This is part of a series of posts talking about music I’ve released through my own Call And Response label. I explain in a bit more detail here.
Because this is a Japanese music site, as a rule I tend to avoid overseas artists on this page. In the case of non-Japanese musicians who are based in Japan of course I’ll write about them, and in the case of Japanese musicians based overseas I’ll usually write about them as long as there’s some sort of meaningful connection with the scene in Japan.
With Call And Response Records I have no strict principle about this, but as a result of the way I operate, it’s nigh impossible for me to do much with musicians from outside Japan. N’toko is one exception and this blog is really about the benefits and challenges of taking an artist like him and trying to help him find a place in the Japanese music scene.
I met N’toko (real name Miha Blažič) and his wife Zana (a.k.a. Kaki) at the monthly DJ party I run with a friend and fellow music writer James Hadfield. Fashion Crisis isn’t a club event in the sense of there being thronging crowds of people dancing into the small hours or anything: the name was a joke, loosely punning on a friend of mine’s event called “Style Band” and it’s a generally low-key party in a smallish music bar in Koenji where people can come and have a drink and listen to music after work. There’s no specific music policy although I play a lot of minimal wave, postpunk, EBM, new wave, synthpop and garagey guitar music, while James seems to play an esoteric selection of African and Middle-Eastern dance and folk, old American roots music and more, stitched together with various kinds of experimental and noise stuff. Guest DJs are mostly free to play whatever they want as long as it’s not Oasis or Coldplay or something equally vile. Anyway, the point is that it’s pretty easygoing within certain boundaries but certainly attracts a cult of oddballs in terms of its clientele.
Because of the kind of event it is, everyone there tends to know pretty much everyone else, so when new people show up, they’re easy to recognise. Seeing Miha and Zana there, I was naturally curious about how they’d even found out about it, so I had a chat with them. It turned out that they from Slovenia and were in Koenji for a couple of months and I came away from the event with a demo CD of some of his newest recordings. The working relationship that we built up came out of a number of very long stays in Japan that the two of them made, an enthusiastic interest and participation in the events that I was involved in and regular gigging and DJing at most of them.
One of the reasons Japanese indie labels will very rarely take an interest in overseas (or indeed most domestic) artists who contact them hoping to get released is because indie labels, lacking much access to wider media and certainly lacking big promotional budgets, rely on cultivating small, devoted fanbases or hooking into existing scenes with their own word of mouth networks. With anyone they sign they need to be able to plug them into that world.
Now while N’toko is known in Slovenia for his socially conscious lyrics and his opinions on all manner of social and political issues are much sought after, his English language material tends to be much more scattershot, nonsensical and fun, playing with hip hop clichés and undercutting them at the same time by dissolving into mischievous wordplay. It feels like an escape from the pressures of constantly having to mean something. Playing in Japan where no one understands it anyway means the focus is necessarily on the performance, the beats, and the energy and musicality of the words themselves rather than their portent. It works very specifically in the little crowd of punk and alternative types who hang out in Koenji (and particularly with the eclectic and musically knowledgeable Fashion Crisis crowd) but at the same time it makes it very difficult to sell outside that scene.
Japanese record stores divide domestic and overseas music into different sections, often on different floors, which means that someone like N’toko whose fanbase in Japan is really part of the alternative and underground scene, gets his music filed in all sorts of weird places. Tower Records in Shinjuku filed Ex Shanti / Future Shanti in “World Music”. On the other hand File-Under Records in Nagoya, which is much more in touch with the actual way the underground scene works, files his stuff together with other Call And Response releases, which makes much more sense in terms of N’toko’s likely listeners and a small shop like File-Under’s clientele. In any case, foreign and domestic artists tend to be segregated, which is problematic for small labels trying to promote them, especially when they’re people like N’toko who don’t easily fit into the standard set of genres.
On the surface, his music is hip hop, but break it down and there’s a lot of EBM and industrial going on, as well as bits of technopop and all of it coming together with this alternative sensibility that places him at an angular path from the hip hop scene both in Japan and in Slovenia. With Ex Shanti / Future Shanti, you can also hear elements of his time in Japan breaking through the gap. The song Fashion Crisis obviously takes its title from the event, and it is also a collaboration with Japanese rapper Kim from Uhnellys, who appeared on Call And Response’s 1-2-3-Go! compilation back in 2005 and who are another band who place hip hop in an alternative context.
In the sequencers and synths, there’s also something that feels like it falls between the grinding industrial synth brutality of DAF or Liaisons Dangereuses and the pumped-up electro anthems of Yasutaka Nakata, whose Flash!!! events we were obsessed with at the time. There was something in the contrast between the obvious extreme cleverness of a lot of what Nakata does musically and this knack he has for utter dumbness at the same time, which is what all great pop is, but he pitches the balance in a way that sometimes just makes you wonder what’s really going on inside his head. There were echoes of that Nakata obsession in Ex Shanti‘s title track and in elements of Masterplan, especially in the closing BeatMyth remix.N’toko: Superhuman (VHS-’82 Version)
The video for Superhuman was shot inside Koenji One, and the Version 1 edit was designed as a sort of parody of the Tokyo indie scene, where the room’s half empty and no one’s really listening to the band anyway. Most of the people in it are Fashion Crisis regulars, with James appearing as the frizzy haired Othello player and director Matt Schley as his opponent, Zana is at the bar smoking, my wife is reading, and a chubby-faced version of me is flicking through some records. The whole thing’s very in-jokey. The Version 2 edit (the “VHS-’82” version) took the same footage of N’toko, edited out all the other people, and then was dubbed over and over between two VHS players to make it look like an old DAF or Suicide video from the early 80s. It’s less slick, but it’s probably the better of the two videos truth be told. It’s just a simpler, smarter concept, and one that influenced some of the other even quicker and much stupider videos Call And Response subsequently made.
Anyway, the album Ex Shanti / Future Shanti is pretty important in that it was the first Call And Response release of the “Fashion Crisis Era” — the first product of the time when the label was actually starting to get its own hinterland outside of scenes that already existed. That was what gave me the freedom to release something outside my usual comfort zone and it got me looking at music in a looser, more fun way again after the stress of establishing the label and its identity.N’toko: Superhuman (Fashion Crisis Version)