Music

Japan and China: Forging ties in the electronic underground

by Chris Russell

Staff Writer

WWWβ — a subterranean space under Shibuya’s WWW and WWWX venues dedicated to “club alternative” — is a frequent stop for DJs and producers at the cutting edge of electronic music. But when a large crowd packed itself into the venue on April 20 for an evening of dark, experimental and at times abrasive sounds, something was slightly different — both headliners were from China.

That night, which was headed up by Tzusing and Howell, was the first edition of the so-called Jyoto exchange between WWWβ and Shanghai club All, an ongoing program between the two venues that is just one of the latest expressions of the increasingly fertile interactions between underground electronic music scenes in East Asia.

The producers and DJs connected to Jyoto (named for the “jyō” and “” kanji that start the names of Shanghai and Tokyo, respectively) don’t represent a single sound as such, and instead draw from an overlapping pool of influences including grime; the droning, hypnotic beats of gqom from Durban, South Africa; and what has variously been termed “experimental” or “deconstructed” club — an amorphous, largely online-driven scene that ties together regional American and European styles, as well as other global influences, with a glossy, mechanistic sensibility.

Perhaps best distilling these nascent intra-Asian exchanges is the track “Black Pepper” by Shanghai producer Tess Sun, better known as Hyph11E (pronounced “hyphee”), who made her Tokyo debut last year at Hatagaya basement club Forestlimit and who’ll play an upcoming Jyoto event at WWWβ on Friday.

With its lurching beat overlayed with chanting, bursts of gunfire and siren-like synthesizers, “Black Pepper” quickly became a staple in DJ sets on both sides of the East China Sea following its release last November. And in a neat piece of symmetry, it was Japanese dubstep producer Goth-Trad who provided a formative experience for Hyph11E as she made her original forays into club music.

“One of my earliest influences for producing music was actually Goth-Trad,” she recalls. “I saw him play at Dada in Beijing in 2014, which was one of the first times I’d been really blown away by a DJ, and after that I started digging for more similar stuff.”

Joining her at WWWβ will be vocalist, producer and frequent All performer Stella Chung, who goes by the moniker Scintii. Born and raised in Taipei, her debut EP “Mica,” came out last year via Eternal Dragonz, a label that describes itself as primarily focused on music from the Asian diaspora.

Scintii pairs off-kilter beats with processed vocal fragments, while her DJ sets mine territory similar to Hyph11E’s. She cites Yousuke Yukimatsu and Kyoto’s Shine Of Ugly Jewel as Japanese influences, saying of the latter’s set in Shanghai earlier this year that “his range of musical styles in one set was crazy.”

“I think in order for culture to flourish, exchange is important,” Scintii says. “I think the Jyoto exchange is an opportunity for artists and DJs in two cities to perhaps see things from another point of view, and hopefully to compare and relate.”

Bridging the East China Sea: Shanghai- and Taipei-based producer Tzusing plays the first Jyoto exchange in April. The event aims to create more connections between artists based in China and Japan.
Bridging the East China Sea: Shanghai- and Taipei-based producer Tzusing plays the first Jyoto exchange in April. The event aims to create more connections between artists based in China and Japan. | JUN YOKOYAMA

The increase in exchanges has coincided with a significant growth in club music in China, with more producers and DJs coming onto the scene, improved sound systems at venues, and new clubs opening up across the country beyond the traditional hubs of Beijing and Shanghai. Some of the venues, such as Oil in the southern megalopolis of Shenzhen, are fast gaining reputations as being among the best clubs in Asia, if not the world.

Modern nightclubs first began to emerge in China in the mid-1980s during the initial stages of the country’s “reform and opening-up” drive, while the ’90s witnessed a popular club culture fueled by yaotouwan — “shake head pills,” or ecstasy — which eventually subsided in the face of police crackdowns and a shift toward bottle-service clubs. In the time since, several promoters, DJs and producers continued to fly the flag for a less commercial vision of electronic music, but the shift in energy in the past few years has been palpable, with labels such as Do Hits and Genome 6.66 Mbp leading the way.

“Maybe around three years ago, people would only really think about the club scenes in Shanghai and Beijing, but now there are more and more other cities doing interesting events and more young people becoming interested in club culture,” says Hyph11E.

A key conduit in the exchanges between Japan and China has been the SVBKVLT label run by All manager Howell, and no producer on the label’s roster exemplifies this better than Prettybwoy. Initially coming into contact with each other as part of a remix project for the Shanghai-based British producer Swimful, Nobuto Hanawa has since released two EPs on the label as Prettybwoy, and visited China on three occasions, playing sets in Shanghai, Beijing and Chongqing.

Sitting pretty: Japanese producer Prettybwoy says he has been encouraged by China-based artists to move beyond the confines of genre.
Sitting pretty: Japanese producer Prettybwoy says he has been encouraged by China-based artists to move beyond the confines of genre.

Despite his long-time presence in the Tokyo scene, Prettybwoy remains something of an underappreciated figure. Ostensibly a grime and U.K. garage artist, his connections with China have helped expand his creative horizons, as demonstrated by the fractured sound design of the track “Hyggs” and the East Asian motifs of “Genetic Dance.” It has also given him ammunition for his club sets, which frequently draw upon work from Chinese producers such as Howie Lee and Zean.

“I feel that Japan is restricted by genre. I play different genres — grime, garage and other electronic music — but I’m still recognized as only a garage and grime DJ in Japan,” says Prettybwoy. In contrast to that, Howell saw a chance to encourage him to move beyond the confines of those genres. “(Howell) saw that my form of expression is not only grime and garage.”

Another key Japanese producer working in this milieu is Masayoshi Anotani, or Mars89. Although setting his sights further afield than Asia — he hosts a monthly show on net station Noods Radio based in Bristol, England, and has released two EPs with British label Bokeh Versions — Mars89 has been building links within the region, making trips to Taiwan, including for a show at a Taipei temple alongside Tzusing, and participating in the first Shanghai edition of the Jyoto exchange.

Life on Mars89: Japanese producer Mars89 has connected with artists in England as well as other areas of Asia.
Life on Mars89: Japanese producer Mars89 has connected with artists in England as well as other areas of Asia.

Back in Tokyo, a pop-up in February for the Taipei-based brand Socialism Core Value at Shibuya clothes store Radd Lounge — another important node in the global network of experimental club music — followed by an after-party at Forestlimit presented a microcosm of the kinds of Sino-Japanese exchanges taking place, bringing together sets from Mars89 as well as Wrack, Mari Sakurai and Do Hits’ Veeeky.

“I think Japanese artists should connect with their counterparts in other Asian countries more often,” Mars89 says. “I think (the opportunity presented by Jyoto) will make the music scene — and other art scenes — more interesting and exciting.”

Building on that promise, talks are now underway to expand the exchange program to Hong Kong, a city that for all its global and regional influence has historically punched below its weight in terms of electronic music. Overseen by Gavin Wong, co-founder of the Hong Kong Community Radio net station and founder of the label Absurd Trax, the Hong Kong leg of the program presents a chance to give an international platform to the city’s new wave of artists, such as Fotan Laiki and Kelvin T. At the same time, it can help the electronic music scene establish an identity of its own, although standing in the way of the mooted exchange is a lack of a physical focal point for the music in the manner of All and WWWβ after mainstay venue XXX closed down earlier this year.

“I hope to find an answer to this (question of identity) via this project, I don’t think our culture can get far if we are retained within ourselves,” says Wong. “I feel this crossover can become a healthy cultural exchange between these cities in close proximity, genuinely and organically creating a cultural value away from consumerist culture.

“Also, we won’t have to rely on some forced sanitized government funding scheme, which is always attached with some political correctness, and it steers us away from this competitive mode of a survival of fittest in the scene — instead we try to help each other by amplifying each other.”

Hyph11E and Scintii play WWWβ in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, on Sept. 21 (doors open at midnight; ¥1,800 in advance, ¥1,500 for under 23); and at Compufunk Records in Osaka on Sept. 22 (doors open 11 p.m.; ¥2,000). For more information, visit www-b.jp or www.compufunk.com.