In his monthly column System Focus, The FADER's favorite underground music critic Adam Harper stares deep into the internet's gloom to unearth emerging musical forms.
They said the internet would melt my brain and I laughed and turned up the heat, threw in armfuls of hi-octane, hi-tech, hi-speed, hi-intensity music. I dissolved at the speed of sound, fragments free-falling, dispersing and disengaging like it was meant to happen. But then my hard drive got corrupted, and my gray matter got flooded with exclamation marks, misfires, and "file not found" notifications. The music went straight through me like massless particles, and I realized I'd forgotten stillness in the surge of desire and transcendence.
After months and months of huffing the strongest stuff that online future music had to offer, I kind of blew a fuse. So much of what I've listened to and written about recently has focused on thrill in the domain of digital industry—whether positive, or negative, or, more usually, an ambivalent, provocative mix of the two. Acceleration might be the imperative of the moment, but it does get exhausting, even dangerous. I'ma just rest by the side of the road here, get my breath back for a bit. So I've been looking for music that's calming, sensitive, healing—soothing sounds to save even internet-accelerated brains. And I've found that much of it comes from—or focuses on—the very place that is so often associated with both love and fear of intense futurity in underground music these days: East Asia.
Now don't get me wrong. Firstly, I'm not about to return to the pleasant authenticity of the past, of analogue materiality and the warm hug of the tried and tested, to "human" aesthetics, to "real music." There is still ultimately no such thing as humanity or reality (but hey, even if that's the case, let's still be good to each other). Secondly, there is no such thing as one fixed character to East-Asian music. As a brief perusal of Bandcamp will show you, any large geographical area typically has a full complement of musical genres and moods. Rather than perceiving and understanding this, however, what we hear instead are stories about the specific qualities of an area or its people, based on some vague and often constructed sense of national character and national style, and regularly laced with potent positive and negative emotions concerning either the exotic or potential conflict. It might be 2015, but these stories are told as often as ever, and especially with regards to East Asia.
Whenever I'm super stressed out, one of my favorite albums to listen to is Paraiso by Japanese musician Haruomi Hosono (as Harry Hosono and the Yellow Magic Band). It's from 1978, at around the time of the debut album of the synth-pop act he formed with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi, Yellow Magic Orchestra. What's interesting about Paraiso and Yellow Magic Orchestra is that they both play on the exotic associations Westerners have with Japan and other islands in the Pacific, whether it be quaint local color encountered on holiday or the electro-technological spectacular that is associated with the region. In doing this, Paraiso also drew on American lounge and exotica music rooted in the 1950s, rendering both sweet but ultimately insipid. This is why I'm especially interested in music that plays with stories and tropes of 'Asianness' that comes from Asia itself—it's self-reflexive, complicated, and responsive.
Lounge and exotica gave rise to the muzak of the mid-twenctieth century, and Hosono's lounge revival continues today in the corporate mood muzak of vaporwave. Vaporwave is typically entranced by the hi-tech late-twentieth-century that was beginning to spring up around Hosono when he escaped into the lilt of Paraiso. Even if much vaporwave comes from America or Europe, it's always had an East-Asian and particularly Japanese aspect to it, manifested in the surrounding imagery and use of East-Asian characters. After its initial explosion in 2013, the fad stage of vaporwave is over and the genre is beginning to settle down into areas with a genuine long-term interest in and passion for the sound—the prolific Dream Catalogue label is perhaps the home of the best vaporwave at the moment (its 新しい日の誕生 ("Birth of a New Day") by ２８１４ offers a brilliant nocturnal chillout). Interestingly, there's been much attention to—and production of—vaporwave in Japan itself. Of course, it's difficult to be sure that a producer is actually from East Asia, when putting up an East Asian location on Bandcamp is often part of the multimedia fiction that vaporwave weaves. A new and generally high-quality label, Tokyo Exchange, seems particularly focused on the Japanese elements, flying the flag at the top of its page, leaning heavily on Japanese text and selling its wares in yen. Maybe it's actually Japanese—who knows? Highlights include the industrial-strength tranquiliser of 神秘的情人 ("Mysterious Lover") by 泰合志恒 ("Telepath") and the stark weirdness of ???????? by THE DARKEST FUTURE, and デッドデッドデッドデッド ("Dead dead dead dead") by Vision Girl.
But at its best—for me, at least—vaporwave is both relaxing and eery at the same time, both comforting and discomfiting. And this isn't quite the soothing escape I'm looking for right now. Perhaps I can find it in "future funk," a genre that developed out of vaporwave and is largely built upon samples of funk and disco from the 1970s and 1980s and is much less spooky. It really got going with the release of the hugely popular Hit Vibes by Saint Pepsi in 2013, and has since found a great home on the high-calibre Keats Collective label. Keats has been branching out into hip hop and chillwave sounds, too, with some wonderfully crafted releases by Pyxis, Cahunastyle and Timid Soul, who deftly mixes sloppy-cosmic-funky beats with J-pop's cuteness sensibility via vocaloids.
While eschewing the weirdness and conceptual edge of much vaporwave, future funk and its associates frequently maintain this link with Japanese sounds and their richer harmonies as well as text and imagery from the island, mixing them all with the faded retro-USA imagery that surrounds chillwave and old-hipster music. Together with its use of simpler kinds of funk and disco, future funk and what follows in its wake rather often feels like a step backwards—broey even. Besides which, neither vaporwave or future funk avoid the slightly uncomfortable exoticization of Asia that's existed in Western music for centuries, and that often objectifies women in the process. And, as it eventually turned out (when it was Floral Shoppe that became central to the genre rather than the more modern-sounding subsequent albums by the same artist, and when Hit Vibes took a disco direction), vaporwave and future funk are just as retro-gazing as so much as else in indie music. Even if I do need to step away from the white heat of the present for a bit—even if I did get my head fried by the future—I'm not about to get involved in nostalgia.
Where else can I go? Actually, the past month is a special and sad one for Japanese underground music and involves another one of the artists I like to listen to to get my head back together. The Tokyo-based hip-hop producer Le died in a traffic accident just over 5 years ago, at the age of 36. Since that time, he has (rather like J Dilla) quietly built up a considerable reputation, especially online, where dozens of tribute releases can be found (few them quite matching the skill and subtly of Nujabes himself). Beginning in the 1990s, Nujabes's signature sound was based in that era's soul and jazz beats, and typically uses piano, often flute or soprano saxophone too, with the rich chords often favoured in Japanese musical smoothness. His sound is the perfect and surprising union of coolness (and I mean that as an aesthetic with a long history and particular feel) and sentimentality. Few of his productions demonstrate the cool side better than his music for the anime series Samurai Champloo (you've got to check the opening titles out), which earned him much of his popularity. The sentimental side comes out on his solo albums, particularly as time went by—try tracks like "Kumomi," "Rainyway Back Home," "A Day By Atmosphere Supreme", or, with rapper Shing02, the "Luv (sic)" series. Beautiful watercolor art perfectly accompanies Nujabes's music on his own label Hydeout Productions, and is routinely imitated by fans. It's all quite the opposite of the stereotype of Japan as up-tight and/or hyper flashy.
Hydeout continues in the same style, as do many of his former associates around the world, such as on new label Roph. Nujabes is the focus of a busy page on Reddit, and his name has become a widely used Bandcamp tag. Especially active on the tag are labels including the Californian Roots of Society Records, and London's Cult Classic Records. A loose group of Nujabes-inspired producers, connected or unconnected, spreads out from them. Often tipping into the overly sentimental (and perhaps all the more special for it) and many of them adopting an East-Asian-derived aesthetic generally, they include Snow Fox Apprentice, Yeiv, Senpai, Breezewax, Soulostar, Shinotoon, Karamel Kel, Beastector, Elyonbeats, Skeloton, and Niazura. Many of these artists embody the sincere sentimentalism that caught my attention about fandom music, along with the Romantic digital art and heart-on-sleeve personal write-ups you just don't find in hipper areas of the underground, online or off.
Flavors more traditionally associated with East Asia—the plucked or struck instruments and pentatonic modalities of older idioms—have often accompanied the newer beat-production style known as trap. They have been a key element in the aesthetic I heard as platinum, and the new Drip-133 release (he's one of the online underground's sharper producers) is not dissimilar in this respect. In recent years, LA producer Horse Head has developed a unique, dreamy, laid-back beat style that often borrows from East-Asian flavors new and old (particularly on albums like Spirit Armor 2), and proudly affirms its sentimentality with the sound logo declaring "emotional content."
But one of the greatest practitioners of drum-machine production with a more traditionally East-Asian sound is from Shanghai: Swimful Buterfly. Swimful has produced for US rappers Lil B and Main Attrakionz, and released a warmly euphoric debut album 馬路天使 (Street Angel) in 2013. Last year's follow-up, 归梦 (Return to a Dream), is even better, perfectly following that trajectory whereby a producer gets both more skilled at crafting beats and more original. It samples both Chinese and Japanese zither instruments and singing try "But Maybe". The track "Air Between Toes" even samples the song "Tsukematsukeru" from J-Pop's kawaii princess Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, transforming its torrent of soda-pop into a cooling stream of sweet mountain water. Swimful is still active on SoundCloud, where tracks like "Waterfall Illusion" and "Heavy Water" are reaching further heights.
China has a number of hip-hop musicians involved in both rap and production—the Hong Kong label Wild$tyle Records and the networks surrounding it tend to prefer a calming, lush soul sound, such as on HGLF Posse's mixtape or Grymeman's Winter Theory. Aristophanes 貍貓 is a fantastically charismatic female rapper from Taipei, Taiwan, who prefers to spit ("sigh," "sidle" and "swoon" might be better words) over the sloppy style that has come to be known as glitch hop. Back on that Nujabes thing, Nanchang's Aosaki explores Chinese folk sounds and high-love piano riffs, while SoundIzImage is even more giant-hearted, especially on the album Fragrance. And if you want to go more sentimental still, there's Shirfine from Xiamen, or α·Pav, whose music mixes hip-hop, new age, and Chinese instruments and could be the soundtrack to an indie game that helps kids come to terms with the fact that everything dies.
What about pop? Magic Yume and Zoom Lens (who I talked to here) are two of the best places for Japanese-inspired indie pop in the online underground, and they both have everything on a continuum from laid-back dreaminess to footwork and hyperactive chiptune, showing us that cute and upbeat doesn't have to be intense. At the calmer end, Magic Yume has Tokyo Princess (東京 姫) by Ikaros イカロス (as well as plenty of downtempo beats) and Zoom Lens has Yeule, Girlfriend by Philippines artist Ulzzang Pistol, the gorgeous Paradice by LLLL, and the Yumetatsu Glider EP by Japanese artist Yoshino Yoshikawa, who's affiliated with Tokyo's richly hyperactive Maltine label. And then, if you're lucky, you can sometimes find the perfect J-sentimental pop album out there in deep Bandcamp.
"Emotional" has started to become a term of praise surrounding the music discussed above, and it's something that seems to resist the wryness and grimness of so much underground music. Sometimes it seems like there's something especially touching about certain forms of art and music from East Asia or imitating its styles, as anyone who's seen an Ozu film or an especially deep anime (like something by Miyazaki or this heart-string-tugging series) will tell you. And again, this counters the often dystopian image of East Asia that can obsess Westerners. But really, as anywhere else, it's just one aesthetic strand of many that can be traced through the area. Whether these strands are woven around certain instruments or forms of harmony, text or imagery, or something vaguer like a mood, geography—real or imagined—is itself just another element of musical experience.