It’s juke night at Club Noon in Osaka on a Monday. The event, called Hobo, has drawn about 50 people — not many, but alright for a genre of dance music that is making its debut on the city’s club scene. As with most debuts, the reaction is mixed. The men nod their heads and the women shift their weight slowly to the music, but if they’re going to become true fans, they’ll have to pick up their pace.
Juke is a subgenre of dance music (in particular, a type of Chicago house music) that is grabbing the attention of DJs and producers in North America and Europe. It’s fast, the beats get up to 160 per minute (imagine dancing to a woodpecker) and it often features a single word or phrase that gets repeated just as quickly. The Hobo event is meant to showcase two of the West’s juke prodigies — but both Big Dope P, from France, and Chicago’s DJ Rashad, have canceled (illness and radiation fears, respectively). So it’s up to Osaka’s DJ Fulltono to impress the crowd this Monday night.
DJ Fulltono, whose real name is Kouichi Furutono, says the tracks he’s playing tonight are easier to get into, kind of like “juke for beginners.”
“There are tracks that are easy to dance to and ones with irregular beat patterns that are more difficult,” says Furutono. “At first people are usually quite bewildered, they don’t really know how to enjoy the music. But they get into it eventually.”
The music isn’t the only thing that could overwhelm first-timers at a juke party: the dancing is just as fast. Known simply as “footwork,” dancers move to each bassdrum, hi-hat and snare drum they hear. That results in extremely rapid leg movements that draw on styles such as breakdancing and even 1920s dance craze the Charleston. In Japan, seeing proper footwork is rare. “I know of only one (such dancer) and he lives in Nagoya,” says Furutono. “He’s really in a class of his own and since it’s only him, he has noone to dance with.”
Furutono isn’t the only one trying to build a scene here in Japan. In Tokyo, DJ April, DJ Kuroki Kouichi and F.Y.S aka Bingo are also heavily promoting the subgenre. For a dance-music lover, the style presents complex and intriguing sound structures.
“The rhythm is interesting,” says Furutono. “It can go from 160 bpm to half that, and then speed up again in an instant. There’s also this intense bass that completely transforms the music when you hear it in a club.”
In 2008, Furutono started up his own digital-music label named Booty Tune. He initially launched the venture as a way to put out his own music.
“I wanted to create an environment, a platform, where you could release Japanese juke music. Someone had to do it,” says Furutono. “Since 2007, music distribution made a shift from records to digital releases. Although I was DJing vinyl at the time, and was a bit conflicted by going digital, I thought this could be a great chance to help create a Japanese scene.”
Furutono’s efforts were boosted when online nightclub Dommune broadcast a two-hour special devoted to juke. DJ April, whose real name is Tatsuya Masuda, took on the role of the program’s host. He was joined by Furutono, DJ Kuroki Kouichi, D.J.G.O., DJ Family and Hayato6go, who discussed the subgenre and the Chicago house-music scene from which it sprang.
The idea for the show came about after Masuda heard juke described incorrectly on a previous Dommune broadcast.
“During one of their shows, I heard them discussing juke but there were errors in what they were saying,” says Masuda. “So I reached out to them on Twitter and pointed out those inaccuracies. Naohiro Ukawa (Dommune’s founder) saw that tweet and replied. The conversation that followed ended up with him letting us host our own show.”
“We got huge feedback from that show,” Furutono adds. “It felt like a lot of people became interested in juke. Afterward, I got sent demos from other producers who were making the same style of music.”
This chain of events is somewhat similar to juke’s journey on the international scene. Though the subgenre has been growing since the late ’90s in Chicago clubs, it got a significant push last year when influential British musician Mike Paradinas (μ-ziq, Slag Boom Van Loon) released singles by juke DJs Roc and Nate through his record label, Planet Mu. In December, Paradinas followed those releases with a juke compilation titled “Bangs & Works Vol. 1.” That album caught the attention of the BBC and online music site Pitchfork. The style had a notable influence on dubstep producers such as Addison Groove and Ramadanman who both scored the juke-influenced tracks “Footcrab” and “Work Them,” respectively.
Masuda got his first taste of juke when he saw Furutono perform. He says that inspired him to start an event called Ruler’s Back because he felt Furutono deserved a wider audience. He also thought Chicago house wasn’t represented enough in Tokyo’s club scene and hadn’t been since the ’90s.
“I wanted to promote Chicago house as a style in itself. I thought it had been ignored for a long time,” says Masuda. The DJ adds that he feels Jeff Mills and Derrick May, two popular DJs from Detroit, are able to keep up the popularity of Detroit’s brand of techno, but greats such as Chicago’s DJ Funk and DJ Milton (who are also, he feels, just as influential) don’t get the same attention.
“I think they are great,” he says. “I want to introduce the world of Chicago house to a wider audience by focusing on juke, which has a lot of the essence of what Chicago house is all about.”
That essence is something Furutono seems to strictly adhere to. He cringes slightly when it’s suggested that Japanese DJs could produce a different style of the music. “I for one want to stay faithful to juke’s original form, but I’m sure that as more people join in, more approaches and ways of thinking will appear,” he says.
“Artists are honing their approach to the music,” Furutono adds, pointing out that some specifically Japanese variants have appeared. “D.J.G.O. just finished a track featuring an Osaka-based MC who rapped in Japanese.”
The Japanese juke scene has received some interest from France, though, after one of D.J.G.O.’s tracks made it to the fourth position on top French juke DJ Kaptain Cadillac’s chart. Additionally, both Furutono and Masuda say that some Japanese acts are on the radars of influential juke DJs in Chicago.
“It is quite amazing,” says Furutono about the recognition. “It really reaffirms my belief in using digital releases as a means to send Japanese juke abroad.”
While local DJs are grateful for the attention overseas, there are still only a handful of juke events in Japan. That hasn’t stopped Masuda from plotting a nationwide takeover though. “I would like to see a juke remix on a Namie Amuro single,” he says, referring to the chart-topping J-pop singer. “In the United States, one of Madonna’s dancers can do footwork and one of Beyonce’s singles contains a juke remix, so the genre is making progress. I would like to see that same thing happen in Japan.”
DJ Fulltono and DJ April play Ruler’s Back at Bar B-Glad in Yokohama on July 2. DJ Fulltono has a mix titled Southside Construction out now on Node records. For more information, visit djfulltono.bootytune.com.