DJing in Japan, by Mark Katz

by justindburton on May 1, 2013

In our interview with Mark Katz about his book Groove Music (Oxford 2012), he mentioned a long section on DJing in Japan that didn’t make it into his book. Below is an excerpt from that section. Many thanks to Mark for sharing!

shibuya crossing

Crate diggers who don’t believe in Heaven have never been to Shibuya.

One of 23 wards in the city of Tokyo, Shibuya was, as of the summer of 2008, home to more than 30 independent record shops within its five square miles, many of them specializing in hip-hop vinyl.1  To get a sense of Shibuya’s discological riches, take a short stroll down Inokashira Dori.  Start at the famous Shibuya crossing, perhaps the busiest intersection in the world, where thousands of pedestrians scramble across the wide expanse of asphalt with each red light.  (This type of intersection is actually called a pedestrian scramble—all traffic is stopped while pedestrians cross in every direction at once.)  On any given weekend night this hip section of town teems with such a variety of subcultures as to belie the commonplace notion of Japanese homogeneity.  Hip-hoppers sport thick gold chains and baggy jeans, hipsters pose in porkpie hats, Edwardian dandies share sidewalk space with greasers, goths, and punks, drunk salarymen ogle packs of ganguro girls with dyed blonde hair and fake tans, and a sprinkling of gaijin, or foreigners, take it all in with varying degrees of bewilderment written on their faces.  English-speaking gaijin will smile at the famously inscrutable “Engrish” slogans inked on the t-shirts of passersby:  “Just Say No to Babylon,” “Wake Up the Candys,” “Property of Pittsburgh,” and “Exchange Hot Words Over Mistress Eat Too Much,” are a few of the ones I noted during my 2008 visit.

Leave the vast space of Shibuya crossing, with its multistory video screens embedded into glass-walled buildings, and head up Center Gai, a narrow street bathed in the neon and noise of pachinko parlors, gift shops, fast food restaurants, and the rear entrance of the massive HMV record store.  After exploring HMV’s stock of CDs, exit the front and turn left on Inokashira Dori.  Disk Union is on the same side of the street just a short stroll away.  Kept within its four floors are thousands of vinyl hip-hop and R&B records, as well as DJ equipment and turntablist instructional videos.  On a weekend night this is a fine place to observe serious diggers at work.  Young men in t-shirts and jeans stand shoulder-to-shoulder over the bins, necks bent at a slight angle, flipping quickly through the discs while scanning their covers in a wakeful version of R.E.M.  Their faces remain serious, passive, though occasionally they betray a flicker of emotion as they pull a record out and set it aside.  In the next set of buildings and up three floors, Warszawa Imported CDs and Records occupies a space the size of a studio apartment, which it probably once was.  From Warszawa continue in the same direction along this canyon of neon.  Hollywood Hip-Hop Wareshop, a clothing store, and Ishibashi Music Store, which stocks DJ equipment among much else, sit close by.  The next record shop is Homebass Records (“Hip-Hop, R&B, Reggae, Breaks, and Gear”) on the second floor of a very narrow building.  Fifty feet further finds Dance Music Records, which looks across the street to Broadway Hip-Hop and Sports Gear, whose sign carries the New York Yankees distinctive logo.  (Hip-hop clothing stores seem to outnumber the hip-hop record shops.  According to one report, there were more than 300 such fashion outlets just in central Tokyo in 2003.2)  Dance Music Records, associated with a record label of the same name, is one of the larger independent stores in the neighborhood.  (Shibuya itself is made of several neighborhoods; all the stores I describe here are in Udagawacho.)  DMR has a spare, industrial look with polished concrete floors and racks of vinyl and tables of equipment.  Both of its two floors have a DJ booth; hip-hop blasts from the first, techno and house from the second.  DMR is not the only record store at this address (Udagawacho 36); it apparently exists in some sort of harmony with its smaller competitors:  4DJ’s, Hi-Hat Records, and Grand Gallery Select CD Record Shop.

Another minute up the street—here the neon canyon gives way to drab low-slung structures—and on the other side of Inokashiri Dori, a cluster of shops dominates Udagawacho 11.  (Tokyo addresses, by the way, rarely use street names.  Rather, they refer to the neighborhood and building number.  To make matters more difficult, adjacent buildings are often not numbered consecutively.  All of this makes Tokyo addresses exceedingly unhelpful without a map.3)  For the gaijin looking at the jumble of signs in this upsloping alley, an English-language obscenity will likely catch the eye first: “FUCK PC/REAL DJs USE VINYL.”  This slogan, in red and yellow capitals overlaying a photo of two Technics 1200 turntables in battle mode, advertises two stores that sit on the left and right sides of a cracked concrete staircase, Disc Jam Records and Disc Jam DJ Gear, which, as might be expected, are devoted to the world of analog sound.  Also on the right side is Mother’s Records, another small shop devoted to vinyl, and two clothing stores with Afrodiasporic influences, Riddim Driven (Jamaican/reggae fashions) and Panty (“Black Adult Men and Ladies Celeb Brand”).   On the left side, next to Disc Jam Records, is Yellow Pop Used CD and Record Shop and Grow Around, a hip-hop clothing store that also sells Notorious B.I.G., Chuck D., and Flavor Flav action figures.  All of these stores sit hip to hip, and could fit comfortably within a hundred-foot circle.  Back down the alley and facing the street is a duplex structure housing Quintrix Disc Lounge, Manhattan Clothing, and Manhattan Records.  The last-named is one of the more popular record stores in the area, and is almost exclusively devoted to hip-hop vinyl.  Upon entering the store the visitor is embraced (or perhaps assaulted) by the flesh-jiggling bass emanating from the first-floor DJ booth (the second floor has its own), which sits under a large portrait of the late MC Notorious B.I.G., making it look like something of a hip-hop shrine.  Upon exiting the store to the right, the last stop on this tour leads down a dark, graffiti-covered alleyway.  The name of the ground-level shop, Still Diggin, suggests a devotion to the DJ, though in fact its focus is the aerosol arts.  Its shelves hold row upon row of spray paint cans, along with ventilator masks, clothes, and sneakers, as well as a small selection of secondhand vinyl.  Three floors above is Guinness Records, a cozy place that, like its neighbor, Manhattan, sells largely hip-hop vinyl.  Spend some time listening to some rare grooves (perhaps some $100 Sugar Hill Records test pressings) at the Technics 1200-equipped listening stations and then head back down the stairs and to the street.  Before stepping back into the chaos, notice the centuries-old statue of Jizo serenely guarding the alley.  The traditional Buddhist protector of children, Jizo continues his work here in Shibuya, perhaps protecting Tokyo’s youth from the bullet-ridden fate of some of their hip-hop idols, like Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur, whose music can be found on every block.  If uninterrupted, the walk I just described from Shibuya crossing to the Udagawacho Jizo should take no more than ten minutes.  If browsing, allow for several hours to a lifetime.

DJ Ta-Shi

DJ Ta-Shi

When, during a visit to Japan in 2008, I told the DJs I met of my astonishment at the proliferation of record stores, their response is almost uniform:  lament.  Apparently, what I had seen was just a shadow of this vinyl village’s former self.  “All my favorite stores have closed,” sighed DJ Ta-Shi.4  (One of the most beloved of the closed stores was Cisco, actually a collection of five shops based in the area now occupied by Disc Jam, et al.  That hillock of Shibuya real estate had once been commonly known as Cisco Slope.)  We will return to consider reasons for this decline, but now I want to consider what should be clear from this selective (and I must stress selective) tour of Shibuya’s record stores:  Tokyo is, from any number of perspectives, unparalleled in the world in its devotion to hip-hop culture, hip-hop music, and especially the hip-hop DJ.  American DJs readily admit this.  Consider the opinion of Rob Swift, who had visited there ten times between 1998 and 2007:  “I think people in Japan really respect and admire the DJ.  They study the art form with an intensity that doesn’t exist in the states.  They apply themselves and go out of their way to know everything about whatever interests them.”5  DJ Cash Money, the mention of whose name still evokes awe among Japanese DJs, puts it even more strongly.  “They’ve done so much homework.  They know more about our music than we know about our music.  It’s so funny, they know so much about my history, and sometimes they’ll talk to me about it.  I’m like, man!”

Tokyo is particularly beloved by American DJs for its vinyl stock. Cash Money explained to me how in 1989, “I had one of my craziest digging experiences there.  I walk in this store, and this guy had all these James brown 12-inches, like original 12-inches, like promo records.  I mean, he had so many records.  I asked him, ‘How much would you want for you to close this store down?’  I ended up spending $10,000.  Yeah, I shut the store down.  I left all my clothes at the hotel.  I took all the real expensive records on the plane with me, and he sent the rest of them.”6

  1. Japan Record Shop Map Book, 22nd ed. (Tokyo:  Hensyukouboukyu, 2008).  The nearby Shinjuku section of town actually has more stores—42 according to the directory—but the Shinjuku specialty is rock, not hip-hop.
  2. Yo Takasuki, “Japan Grows its own Hip-Hop,” BBC News, 17 December 2003, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/3324409.stm
  3. A useful map is Tokyo City Atlas:  A Bilingual Guide, 3rd ed. (Tokyo:  Kodansha International, 2004).
  4. DJ Ta-Shi, interview with author, 1 June 2008 Tokyo.
  5. Rob Swift, e-mail message to the author, 11 January 2008.
  6. Telephone interview with DJ Cash Money, 23 June 2008.

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