Yusuke Kawai tries to start a para para dance halfway through his Sept. 5 DJ set, but the inside of an Apple Store isn’t an ideal space for this endeavor. Kawai, who records under the name tofubeats, is performing a special show at the recently opened Omotesando store. Half of the floor eagerly watches the producer, while the other half looks at iPads, occasionally looking up at the guy playing, among a whirlwind of other genres, a hyperactive form of dance music last popular in the late 1990s.
“It was a little awkward,” Kawai says the next afternoon about his Apple Store gig. “I couldn’t really play the music too loudly, but I was happy with the turnout.”
Performances inside electronics shops may not be the norm for him, but it’s part of his new major-label life. Kawai is signed with Warner Music Japan’s Unborde label, who will release his major-label debut, “First Album,” on Oct. 2. It’s a collection that features big-name guest spots from J-pop singers such as Chisato Moritaka, Bonnie Pink and many others, demonstrating just how much attention tofubeats has been getting.
Kawai grew up in Kobe, and has been making electronic music since he was a teenager. He shared his songs online, and eventually became one of the prominent producers in Japan’s burgeoning “Internet music scene.” He released albums through netlabel Maltine Records, and his tofubeats project was picked up by Warner. Since late 2013, he has released a steady stream of pop singles through Unborde, though “First Album” came together somewhat quickly.
“I found out on July 1 this year that I had to release an album this fall. That was a surprise,” he says with a laugh. “I only had two months to get it all done.”
He had a lot to do. “First Album” features Kawai’s production skills along with some moments where he tries rapping. But the collection really thrives on the collaborations, with appearances from young idol singer Hitomi Arai of the Tokyo Girls’ Style to labelmate Shinsei Kamattechan’s lead singer Noko. Kawai’s major-label status also allows him access to some bigger name — the very first guest on “First Album” is Masatsugu Chiba, better known as Pes from the rap group Rip Slyme, an outfit Kawai cites as a major influence in his adolescent years.
“I had to work as a producer in the studio . . . I couldn’t be a fan,” he says. “I got to talk to Pes, but it was as a professional. It was a good conversation, but I was a little nervous.” Though he’s gotten better — when he first worked with ’80s J-pop singer Moritaka on the acid-squelched slow burner “Don’t Stop The Music,” he remembers being unable to say much at all to her.
The most exciting guest spot for Kawai, however, was Bonnie Pink’s vocal turn on the piano-guided ballad “Koromogae.”
“She’s my favorite J-pop singer, and I originally wrote the song with her in mind,” he says.
It wasn’t initially clear if she could sing on the track, so when “Koromogae” originally appeared on this spring’s “Disco no Kamisama” single, Kawai handled the vocals, which were seeped in Auto-tune.
“But she agreed to do it on ‘First Album’ and when I found that out I couldn’t stop smiling.”
A bit more challenging was the song “Cand¥¥¥land” featuring U.S. singer Elizabeth Abrams, who records as Liz. She’s signed to Philadelphia label Mad Decent, operated by Thomas Wesley Pentz, better known as Diplo. The imprint’s creative director, Paul Devro, visited Japan this past Spring, and Kawai’s manager was able to help get him on a DJ bill that Devro would be playing in Tokyo.
“Paul already knew about Maltine, and he wanted to do something with them,” Kawai says. “He said my set that night was ‘life changing,’ and wanted to work closely with me.”
His first opportunity came this July, when he was invited to share a mix on BBC Radio 1Xtra’s “Diplo and Friends” program. His contribution featured his own music along with high-energy cuts from other Maltine-associated producers such as Parkgolf and Pa’s Lam System. Next was the opportunity to collaborate with Liz, who Kawai says was also enthusiastic in working with him. He sent over several potential tracks she could guest on. The U.S. singer chose a hyperactive cut . . . featuring a para para segment.
“She sent her final version of ‘Cand¥¥¥land’ to me the day before my album deadline,” he says. “I had to mix and master it in the staff room before a show I was playing in Kamakura.”
Despite these recent developments, Kawai says he didn’t do anything different while recording “First Album” to explicitly appeal to non-Japanese listeners. He’s not interested in that — and he wouldn’t be able to travel abroad either, as he says he has a medical condition that prevents him from traveling more than three hours by plane.
He’s doing fine domestically, though. His single “Disco no Kamisama” (“God of Disco”) featuring singer and comedian Takashi Fujii, charted on Oricon earlier this year, and special promotional concerts in support of that song earned segments on Japanese morning television. With Moritaka, he played a successful set at this year’s Summer Sonic music festival, and for the September issue of the Japan version of “Wired” he wrote an article titled “tofubeats and the Rise of the Music Geeks,” which focused on the Internet music community he came up through.
“I want to put the Internet world and the real world together,” Kawai says.
All of the opportunities afforded by being on a major label come with some downsides, however. He still lives in Kobe, but comes to Tokyo practically every week — and that only intensified as the release date for “First Album” neared.
“I haven’t had time to make music recently. I’ve been busy, but busy with different things that are more PR related,” he says, acknowledging the positives of his situation — lots of feedback, excellent promotion — but also that, after a 4 a.m. gig that night, he’ll be immediately on a train heading back to Kansai. And he’ll come back to the capital the next weekend.
His life isn’t all train rides and Apple Store shows, though. His set on Sept. 12 at Daikanyama Unit is a shoulder-to-shoulder crowded event where everyone has their eyes on Kawai. It’s a frantic night, with fans dancing to every song, particularly losing it for “Disco no Kamisama,” which features an appearance from Fujii himself. And when he cues up “‘Cand¥¥¥land,” he blares it as loud as he wants . . . and he para paras to his heart’s content.
“First Album” by tofubeats is available in record stores now. tofubeats will play at this weekend’s Go Out Camp in Fujinomiya, Shizuoka Prefecture (www.gooutcamp.jp) and with Ryan Hemsworth at Daikanyama Unit in Tokyo on Oct. 10 (11:30 p.m. start; ¥3,000 in advance; 03-5459-8630). For more information, visit www.tofubeats.com.