition he’d worked for since the late 90s. In 2007 Baku continues to work in the studio and on stage, remixing for international artists, releasing mix CDs and diversifying his output under new monikers as well as getting ready to drop his follow-up album.

Baku is also a member of the Dis-Defence Disc crew, alongside Ske another one of Tokyo’s best kept secrets. Ske has also been working hard since the late 90s, making a name for himself by releasing a string of experimental tapes between 97 and 00 and exercising his production and engineering chops as part of the DDD crew. His tapes showcased his own approach to improvised scratching and are in many ways not too dissimilar to what was being done by the turntablist pioneers on the US west coast in the early and mid 90s. More recently Ske has worked with the Japanese female artist Rumi, both as a tour DJ and producing tracks for her forthcoming second album, and has also become a part of the first Japanese dubstep collective, ‘Back To Chill’, with which he regularly plays out and showcases his own Freaky Step productions.

Elsewhere in Tokyo is a duo who do things with turntables, MPCs, CDJs and assorted musical equipment that have left most of those lucky enough to see them outside of Japan stunned and wanting more. Hifana deliver the kind of live shows which are engraved in your mind for the rest of your life – creating music live on stage by blending improvisation and their own studio productions using all of the above and more. They have released two albums, which have done well in Japan, and more recently have caused quite a stir overseas, after playing at last year’s Sonar festival and following this with a small European tour. Hifana are the kind of act that perfectly encompass this new Japanese aesthetic of DJing, turntablism and production rolled into one – the beats are intricate but as banging as they come, the shows are entertaining musically and visually and their albums show an evolution in the sound which promises good things for the future.

There’s so much more to be said about this new school of Japanese artists, and so many more names to drop and recommend, but we’re running out of space so here’s a comprehensive list of additional artists who all deserve a mention (and more): Ken-One, ex-member of the Core Fighters DMC team, who has produced for Japanese MCs including Kan and who now performs solo and as part of the Exsample DJ band. Yasa and Hi-C aka Kireek, two Japanese turntablists who are still battling today and are regularly touring and releasing CDs and productions both solo and under the name Kireek. DJ Izoh who is possibly one of the world’s finest beat jugglers. Jif Rock, who is currently working on an album and was also part of the Core Fighters DJ team. Tatsuki, a London and Copenhagen based expatriate who is the DJ and sometimes producer for the Danish band Blue Foundation and who is also working on his debut album. Shingo 02, another Japanese expatriate based in California, best known as the inventor of the Vestax Faderboard and a producer and rap activist whose music has received acclaim in Japan but also the US and Europe. Mitsu the Beats, one of the few Japanese DJs and producers with a worldwide reputation having released remixes and productions for labels such Blue Note and who works solo and with his group Hunger.

What these guys all have in common is an approach to turntablism, DJing and production which is born of their own influences and experiences and which often sounds like nothing else you hear outside of Japan.

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