Japan’s dubstep forges own path

Goth-trad, 100mado build scene from scratch

by Blair Mcbride

Young people dressed in baggy jeans and hooded sweaters groove to chunky rhythms in a dark, smoky club. The music is spun by the night’s DJ, Goth-trad. It may look like any other club, but the style is unique to Japan.

Goth-trad is spinning dubstep, a genre imported from England by Japanese DJs around four years ago. Since then, they have built the local dubstep scene from scratch and reworked the genre to their own liking, a move considered rare in the country’s dance-music world.

Created in London seven years ago, dubstep is defined by 2-step beats and deep, rumbling bass lines. A common misconception is that dubstep is a form of drum-and-bass, a much faster form of dance that evolved from breakbeat records. While dubstep has taken a little from drum-and-bass, the sound has absorbed an array of other genres such as dub, U.K. garage and minimal techno.

Dubstep in Japan has a smaller range than in Britain. Producers here churn out darker, more aggressive tracks that emphasize the beats over the bass.

Goth-trad, one of the original Japanese dubstep DJs, promotes the ground- breaking Back To Chill (BTC) parties at Club Asia in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. BTC began three years ago, and is now the hub for dubstep, hosting the most active DJs and producers in Japan and from overseas. Last year, Goth-trad opened a new BTC night at Club Triangle in Osaka and he also broadcasts a radio program from the BTC Web site. Goth-trad — short for “Gothic traditional” — takes his name from the European movement.

“It has very dark images,” he says. “I often write downtempo hip-hop and dark dance music.”

Goth-trad produced, released and performed experimental music for 10 years before venturing into dubstep in 2006. Since then, he has released five 12-inch records on several U.K. labels and has toured abroad. But his baby is BTC.

“I do the parties not only for dubstep — it’s for Japanese underground music,” Goth-trad says. “In the U.K. a lot of DJs hook up young guys and I saw that there are good relations between music and people. In Japan, I think producers in the underground scene don’t want to talk about producing because they worry about guys stealing their ideas. But in the U.K. people talk about it. . . It’s a very beautiful style. We don’t have that yet in Japan, but it’s starting (to happen) around BTC.”

Dubstep became recognized as a distinct genre by dance-music fans around 2003. It was pioneered in South London by such DJ/producers as Benga, Skream and DJ Hatcha. Since then, it has spread around the world and been taken into other genres such as minimal techno, where Chilean-German DJ/producer Ricardo Villalobos remixed the dubstep work of Shackleton. More recently, the genre has widened its fan base with a string of remixes for major acts such as Dizzee Rascal and La Roux.

Culture defines many of the differences between the London and Tokyo scenes. Non-Japanese clubbers sometimes decry an apparent lack of energy in Japanese fans. As Goth-trad explains, “When I started the BTC parties people didn’t really move. They were too slow. But now it’s getting better. I think that Japanese people don’t listen to bass very much; they listen to the beat mainly. Maybe it’s Japanese culture — maybe because of taiko drumming. Japanese venues have good sound systems, but are not very good for bass.”

Physical formats of music — a touchy topic in U.K. dubstep — also set Japan apart. Tokyo is different from London where DJs in the original dubstep scene shunned CDs and MP3s for vinyl records. Also, the dub plate culture of the British reggae and dub scenes didn’t really develop in Japan [see sidebar]. The vinyl vs. digital debate in electronic music therefore tends to settle toward digital in Tokyo. And as Goth-trad laments, “I love to play vinyl and when I tour in Europe I cut my tunes onto dub plates, but there are no good dub plate studios in Japan.”

DJ100mado (DJ Hyaku Mado) is another BTC resident who appeared in the Tokyo scene around the same time as Goth-trad. His name is Japanese for “100 windows,” which he links to the nature of dubstep.

“There used to be buildings with 100 windows, and they were also in the old anime show ‘Ultra Seven,’ ” 100mado says. “Those buildings appeared in those shows for secret things, and they were really rare. That’s similar to dubstep. There was no information about this music at all, so it was mysterious and secretive, but it was still functioning.”

Even though he appreciates the exclusiveness of dubstep, 100mado points to event promotion difficulties in Tokyo that keep the scene from blowing up.

“The scene is getting bigger,” he says. “But some people think that dubstep is so underground they’re turned off of it. Some think that to have a good party you shouldn’t be too underground and far out — you don’t want to only attract maniacs. You have to think about making money, too.”

Most Tokyo dubstep events offer discounts for women, but thus far that “maniac” impression remains. Michael Condon, a Tokyo-based music-video director who attends BTC parties, notes, “You are basically looking at your 20- to 40-year-old male music geek crowd. This is not a party scene, this is a scene for guys who are deeply into this kind of thing and go to listen to the music.”

Another BTC resident is the soft-spoken DJ and producer Ena. He also runs drum-and-bass/dubstep label IAI Recordings.

Ena stresses how sound systems make a difference in how Japanese clubbers receive the music.

“Wobble style is popular here although I usually like to play hard — jungly, aggressive, wild,” he says. “Many Japanese can’t understand these styles. Most of the sound systems of Japanese clubs are cheap. The bass isn’t heavy. But with most English clubs the bass is very heavy. Or maybe it’s because of Japanese peoples’ ears. They aren’t used to the sound. Club Asia is different — it has the best big-bass sound.”

One of the few regular non-Japanese DJs at BTC, and fast becoming a central figure in Tokyo dubstep, is French DJ and producer Greg G. Now based in Tokyo, Greg owns dubstep label 7even Recordings.

Does Greg bring a French-style of dubstep to Tokyo? “Dubstep was British in the beginning, but I don’t think we can say there is an American style or a French style. I don’t think we have the maturity of the British way yet.”

Despite Tokyo’s distance from London, Greg can see surprising distinctions.

“Maybe there is more of a Japanese style of dubstep than French,” he says. “The dark style is working well here, and there is a lot of experimentation. They blend all the styles too. I can see more of an identity of the sound here from Japanese producers.”

Greg also notes the scene’s connection between performing and producing: “The most impressive thing is that there are a lot of producers here. And a lot of producers play live as well, which is quite rare in the dubstep scene. They do it in more extreme ways here, too. They know why they come to the event, especially BTC it’s a very underground night — they come because they want to listen to dubstep music.”

As more DJs from Japan and overseas play at dubstep parties each month, the future for the scene appears increasingly solid. Goth-trad highlights the value of the parties: “Some dubstep labels in Japan do releases only, no parties. After releasing (a track) it’s very important to make chances for playing. Maybe they’ll lose money, but it’s an important thing. . . . The DJs are developing, too. Their style and productions are getting big. People really like this music.”

Back To Chill will take place April 1 at Club Asia in Tokyo. The event will take place April 7 at Club Triangle in Osaka. For more information on Japan’s dubstep artists, and Goth-trad’s radio show, visit backtochill.com

Vinyl vs. digital: where DJs stand

Earlier in the decade, DJs in all music scenes began increasingly to incorporate CD turntables and MP3-mixing technologies such as Serato Scratch into their sets. Many DJs now use CDs or MP3s exclusively. The original South London dubstep scene was obsessed with bass and most dubstep tunes were DJed only with vinyl or dubplates — music pressed onto acetate records that are cheaper to produce than vinyl. The “wobble” sound of undulating, melodic bass sounds proved particularly powerful when played on vinyl. As the dubstep subculture matured, more DJs added digital devices to their repertoire. Supporters of digital technologies say digital forms are more portable, affordable, user- and environmentally-friendly and expand the creative possibilities of making sound. Supporters of the physicality of vinyl records argue that playing CDs and MP3s bleeds the “human touch” out of music. They say the expense and inconvenience of carrying records makes it more likely that those using the format will maintain a higher quality.