m-flo’s Taku Takahashi talks about Japan’s music scene, K-pop and that controversial tweet

by Ronald Taylor

Special To The Japan Times

Taku Takahashi wants you to know, he’s a positive person.

The producer and DJ, who is one half of the group m-flo, says that when he controversially tweeted “F*ck Jpop 2012” three years ago, it was more of a plea for something new than old-fashioned Net rage.

“It was about the industry and the format,” Takahashi tells The Japan Times at the recent Waku Waku +NYC festival in New York. “When the term ‘J-pop’ was created, it was an alternative. People needed it in the 1990s to separate themselves from kayōkyoku (Japanese-style pop music). ‘J-pop’ had more of an American or European influence, so it needed a name — people like Tetsuya Komuro and Misia. But it’s not something different anymore … we call everything J-pop.

“A lot of people were offended by my tweet, but I didn’t mean to offend them. If I meet them face to face, I’ll apologize. I didn’t think it was going to blow up the way it did … I just wanted a challenge, for myself and the system.”

The system is something Takahashi knows about firsthand. He debuted with m-flo partner Verbal in 1998, and this August marked a decade since the release of m-flo’s first album to hit No. 1 on the charts, “Beat Space Nine.”

“The whole scheme is different,” Takahashi says when asked about how things have changed in the past 10 years. “Back in the day, the business model was based on how many CDs you sold. Japan is still the No. 1 CD-selling country in the world, but we’re dying slowly. Now people are using iTunes, renting CDs and listening on YouTube.”

While iTunes and YouTube are among the most common ways for teenagers to listen to music overseas, major Japanese labels often keep their artists offline for fear of piracy. Takahashi firmly believes the “conservative” industry in Japan has been slow to adapt to the new realities of the market.

“How can you buy Japanese music internationally?” he asks. “The labels should have been aware of how to sell things on iTunes earlier. We should’ve been going to conventions and meeting fans back when labels had more money. We didn’t look abroad like we should have because we were content with the domestic market since we were selling so many CDs.”

So, is money the issue?

“Money is the issue,” Takahashi replies. “We don’t have a lot of money, but we need to do more internationally. We should be more Internet-friendly, we should have English translations (on websites). I’m able to connect with foreign fans and artists by speaking English, it allows you to see the outside world.

“The industry is in transition, figuring out how to operate with less money — we have to. Fifteen years ago, there was more space for something different and m-flo was fortunate to debut at that time. We wouldn’t have been signed if we debuted now; we’d probably be on a netlabel.”

When it comes to the current Japanese music scene, netlabels are something Takahashi sees some promise in. He thinks fans are “getting ready for something new” and points to the growing popularity of the do-it-yourself Internet labels and artists as proof there is opportunity for change.

“I love Seiho, I love tofubeats and I think they deserve more credit,” he says. “I wish more people inside and outside of Japan knew about them. Tofubeats’ management is great at buzz marketing via the Internet.”

Almost as a response to his own tweet, Takahashi launched Internet radio station Block.fm and began to contribute to the NHK English-language Japanese music show “J-Melo.”

“I feel it’s my duty to play people great new music,” he says.

Takahashi is even sympathetic toward the government’s “Cool Japan” initiative, a culture-focused promotional campaign that has drawn scorn from other domestic artists.

“They’re working hard, but they need someone with vision,” he says. “I’m sure they’re trying their best, but they’re not functioning — and the name is not cool.

“They should do something like Korea did, where the government invests in acts going overseas and then they take a percentage back. Japanese music needs to go abroad.”

Takahashi has never been shy about his admiration for the way K-pop has been able to break into foreign music markets.

“K-pop knew to expand overseas,” he says, “but they were forced to since they went bankrupt. But the Koreans are definitely better singers and dancers. They never really had much of an underground scene, but they are getting one now. I could never play drum and bass in Korea a few years ago, but now I play 30 minutes of it during my DJ sets there and people go crazy over it. I don’t listen to that much K-pop, but I go there like four times a year. I have a residency at a club in Busan.”

The idea of Koreans being better singers and dancers may sound controversial at first, but Takahashi thinks it has more to do with what Japanese music fans perceive as OK when it comes to listening to music.

“Japanese people can’t really tell if a singer is good or bad,” he says. “People in the U.S. say Jennifer Lopez can’t sing, but if she was a Japanese singer in Japan then people would think she was someone who can sing very well.”

This inability to differentiate between what’s good and not so good may come from a tendency in Japanese music journalism to shy away from criticizing people of importance. When the press doesn’t point out what’s bad, though, fans are less likely to realize what’s exceptional. When it comes to good Japanese singers, Takahashi believes strongly in a few.

“Hikaru Utada, Crystal Kay, Jasmine, Ai, Miliyah Kato … I also like Yui,” he says off the top of his head. “These women are inspired by Amerian R&B, but I don’t think that this influence is the sole reason (they are good). We don’t have a lot of good singers, I don’t think the industry is good at putting them out. We have a lot of great producers, though.”

Perhaps Takahashi will be adding m-flo to the list soon. He reveals during the conversation that he and Verbal will head back into the studio shortly to record a new album together. He doesn’t reveal too much, but when talking about music he admits a preference for ’90s genre Shibuya-kei.

As a producer and DJ, Takahashi has been gaining a reputation for promoting EDM (electronic dance music) in Japan. He thinks the club scene was in a bit of a mess, especially after police began cracking down on club owners due to so-called antidancing laws. But EDM has been able to attract new music fans through the success of events like Electrox and Ultra.

“I love EDM and will continue to work in it, but now I think Japan is ready to move on to something different,” he says. “Things have gotten samey since so much of the production is computer-based. I’ve moved on to more sampling now, and I listen to a lot of Pizzicato Five these days — I’m very into Shibuya-kei now.”

He also mentions a recent remix he did for the band Shiggy Jr. The “Ghost Party” single featured a version called “Taku’s Future JPop Remix” and Takahashi says his aim was to inject something new and different into the band’s work.

“I think what is being made is something new to both people inside and outside of Japan,” he says. “It’s something like Shibuya-kei, so maybe it’s not new to older people.”

So will we see m-flo doing a Shibuya-kei album in the future? It may be too early to tell, but with all he has learned we can at least count on Takahashi doing his damndest to bring Japanese music further into overseas markets.

“Technology has changed music a lot,” he says. “We went from vinyl to CDs to downloads to streaming. It’s changed the creation of it, too. But the one thing that hasn’t changed is that people love music.”

For more information on Taku Takahashi, find him on Twitter at @takudj or visit www.m-flo.com. Tune into Block.fm at www.block.fm.