Interview: DJ-producer Yohji Igarashi weaves new wave of Japanese hip-hop, club music

Music producer and DJ Yohji Igarashi is seen in a photo provided by the artist.

TOKYO — From humble beginnings spinning wax as a DJ at a high school festival, Yohji Igarashi now produces songs for many nascent stars in Japan’s new generation of hip-hop and club music, including Hiyadam, Yurufuwa Gang, Jubee, Yo-Sea and Dongurizu. He is also known for lending a hard techno edge to an official remix for overseas breakout act Atarashii Gakko, who have toured across the globe from the U.S. to Indonesia and boast over 14 million fans on social media.

The Mainichi Shimbun spoke with the Tokyo native about his collaborations, the gear he uses and his path as a rising producer of genre-melding dance music. (Editor’s Note: The interview was held in Japanese and has been edited for length and clarity.)

Question: To begin, how about a quick self-introduction?

Answer: I’m a DJ, producer and trackmaker. I make primarily club-style dance music and I’m a composer for Hiyadam and other vocalists.

Q: What led to your remix of Atarashii Gakko’s “Pineapple Kryptonite?”

A: I was asked to arrange the music for another of their videos, After School Karaoke, where they covered classic Japanese and western karaoke staples. I made a bunch of short, one-minute remixes for the video, including of their song “Pineapple Kryptonite.” A label rep (for U.S.-based 88rising) liked it and proposed releasing it as a single. That led to me signing on a per-song basis with 88rising, my favorite label. Signing with them was my goal for a long time. Atarashii Gakko are their only permanent Japanese artist. They release songs individually by a few other artists, such as Hikaru Utada and Gen Hoshino. … I think with Atarashii Gakko, Yoasobi and (girl group) XG, they’ve started to take note of more Japanese acts.

Q: What do you think led 88rising to take note of those artists?

A: For Atarashii Gakko, firstly, I think they landed the visuals with their school uniforms and overall look. Their performances, including their dances, are also extremely creative. I think those aspects led to their signing. They gained fame as videos like their song “Otona Blue,” along with my remix of “Pineapple Kryptonite,” were shared on social media, and they toured more overseas. My sense is that’s why 88rising and others have taken more interest in Japanese artists. As a result, acts like Yoasobi and XG have started to be invited to perform. I think Atarashii Gakko kicked that off. (Female rapper) Awich is also joining the next Head in the Clouds festival (hosted by 88rising). I hope this trend continues.

Atarashii Gakko! – Pineapple Kryptonite (Yohji Igarashi Remix) [Official Video]

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Q: What led to your close collaboration with Hiyadam?

A: We were both out for a drive in a friend’s car when I played some of my tracks. He liked them. I was a fan of his work, too. Within a short span, I put together quite a few demo songs for him, and somehow or other, wound up as producer for about half the tracks on his 2019 album (“Antwerp Juggle”). After that, I went on to produce all the songs on his EP (“Tired Caroline”) in 2020. I’ve been working on tracks for his next album bit by bit over the last few years.

Q: Who are your influences, and which artists do you look up to?

A: Skrillex. His songs have an original sound, and I can listen to his songs from 2010 as though they’re new. Trends in club music come and go quickly, but to me, Skrillex’s works stand on another level. He crosses genres, and I respect him. And Bangladesh, the producer of Lil Wayne’s “A Milli.” He has a simple way of sampling using very few sounds, but turns out beats with an addictive quality. His songs are amazing, and got me to think, “I can do that.” While simple, beats like his are hard to pull off. Among other things, a good sense of what sounds to use is critical. It’s like that with a lot of music. Artists that let new bands think, “We can do that,” are important.

Q: So, you began writing music around the time you were listening to Bangladesh?

A: When I was about 15, I started messing with a sampler, just clicking on it for fun. But I just got it to make sounds and didn’t complete anything. Bangladesh really made me think for the first time that I could turn sounds into songs.

Q: What kind of sampler did you use?

A: A Roland SP-404. I still use it for Hiyadam’s live performances. They’re old but legendary, fetching premium prices if in good condition. I picked one up for around 35,000 yen (approx. $235). At the time, I knew I wanted to make music, but had no idea where to start. I went to an instrument shop, and the 404 had just been released. Just by testing it out, I knew I could use it to produce beats. Aside from sampling, it has a ton of effects, and you can get gritty, unusual sounds from it. It’s been indispensable for me as a producer, and plenty of people still try to get their hands on one.

Q: Like Skrillex, your music also blends genres, from old-school dance to the latest hip-hop.

A: I have to offer a unique sound, otherwise there’s no point. It’s important to approach other artists or defined genres to an extent, but within that, to also offer a distinctive sound as much as possible. It’s comparable to how students accessorize uniforms for a sense of style. They work with the freedom they have. I think of music the same way — to be as free as possible within given genres, listening closely to vocalists and trying to see what they were going for while adding something original.

Q: How would you define your sound?

A: Above all, I aim for original bass sounds as much as possible. For example, with Hiyadam’s tracks I compose the basslines on a keyboard. What I produce ties in with Hiyadam’s sound. I try to give listeners a sense they’re hearing a Hiyadam song.

Q: For example, how did you get the bass sound used in Hiyadam’s “Wavy Bass?”

A: I started out going for a straight house sound. After getting something down using a synthesizer, I switched it up by converting it (from MIDI) to audio. Compared to hitting keys on a synthesizer, by converting to audio I could mess with the pitch in ways otherwise impossible, giving rise to distortion and a rough, dirty tone. I don’t usually do things experimentally, but that was how that song came about.

Hiyadam – Wavy Base [Official Video]

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Q: Where did you first DJ?

A: A high school gymnasium. (Laughs) It was a school festival when I was 17, just before graduating. My first gig at a venue was a small place in Kichijoji that probably doesn’t exist anymore called Fourth Floor. (The venue has since moved to Koenji.) That was when I was 18, just after graduation. Technically, I wasn’t allowed to be there, but venues weren’t as strict back then.

Q: Which artists outside Japan would you like to work with?

A: Skrillex. He’s always been my role model. Other artists on 88rising, like (Indonesian rapper) Warren Hue. Basically, all the artists on that label are great. They get just the right balance between artistry and entertainment. Other than them, Kanye West. Musically, he’s amazing. Regardless of everything else, he creates music people want to hear.

Q: How about within Japan?

The rapper Yellow Bucks. His voice makes songs distinctly “Yellow Bucks.” He has a great presence and sounds really close to the listener. I feel like I can create something new just by hearing his voice. The girl group XG — their rapping and singing skills are top-notch, and I think they have potential for a worldwide hit. For the most part, aside from songs that get popular through anime tie-ups and such, Japanese music remains a local phenomenon, unknown to the majority. Not many artists break out overseas. But I think XG has something similar to K-Pop groups like BTS and Blackpink, and I want to help them get to that level.

Q: Outside of music, where do you find inspiration?

A: Soccer. I’m a fan of Shunsuke Nakamura, a former player with Yokohama FC and Scotland’s Celtic who retired last year. I’m inspired by the stoicism of sports, which I find connects with the spirit of music.

Q: What are you currently working on?

A: Aside from tracks on Hiyadam’s upcoming album, a collaboration with kZm (read as “Kazuma”) and an EP of original, pure dance tracks without any guest vocalists that I hope to release this year.

Q: Which of your songs are you most proud of?

A: “Love Myself” (featuring KzM and Cony Plankton). Though it hasn’t garnered a huge number of plays, I consider it my best song, and it’s my favorite of any song.

Q: What are your goals?

A: To have my name appear as a composer credit for a song on NHK’s “Kohaku uta gassen” (the public broadcaster’s annual year-end music competition). Atarashii Gakko appeared on the show, but my remix wasn’t used.

Q: Do you have a motto?

A: “Keiko gyugo.” It’s not a very well-known expression, even among Japanese people. Basically, it says that despite more safety as a small part of a larger system, it’s better to take the lead. I think I got it from a Japanese language textbook in high school. It immediately left an impression. (Editor’s note: “Keiko gyugo” translates as “It’s better to be the mouth of a chicken than the rear end of a cow,” roughly equivalent to “Better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond.”)

Q: Lastly, any messages to fans in the English-speaking world?

A: Streaming services like Spotify have leveled the playing field. With LPs, some rare ones can go for tens of thousands of yen (hundreds of dollars) and others go for 100 yen (about $0.67). But now you can listen to anything as much as you want with a subscription. It isn’t that way with clothing — Uniqlo is easier to buy than Balenciaga, for example. So, I feel really grateful for listeners who choose my music, when Ed Sheeran, Rihanna or Justin Bieber songs are just as accessible. I mean, it’s ok to listen to Ed Sheeran songs, too. (Laughs)

Music lovers in Tokyo can check Igarashi’s next DJ gigs at Zero Tokyo on Feb. 24 and Music Bar Lion on Feb. 29. Check out some of the tracks he’s produced below. His social media can be found at: https://linktr.ee/yohji_igarashi

Hiyadam – Yabba Dabba Doo! (Feat. Yurufuwa Gang) [Official Video]

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Yohji Igarashi – Love Myself (Feat. kZm & Cony Plankton)

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Atarashii Gakko!’s After School Karaoke – Episode: In the Box[embedded content]

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