Jung Kyung-ho came to an artistic crossroads last year. The South Korean producer creating music under the name Night Tempo was trying to figure out where to take the project, recording new songs while experimenting with a live band for his shows — a drastic departure from previous gigs that found him playing a more traditional DJ role. Then he had a realization.
“I decided I don’t need to be a band, I don’t need to be a DJ. I should be a curator,” he says.
As Night Tempo, the 33-year-old creator often takes inspiration from and directly samples Japanese music from the 1970s and ’80s to create aerobic dance cuts. He doesn’t draw exclusively from pop evoking Tokyo at its most bubbly, but he’s most associated with speedy numbers unknown to Western audiences as a base or remixes of tunes such as those of Mariya Takeuchi’s “Plastic Love.” He leans into his love of Japanese culture with anime-style artwork and “Sailor Moon” sound effects sprinkled over some of the tracks.
This type of stuff used to be restricted to internet micro-genres, specifically a style dubbed “future funk” online. Now it’s starting to creep into the spotlight. Jung remixed a handful of ’80s idol duo Wink’s songs for the “Wink — Night Tempo presents the Showa Groove” EP. It comes out as part of the group’s 30th anniversary and is an official release from its label Polystar, miles away from the violation-courting zone many of Night Tempo’s creations occupy.
“Some people don’t like illegal stuff, like bootlegs, but if the original artist and company give permission, and they announce this is official, that might make people think this is more serious,” Jung says. Beyond an official release, he has played Night Tempo shows in North America — with more to come — while the Wink rework EP was given a launch party in Seoul on May 8.
The decade has seen internet users from around the world embrace older Japanese tracks, in styles ranging from city pop to ambient. The downside, however, has been seeing a lot of this new art reduced to cheap Tumblr reblogs, from “aesthetic” brand building to particularly corny creations like Ariana Grande’s “arigatou” sweater. For many, Japanese music and imagery is merely decoration, something to signify online cool without any real investment.
Jung, however, says that older Japanese music and pop culture reminds him of his childhood in Seoul, the city in which he is based, and from where he travels to Tokyo.
“Japanese trends were always five or 10 years ahead of what was happening in (South) Korea. The early ’90s in (South) Korea, it was like we had ’80s Japanese pop culture. It was almost the same,” he recalls, while sharing a few photos of himself as a child sporting very Showa-appropriate clothes to drive the point home. He remembers Japanese products — cartoons and pop — were in demand, but U.S. military radio stations expanded his horizons as well.
“I think Daft Punk and Miho Nakayama were the big ones,” Jung says about his biggest musical gateways growing up. The French electronic duo was breaking out in the ’90s, but Nakayama’s glistening pop had its heyday in the late ’80s. Still, he stumbled across the song “Catch Me” and the album it appeared on, produced by city pop staple Toshiki Kadomatsu.
“He’s still my god,” Jung says. Using liner notes and the internet, he soon discovered even more Japanese music, such as Takeuchi and Tatsuro Yamashita. “I love reading the descriptions. It’s like a treasure map.”
Jung encountered Wink through the same process, by first learning about the producers behind the music. Starting with the song “Sugar Baby Love,” Jung became interested in not just Wink’s music but also the pair’s doll-like mannerisms while performing.
Wink would play an important role when Jung started making his own music in 2015. Before, he treated it as a hobby and rarely shared anything. His job as a computer programmer also often had him working late at night, which dictated the type of music he listened to and led to his moniker.
“Retro music is good to put on at night, because you feel nostalgic and that makes me more focused,” he says. “Like background music. I try to make music for night workers.” His early works moved from hop-scotching tracks anchored by samples from all over the place to remixes. Jung says it was actually Wink’s “Special To Me” that served as his first future funk piece. He used voices taken from cassette tapes — drawing from a collection he recently started showcasing on Instagram — for an “extra warm” feeling.
It was Night Tempo’s rework of “Plastic Love,” however, that got greater attention after being featured on the YouTube channel Artzie Music, a space that plays a huge role in helping define the sound and look of future funk. Alongside acts such as Yung Bae and Macross 82-99, the site’s algorithm gave Night Tempo a boost. His music reached a whole new audience and his “Plastic Love” remix even zoomed past the original on search engines (an irony not lost on Jung).
“The music of future funk is hardly new. The basics come from filter house, such as by Daft Punk or Motorbass,” a Japanese artist going under the name Hitachtronics says (a point Jung also mentions, pointing to his Daft Punk fandom). The artist runs the label New Masterpiece and helped publish a book devoted to internet subgenres such as future funk. “There are many artists from generations who did not know that older time in Japan, but they have come to adopt them. I think that it is unique to the viewpoint of young artists from overseas like Night Tempo and Macross,” Hitachtronics says.
Not all of the attention turned out well, though. In early 2018, Jung says the South Korean pop music company JYP Entertainment reached out hoping to work with him — “They wanted my demos.” According to Jung, the company asked for something sounding like his remix of “Plastic Love.”
“We tried to produce some artists. They didn’t take it.” Soon after though, the firm unveiled a teaser for a song by the artist Yubin that sounded suspiciously similar to Jung’s rework of “Plastic Love.”
“Because the drum work and reverb … the original ‘Plastic Love’ isn’t like that. But they said, ‘Oh it’s original, we didn’t work with Night Tempo.’ What the hell?” The song’s release was eventually canceled. JYP Entertainment did not respond when asked for comment.
The situation with Wink’s label has been far smoother and has helped Jung realize he wants to curate in an age of unlimited choice. He’s also down on the niche he came up in.
“I don’t like recent future funk,” he says. “It used to be more musical and tied to culture. It had a more serious image. But nowadays they just put anime stuff and it is more like ‘otaku music.'” This has prompted him to stop using so many “Sailor Moon” samples — plenty others drizzle them in — while also focusing on becoming more professional.
It’s up for debate as to how much future funk works as a way to really educate listeners, or if early artists were even doing that —in a recent interview, the producer Yung Bae says he scours YouTube for obscure songs to sample, which is less about sharing culture and more about scarcity — but Hitachtronics thinks they have opportunities Japanese artists don’t.
“In September 2017, I heard Night Tempo DJ as part of Sailor Team. They played Japanese songs, city pop and anime songs from ‘Evangelion’ and ‘Sailor Moon.’ You would only hear those at anisong events in Japan.” But they mixed it in naturally, exposing it to a larger crowd.
Jung is hoping to expand the repertoire of older Japanese music. His latest independent release is called “Showa Idol’s Groove” and finds him creating jaunty melodies out of Showa idol pop. “This kind of music is also funky, and disco and boogie indebted, and is quite good,” he says, noting how everyone knows Yamashita or Takeuchi, but doesn’t know Wink or other female performers from that time.
He still wants to cultivate the feeling of digging, though. On “Showa Idol’s Groove,” the song titles double as the artist’s first names, and Jung says he hopes this gets people to do a little work to figure out who they are at a time when it is too easy to just find something online, listen and move on. He wants more listeners running into more elements of old Japanese pop culture.
“Every otaku is like that,” he says with a laugh. “They want to share everything about the thing they love with people. Together we can find some treasure.”
For more information on Night Tempo, visit nighttempo.bandcamp.com.