American rapper Kanye West’s seventh album, “The Life Of Pablo,” felt inescapable when it emerged this past February. But that wasn’t the case in Japan. Streaming music service Tidal — which initially had exclusive rights to “Pablo” — isn’t available here.
This gave Toyomu Hayashi an idea. Unable to hear West’s latest, he decided to splice together his own version instead. The result was “Imagining ‘The Life Of Pablo,’ ” which the Kyoto trackmaker created based off a list of the samples used in West’s “Pablo,” by typing the rapper’s lyrics into his computer’s text-to-speech function, and by going on a gut feeling as to how West would’ve put it all together. He then uploaded his Frankenstein album onto his Bandcamp website, where it sat pretty much unnoticed for a month.
“Then one day I woke up and discovered I was featured on Complex, The Fader and Fact,” Hayashi, 26, says in his first in-person English interview. “I was going viral.”
Suddenly, Hayashi — who records as Toyomu, stylized in all caps — found himself getting the kind of coverage from Western publications that most Japanese artists only dream of. As 2016 nears its end, “Imagining ‘The Life Of Pablo’ ” stands alongside Babymetal and Pikotaro as the biggest musical names out of Japan over the past 12 months.
“It didn’t really sink in until May,” he says. “It went viral in the U.S. and then it came back here, where it led to bookings.”
Online fame is fleeting, though, and Hayashi quickly realized he needed to push forward. He’ll release his first EP, “Zekkei,” on Nov. 23 via Japanese label Traffic. It’s a short set that merges spacey synthesizer notes, skittery beats and field recordings from his hometown, and it shows that he’s far more than just an online novelty.
Like many of his peers around the turn of the century, Hayashi was first drawn to rap through J-pop-friendly acts such as Rip Slyme and Kreva. That led him to then discover more American hip-hop acts. “I used to go to this club called Whoopee’s, in Kyoto’s Gion neighborhood. They would do hip-hop events, but also have dubstep nights, minimal techno nights,” he says. “I went there and I learned.”
Hayashi discovered another party critical to his development in Osaka called Innit. This event encouraged burgeoning creators to bring their own tunes, where they could then be played (which happened to him). Innit prompted Hayashi to start his own Kyoto-based party and label, Quantizer, in 2014, focusing more on alternative offshoots of hip-hop.
He spent part of 2015 in Los Angeles, where he absorbed the city’s experimental beat scene and became particularly inspired by Flying Lotus and his spaced-out imprint Brainfeeder. After returning home to Kyoto, he set out to release one beat tape a month online, starting in late 2015 when he reworked the album “Yellow Dancer” by easy-breezy J-pop star Gen Hoshino.
“When I listened to the album, it was refreshing compared to everything that was on the charts, like AKB48 and Exile,” Hayashi says. “It felt good to listen to something that was so obviously influenced by disco and soul.”
Besides an appreciation for Hoshino’s collection, Hayashi admits the rework was strategic — he wanted to piggyback off its success to get his name out there. And it worked, probably too well — Hoshino’s label, Victor Entertainment, contacted him “almost immediately” and told him to remove it from Bandcamp.
Undeterred, he tried something similar with West and “The Life of Pablo,” and his own set of vaporous beats topped off with robotic rapping recorded on cassette blew up online.
” ‘The Life Of Pablo’ on its own was just so hyped,” Hayashi says when asked why he thinks his release did so well. “Everybody was listening to (‘Pablo’), and everybody was making memes about it. Kanye became an icon that everybody enjoyed, and it was a unifying thing.”
Much of Hayashi’s success had little to do with his own work, but rather an online media environment where celebrities draw readers. Most of the English-language posts about “Imagining” were more interested in West’s star power than the artistic ideas motivating a burgeoning beatmaker. Which, to be fair, was part of Hayashi’s gamble — attention wins the internet in 2016.
Still, “Imagining” presented a new perspective on an album that a large percentage of Western music obsessives had heard by April, and featured solid beats and an element of peculiarity. And Hayashi came from a place of love for West, so “Imagining” never felt like a gimmick.
In the wake of “Imagining,” Hayashi only felt pressure to make good music, not replicate his surprise success. But when making “Zekkei,” he faced one big challenge.
“I do like sampling. I tried to re-create that element without using recordings by other artists. Like in a legal way,” he says with a laugh. After initially fiddling around with Ableton, he turned to an old Yamaha CS1x synthesizer in his attic, released in the 1990s and reminding Hayashi of that decade’s hip-hop.
“It was important I made it,” he says. “I could just go online and download all the synth sounds I needed, but I wanted to plug (the synth) in with a cable, and play the physical instrument.”
He realized he could just record synth sequences and chop them up.
“That’s sampling,” he says. He then did the same with recordings of him playing a piano and field sounds of nature and monkeys around Kyoto, which gives a very woozy set more of a sense of place.
After “Zekkei,” Hayashi will record his proper debut album (he’s eyeing February), and hopes to focus more on overseas listeners as that was the group that jumped on “Imagining” first. Crucially, though, he’s moving beyond that breakout work. He removed “Imagining” from Bandcamp, partially because if he ever faced legal action (none yet), his new label would pay the price, not him.
“But I also thought that if I left it somewhere like Bandcamp, it is just sitting there, rotting away,” he says. “I would be haunted by the idea that I’m just the Kanye guy.”
And for the record: Hayashi has since heard “The Life of Pablo,” and he thought it was great.
“Zekkei” is in stores from Nov. 23. Toyomu DJs at Circus in Tokyo on Nov. 25 (11 p.m. start; ¥3,000 in advance; 03-6419-7520) and Circus in Osaka on Nov. 26 (11 p.m.; ¥2,500 in adv.; 06-6241-3822) in support of Jameszoo. He’ll play West Harlem in Kyoto on Dec. 10 and Kieth Flack in Fukuoka on Dec. 17. For more information, visit www.toyomu.jp.
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