A (Very) Brief History Of Japanese “Chill-Out”

Stamp The Wax have just posted an article on Japanese Chill Out / Downtempo music, featuring questions fielded by Max Essa, Ken Hidaka, and me – plus a “segue” of some favorites that I put together. I also wrote a “primer” essay, which I don’t think is gonna get used now – so I`ll put it here – as a pump for the Stamp The Wax piece, and a further push for our Oto No Wa comp on Music For Dreams. 

Let me start by stating that I`m no expert. Sure I have a ton of Japanese records, but I’ve been living in Japan for well over a decade. So that just goes with the territory. If I lived on Mars I`d have a lot of Martian records. Let me also kick-off this primer with a very loose definition, so we’re clear on our destination. For simplicity’s sake, I’m gonna say that “ambient” is academic and beat-less, and “chill-out” is its more pop close relative. One that sometimes takes the radical ideas of the other and tames them slightly, usually adding to their accessibility by tethering them to a tranquil toe-tapping, head-nodding rhythm. 

Haruomi Hosono & The Yellow Magic Band – Paraiso

Personally I`ll put the “creation” of Japanese “chill-out” squarely on the shoulders of YMO-founding member, Haruomi Hosono, and Hosono-san`s interest in exotica – the music of Les Baxter, Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman. In my opinion this is where Japanese chill-out began, in Hosono`s folk and pop songs that referenced this “muzak” made for tiki-lounges and suburban cocktail-hours. An aural psychedelia of sorts that was meant to transport the average working Joe / Joan from their front room to a Hawaiian lūʻau – once they’d got home, down to their stockinged feet, and mixed themselves a stiff one. Hosono`s albums Tropical Dandy and Paraiso are fine examples. The latter being a favourite of Jose Padilla – Ibiza`s chill-out king. Hosono went on to produce and play on records for many of his contemporaries, such as Chu Kosaka, impressing this exotica influence on their output, and the success of these releases in turn encouraged other cats, like Hiroyuki Namba and Katsutoshi Morizino – to follow suit. The seasoned session players, the fusion stars, that Hosono called friends, such as Hiroshi Sato, when it came to recording their own albums, also dabbled. 

Chu Kosaka – Bon Voyage Hobata

In addition, Hosono-san was mentor to a new, younger generation of aural explorers who also proved to be incredibly important. Here I’m talking about the Major Force crew – Toshio Nakanishi, Masayuki Kudo, Takagi Kan, and Hiroshi Fujiwara. Nakanishi in particular was a kind of cultural magpie – whenever a fresh musical movement appeared was on it. He`d been in electro / punk band Plastics, and then the Malcolm McClaren-influenced art outfit Melon – who created “cash from chaos” and promoted themselves as pin-ups right from the start. He called himself Tycoon Tosh and when hip hop first rolled out the lino and broke he was over in New York hanging with DJ Red Alert. Melon morphed into The Watermelon Group and then just Water Melon. With Hosono`s encouragement they made many of their own exotica-influenced numbers, but by embracing hip hop, and sampling, Major Force brought the BEAT. 

Watermelon Group – The Gate To Japanasia

Sexy T.K.O. – Tribe Of Love

Armed with samplers they were highly creative, highly prolific, and hugely eclectic. Mixing what they`d learned in New York with sighing disco divas, field-recorded rivers and streams, and stirring in the rare grooves and sound system culture that they’d been exposed to in London. If I`m giving Major Force credit for bringing hip hop to Japan,  I`ll also state that their unshakable cool created a template for a further generation of artists, both in their homeland and elsewhere. Artists such as DJ Krush, Force Of Nature, and Nobukazu Takemura, while overseas, of course, there was the whole roster of James Lavelle`s Mo`Wax record label. Major Force had their close associates, and mates – people like A Small Circle Of Friends, and Sth. Notional – and contemporaries, such as United Future Organization, and Gak Sato, Towa Tei. All of whom brought their love of latin and jazz. Hiroshi Fujiwara went on to become not just a musical legend but also a giant in the world of fashion, streetwear and design. His passion for reggae and dub has further impacted Japanese downtempo / chill-out. 

DJ Krush – Kemuri

Nobukazu Takemura – Waiting For The Sun

A further fascination of Hosono`s, that with technology, produced futuristic reimaginings of Baxter, Denny, and Lyman – synthesizing a sonic space where his “Kankyo Ongaku” counterparts, like Yoshi Ojima and Ochi Yoshiaki, and ambient acid house adventurers, such as The Orb and The KLF, meet. Hosono`s productions for French duo Mikado display the more pop side of his electronic leanings, mixing machines with Parisian chanson, and these are mirrored in the music of Japan’s stylish Dip In The Pool. Born in Japan’s mid-80s economic bubble, the compositions of Tatsuji Kimura and Miyako Koda came clothed in Issey Miyake, and were issued in lavish laser disc editions. Koda-san later collaborated with Hosono on his Love, Peace, & Trance project. 

Haruomi Hosono – Laughter Meditation

Mikado – Naufrage En Hiver

Dip In The Pool – On Retinae

All of the above echoes and resonates in a wave of current artists who’ve either garnered, or are beginning to garner, global interest. The piano-led compositions of festival favourite Calm, AKA Fukagawa Kiyotaka. The afro / cosmic of Cos / Mes. House / techno DJ Kaoru Inoue`s experiments with organic instrumentation – as Chari Chari, Aurora – and his collaborations with guitarist Daisuke “DSK” Kojima. The productions of other DJs, such as Englishman in Tokyo, Max Essa, and the artists signed to his Jansen Jardin imprint. The more esoteric deep house mutations of Kuniyuki Takahashi. The library music and Azymuth-influenced fusion double-act, Coastlines. A selection of these sounds, a cross-section of this history, can be heard on our compilation, Oto No Wa, itself a primer, put together for Music For Dreams.

Coastlines – Coastline

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