Kobe’s tofubeats moves from blogs to the big time

by Patrick ST. Michel

Special To The Japan Times

Like many kids growing up in the 1990s, Yusuke Kawai’s initial brush with the World Wide Web happened in elementary school.

“My first Internet experience was using my father’s PC, with Windows 95, when I was in the fourth grade. I can’t even remember the websites I looked at.”

This seemingly innocuous exposure constituted the first steps in what would become a future career. Recording as tofubeats, the 23-year-old Kobe producer has gone from sharing his music on bulletin-board sites such as 2channel to being signed to Warner Music Japan’s Unborde label, home to bona fide pop acts Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, Rip Slyme and Shinsei Kamattechan. Kawai also regularly remixes perky idol pop groups and has helped other online-centric music makers find places in the idol scene.

Long before that, though, he just wanted to play bass in junior high.

“I didn’t like practicing and I couldn’t form a band, so I quit after one week,” he says.

It was around this time that Kawai took an interest in Japanese rap groups such as m-flo, Kick The Can Crew and Rip Slyme, all of whom appeared frequently on TV.

“My friend started introducing me to even more hip-hop artists after that,” he says. “Every day I’d go to the CD rental shop and search the Internet.”

Realizing that hip-hop producers could make music by themselves and frequently from samples (“I thought, ‘I don’t need to practice an instrument!’ “), Kawai says he asked his parents to buy him some production equipment at the age of 14. From there he was on his way to producing, but he met more than a few obstacles trying to get his music out into the public.

“I had to connect to the Internet through a telephone network then,” he says. “Plus, the places I could upload my music were very limited — sites like MySpace only existed outside of Japan.”

He turned to sites such as 2channel and hip-hop-centric message boards to share his creations and eventually started uploading tracks to YouTube. Gradually, bloggers started to share his music and that led to interaction with other teenage music makers.

A big break came when Kawai found Maltine Records, Japan’s first netlabel (a record label existing primarily online, usually releasing music for free). Kawai started working with them under the name DJ Newtown and was soon getting more attention. When he started up the tofubeats project, though, he decided to aim a little higher than page views.

“I used to reach out to major labels, but without much success,” he says. However, the situation changed when he signed with a talent agency. Soon, Kawai could choose which label to work with. He says he opted for Warner Music Japan “because they seemed flexible.”

His first release with them was last year’s full-length, “Lost Decade.” The album doubles as a wonderful distillation of what Kawai had been doing online up until that point. “Lost Decade” has heavy hip-hop influences, with many of the songs featuring guest spots from Japanese rappers such as Punpee and Sky-Hi. It also zips into jaunty pop territory, melancholic R&B and some experimental dance numbers — like he’s just come out of a YouTube binge session.

There were challenges transitioning from the Web to Warner.

“The biggest issue was copyright,” he says. “I was surprised when I couldn’t upload my music to my own YouTube channel anymore.”

Still, the union has lead to opportunities usually not available to an independent artist. For his late 2013 single, “Don’t Stop the Music,” Kawai teamed up with late ’80s J-pop singer Chisato Moritaka — who he had some knowledge of from his childhood.

“The first song I ever heard from her was called ‘Rock ‘n’ Omelette,’ because it was on the kids show ‘Ponki Kids.’ I eventually got one of her best-of albums from Book Off and was surprised how good it was.”

He contacted Moritaka and asked her to provide vocals on the single and she agreed. The result is like a J-pop torch song meshed with a fidgety dance number.

“Don’t Stop the Music” isn’t Kawai’s most surprising collaboration, though. He works closely with several idol pop acts and has remixed songs for bubble-gum pop groups suhc as 9nine. He has created original tracks for several groups, most prominently the hip-hop unit Lyrical School (formerly known as tengal6, sponsored by male sex-toy manufacturers Tenga). Kawai says someone working with the group had been following his online career and gave him the opportunity.

“Working with idols allows me to try out more ideas musically,” he says. Plus, he has always liked idol music, a trait shared by many other producers and he cites Perfume’s relationship with Yasutaka Nakata as the main example of where the relationship can lead.

Kawai is not the only one getting called up by the idol scene. Online-centric producers such as Fragment, Avec Avec and Schtein&Longer have been recruited to create music for idol groups. Oricon regulars such as AKB48 and Momoiro Clover Z stick to their trademark sounds, but fledgling groups often turn to Internet producers to craft a unique sound — on the cheap.

“Idol groups are more open-minded (than other bands) nowadays, and it gels with the openness of online track makers,” Kawai says. “And to be honest, idol groups need more songs on a lower budget. So that’s why they come to us.”

The overlap between major label and Internet is getting more pronounced, though. Maltine and major-label Avex (home of Kumi Koda and Exile) came together for “Maltine Girls’ Wave,” released last week. The project features Internet producers (including Kawai, who teams up with fellow Kansai track maker Okadada under the moniker Dancingthruthenights) creating songs featuring members of the idol group Tokyo Girls’ Style. This time, though, it’s the producers who are getting top billing.

“That album is a good example of this shift,” Kawai says. “Avex liked how Maltine experimented with sounds, so they made this collection happen.”

It’s an interesting development for a pop scene that’s long relied on producers already on the inside for music. As exciting as it has been for Kawai, he says he’s hoping to get some alone time this year.

“In the second half of 2013, I was too busy to work in a studio, so I’m hoping the first half of 2014 can be spent more there,” he says. “But I’m just happy to be making lots of music.”

We’ll see if Kawai is able to take a break in 2014, but it doesn’t look likely. Twenty days into the new year and he has already released a new track on his Soundcloud called “Chngeyrhrt.” The Web just doesn’t stop.

For more information on releases and tour dates, visit www.tofubeats.com.


Tracking tofubeats’ many releases can take some time

Scrolling through the “works” section on the official tofubeats website can seem a bit daunting at first. Yusuke Kawai has been producing tracks for nearly a decade and the bulk of his output has been released online. Despite the Internet’s ability to make categorization simpler, finding all of his music has become quite the endeavor. Finding a good entry point into his work is tough, so here are some of the highlights in the tofubeats pantheon instead.

A lot of Kawai’s early material has vanished into the digital ether, but his Maltine Records recordings under the DJ Newtown moniker remain easily available through the imprint’s official site (or via YouTube). The earliest of these tracks, released in 2008 and 2009, present an unpolished version of the skittier sound he’d define himself by in the near future. Tracks such as “Flying Between Stars” and “Dance With You” splice vocals up into half-second blurts, and he reconstructs them into up-tempo dance numbers. He would get a lot better at this with each new DJ Newtown release.

The tofubeats Bandcamp page is the best place to go for pre-Warner releases by Kawai, though the quality can be hit-or-miss. Highlights include the “Slowmotion” EP and the “Summer Dreams” collection, the latter being one of Kawai’s strongest all-around recordings to date. His collaborations with rappers can sometimes get messy, but “Suisei,” featuring Onomatope Daijin, is a great laid-back number.

“Suisei” also appears on tofubeats’ Warner Music Japan debut “Lost Decade,” which came out in May of last year. The LP features Kawai’s sound at its best: Guest rappers and pop vocalists reveling in a mood that jumps from hyperactive to almost-sappy sentimentalism backed up by hip-hop inspired beats and glorious maximalism.

Kawai’s 2013 single with Chisato Moritaka, “Don’t Stop the Music,” is far more subdued than anything on “Lost Decade” and is a true gem in his repertoire. Part of its charm is in the air of reverence he gives to Moritaka — he gives her the spotlight by refraining from tech-assisted vocal manipulation. His signature touches are there, most prominently an acid-bass bridge late in the track.

Kawai has offered up plenty of music for idols, but his best work comes with Lyrical School, a hip-hop idol group that benefits the most from Kawai’s upbringing on rap. Last year’s “Date Course” full-length was one of the year’s nicest surprises, and tofubeats’ contributions (in particular “Ribbon wo Kyuto” and “Hitoribochi no Labyrinth”) are highlights. Lyrical School can be overly chipper, but at their best they are hip-hop duo Halicali reimagined for a new generation.