Contemporary Japanese music features many artists creating some of the most exciting songs going, from burgeoning rappers putting their spin on the genre to electronic creators pushing down sonic boundaries. It isn’t always easy to get familiar with them, though, thanks to a combination of label-born internet shyness that cuts them off from potential fans alongside the general noise of daily life on the internet.
In this feature, Otaquest aims to help introduce some of Japan’s best musicians to the world. Today, one of the most important and prolific electronic artists in Japanese music history. After starting his career in New York — and being part of one of the biggest hits of the 1990s — he launched a decades-spanning career that linked J-pop, house, Shibuya-kei and much more, with a bevy of guests joining him in crafting this funhouse sound.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Towa Tei’s musical debut. Lasting as an artist for three decades is an accomplishment in itself, but even more so when you are a creator as creative and forward-thinking as Tei, one of the most important electronic artists in Japanese history.
Part of that comes from how Tei has managed to get involved with so many disparate corners of Japanese music (and beyond), drawing connections between sounds that normally wouldn’t interact. He has bridged the gap between club music, Shibuya-kei, rock, rap and much more. It goes beyond just music, too. He’s been called on to make music for comedians eyeing a piece of the pop pie…and he has called on funny folks too, to do their thing over his own work. Tei can make anyone — established star, burgeoning voice, comedian, fashion model, influencer — sound great in his sonic world, and has been inviting many into his realm for 30 years now.
There’s a lot one could talk about regarding Tei’s career, but let’s offer an overview of one of Japan’s most interesting and varied performers.
Build The Bridge
Towa Tei didn’t just appear out of the void (read: New York) in 1990, partially responsible for crafting an out-of-nowhere smash hit. His fascination with music started after hearing the techno-pop creations of Yellow Magic Orchestra, their futuristic blend of styles inspiring him to start creating tracks as a teenager. He caught attention early on — including from his idols. Ryuichi Sakamoto featured some of his earliest creations on his radio show in the mid 1980s, becoming such a great piece of music nerd trivia it became a literal game show answer.
Yet most people got to know Tei in 1990, a little after he had moved to New York and become part of a dance-music project called Deee-Lite. Their song “Groove Is In The Heart” (above) became a surprise super hit and one of the defining songs of the 1990s, helping to introduce house music (among other ideas) to listeners around the world who otherwise might not have encountered it. The group continued to be a presence in the dance music community, with Tei playing a large part in crafting their sound — including using samples of his beloved YMO throughout their debut album World Clique. This proved to be his artistic foundation, but he wouldn’t stop there.
Everything We Do Is Music
With the massive success of Deee-Lite pushing him forward, Towa Tei started a solo career in 1994. The timing couldn’t be better — his brand of sample-slicing dance music arrived to Japanese listeners at the same time Shibuya-kei, a style prioritizing the celebration of all things obscure and catchy, was gaining momentum with the country’s cool kids. Debut album FUTURE LISTENING! fit in wonderfully, even if it didn’t match the genre exactly. Still, the songs here were full of movie dialogue, dusty sax samples, and bossa nova groove found buried in the back of record stores.
His profile had also allowed him the chance to work with famous names, ranging from Sakamoto to a bevy of non-musician types trying to enter the world of sound. He helped produced songs for the duo Geisha Girls, which was the goofy rap outfit the comedians Downtown thought up in the mid ‘90s, while also working on the music of Koji Imada, a talent who released music as KOJI1200 (if that sounds familiar, it would eventually be sampled by tofubeats).
The peak of his collaborative powers came near the end of the decade, with a pair of albums that found him connecting with big names from all over the world. SOUND MUSEUM, released in 1997, found Tei teaming up with the likes of Biz Markie, Mos Def and Kylie Minouge (on a song also including Haruomi Hosono…just take that combo in). LAST CENTURY MODERN, released two years later, saw its biggest guests hail from Japan — UA and Chara being at their peak powers — but also saw Tei refine his approach to genre-hopping dance further, resulting in a particular strong set. He wouldn’t be slowing down in the next century, though.
Now is probably a good time to mention that, besides releasing music under his own name, Tei also put out work as Sweet Robots Against The Machine, starting with an eponymous release in 1997, followed by an even stronger album in 2002 somewhat wildly called Towa Tei. That offered as a buffer before 2005’s Flash, a set of songs released as Towa Tei that found him reuniting with Kylie Minogue and working with many others (including Finnish artist Luomo).
The collabs kept coming in 2009 with Big Fun, an album leading off with a Verbal and Mademoiselle Yulia feature, and found him working with artists from around the world, many of whom he only encountered via MySpace. It’s a document of a very specific time — both in where the Tokyo music community was at, and where social media was (who were in your top eight???).
By the 2010s, Towa Tei had come across a set of collaborators he went to all the time for his new music, and this cast proved to be one of the most reliable in his career. Of course, they include every member of Yellow Magic Orchestra, which is like entering a cheat code for your late-period work, but he used them well, such as pairing Yukihiro Takahashi with Kiko Mizuhara (yes, that Kiko Mizuhara) for a heart-felt number about staying home and watching DVDs. While he was happy to indulge in some one-offs — see the soft “Apple” with Sheena Ringo, below — he found a set of voices he liked, and did well with them.
Tei kept himself busy during this period, joining the decade-spanning supergroup METAFIVE, and bringing back the Sweet Robots Against The Machine project to work with comedian Bakarhythm that found the prior creating music for the latter to deliver gags over. This year, with 30 years behind him, he put out “Magic,” a reflective number finding him looking back on his musical heroes and letting the emotions turn his music fizzy.
Five Essential Songs (Only Towa Tei numbers, no groups or produced cuts)
Even if Towa Tei himself isn’t the best representative of Shibuya-kei, “Technova” is an essential song for the style, combining faded bossa nova with modern touches (and voices) to create a number tightroping through time.
“Let Me Know” (1999)
One of the woozier creations from Tei intersected with J-pop singer Chara’s heyday, and the duo make for a wispy cut unlike anything else in either’s catalog.
One of the speediest numbers from Tei’s ‘90s output also sticks around in one’s head more than many of the more laid-back cuts from this period.
“Free” as Sweet Robots Against The Machine (2002)
One of the catchiest numbers in Tei’s songbook is also one using all of his favorite sonic tools.
“Luv Pandemic” (2015)
You’ve got Cornelius stopping by, a Mizuhara sister, Leo Imai and a member of YMO together…this is like the ultimate 2010’s Tei number. Better still, it’s one of the best of the last decade.