Former Philly disc jockey Brian Durr found his own niche in the underground music scene of Tokyo.
TOKYO – Just like Starbucks, baseball and Michael Jackson, much of Japan’s disc jockey culture is imported from the West.
Even the poshest clubs in Tokyo play pop songs long after they have been discarded in the United States — Shakira, Puff Daddy, KC and the Sunshine Band are a few of the culprits — and it shows how Japan sometimes consumes American culture without fully understanding them.
But there are still circles of foreigners and locals yearning for sophisticated and eclectic playlists and thus, versatile disc jockeys, in the Japanese danisu kurebu. Many Western disc jockeys are heeding that demand.
Brian Durr, who plays as DJ BD 1982, still laughs when recalling his first disc jockey gig in Japan in 2005.
“I played psychedelic jazz and old school reggae to a big room of business men in Kyoto,” he said. “I didn’t have people dancing on the tables like I hoped.”
Durr, 27, moved to Japan to teach English in the Nova program in 2005, after graduating from Drexel University. Originally from Wayne, N.J., Durr moved to Philadelphia in 2000 to begin earning his degree in digital media. He saw teaching English in Japan as a way to a new part of the world and save money for an Akai MPC 2000, a production device used mostly in hip hop.
“I like an analog approach to a digital approach [because] you get interesting results,” Durr said. “I have been producing with it every day since I bought it, so I guess it was a good investment.”
Today, Durr lives in Yokohoma with his Japanese wife. He teaches English to children with learning disabilities full-time, while spinning tracks in the clubs at night. The level of collaboration and support among disc jockeys and club patrons in Japan is similar to Philly, Durr said, but less visible.
“People have this misconception that Japan has this really cool music lover’s underground just waiting, but it’s a niche that you have to be really into to seek out,” he said.
Raised on a steady mix of old school dub, drum and bass and hip hop — Durr cites Massive Attack, Wu Tang Clan and Scientist as inspiration — Durr said resonating with Japanese audiences, despite their country being so geographically detached from those respective music scenes is sometimes easier than in the states.
“Japanese people are more open-minded to when the DJ switches it up,” he said. “People are more lenient to the artist. They trust the DJ’s discretion and are feeling it if he is feeling it.”
The crowds in Philadelphia and New York City had to be read more, Durr said, and he focused more on satisfying the audience with his selection than playing music he preferred.
“We played a mafia bar in Brooklyn to these 40-year-old guys with gold chains and comb-overs who kept coming out of the bathrooms sniffing a lot,” Durr said. “One of my DJ friend’s arm was twisted, and they threatened to break his wrist if he didn’t play more Madonna songs.”
Japanese business people and club owners tend to show more restraint in their interactions, but there can still be costly miscommunication among foreign disc jockeys and the establishments they play at. For Mark Keene, 39, also known as DJ Mood, it nearly cost him around $500. Keene had been planning to throw a dance party at a club and its owners assumed he would cover the cost of 35 guests at $20 a head.
“I have a history of stupid optimism that if things seem to be working out, they will work out,” Keene admitted. “Sometimes they don’t.”
Born and raised in the Alaskan wilderness, Keene studied painting and drawing in Portland, Oregon. Upon teaching in the ESL program in Portland to Mexican immigrants, some of which could only speak their indigenous dialects, Keene realized he could connect more with people as a language teacher than art and embarked to Japan in 1998 to teach English with the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Programme.
Disc jockeying proved a middle ground between tedious music production, which Keene says he lacks the patience for, and artistic performance. Currently he balances his zest towards playing shows with his full-time job, developing the English language program for some 650 employees in the Japanese branch of a prominent American financial firm.
“I never get paid, because the second I start making money I begin to worry,” Keene said. “It’s a labor of love.”
The Internet has allowed disc jockeys like Brian Durr an avenue to sell their music, regardless of location. Durr’s most recent single, “Shotta Pon de Corner ft. 77Klash / Space Boots,” was first made available to download on iTunes and later sold out in some of the UK’s better known electronic music stores, Chemical Records.
But there is also more competition in Japan due to the exposure the Internet can provide for people claiming to be disc jockeys who have amassed enough online followers to secure gigs.
“The last year or two I’ve noticed a huge surge of models, hairdressers and people in the fashion industry on the bills around Tokyo,” said Paul Beveridge, 31, who performs as DJ POL Style. Beveridge moved from his native Glasgow, Scotland to Japan and has been hosting parties around Tokyo since 2007. “One of the downfall of the digital age is that it’s so easy for anyone to download music off blogs, burn them onto a CD and start calling themselves a DJ.”
But, Durr said, everyone claims to be a DJ in New York, too.
“It’s cool to go to the other side of the world and meet people who would be like best friends back home,” he said, “especially with meeting people here regardless of language and being able to connect through music, sometimes down to specific records.”
Jimmy Viola can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.