Listening to a guest DJ set on weekly radio show Beats in Space a few years ago, a strange deep house track emerged in the mix and caught my attention. It had the incessant kick of any number of great house tracks, but unusual idiosyncratic elements began to swirl about it: a skronking saxophone and some deep menacing laughter. When I finally found the culprit (and paid the Yen rate for the record), it was a mysterious Japanese producer known only as Mick and the track had the ludicrous title of “Macho Brother.” He only had two credits to his name, the last one coming 10 years prior.
In the early aughts, certain Japanese acts emerged in the US: Nobukazu Takemura released a run of glitchy yet whimsical albums on Thrill Jockey while Boredoms’ frontman Yamatsuka Eye began releasing tribal, ritualistic absolutely bonkers remixes of both his own band as well as DFA act Black Dice.
It suggested that a mutant strain of underground dance music was being concocted in Japan, far from the centers in Europe and the United States, but it was near impossible to learn more about Japan’s dance music heritage, much less keep up with what’s happening at present in the island country.
This month, two peculiar new dance singles see release on the New York-based Beats in Space label (an offshoot of the radio show) from Japanese producers Gonno and Crystal. Sunao Gonno has been releasing singles for a minute now on labels like London’s Perc Trax and Shingo Suwa’s Berlin-based Merkur Schallplatten imprint, but his three-track EP The Noughties marks his first single readily available in the states. The well-titled “Salmon Is Jamming” builds from a heartbeat into a roaring dub techno track while “Notoize” is all gorgeous beatless ambiance, its analog synth washes as obtrusive as a sleeping baby’s breathing.
Even quirkier is Crystal’s entry. One half of Traks Boys, Crystal has released a handful of singles on the Crue-L label, which might be the best known Japanese imprint, with the likes of DJ Harvey, Theo Parrish and Prins Thomas all contributing epic remixes over the years. Crystal’s new single takes a jazzy keyboard loop on “From Red to Violet” and makes it ecstatic. On the flip, “Break the Dawn” minces up a female wail and sprinkles it atop a peak-hour disco stomper
Intriguing as these new singles are, we asked house music producer Alex From Tokyo for a quick history lesson on Japan’s dance history. To which he responded:
“During the economic boom of the ’70s and ’80s in Japan, entertainment and nightlife industries exploded, and the Japanese were dancing crazy in discos and in trendy clubs to the latest hits and cutting edge sounds from the US and the UK,” he wrote. “The disco craze hit Japan like any other ‘Western’ countries. The Japanese had access to everything coming from abroad, and with their high level of sophistication, education and good sense and style, they studied and digested everything, embracing it all. They were very receptive to all the different music coming from the West. The scene in Japan remains deep, as it is not about the BPM dictatorship or the same grooves like in lots of places in the West. DJing in Japan is a pure experience, and the crowd is educated, patient and listen. There is real respect for the music there.”