Sincerity is the new ecstasy in Funkot’s ‘Summer of Love’

by David Kracker

Special To The Japan Times

At the end of the 1980s, British DJs imported a potent new style of house music from the Spanish party island Ibiza in what came to be known as the ecstasy-fueled “Second Summer of Love.” Inspired by this trade route two decades later, Katsumi Takano, aka Mandokoro or DJ Jet Baron, hopes to launch a “Third Summer of Love” with an aggressive brand of dance music smuggled in from Indonesia.

Funky Kota, known better by its street name Funkot, is a manic style of over-clocked techno (similar to the genre of happy hardcore) with anything from traditional Indonesian music to party-rap samples scattered throughout. The bass jackhammers at up to 200 beats per minute, which gets people on the dancefloor either flailing in fast forward to match the tempo or swimming in slow motion on the down beat. There’s no way to look good, no hope at seeming cool. “And that’s the point,” Takano cuts in.

Born in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, the stout proprietor and resident DJ of Shibuya’s Acid Panda Cafe might be intimidating if it weren’t for the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” cap on his head. His jacket is festooned with patches. I point to one of a great white on his shoulder smiling from behind a pair of shades. “Sharks are totally awesome,” he says with the utmost sincerity. I can only agree.

Everything about the 36-year-old Takano reminds me of my own childhood at a time just before puberty hit, when I’d yet to realize the line between “cool” and “lame.” It’s his sincere appreciation for this over-the-top world — not acid or MDMA — that’s fueling his so-called Third Summer of Love.

“I got into Funkot half-jokingly back in 2009 when I discovered it in the world music bin,” Takano recalls. I mention that this would mean he’s been working on a Third Summer of Love for a few years then, to which he replies, “It’s always summer in Indonesia.”

On first listen, it’s hard to approach Funkot with a straight face. The beat drops, inviting an totally unrelated song into the mix for several bars, then the track is thrown sky-high by an exuberant vocal sample before segueing back to the main track. Shouts of “Hey DJ!” hold the musical chimera together. The more time Takano spent with the music, the more he began to take it seriously despite himself.

“Every generation gets a handful of songs that are objectively awful: ‘Scatman,’ ‘Blue (Da Ba Dee),’ ‘Gangnam Style.’ Your brain rejects them on principle. But you can’t deny that, in your heart of hearts, they get you pumped up.”

Takano soon realized that the world of Funkot was a mystery that didn’t want to be solved. Internet searches provided a few rough VHS transfers of music clips, but no concrete leads to their origins. He realized that if he wanted to learn about the genre properly, he would need to use pre-Google methods and take his search analog — the quest took him first to Bali, and then to Jakarta to scour for records firsthand.

In Bali, Takano spent two weeks at the local Top Ten DJ School and was even put up by local DJs MCT and Ketut.

In Jakarta, however, he says a closely guarded underground scene met him with crossed arms: “DJ equipment is prohibitively expensive in a developing country like Indonesia. Turntabling is not a hobby like in Japan — it’s your livelihood. Releasing a single can be like stealing your own lunch money, but there’s cash in club attendance. If these cuts were available on Internet labels, then the Funkot economy would collapse.”

Still, consumer-grade tracks are available if you know who to ask and Takano eventually met those people in the Funkot community. Indonesian club culture operates in a way similar to Japan’s sempai-kōhai (senior-junior) dichotomy, where an aspiring DJ interns under an established artist before receiving the keys to the turntables. Likewise, Takano paid his dues by interning and hanging out in the right places before purchasing samples from his new inner circle — with their blessing — to take Funkot abroad.

“Funkot was born in the district of Glodok, the ghetto of Jakarta,” he explains. “Imagine the electronics of Akihabara alongside the casual violence of Kabukicho, amplified a hundred times with all the clubbers on ecstasy. It’s the place your traveler’s insurance won’t cover.”

Takano says that when he realized that the music is a matter of financial survival for its creators, it became impossible to see it as some ironic joke.

The idea of a “Blade Runner”-esque techno-slum overflowing with party drugs is far removed from what is happening at Acid Panda Cafe, which sits atop Shibuya Ward’s regulated red-light district in Dogenzaka. The club is psychotropic-free despite the name and Takano’s business card reads “Honorary Manager” because, “Club owners are criminals (laughs).”

It’s true, in a way. Even if his establishment had a license, dancing after midnight can be punished under the fūzoku eigyō-tō no kisei oyobi gyōmu no tekiseika-tō ni kansuru hōritsu, a 1948 law that contains antidancing provisions. Contrary to most DJs, Takano says he isn’t about to get involved with the popular movement bent on revising the law.

“Say they legalize dancing,” he argues. “That won’t help the small venues that can’t qualify for a club license in the first place. If anything, it would bring them under tighter scrutiny.” He cites floor space and building codes as a major obstacle in obtaining certification.

“Most clubs are like mine — glorified shoeboxes. Other owners agree that revising the law could put us out of business, so we’re keeping our mouths shut.”

Staying underground may be good for the locals involved, but it’s not as good for international exchange.

“Indonesian artists dig the Japanese take on Funkot and are reverse-importing J-pop speed remixes,” Takano says. “Cyber DJ Team, Indonesia’s leading crew, would perform here for free — if we guaranteed a 1,000-strong crowd.” That’s easy enough in Bali’s gymnasium-sized clubs, but impossible in all but Japan’s top venues — the ones targeted by the antidancing law. It’s a Catch-22 for the burgeoning format.

Issues of capacity aside, the cramped quarters are hardly a buzzkill. Takano describes an Acid Panda Cafe party as, “A summer festival piped through subwoofers. The sound just feels good.” The reckless abandon of the audience is not unlike fans at an idol show, or kids on a playground.

It’s fitting that Masaru Ezaki, producer of the idol trio Hyper Yoyo, contacted Takano to Funkot-ify the group’s exuberant songs.

“Funkot initially comes off as comical, but it also has a certain gravity that swallows up other forms of music,” says Ezaki, who views it as a format rather than a genre. “It oozes energy.”

Perhaps it’s this energy that converts the haters. Last November, Takano mixed a single for electro-pop idol 9nine much to its fanbase’s chagrin. The audience launched a wave of scathing YouTube comments, but eventually the negative attacks became positive and listeners reportedly found themselves humming the song after repeated listening.

For the crowd of around 30, packed shoulder-to-shoulder in Acid Panda Cafe, the scene is no longer a joke. Irony and posturing have given way to sincerity and respect.

“There was a time in my life when I would tell girls I was into minimalist techno because I thought it would get me laid,” says Takano in a moment of honesty. “Now I’m comfortable enough to accept all music that moves me, even if it’s goofy.”

DJ Jet Baron’s album, “Hyper Funkot Mega Speed Dance Traxx,” is in stores now. Funkot-themed event Dugem Rising takes place monthly at Acid Panda Cafe in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo. The next one is on July 20 (11 p.m. start; ¥2,000 with two drinks; 03-6416-9825). For more information, visit www.acidpanda.com.