Tucked away in a cozy corner of Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward, million-selling singer and rapper Soulja twirls an unsmoked cigarillo in his fingers while nodding his head to a hip-hop beat. “Yeah, that’s good. I like that,” he says to the man beside him, who is seated in front of a sound board and a colossal computer monitor. They are in a studio putting together Soulja’s latest single, a collaboration with J-pop superstar Issa, of Da Pump fame. And the man next to Soulja, sporting a shaved head and dressed all in black, is songwriter and producer Jeff Miyahara.
You could be forgiven if the name Miyahara doesn’t instantly ring a bell — but perhaps these names will: Crystal Kay, Namie Amuro or Thelma Aoyama. How about Timbaland, Pharrell or Boyz II Men? Miyahara has made beats for all of them. Over the years, Miyahara has accumulated quite a back catalog of hugely successful artists he has worked with, and has quickly become one of the hottest and most sought-after producers in the Japanese music scene.
“Jeff is the man,” says Soulja. “He’s definitely my favorite producer to work with.”
The Japan Times caught up with them on a recent rainy afternoon at Miyahara’s personal studio, which is part of his plush mansion in the trendy Sangenjaya neighborhood.
Miyahara is a second-generation Japanese-Korean who spent his earlier years in Los Angeles, before making the move to Tokyo for university.
“Growing up in L.A., it was always flooded with music and with so many genres — of people too,” he says. “And so much happened while I was there, like the huge Hollywood quake of ’94 and the L.A. riots (in 1992).”
In line with the times, Miyahara grew up with a less institutional form of racial segregation as the norm, but one where social groups were still largely determined by the color of a person’s skin.
“I tried hanging out with the Asian crew, but that wasn’t really my thing,” he recalls. After joining a rock band as a teenager — an otherwise all-Caucasian one — he was able to come to terms with his roots. “The first time I felt freedom from the color of my skin was when I discovered I wanted to make music,” he says. “I realized that music was my escape, my identity, my heritage and culture. Some people call themselves black or white, or hip-hop or rock ‘n’ roll. But I say that I’m just music.”
Miyahara brought his passion for beat-making to these shores in 1999, and after producing the theme song for Japan’s national soccer team during the 2002 World Cup and having worked with Crystal Kay and Boyz II Men, he got his major break in 2008 with the track “Kimi no Subete ni.”
“I found the right chemistry with (the artists) Spontania and Juju, and the combination of my own background and Japanese influences in that song,” he says. “At that time, AU and Docomo had their own proprietary formats (chaku-uta, which are music ringtones), and then suddenly, digital was in. That was my main entry point. I decided I would make music that was sweet yet powerful and convincing, and that could also be edited down to a 30- to 40-second time frame, which is the general length of a chaku-uta.” Sure enough, the single recorded more than 5 million downloads.
The tune — as well as many others he has made — incorporates heavy hip-hop and R&B influences, which Miyahara brought along with him when he relocated from the United States.
“Music is the universal language,” he says. “People feel music, and when I came to Japan my Japanese wasn’t exactly 100 percent, so I figured hip-hop-based rhythmic influences would be a great way to connect to people here. These days, even a lot of hugely successful K-pop is based on that hip-hop and R&B swag.”
Despite Miyahara’s Korean lineage, he believes K-pop is definitely the competition. “The Koreans use the cream of the crop for all aspects of production,” he says, explaining why K-pop is winning the matchup with J-pop these days. “They have the best producers and the hottest performers, who’ve been fine-tuned and pretty much genetically engineered to be the strongest, fastest fighting machines.” Indeed, if you pair up AKB48 with the members of After School, or any one of the Johnny’s Jimusho boy-bands with recent chart-risers 2PM, the Japanese side does appear to lose out when it comes to physique.
He also cites the acute understanding that his Korean counterparts have of Japan and its market. “For example, the term ‘kawaii‘ is a word that most Japanese women can associate with more than ‘sexy,’ ” he says. “You’ll notice a lot of the Korean girl-groups are really hot and are dressed-up super sexy, but their dances and the music are cute. The contrast between the two is popular now, and something they have been really good at doing.”
Miyahara feels passionately about stimulating and rejuvenating the J-pop scene. “What we in Japan need to be is more assertive on the world stage,” he says. “We have Toyota, we have Sony. We have sushi and tempura, and we even have anime. We don’t really have music yet, and that’s in my sights. We need to overcome these difficult times in the (Japanese) music industry right now.”
Looking at his track record so far, Miyahara could be the man that reclaims Japan’s crown at the top of Asia’s pop world.
So, what’s the secret to making a hit song? “The melody,” Miyahara says plainly. “A lot of music doesn’t have lyrics, like dance music, but even when it does, like in opera, most people aren’t listening to them. They’re listening to the melodies, the story within the music. When you listen to muzak you’ll recognize the cheesy tune, and I think it’s amazing that some musicians can create a song that’s structured so well that people immediately recognize it. That’s what I’m trying to do, to put those tears and that happiness into the melody.”