On two separate occasions while filming his Tokyo-based portion of Check Your DMs, Yusuke Kawai, better known as tofubeats, is stopped in public by fans who excitedly ask for a photograph, to which he politely obliges. This is no mean feat. Not just because the vast majority of the single-day shoot has taken place cosily confined within his studio, interspersed with only brief stints outside (and in the pouring rain, no less), but also because he isn't one to bask in the limelight.
A prolific producer, 29-year-old Kawai has the flair of a frontman – often singing and rapping on tracks with signature auto tune – but more often than not, he cedes the spotlight to collaborators that run the stylistic gamut from rapper Young Juju to veteran singer-songwriter Chisato Moritaka. Kawai exudes the sort of musical inquisitiveness that befits someone who is more comfortable behind the mixing board, but his fame and recognisability is testament to the ease to which he can both churn out hits in the studio and still single-handedly command thousands of fans in the live arena.
Watch Check Your DMs episode 1 featuring DJ Q, Gaidaa and tofubeats in the player below.
Be sure to download the free Red Bull TV app and catch the music action on all your devices! Get the app here.
“I produce tracks for artists that will regularly break into the Top 10, but then I’m also putting out a release in May that’s just white noise,” Kawai says. “And no one in Japan will consider that particularly strange, whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.”
For Kawai, you sense that’s very much a good thing, given that his range extends far beyond what you might initially expect if you only listened to his hits. Many of them have racked up millions of plays on YouTube, and typically boast a groove-laden combination of upbeat synths and auto-tuned vocals, tinged with a melancholy that conjures both balmy summer nights with friends, as well as the solitude of the journey home.
However, dig deeper into his back catalogue, which includes online drops and self-released USB-keys filled with beats, and you’ll find everything from delicate ballads to house-inflected club constructions. Indeed, his formative years were spent dabbling in Japan’s nascent 'Netlabel' scene, which promoted experimentation.
Listen to All In by DJ Q, Gaidaa and tofubeats:
“When I started releasing music online back in 2008, Netlabels were all web-based and gave away their music for free, which marked a big difference from traditional labels that focused on analogue releases, especially in Japan,” he says.
“Websites like Bandcamp have been around for a long time too, but Netlabels in Japan were more closely aligned with the philosophy of sites like Internet Archive, rather than distribution platforms. They would mostly all build their own homepages, and it wasn’t just about putting up mp3s for download; it was about everything from learning to code in HTML to setting up your own servers, that entire process. That was the ‘soul’ behind Netlabels and that’s what was really important for everyone involved.”
Kawai’s close relationship with Netlabels like Maltine Records, founded by producers Tomad and Syem in 2005, is something he maintains today and which tethers him to an underground electronic music scene that would otherwise rarely overlap with the more mainstream pop world.
Indeed, Kawai is equally at home talking about DMZ dubplates and grime white labels as much as he is when breaking down the trends in Japanese pop. He puts much of this down to Japan’s inherently assimilative nature.
“I think it’s relatively normal for producers making J-Pop to work within a variety of genres and styles,” he explains. “Even the phrase, ‘J-Pop’, doesn’t connote anything specific musically. When I was growing up, chart music might sound like anything from rock to R ’n’ B, but it was all labeled ‘J-Pop’.”
He contrasts this with his perception of equivalent scenes overseas: “Internationally, you might have house DJs that only play house, and, of course, there are some people in Japan like that too, but in general it feels like the notions of ‘genre’ and ‘identity’ aren’t conflated in that way here.
"Can you even define a ‘Japanese’ beat?”, he ponders. “We’re already borrowing sounds that originated in Europe and the US, so it’s less about ideas of authenticity and more about being true to your individual stylistic likes and dislikes.”
His desire and ability to transcend genres and styles is something that comes across clearly on his Check Your DMs collaboration with DJ Q and Gaidaa, lending melodies and a rap hook that intersect seamlessly between the former’s powerful bassline and the latter’s dreamy vocals. It feels like a selfless, but also effortless decision that speaks to Kawai’s depth of experience with similar collaborations.
“I always used to work on collaborations remotely because I was living in Kobe, and everyone else would typically be based in Tokyo, so that wasn’t an unusual process for me at all,” he says. “But it also felt like quite a fresh approach in terms of how I finished my part, and then it was up to DJ Q to play around freely with that edit a second time without me getting involved again. That felt markedly different from a normal collaboration, where even if it’s two or three of you involved, you’d all be working simultaneously and approaching one track from one angle."
“Another thing is that, although I collaborate with Japanese artists all the time, this was the first time in a while that I’ve worked with artists abroad,” he says. “It’s fairly common for Japanese artists like myself to struggle with certain aspects of English-language communication, and it was interesting to see how times when the communication went smoothly, but also when it didn’t go smoothly, were both reflected in the end result. In fact, it was the balance of both that led to the most interesting parts.”
Both culturally and linguistically, cross-border communication is frequently the biggest barrier for Japanese artists, the vast majority of whom would love nothing more than to connect with a wider community of musicians and audiences around the world. Kawai is no different and with the internet facilitating all manner of collaborations and connections, he's probably better placed than many of his predecessors to make this a reality.
“Look at Terada-San,” he says, referencing Japanese house music legend Soichi Terada. “He was putting out incredible music for decades and I’ve been a fan of his from a long, long time ago, but no one really noticed him until Rush Hour repressed his compilation. It took that initial international attention for him to start playing big festivals around the world, which was something that he’d always deserved on the strength of his music alone.”
Kawai is also aware that it’s far too easy for Japanese artists to be lumped in with umbrella cultural movements like the popularity of anime around the world, even if they’re entirely unrelated. “The perception of ‘Cool Japan’ and its link to anime culture, in particular, is so overbearing that it can be hard for musicians like myself, who are operating solely within music culture without that overlap, to reach international audiences separate from that association,” he explains.
“With that said, I don’t mind being perceived as a ‘Japanese musician’ or spoken about in those terms... I mean, my artist name is tofubeats after all,” he laughs. “The biggest hurdle is just having people abroad hear our music in the first place, and so I hope people can be more direct in sharing the music they love. There’s so many weird, wonderful artists here… I think listeners would find it really interesting.”