Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Notes from the Field: Three Studios: Hip Hop Life

In the last month or so, I've checked in on a few Japanese underground producers to talk and see their equipment setups.  First, I got DJ Terror-D (Terada) of Deep Throat X to give me a tour around an MPC in his apartment in Kichijoji.  Then I took a pretty epic trek to see KOR-One in southwest Tokyo, and finally dropped in much closer to home, checking on DJ Muta right nextdoor in Koenji.  What I saw told me almost as much about their craft and their places in society as what they had to say.

It's probably better to refer to Terror-D as plain old Terada, since Deep Throat X, along with its porno-punk aggressiveness and noms-de-beat (partner Nakamura is known as Middle Finger), is on a hiatus following the release of their debut album, XXX.  At around the time that project was finished, Terada  decided to take a hiatus from his double life as both a fiery musician and a 'salaryman' for a tech-support company.  He took off for three months Tuva, a remote area of Russia where he studied traditional Tuvan music, including the surreal and beautiful art of throat singing.  When he got back from Russia, he began receiving unemployment payments, which seemed strange, since he quit his job rather than being fired.  He's now been on the dole for a good six months, and says his payments will run out in a month or two.  His plan after that is to enroll in computing school.  He's doing this even though he has a firm command of modern personal computing, since, again, the government will give him a stipend for retraining.  After that, he says, he'll go back to Russia.  Longer-term, he loosely considers that he might make a living teaching traditional Tuvan music in Tokyo.  Terada is now 33.

His living arrangements reflects his willingly straightened circumstances.  His apartment could be best described by the disused English term “flophouse,” with all the mystery and desperation it implies.  It is a cramped, bleakly shadowy building in a dingy neighborhood.  We walk up a rickety staircase covered in a crumbly mix of sick-green paint and defiant rust.  As we take off our shoes in the narrow hallway beyond the outer door – there is nothing resembling an entryway – I notice a tub-like metal sink halfway down the dimly-lit hall.  This would be a great setting for a horrific Japanese splatter film, in which some defenseless schoolgirl is kidnapped and tortured by a maniacal doctor, her cries unheard even by the grey, indifferent neighborhood.

Things are marginally brighter in Terada's tiny room.  We squeeze in past a washing machine that half-blocks the entryway, into a space big enough to hold one and a half American queen size beds.  It's a traditional Japanese room – that is, it has tatami flooring and a closet intended for storing a futon during the day.  But since the closet seems full of basically unidentifiable junk rather than bedding, I have a hard time figuring out where Terada sleeps. He's told me there's no bath, so he regularly goes to shower at a mangakissaten, or bathe at an ofuro, a traditional Japanese communal bath of the sort which have become more and more scarce as private bathrooms have become standard in Japanese apartments.

It's midwinter, and Terada is running a gas heater.  Directly next to the door is a large, red gas can – fuel for the heater, and possibly also for the filthy one-burner stove Terada uses to boil water for coffee and tea.  It sits next to a sink, this one much smaller but of the same square-steel variety as the larger one in the hall - the handwashing station to its autopsy giblet-sluice. There's a small, dingy couch and a small CRT television, under which I will later notice a significant collection of porn films on VHS.  I hear movement through the walls and in the hallway, and imagine stooped, grey figures lurking about like ghosts, each of whom lives in quiet sadness in an equally fetid nest.  Terada shares a toilet with these moving whispers, and though I won't realize it until I'm on my way home, I hold back the need to pee for the duration of the visit. This is, in short, the apartment of somebody at the bottom of the social ladder.  His rent is about 30,000 yen, or $300 a month.  

What separates Terada from his neighbors (at least in his own version of events) is that he ended up here willingly, and is spending his days in study as he works to craft a freer, more fulfilling future.  The signs of this are just as prominent as the place's dinginess – the walls are lined with shelves holding books and vinyl, carefully categorized and labeled, and four guitars hang on another wall.  Below them is a broad desk, white but not particularly clean, with a computer monitor, speakers, and a few small keyboards scattered around.  Off to one side is a collection of DJ and music gear, including turntables, mixers, and CD players, mostly still under plastic – Terada tells me he hasn't been listening to or making very much music in the hip hop/electro style DTX is best known for, and he has to basically get his MPC out of storage in order to show it to me.

DJ Kor-One's studio space is a significant contrast.  He lives even further away from central Tokyo than Terada, but shares a spacious and clean 3LK (that is, three bedrooms surrounding a living room and small but comfortable kitchen).  His two roommates have balconies, and one is large enough to house a seven-foot climbing wall (although it cantilevers nearly over that roommate's desk).  Kaori's room is smaller and has only a window towards the parking lot, so he pays less than his roommates – only about 40,000 yen a month, a low price which helps make it possible for him to work only four days a week at his job at an amusement park. His roommates are musicians as well, and one of them spent much of my visit working on a remix for a Japanese reggae band.

Kaori’s bedroom doubled as studio space, but there was enough space for us to jam a little bit after he’d set up the MPC for me. He used a setup based on Native Instruments’ Maschine, a piece of software bundled with a controller that mimicked the look and feel of the MPC, with its array of drum pads.  Maschine has a few advantages over the MPC in terms of flexibility and convenience, but as Kaori pointed out and even an amateur like myself could tell after a quick comparison, the hardware/software combo couldn’t get the same level of responsiveness and sensitivity you get with the MPC.  It’s an almost imperceptible but really important difference.

Finally, DJ Muta’s space reflected the relatively greater success he’s had, both as a member of the group Juswanna and in working as a DJ for various events affiliated with Libra Records, one of the biggest independent operations in the underground.  In fact, just a few days before talking to him, I got to see him DJ in front of thousands of people at the final round of the Ultimate MC Battle.  Though his studio space was almost as small as Kor-One’s or Terror-D’s, it was in a one-bedroom apartment much closer to the center of Tokyo, and was packed full of much more high-end gear, such as a big-screen Macintosh and a sophisticated production desk that he’d built himself (including an impressive slide-out rack for his synth controller).  Like Kaori and Terada, Muta’s space was packed floor to ceiling with records, quite literally at the limit of the space’s ability to hold it.  This is what high-achievement looks like in Japan – a rather unspectacular apartment transformed with some ingenuity and hard work into something nearly livable.

I was relatively more interested in talking to Muta than getting a music lesson from him, but he did show me a couple of the pieces of software he uses to make music, and played a couple of things he’s working on – particularly, a mix he’d made including, of all things, Joni Mitchell.  I’ll be writing a bit more about my conversation with Muta, in which he had some really inspiring things to say about the reasons he’s a musician, soon.

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