In 1969, pop artist Andy Warhol founded Interview magazine. The New York-based publication was initially distributed among the city’s “in crowd,” later finding a wider audience in those seeking more than the usual mainstream fare.
Interview has been called the “crystal ball of pop” and has profiled movers and shakers in the worlds of culture and entertainment, and in June 2005 it traveled to Japan. The issue was dubbed “Interview Goes To Tokyo” and the front and back covers featured two cultural forces of the time: pop star Hikaru Utada and fashion designer Nigo of A Bathing Ape. The music portion highlighted electronic producer Cornelius, singer-songwriter Chara, R&B vocalist Toshinobu Kubota and party rappers Rip Slyme among others, but its centerpiece was the Utada interview. She was promoting her album “Exodus,” which had been released the previous fall.
Coming across this issue of Interview recently, I think it did a great job of showcasing acts who represented different elements of Japan’s music scene. A number of genres were represented, and in a way that presented them as viable contemporaries to their Western counterparts, as opposed to the “weird Japan” oddities that signal clickbait gold for overseas media nowadays.
I got to thinking, if Interview was to revisit Japan today, 10 years later, whose face would grace its cover? Babymetal? Kyary Pamyu Pamyu? The freshly viral Ladybaby? As a long-time subscriber, I’d like to think the magazine wouldn’t opt for the whole “weird Japan” schtick. I think they would dig deeper and find a few artists that, while mostly unknown overseas (so far at least), are definitely worth checking out.
Enon Kawatani is the vocalist, guitarist, lyricist and composer for two impressive acts: indigo la End and Gesu no Kiwami Otome. (the full stop is included in its name). Indigo is a traditional indie-rock act in terms of sound, but Kawatani experiments a bit more with Gesu’s music, blending touches of classical, jazz and funk into its overall sound. “Killer Ball,” for example, features a piece of Frederic Chopin’s “Fantaisie-Impromptu.”
Indigo debuted in 2012 and Gesu came out a year later. Both bands made their major label debut last year. While Kawatani originally started Gesu as a fun side project with some friends, the four-piece has seen a surprising amount of success. Last year’s “Ryokiteki na Kiss o Watashi ni Shite” was certified gold for selling 100,000 digital copies. “Watashi Igai Watashi Janai No,” which came out earlier this year, was one of four tracks from 2015 to be certified platinum for selling 250,000 digital copies (oddly putting them in the same company as pop princess Kana Nishino).
Gesu no Kiwami Otome’s critically praised debut, “Miryoku ga Sugoi Yo,” sold over 75,000 copies. Kawatani’s songwriting talents have scored him gigs writing for other acts that include boy band SMAP, Johnny’s idol Tomohisa Yamashita and idol-pop unit Team Syachihoko.
With two bands of his own and a successful songwriting gig, Kawatani is definitely a rising star in the music industry.
Kohh has been a prominent figure in the Japanese hip-hop scene for the past few years. He received further attention in 2014 when Vice Japan spotlighted him in a documentary that provided a look at his background, which explored an upbringing surrounded by poverty and a single mother who used drugs — a topic he addresses in his music.
After having made a name for himself in Tokyo, he was featured on a track by Korean rapper Keith Ape titled “It G Ma.” It was a fortuitous move, the song ended up going viral and garnered a lot of attention from hip-hop circles in the West. “It G Ma” used the same beat as Atlanta rapper OG Maco’s “U Guessed It,” spawning conversations on Asians in hip-hop and cultural appropriation that were sparked by Maco himself.
Despite the controversy, Kohh came out on top. He has a burgeoning cult following overseas among people who don’t usually listen to Japanese music. He was a Twitter trending topic earlier in the year and a Vine of his rap in “Hiroi Sekai” (“Wide World”) has racked up nearly 8 million loops. More importantly, Kohh is conscious of the moment and has begun capitalizing on it by releasing English-subbed music videos for some of his songs.
Cero officially stands for Contemporary Exotica Rock Orchestra, and the trio lives up to the name. Its sound is a blend of influences from various genres; elements of jazz, hip-hop, folk, R&B, world music and funk make pop up in its tracks — like a collage of different decades. When performing live, cero is backed by an array of instruments that flesh out the sound; front man Shohei Takagi even plays flute now and then.
In May, cero released its third album, “Obscure Ride.” The LP debuted at No. 8 on the Oricon album chart, the band’s first time to make it into the top 20. The charts have often been the domain of boy bands and idol units in the past few years, but cero is part of a new trend of younger groups rising in the Oricon ranks — something Enon Kawatani has also been a part of.
“Obscure Ride” is cero’s most soulful release so far and part of its charm are the nods to the group’s influences. You can hear elements of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” in the funk and falsetto of “Yellow Magus.” A Tribe Called Quest’s “Electric Relaxation” comes to mind when listening to “Summer Soul,” which features a sample from Gil Scott-Heron’s “We Beg Your Pardon (Pardon Our Analysis).”
“Obscure Ride” was selected as one of 10 entries from the first half of the year for The 8th CD Shop Awards 2016, a prize voted on by record stores nationwide.
If I could have three covers for an Interview issue in 2015 that focuses on Japan, this is who I’d go for. I’m spoiled for options, though, so I’d have no trouble filling the inside pages with an array of great new talent and this is just a sampling. Lili Limit and Nagisa Kuroki are good choices for those looking for something similar to what Kawatani is doing, Kohh collaborators Aklo and Salu are creating a lot of good hip-hop, and if cero has piqued your interest then Cicada and Emerald might, too.
And I’m sure all these acts will still sound good in 2025.