Wonderful Noise’s Kenji Sakajiri searches for ‘soul’ in his label’s signings

by Erik Luebs

Special To The Japan Times

At the age of 18, Kenji Sakajiri left his hometown of Tanabe, Wakayama Prefecture, and moved to Osaka. He wasn’t headed to college or looking for a day job. Instead he dived headfirst into the world of vinyl records.

This was in 1992 and the Japanese club scene was deep into acid jazz, a dance-oriented hybrid of jazz, funk and hip-hop popularized in Britain by Gilles Peterson and in Japan by DJ Krush. Sakajiri loved it.

“The U.K. had a great scene of DJs who would come to Japan, and when I was 19 years old I went to London to buy records and see the scene,” he says. “At the time, Gilles Peterson was doing gigs at a club called Bar Rumba. Being able to see his set with my own eyes led me to become a DJ in Japan.”

Sakajiri didn’t have dreams of being famous though, he found he was more interested in releasing music.

“I used being a DJ as a way to pursue my interest in record labels,” he says. “I had no interest in being an artist. Mostly, I wanted to be the creative director of a label.”

His first venture into the industry came in 1998 when he began helping out at Osaka-based Especial Records. “I was 25 when I first started working there. I went to London, America and Brazil to buy records. When I was 28, the shop started its own label.”

After several years with Especial, Sakajiri says he was ready to realize his own creative vision. He started the Wonderful Noise label in 2006, “In the tradition of ‘crossover’ music, I’m not trying to focus on one specific genre. I want to put out house, reggae, dub, hip-hop and music that reflects my own DJ style.”

To date, the label’s catalog spans 29 12-inch records and is limited to only six CDs with almost no digital distribution. Suffice it to say, Sakajiri is a vinyl purist.

One particular quirk about the label’s output is its geographic focus on New Zealand. Sakajiri has had his ear to that nation’s creative output after befriending a kiwi vinyl junkie back in the early 2000s. Since then, beatmaker Julien Dyne, funk outfit Funkommunity, and producer Lord Echo have all found a home on Sakajiri’s label.

“A lot of people think Wonderful Noise is a New Zealand label because we put out so much music from there,” he says. “We put out a lot of Japanese music, too. I have a good connection with New Zealand, so I want to introduce a lot of people to the music scene there.”

That said, the label also releases artists from Atlanta, Los Angeles and Tokyo. Starting with Sakajiri’s roots in acid jazz through the ’90s, and ’00s of break beats and crossover, his tastes vary enough to encompass many different genres. However, this roster of diverse artists are bound together by what Sakajiri refers to as a soul. In this writer’s opinion, the soul that Sakajiri refers to implies warm timbre and a deliberate and distinct rhythmic groove.

“If it has that soul, it can be jazz, funk, techno, house, beat,” he says. “You can feel the sound swaying.”

This ambiguity toward genre is exemplified by recent Wonderful Noise act Nobu Suzuki, aka Sauce81, who attempts to describe his own sound: “It was funny how my record was categorized in each record shop. Some put it in Japanese hip-hop/break beats, some shops put it in deep house, some shops put it in crossover/new jazz. And I think (the album is) all of it, I think it’s all of it and not just one of it. I don’t think it’s hip-hop, I don’t think it’s straight house music, but it is a combination of all of them.”

So what’s the feeling Suzuki’s going for? He sighs. “It’s kind of difficult. Through this kind of music I want to be …” He sighs again and hesitates. “I want to go ‘ohhh!’ ” He makes a sexy phonetic sound and gestures with a groovy sway. “It’s the ‘ohhh’. How do you explain that?”

Perhaps it’s best left unexplained and better heard in person. Sauce81 will be holding his record release party at Seco Bar in Tokyo on Sunday afternoon, and he’ll also be performing at SonarSound festival at Club Ageha in Tokyo on April 7.

And meanwhile, Wonderful Noise’s next release is slated for June, perhaps more music to elicit indescribable phonetic sounds from Suzuki — or as Sakajiri would say, “something with soul.”

Sauce81 plays with Fujimoto Tetsuro at Seco Bar in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, on March 17 (3 p.m.; ¥2,000; 03-6418-8141); and at SonarSound Tokyo at Studio Coast in Koto-ku, Tokyo, on April 7 (¥7,750 for a one-day ticket, ¥14,500 for a two-day ticket in advance). For more information, visit www.wonderfulnoise.jp, www.secobar.jp or www.sonarsound.jp.