Booking a Japanese tour for an overseas musician is a difficult job and a task that I would never let myself get sucked into unless it was something I was strongly invested in it myself. In the case of N’toko, the Slovenian rapper and all-round underground/alternative partymaker, I’ve been releasing his English language material and hooking him up with shows in Japan for a few years now. When it came to the release of his latest album Mind Business, I was adamant that there be a Japan tour to support it.
The main reason for this is that record shops in Japan never seem to know where to file him, and without money and scene recognition supporting him, no one’s ever going to buy his CDs simply on the off-chance that they might like it. His fanbase in Japan was always going to be something we needed to build from the ground up.
There are advantages to though. As a solo artist whose gear all fits inside one travel case, it’s easy to get him from place to place, and his travel and hotel expenses are minimal. Not only that, but as an artist who while he’s an extraordinarily talented performer with bags of amazing music, he’s also a bit of a blank slate as far as the japanese music scene is concerned: they just don’t know what to expect of him. In short, cheap and crude as it is to put it like this, he’s an easy person to experiment with, and while I’ve booked piecemeal tours for him before, this short, compact tour was the first chance we’d had to test the results of the foundation work we’d done over the past few years. It was a test not just for him but for me, since most of the shows had been booked largely off my word and my reputation, so I made a point of accompanying him on all dates, many of which I took part in as a DJ.
The first and most important thing about the tour was the people we’d be working with. Of course you can just contact a venue and ask them for a gig, but that’s usually a waste of time. Venues in major Japanese cities have gigs on most nights, and there’s no way they’re going to be able to give your night the attention you want unless you’ve got someone in that town who buys into what you’re trying to do with the tour, knows the local scene and is able to find some way of tying those strands together. With that in mind, I as the tour manager have to be clear about what we’re bringing to the table and what benefit they can expect from us. When you’re introducing a new artist that no one in that city knows, you can’t in all honesty claim you’re offering them any financial benefit, so finding artistic common ground is of the utmost importance.
The first show on the N’toko tour was in Tokyo, at a small venue in Shibuya called Home. It was part of a fortnightly live music showcase that my friend Tomo a.k.a. live promoter Style Band Tokyo does, and Tomo in turn hooked up with another friend, DJ Rally a.k.a. former Mornings bassist Shingo, to do the show. Again, I remained in close contact with them and helped out with promotion, while another friend, Ayako, designed the flyers. These networks of friends, all working for free, are the key to what allows almost anything to happen in the Tokyo underground music scene.
Booking bands with N’toko always throws up problems. Since he’s a rapper, people’s automatic reaction is to book him with other rappers, but the Japanese hip hop scene has very little musically to do with the kind of thing N’toko does and even at home in Slovenia he always seems much more comfortable playing with punk, alternative, electropop and industrial acts. What Tokyo does have, however, is a grey zone between hip hop and punk/alternative that is inhabited by a number of acts whose interests lie on both sides of the divide. Also, increasingly there has been a growing awareness of how to promote music that crosses genre boundaries, which can basically be summarised as “subcul“.
Defining subcul is difficult. In its most basic form, it’s just an abbreviation of “subculture”, i.e. anything that falls outside mainstream pop culture. However, subcul has all sorts of other associations in Japan. In some ways it has a faintly derogatory aroma to it, rather like “hipster” in English, yet subcul people aren’t fashion-conscious elitists in the same way. Subcul people are the mini-Tarantinos of contemporary Japan and the derogatory edge to the word I believe comes from the indiscriminate nature of their acquisitive trash culture magpie sensibility and the vague sense that this is somehow shallow. That by mixing so much culture together, they divest it of meaning. Subcul is cooler than “otaku” and far more welcoming of women. It is also far less right wing, simply by virtue of having no real values of its own to begin with, but otherwise the two share some of the same characteristics. Most importantly for us here, subcul is a marketing tool that enables the linking of aspects of music and pop culture that would otherwise be locked in their little boxes.Nature Danger Gang
Nature Danger Gang are a classic subcul band. Musically they’re a mixture of rap and cheesy 90s techno, wearing a paintsplatter of brightly coloured clothes that various members remove throughout the set to various degrees. The girl in the schoolgirl uniform whips it off to reveal bright red rope bondage beneath, the dude at the front drops everything and gets into a wrestling match with another member on the dancefloor completely naked, another girl seems to be a trained dancer although it’s hard to see what she’s doing behind the chaos of the other members. There’s something very appealing about the spectacle of a bunch of people bopping about onstage, none of them playing instruments, although as you might imagine, the spectacle completely overwhelms anything the music might have been doing. They’re great entertainment, they put on a spectacular show, the willingness of the guys to one-up the girls in the bare skin stakes helps blunt some accusations of sexual exploitation, and the whole thing doesn’t seem to really mean anything. If you want a definition of subcul, they are it.
The group leave as soon as their set is over, taking all their audience (including some of the staff of subcul bible Trash Up magazine, natch) with them as they head to Ebisu for another gig. This is an occupational hazard of booking anyone with a bit of a buzz about them: they’re always in demand.
Boys Get Hurt is on next. N’toko has past form here, with him having played at Boys Get Hurt events on past visits. Here the situation is the opposite. Boys Get Hurt is essentially part of a kind of indie-electro scene, and that crowd is usually a midnight crowd. With Nature Danger Gang having gone and most of the rest of the audience N’toko’s friends and fans, he was caught in an awkward position between two poles. It was a smart gamble, taking the subcul alternative/rap crossover of Nature Danger Gang, following it with the electro of Boys Get Hurt, and then leading into N’toko who combines elements of both, but the departure of half the audience early stopped the momentum from building. When you organise events, you make these calculations and it doesn’t always pay off.
It was the first night of N’toko’s tour though, so he was well represented. His audience were the bulk of what was left and they went crazy. It left the slightly surreal sight of a crowd of people in front of the stage going wild, crowdsurfing and generally hurling themselves about like lunatics, while the back of the room, where you’d usually expect to find the other artists’ fans drinking, talking and cautiously watching, was completely empty. At this point a couple of touring pop-classical musicians from Slovenia and Croatia wandered into the room and I have no idea what their impression was. Is N’toko popular in Japan or not? The room was giving contradictory messages. That’s the nature of Japan’s fragmented underground scene.
Signals for the tour so far then are mixed. N’toko has loyal followers and event organisers willing to think carefully and hard about how to promote him, but it hasn’t quite gelled. We’re still in Tokyo though, and N’toko is sleeping on the floor of my apartment, so (discounting the flight, which was always going to be a loss) the tour is in profit so far.