Listening with Chee Shimizu

When rummaging the web for electronic music events in Tokyo, there is a big chance you’ll stumble upon several line-ups that feature Chee Shimizu. The style of Chee’s oeuvre is hard to denominate, which is probably best expressed in the name of his record shop: Organic Music. The music lives and breathes – sometimes heavily, sometimes lightly, but it transcends the idea of rigid music styles. In Europe, we know Tokyo-born-and-based Chee Shimizu best as a record shop owner and writer of the book Obscure Sound – an extensive archive of the rarities that he has spread around the globe.

Geographical borders aside, Chee is a devoted music head with an explicit passion for listening; a practice he celebrates monthly in a small venue in Tokyo. Shimizu enlightens us about the role of listening sessions in Tokyo’s music scene and about how cosmic disco made him listen to music differently, opening up new sonic journeys. Specifying how this journey crossed paths with international music figures such as Jonny Nash, Chee Shimizu gives us an in-depth look into his musical visits to Europe and his fluid identity as a DJ.

Hi Chee-san, what brought you to Tokyo?
I was born in Tokyo and lived there until I was 10 years old. Then my dad moved our family back to his hometown in Nagano’s countryside. After I finished high school, I returned to Tokyo to look for excitement and musical endeavours.

Is that also when you started digging?
Well, moving back to Tokyo wasn’t much about digging. Back then, music was a way of escaping the loneliness that I felt living in the countryside. That’s how I got into music. To kill time in high school, I got involved in a punk band. We were somewhat popular with the locals, so we decided to take it to a new level and move to Tokyo. But things didn’t work out and all the band members moved back to Nagano, except for myself – I remained in Tokyo due to my interest in music. I was 18 years old at the time.

Between the age of 19 and 22 I was mostly listening to club jazz music – like Gilles Peterson and Norman Jay. It was around this time that I also started digging records seriously.

Later on, you hosted Discossession – an italo and cosmic disco event. How did your taste evolve from club jazz to cosmic disco?

At 22, a guy took me to a club named Maniac Love. There, I heard techno music for the first time, and within a few months I was playing techno. I got my first paid gig as a DJ at the time.

For the next five years, I was playing tech trance, minimal techno and hard techno. Eventually I got a bit bored with techno. It was around this time that I started to organise parties at a venue in Roppongi. On my quest for DJs who could play house music on the lower floor, my friend introduced me to a guy. His set was really nice, and he inspired me a lot. Later, the DJ took me to his house to listen to some records, which was when I started playing house music.

Were you digging a lot around that time?

Well, techno was more machine-oriented. I was just buying new records – mostly 12 inches. I had met this DJ, who got me invested in the Paradise Garage Scene from New York City. I started to go back in time musically by buying disco records that dated back to the 70’s. You could say this was when I really started digging deeply.

My interest in italo disco was sparked around 1999 when my friend introduced me to a mixtape by Ron Hardy. Consequently, I started digging italo records from the late 70s to early 80s. However, it was really hard finding these kinds of records in Japan; no one was selling them and nobody was interested in them. There was just this one store in Shibuya that specialised in Eurobeat and disco music.

Digging italo disco had been a lonely mission until I met Dr. Nishimura. We shared the same interest and decided to throw italo-disco parties named Discossession. This all started around 2004.

Through these parties, I met fellow italo-disco enthusiast Johnny Nash, who was living in Japan at the time. Jonny Nash introduced us to cosmic disco after attending the Red Bull Music Academy in Rome. He returned to Tokyo with a bunch of mixtapes by cosmic disco legend Daniele Baldelli. We all listened to them and kind of started copying his style. So that’s where my interest in cosmic disco originated.

What is cosmic disco to you?

Cosmic disco could be any kind of music, ranging from modern-day Top 40 music to music from my childhood. So, it could be a track that I used to listen to as a kid, just played at a different BPM – say 90 to 110. This aspect of cosmic disco broadened my sonic horizon in the sense that it made me listen to music differently. I began digging all kinds of music, denoting the launch of my record store Organic Music. Though my interest in cosmic disco only lasted for a mere two years, my ways of listening have changed forever.

Why did you name your record shop Organic Music?

Back then, I was listening to all kinds of music – jazz, rock music, new wave, basically anything except for hip hop. I was specifically intrigued by the folk-jazz scene. One of the records in this style that I really enjoyed was Don Cherry’s Organic Music Society. The album captured the essence of how I viewed music at the time, so that’s why I named the record shop accordingly.

At some point you started curating listening parties at a small venue in Tokyo named SHeLTeR, both as a DJ and as a host. Could you tell us more about this?

I had already been playing at SHeLTeR for 11 years when I got introduced to non-dance music through my interest in cosmic disco. One day in 2006, Yoshio – the owner of SHeLTeR – invited me to play on Friday nights. I organised a listening session altogether with Jonny Nash and some of our friends. We filled the nights playing jazz, prog rock, kraut electronics, new wave and ambient. I really appreciated Yoshio for the opportunity to be a part of such an amazing experience. After aforementioned listening sessions, I’ve started a party called Sci-Fi with DJ Moroi, the person who had introduced me to SHeLTeR. We’ve been organising the party on a monthly base in SHeLTeR.

In Amsterdam, listening sessions have started to pop up as well, such as the ones hosted by Red Light Radio. However, they mostly attract music heads. Do Tokyo’s listening sessions also attract a regular crowd?

In Tokyo, there are many small venues where DJs are given a lot of freedom by the owners. SHeLTeR also attracts mostly music heads, but it’s common to find two-storey venues in Tokyo. At Bonobo for instance, listening sessions are organised upstairs while there is a dance floor downstairs. Venues like these give the host and DJs flexibility in organising the night, making listening sessions accessible to a regular crowd as well.

As a DJ, do you prefer playing during listening sessions or club nights?

I enjoy both! When I’m playing abroad, people tend to see me as a record shop owner and book author rather than a DJ. In Tokyo, I’m first and foremost a DJ that plays dance music a vast majority of the time. Hence, there is a split public image that divides my career as a DJ.

You’ve written a book named Obscure Sound, which was published in 2013. How did the book come about?

Around 2012, the editor of Ritto Music Publishing got in touch with me about writing this book. I had no idea who he was but he knew me through my activity in Tokyo’s music scene.

Do you consider yourself a music historian?

No, not at all. When I started the record shop, I was a freelance graphic designer, but I wasn’t earning enough money. Then my wife suggested: “Why don’t you start a record shop?” As for Obscure Sound, that was just an archive of what I was already doing with the record shop. As Organic Music is an online record shop, I had enough documented captions to write a book on it. Neither project was sparked by a mission to spread musical knowledge.

You also (re)release records under the label Japanism in collaboration with HMV record shop. How did this project take off?

A friend of mine who works at HMV got in touch with me about re-releasing old Japanese records; not stuff like jazz, people were already doing that. We wanted to release a different Japanese legacy from the 80s.

There is a huge demand for Japanese new-age music from the 80s in Europe. Why do you think that is?

Before the hype, I befriended some of the folks from Red Light Records and would bring them some obscure Japanese records as a gift on my yearly visits to Amsterdam. Consequently, they encouraged me to specialise in these types of records and distribute them to Europe. I teamed up with Dubby and started digging obscure Japanese records from the 70s, 80s and 90s; especially the 80s.

It all really took off in 2012, when Jonny Nash was working at a London-based clothing store named LN-CC. Jonny encouraged me to do a pop-up shop featuring obscure Japanese records. This was probably the first time an event about Japanese obscure records in 80s took place in Europe, and probably the first time too that a fashion store had a queue made up of strictly music geeks waiting for the store to open.

Is this trend also represented in Japan?

There are several digging scenes to be distinguished in Japan. Within hip-hop, some DJs are inspired by DJ Muro, digging old Japanese funk and rare grooves from the 70s and 80s. In the jazz scene, we have people digging for old Japanese jazz records. But the scene of obscure records that I represent began in Europe and has made its way back to Japan to those with an interest in New-Age music.

However, Japanese New Age and ambient music especially were treated like trash up until recently. The growing appetite for Japanese New Age music probably started five years ago, after the pop-up event in the London LN-CC store. In last couple of years prices and interest have been going through the roof.

Do you think the trend’s fading anytime soon?

Two years ago, I was asked the same question. Back then, my answer was “probably in a few years”. But the demand is still growing! Now, labels in Europe and the US are also reissuing Japanese New-Age records and they are working hard to keep this niche alive. The trend is probably peaking right now and I think this will continue for quite a while. Whereas in the beginning it was a niche for music heads, right now the general public too is taking an interest in it. Once the regular crowd has caught on, demand for these records will probably sustain.

I think YouTube’s autoplay algorithms are also contributing to this.

I definitely think the internet played a big role in the dispersion of this genre.

Do you prefer digging physically or do you also dig online?

Only physically. I never dig the web for music. I sometimes order records online from information that I had acquired offline. But no, I never dig online.

Music From Memory Compilation by Chee Shimizu

In general, you seem to have a lot of international relationships that converge in Amsterdam. For example, you’ve also released a compilation on Music from Memory, an Amsterdam-based label ran by Jamie Tiller and Tako Reyenga. Can you shed more light on this?

I met Tako Reyenga in 2007 during the international Discossession tour with Jonny Nash and Dr. Nishimura. One of our gigs took place at a warehouse in London – a venue Tako played the week before. Jonny Nash introduced us to each other. We ended up becoming really good friends!

During my yearly escapades to Amsterdam, Tako would join me in digging records and afterwards we would go to Tako’s place to do listening sessions. This is also where I met people like Abel, Basso, Young Marco, Orpheu (The Wizard) and Jamie Tiller. So, even before Red Light Records and Music From Memory existed, I would come to Amsterdam to visit friends. Eventually, collaborations like the compilation on Music from Memory would emerge. Projects like this one took off because I already know these fellow heads musically and personally, like we’re soul buddies.

As a DJ, would you characterise your style as Japanese or international?

That’s a tough question. Now that I DJ abroad quite often, it occurs that more than the half of the crowd doesn’t know who I am. In this situation, I consider myself a professional DJ whose priority is to please the crowd, even though I do have a style that is rooted in me being Japanese. So, I do consider myself an international DJ, but it’s hard to have an objective image of myself in the light of these limitations.

Right now, quite a few Japanese DJs are gaining recognition abroad, especially in the realm of techno music. However, techno’s rigid framework allows for Japanese roots to show. I, myself am more of a freestyle DJ, so it always depends on the style that I play whether these roots become visible or not. This is another reason why it’s hard to show my Japanese legacy.

There was an occasion where I could freely show my own style, which was at a gig in Giant Steps, London. They had a great sound system and the setting of the club was perfect for laying down and chilling rather than dancing. Basically, everyone was laying on the floor, which granted me the freedom to play whatever I wanted to play. This is when I was able to show the roots of my musical philosophy and my Japanese legacy. It was a quite a different experience from what I’ve seen in Europe before. Perhaps listening sessions like these will spread in Europe as well.

What do you think is the main difference between the Japanese and European club scene?

Large venues are pretty much the same everywhere. Tokyo’s club scene stands out with its small venues and the flexibility that the owners grant the organisers. I don’t know if it is financially feasible to have a flexible program in a small venue, but this feature does distinguish Tokyo’s club scene from the rest of the world.

Take Bonobo and SHeLTeR for example: its owners were bored with straightforward dance music and wanted to hear something different, something they didn’t yet know about. Club owners like these give a lot of flexibility and freedom to the organisers as well as the DJs.

Is there a big difference between cities like Tokyo and Osaka?

I think the differentiating factor is population. Tokyo has a huge population: there is something in it for everyone, no matter how strange or weird. In cities with smaller populations, the group sharing a niche interest is smaller as well.

For example, I sometimes play in Nagoya, a coastal city east of Kyoto. The club nights there have a small crowd, but there is a core keeping the scene alive. If such a core doesn’t exist in cities with smaller populations, it’s probably harder for these kinds of scenes to sustain themselves. I think this demarcates a big difference for the clubbing scenes in Japan’s cities.

Thank you for your stories. Let me end our conversation by asking if there’s any obscure record you’ve been obsessed with lately, that you’d like to share with us.

Well, I don’t really want to focus on the ‘rare’ tag. To me it doesn’t make much difference whether something is rare or not. If anything, I’ve recently been buying old J-pop records, partly because I feel sort of responsible for the current price hike of New-Age records. These old-school J-pop records can be cheap and still have a good tracks on it.

Take for instance this album Möbius by Seri Ishikawa (石川セリ). There are only a few good tracks on it, but it’s well-worth it! My favourite tracks on it are ‘水蒸気’ (Vaporous)  and ‘六色の虹’ (Six-Colour’s Rainbow). I’ve owned a few copies of this record and featured it at a record fair a while ago. One of my friends really enjoyed it and bought it from me at a cheap price. It makes me happy to know that my friend enjoyed this record.

Special thanks to Taro Tsuji for interpreting the interview!