Producer Yosi Horikawa goes all natural on ‘Vapor’

by James Hadfield

Special To The Japan Times

Yosi Horikawa’s beats burble, hiss, slosh and gurgle. On his debut full-length, “Vapor,” the 34-year-old producer may wield some identifiably hip-hop rhythms, but they’re tangled in a rich, intricately detailed tapestry of field recordings, sampled percussion, snatches of tribal chants and warm, guileless synthesizers. It’s the best thing you’ll hear all year that also bears a passing resemblance to naff ethnic chill-out act Deep Forest.

“My stuff gets mistaken for healing music quite a lot,” Horikawa admits. “I like nature, sure, but I’m not just looking to express something simple like, ‘Let’s give thanks to Mother Earth!’ ” He mulls the idea for a while. “When you listen to something, the surrounding environment has a big effect on you: the time of day, the landscape, the angle of the sun. … It’s not just about the sound: I want to capture the environment around the sound in my work.”

Though he only considered music a hobby until recently, Horikawa has been tinkering with sound since his parents bought him a boombox at the age of 12. A keen hip-hop fan (“mostly East Coast, underground stuff,” he says), the sight of rapper KRS-One using a pair of headphones in lieu of a microphone on the cover of 1993 album “Return of the Boom Bap” inspired him to try the same thing himself. Before you could say “Pete Rock,” he was making recordings of improvised percussion, using a can for a snare drum and the underside of his bed for the kick.

“I didn’t get into crate digging,” he says, referring to the hip-hop tradition of scouring record shops in search of obscure vinyl that can be sampled. “There were DJs around me who’d be searching for interesting records, but I thought it was more interesting to buy equipment and make sounds with that instead.”

Two decades on, he doesn’t seem to have lost any of his enthusiasm, though his tools have grown considerably more precise. Some of the productions on “Vapor” contain more than 100 different layers of audio and effects, which Horikawa patiently builds up and strips away until he’s achieved the desired result — or been led somewhere more interesting by the material itself. One piece, “Cave,” was originally intended to be a stomping, drum-heavy number, until he noticed that the Tibetan bell sound he’d been working with felt like it was being played in … well, you can probably guess from the title. Digging out a recording that he’d made in a real-life cave, he blended the sounds together and realized they were better than what he’d originally had in mind.

“I use a lot of real sounds,” he says, “and those sounds kind of tell their own stories.” It isn’t just Tibetan bells and cavernous reverb on “Vapor,” either: at various points in the album, you might catch snatches of frog song, dripping water, bicycle bells or a pencil scribbling on paper. Synthesizers aside, Horikawa recorded almost all of the audio himself, often delving into the “library” of percussion instruments that he’s bought online. When he plays live, he supplements the music emanating from his laptop with a kalimba that he also made himself (his old one was generating too much feedback).

Horikawa’s unusual approach worked in his favor when he applied for the 2011 Red Bull Music Academy (RBMA), a series of invitation-only workshops and lectures that aim to nurture promising musicians and producers. Fellow beat maker Daisuke Tanabe, an alumnus of the Academy himself, had urged him to get his application in on time: “He told me that they liked music that was a bit weird, so I should stand a good chance.”

When he was accepted, Horikawa found himself inducted into an informal network that’s still serving him well now. He would go on to play at Barcelona’s Sonar festival last year as part of a lineup assembled by RBMA, while another Academy “graduate”, British producer Kidkanevil, introduced him to his current label, First Word Records. “When one of your friends is working with a label already, you know they can’t screw you over,” he says.

Looking back, he sees that Sonar gig as his most important to date — and not just for the obvious bragging rights. “Japanese audiences don’t really get down to the music,” he says. “I’d be playing and thinking, ‘Am I boring them?’ Sonar was the first time people went really nuts. That’s when I knew I was doing something right.”

Yosi Horikawa’s “Vapor” is available at yosihorikawa.bandcamp.com/album/vapor. Horikawa will play the “Vapor” release party at Seco Bar in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, on June 30 (3 p.m.; ¥3,000 in advance). For details, visit www.secobar.jp.