New dance-music label Diskotopia aims to bring Tokyo in step

by Mike Sunda

Glance at the lineups of Tokyo’s larger nightclubs on any given weekend and you’d be forgiven for feeling some deja vu. Mainstays such as Takkyu Ishino, Shinichi Osawa or Dexpistols are likely to be headlining, much as they have been doing for the past several years.

While the European and North American scenes have been furiously competing to nurture the next defining genre or movement in dance music — such as moombahton, a recent reggaeton-cum-house hybrid out of Washington, D.C., or South London’s bass-heavy dubstep scene that recently caught the attention of pop princess Britney Spears — Tokyo has largely been left behind.

Producers Matt Lyne and Brian Durr want to change all that and get Tokyo back on the club-scene map. The two, a Brit and an American, respectively, plan to do this via their new record label, Diskotopia.

Despite both moving to the Kansai region around early 2006 — Lyne to Osaka and Durr to Kyoto — it wasn’t until the end of 2009 that they met for the first time.

“I would head to Osaka every now and then but I didn’t really experience the club scene while I was in Kyoto. I saved up a lot of money, bought my MPC (music production center, a sampler/sequencer machine) and then I would just come home every day and make beats,” says Durr, who DJs and produces under the name BD1982.

Durr may not have been particularly involved in Kansai’s scene, but the same was not true when he moved back to the United States in 2006 and joined the Seclusiasis crew led by Starkey, one of the biggest names in America’s bass-focused music scene.

Lyne, meanwhile, ran a Diskotopia club night in Osaka alongside Australian designer Shaw Cunningham, whose artwork has become an integral part of the brand. Despite flying over big-name guests that included Hot Chip and Modeselektor, unreasonable venue rental fees eventually became too much of an obstacle for them.

“Even if you’re doing events for the love of it,” he says, “it comes down to ‘I’m losing a lot of money here.’ ”

Frustrated by the possibility of having to compromise his musical policy and veer toward more mainstream tracks just to get customers, Lyne, who also DJs and produces under the moniker A Taut Line and has releases on 80Kidz’ Kidz Rec label, relocated to Tokyo in 2008 and recently turned the Diskotopia brand into a record label. Durr moved to Tokyo shortly after and the two first met at pioneering dubstep event Back To Chill.

“We were coming from similar backgrounds and shared a general set of ideals and goals for the future,” Durr says, referencing their shared frustration with Tokyo’s segregated club scene. “A lot of people who go to dubstep nights would never think about going to a dancehall or reggae event, or vice versa. Through a label, or events, you can show that these barriers shouldn’t be there and create something from nothing. Just build a new scene from the ground up.”

Fittingly then, Diskotopia’s output isn’t limited to any specific genre or movement, although the dominant style in their first two releases is what you might call “new bass,” which is bass-focused like dubstep as the genre name suggests, but spans a wider range of tempos and is rhythmically more complex, characterized by syncopated percussion. What you won’t be hearing, however, is the type of crossover “pop-step” that Spears has been dabbling in.

After moving back to Japan, Durr, now Yokohama-based, continued to put out several releases on Starkey’s Seclusiasis label including the full-length LP “Let’s Talk Math,” as well as last October’s “Trails EP.” The latter was a big hit in London clubs, with the remix of the title track by Jam City doing particularly well. The remix found itself on many DJs’ Top 10 charts for the month, including that of Hyperdub heavyweight Ikonika, who was so supportive that she has contributed a remix of her own (a joint production with long-term collaborator Optimum) to Durr’s forthcoming “VHS Nite” EP, which will constitute the second release from the Diskotopia label at the end of March.

Before that comes Lyne’s debut solo release, “Unwoken EP,” which is a unique blend of bass-driven beats and smatterings of Detroit techno. There is a general melancholic ambience, which is most evident in opener “Don’t Wake Me” — a daring collaboration with London-based lo-fi pop band Hong Kong In The 60s. The EP also features a leftfield remix contribution from famed postpunk producer Stuart Argabright, featured under the guise of his Dominatrix project. The EP is chock-full of the sort of liberated creativity that belies an artist who has been stuck pandering to the demands of the labels releasing his tracks.

“I just wanted to have complete creative freedom to do whatever I wanted,” says Lyne. “Before, in the back of my mind I’d always have to think ‘what kind of audience do (the labels) want this for?’ and then make a track based off that.”

In recent years, key exponents of the Japanese bass-music scene, including dubstep producers Goth-Trad and ajapai, have achieved significantly more success in the West than in their home country, where the movement has struggled to get out of its infancy. Both have also looked abroad for distribution — Goth-Trad on Britain’s Deep Medi Musik and ajapai on U.K. producer Lee Mortimer’s Wearhouse Music label. Although it may not have been their main objective when creating Diskotopia, the label should offer hope to similarly forward-thinking Japanese producers who may not have the knowhow or the confidence to try their luck abroad.

“Our main market is not necessarily Japan, it’s more likely Europe and the States,” Lyne explains. To that end, the pair have opted for digital-only distribution for their first two releases. Japan is one of the few remaining countries where records still sell, and while Lyne and Durr both appreciate the attraction of pressing vinyl, pragmatism prevailed when settling on digital.

“Stores such as iTunes and Wasabeat (one of Japan’s most popular digital distributors for dance music) are the easiest way of getting tracks out all over the world and quickly,” Lyne says.

Likening what he sees as the insularity of the club scene to Japan’s subculture-prevalent society as a whole, Lyne concludes, “You’re either a gyaru or an otaku — you have to conform to something. It’s a lot more difficult to start something from scratch.” Durr adds: “There’s room for growth but it has to come organically and it can only come with time.” If Diskotopia succeeds in its aims, we shouldn’t be waiting for much longer.

“Unwoken” by A Taut Line is out on March 14, “VHS Nite” by BD1982 follows on March 28.Both EPs will be released on digital format only, and will be available on iTunes, Beatport and all the usual digital distributors. Diskotopia will host a label launch party at M Event Space & Bar in Shibuya, Tokyo, on April 9. For more details, visit www.diskotopia.com.