Cubist on the turntables

DJ Klock creates new sensation of sound

by Ken Kawashima

A cacophony of electronic bleeps and disjointed drum rolls kick off the second and latest CD “Sensation” by Ryo Kato, aka DJ Klock. What follows is a series of drill-like drum riffs that start, stop then start again several times before settling into a jerky hip-hop-like beat. Later, this transient groove morphs into a swirling drum ‘n’ bass pattern, before resuming its initial form.

The song, titled “Think Twice About This World,” is in many ways the perfect example of how the elements of surprise and juxtaposed ideas characterize much of the 30-year-old DJ and producer’s work. For Kato, who made his debut on the burgeoning Tokyo club scene in 2000, music is often a medium he uses to challenge conventional notions of life.

“I think the people are ready to see the world from a fresher perspective,” says Kato before a recent club gig in Shibuya. “We live in a society where corporations, the media and government do most of the thinking for us — as a result, our childlike sensations are being depleted.”

The DJ puts his music where his mouth is. While his style is often loosely labeled “club music” or “abstract hip-hop,” none of the songs on “Sensation,” released on the independent Revirth label, is a dance tune or conforms to any clear genre. Instead, his songs — composed on a desktop Mac and Pro Tools software — have a playful quality, like a stream of spontaneous sonic sketches pieced together, rather than a group of musical ideas restructured into a familiar pop format.

It’s a process he likens to painting. “When I create a song, I am essentially looking at a blank computer screen with a bunch of grids signifying a given amount of time,” he says. “The rest is about how you fill that time with specific sounds and allocate each sound between the left and right speakers to create a space.”

Somehow, listening to “Sensation” is not unlike gazing at the deconstructed body parts of a Cubist-era Picasso portrait. On the song “Turntable Session with DJ Kamikaz,” for example — created by Kato and Hirokazu Tanaka (DJ Kamikaz) — the end product sounds more like a wild sound-byte collage of piano, drum and human voice fragments than a well-rehearsed scratch session.

“His music was a revelation for me,” says Tanaka, 26, who contributed to two of the album’s tracks. “It demonstrates so many possibilities for sound that are usually left unexplored.”

Ever since he collaborated with Japan’s abstract hip-hop guru DJ Krush on a Nike ad in 2001, Kato has been in equally hot demand. Last year, he performed at most of the nation’s major music festivals, including Fuji Rock, Metamorphose and True People’s Celebration. This spring, he embarked on his first U.S. tour, which culminated in an appearance at the New Orleans Jazz Festival, where he shared a bill with the American rap group Jurassic 5.

Kato’s live DJ sets are equally freestyle. Mixing a concoction of dark, minimal down-beats with a flurry of scratches and heavy delay, he provides the perfect sonic backdrop for the music to soar into faster, beat-driven music, like techno and drum ‘n’ bass. Sometimes, he’ll even create the beat himself, using delay to endlessly loop the sound of his fingers tapping on the record needle or turntable.

For the average club-goer, this is about as eclectic as the music gets. But while Kato does admit that a certain element of crowd-pleasing comes into play, he stresses his musical goals are focused mostly on himself. “I’m only trying to project what I think is beautiful or cool,” he says. “I’m really not into conventional music.”