Back to school for two Tokyo DJs

by Mike Sunda

Special To The Japan Times

Whether it’s an annual soapbox derby or sending a man to the edge of space just because they can, energy-drink manufacturers Red Bull have never been afraid to throw their cash at projects that range from the sublime to the ridiculous. Red Bull Music Academy (RBMA) — the brand’s foray into the world of electronic music, which celebrates its 15th anniversary this year — leans firmly toward the former. As the name suggests, it aims to provide an “education” for promising musicians, flying in established names to share advice as well as providing fully stocked studio spaces for participants to collaborate and bounce ideas off each other.

The 2011 edition of the academy was supposed to take place in Tokyo, but was relocated to Madrid following the Great East Japan Earthquake in March of that year. This year’s event takes place in New York City. It began April 28 and ends May 31. Nonetheless, ties between Japan and the academy have remained strong, with beat-makers Yosi Horikawa and Daisuke Tanabe among the graduates from this country to have benefited from the program. This year, Japan will be represented by Tokyo resident Nic Liu (who records both under his own name as well as his “Pleasure Cruiser” alias), still relatively fresh to the capital after spells in Britain; and Sendai-born Emufucka, who takes his stage name from an imaginative phonetic reshuffling of his real name, Takafumi Sakurai (try reading it backward). That both men were inspired to apply after attending previous RBMA lectures — Moodymann in Liu’s case, Daddy Kev in Sakurai’s — would itself seem to be an endorsement of RBMA’s ability to encourage up-and-coming musicians.

“When I got the e-mail through I just jumped out of bed and shouted, ‘Yeaaaah!’ ” Liu says. “I was screaming in my bedroom, my housemates were wondering what was going on.”

His reaction is justified. RBMA is very difficult to get into. Thousands of applicants were whittled down to a total of 31 this year, via a process so extensive you’d expect it to finish with a polygraph — it’s less “24 Hour Party People” and more straight up “24.”

“The application took me about a week to do — it’s about 50 questions long and they’re all quite left-of-center … like ‘Draw a picture of you in the musical universe,’ or ‘Draw a picture of your music collection.’ They even have an ink-blot test as if they’re psychoanalyzing you,” Liu recalls.

Both Liu and Sakurai are keen to stress the importance of ‘being yourself’ in the application — “I wrote it honestly,” Sakurai says. “I’ve heard that some people write their answers after looking things up on the Internet, but I never claimed to know about things that I don’t know about. One question didn’t make much sense to me so I just answered, ‘This question is a load of nonsense.’ Thinking about it now, I probably came across as a bit cheeky.”

So: honesty and a sense of humor is the key? It can’t hurt, but then there’s also the small task of submitting musical samples alongside your written application. Both men have already had several releases to their name. Sakurai makes gloriously upbeat, J. Dilla-esque jazzy hip-hop — another standout from the thriving Japanese “beats” scene that has produced so many talented artists in recent years (including recent RBMA graduates). Meanwhile, Liu’s brand of synth-heavy house music reflects his travels. It combines the club-ready sensibilities of the London scene, where Liu had a DJ residency at Dalston Superstore — one of the capital’s hippest hangouts — with Tokyo’s propensity for all things analog: “I’ve bought a couple of synthesizers since I’ve been here. I’ve got a KORG PolySix and a Yamaha DX7. All the best synths were made in Japan, Roland, Yamaha … the market is here.” Listening to both men’s tracks it’s clear that they were picked on musical merit rather than any knack for witty one-liners, even if they’re too modest to say so.

And that, is perhaps the final piece of the puzzle — the academy prides itself on fostering relationships and collaborations, they don’t have room for divas or tortured geniuses.

“I feel like I’m just standing at the start-line of the global ‘beats’ scene,” Sakurai says, before likening RBMA’s clout to an impressive academic background — nice for the name recognition but not in itself indicative of talent.

Liu’s sentiments are broadly the same: “I don’t think being in the academy is the be-all end-all, I just think it’s a really nice opportunity to go and collaborate with interesting artists and musicians in a great environment. But in terms of launching a music career, I think I just need to be putting my records out there and let the music speak for itself. I don’t think there’s any need for any hype beyond that.”

Pleasure Cruiser plays Vision in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, on May 3 (10 p.m.; ¥3,500 at the door; [03] 5728-2824). For more details, visit www.vision-tokyo.com. He will play Tammany Hall in New York on May 21 (9 p.m. start; $5; [212] 228-7556). For more information, visit www.tammanyhallny.com or www.pleasurecruiser.tumblr.com. Emufucka plays The Well in Brooklyn, New York, on May 26 (2 p.m. start; Free; [347] 383-3612). For more information, visit www.thewellbrooklyn.com or emufucka.net.