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“We are in the club, dancing, with no intention to stop”: The Secret World Of Japanese Footwork

A world away from Chicago, this culture is thriving in remarkably unique ways.

While researching the British footwork scene, or rather the lack thereof as it transpired, I spoke to Mike Paradinas. Highly regarded electronic artist, Paradinas is also boss of Planet Mu, the pioneering Brit label that put out 2010's Bangs & Works Vol. 1 - the compilation that not only introduced footwork to British ears, but to a worldwide audience. Mike told me that not only had footwork music taken off in Japan, but that a burgeoning scene had developed around footwork culture, complete with fierce and competitive dancing. Why was it that the music of footwork had rooted in the UK, but not the overall culture?

"Well for starters, over here we need to be fucked on drugs to dance, which obviously isn't exactly conducive to developing a scene around such an athletic dance form," says Paradinas. "But above and beyond that, historically the UK scene has always felt a bit guilty about appropriating or importing whole cultures, preferring to either invent our own scenes or take parts of the host culture and put our own spin on them. In Japan, however, they do things differently."


"Generally speaking," he explains "Japanese culture places a lot of stock in appropriating modes of western pop culture in their entirety. Verisimilitude is paramount. So, in the case of footwork, rather than stop at merely adopting the music; the Japanese have developed a whole scene beyond the music - i.e. with actual dancing, including the battles."

English teacher by day, footwork figurehead by night, Kent Alexander runs Battle Train Tokyo, the Japanese scene's only 'battle' event (the battle being footwork's version of the dance contest). "Around 25 contestants pay 2000 yen to enter," says Alexander. "It's the equivalent of about $20 dollars - to compete for the prize of $500 (50,000 yen). It's straight out battle, man. I'm-gonna-knock-you-out hardcore. It's intense."

The Japanese scene spans three cities - Hiroshima, Osaka and primarily Tokyo. However, Alexander assures me it's an incredibly tight knit community. "Everyone knows everyone, man. We're all connected. All the DJs travel between cities". Though generally middle class, the scene draws elements from a variety of professions: from engineers and salesmen to writers and programmers. Unlike the Chicago scene, drugs are not a factor. "It's super clean," Alexander assures us. The scene is yet to see its first female DJ, but female dancers are increasingly commonplace. As for the scene's dance superstars, there are two undisputed kings: two-time BTT winner Tukuya, and Weezy, renowned for the sheer speed of his footwork.

Born of Japanese-American parentage, the Yokohama-based Alexander grew up in Japan but would later attend Louisiana's Perdue College, just as footwork was forming in 2008. Alexander became an undying disciple of what he calls "the new beat". During this time he took it upon himself to make the four hour trip north from Louisiana to Chicago in search of Traxman, and ended up hanging out with the footwork titan for two or so weeks. I asked him what his impressions were of the Chicago scene? "In a word…ghetto. It was real ghetto. Most of the battles and parties take place in this collection of trashed out derelict houses, wallpaper peeling off the walls and everything."

Six years on, Kent is co-founder of leading Japanese footwork label Бh○§†, and a member of important 10-man f-work collective Pan Pacific Playa, as well as one part of Paisley Parks: the Japanese production trio who recently came together with Traxman for the Far East EP. The release was a-first-of-its-kind collaboration between the Teklife crew and the Japanese contingent.


Before RP Boo and Rashad, Traxman was the first Chicago footwork DJ to travel to Japan to DJ. "When Traxman came over, man, it was massive for us. Everyone came together," drawls Kent, all affable Cali surfer dude. "Trax even stayed at my house a couple of nights!" What's he like, I ask Kent? "He's a great man. A great, great man. But, man, can he talk? You know how he is on Facebook… times that by 100."

Japan has a rep for importing whole cultures, but in most cases they don't survive the translation without at least some degree of distortion. I was curious to know if the same was true in the case of Japanese footwork scene. How had Japan put its own spin on the form? "Well one thing unique to Japanese footwork," says Alexander "is the rock influence on the scene."

True of any footwork strain since Bangs and Works Vol. One, the Japan scene has lured producers and DJs from a diversity of genres. In particular the sound has attracted defectors from Japanese house, as well as the country's booming bass-music scene. According to Kent, however, most of the entire scene has seen an influx of Japanese rock fansm operating in and around Tokyo's skyscraper district. While influential Tokyo rock night SHINJUKO ROCKS has begun hosting juke parties, and rock bands are increasingly turning to footwork for inspiration.

The community's unofficial HQ appears to be Tokyo club Kata, situated above Liquid Room: one of the city's largest house and techno clubs. But rather than sprouting from a central venue - as has been the case for many an underground genre - this scene developed via a system of crews. Crews-come-collectives, more specifically - most of which often double as labels.


Of these labels, there are three that dominate: up-and-coming Tokyo label Shinkaron (A.K.A, the young contenders), Alexander's own Yokohama-based Бh○§† label, and what has been the scene's driving force since Japanese footwork's inception, Osaka's Booty Tune, headed up by DJ Fulltono: a man considered the godfather of Japanese footwork.

DJ April - the co-founder of Booty Tune - reckons the roots of Japanese footwork go all the way back to the 90s and a genre known as ghetto house. "The Japanese juke scene has its origin in the ghetto house boom" the DJ explains. He's referring to the raw and up-tempo Roland-heavy, rap-featuring underground strain of house, that has more in common with Baltimore bounce or Miami bass than the traditional Chicago house sound. This is what would eventually jettison four-to-the-floor beats for syncopation, to become what we know today as juke. "After the Chicago boom settled down around 2000," continues DJ April, "some Japanese DJs - including Fulltono - continued to follow the Chicago movement, and it was these artists that would go on to form the basis of the current juke scene in Japan. Consequently, all the founding fathers of Japanese juke are actually around the same age as the Chicago artists - RP Boo, Traxman, Rashad, Spinn etc."

An adjacent influence on Japanese footwork is ghettotech, the decidedly barmy, trash-turbo Detroit sound that grew to prominence in the late 90s, which - in opposition to the Belleville Three's cult of erudition - was wilfully lowbrow. Japanese artists like DJ Family, DJ Fulltono and DJ Go were active in the Detroit ghettotech scene and remain so to this day.

Counter to the accepted wisdom that Paradinas' compilation was international footwork's year zero, and eager to set the record straight, April claims that in reality the Japanese scene predates the 2010 release of Bangs & Works by a good two years. Established in 2008, not only was Booty Tune the first label to release footwork in Japan, it was in fact one of the first worldwide. The only others being Detroit's Juke Trax and Chicago's Bang Da Box. So perhaps we should be rewriting the Japanese scene's role in the official history of footwork. Rather than curators or 2nd-wave co-opters, Booty Tune were in fact pioneers in the formation of footwork as a recognised genre. "[The Japanese] caught on extremely early," says April. "Artists such as Fulltono and Hayato 6Go were already active in the scene by 2010, and so in this respect Japan was notably ahead of, say, the UK scene."


Being the first to adopt footwork, in turn, the Japanese scene was the first to break the rules, daring to experiment with the sound in ways that Chicago didn't anticipate. "The Japanese scene not only appropriated the 'legitimate' Chicago sound," DJ April tells me, "…from relatively early on it also fused it with other genres to create an original Japanese sound." According to the DJ, it has been techno and breakcore that have had the most impact in terms of changing the genre. "Artists from these disciplines brought sounds from their own scenes that did not exist in the Chicago productions. But then dance culture in Japan has always been extremely rich and diverse."

Another Japanese-only footwork innovation is the rise of what's known as "party-juke": hip-hop crossed with party-style footwork. By DJ April's estimations an "epoch-making release" was 2013 compilation 160or80 (see Bandcamp), which featured the cream of Japanese hip-hop rapping over footwork. It was a glorious corruption of Chicago footwork, where vocals come exclusively in the form of samples.

By the time the second volume of Bangs & Works was released in 2011, the Japanese scene was in full flight, as second and third wave artists flooded the community; led by acts like the currently hot-as-shit DJ Aflow, Uncle Texx, Gnyonpix and Picnic Women. And today the scene's growth shows no sign of abating. "A major indicator of just how big the scene has become was 2012 compilation album Jap Mutation Bootyism" says April. "If we include the second volume released in 2013, nearly 100 artists contributed to these releases. Put simply, the footwork scene in Japan exists on a scale not seen elsewhere in the world. And that includes Chicago."

In the end, like all youth subcultures, Japanese footwork developed in reaction to stultifying societal forces. In the case of Japan, the footwork scene is an indirect reaction to the country's notoriously oppressive corporate culture. "In the scene, there is no hierarchy. Everyone's equal" says Kent. "Apart from the footwork battles, there's no one who's trying to be the boss. No one thinks they're more worthy than others, and no one tries to take it all."

Japanese corporate culture is again relevant when it comes to the musicology of footwork. Footwork music is by nature illogical, disordered, while footwork's limb-flinging dance style is, whilst methodical, quite predicated on anarchy. It's easy, therefore, to see footwork's appeal to those shackled in repressive company structure, where individualism and self-determination are subordinate to needs of the machine. "For the people on the scene, footwork is a stress reliever," says Kent "a getaway from their daily lives. It's where they get to freely express themselves."

In the last four years, the Japanese government have been waging war on dance culture. The Entertainment Business Control and Improvement Law, dubbed the "Anti-Dance Law", outlawed dance floors smaller than 66 square feet, making it difficult for club owners to set up an affordable space. The police, meanwhile, using their statutory mandate (an archaic piece of legislation from 1984 prohibiting dancing after 12pm), have been shutting down clubs with impunity. However, Kent remains defiant: "We're not that hardcore about trying to make them change the anti-dance law, but actions speak louder than words. We are in the club, dancing, with no intention to stop."

You can follow John and his footwork musings on Twitter. And many thanks to Francis Waring for translations - you can find him here.