East Meets Motown [Part II]

I mentioned before that the influence of motown did not just break ground in the States, but also overseas, such as that in Asia and Korea specifically. This also holds true in Japan.


 

Lets again, start at the beginning. I wonder if people consider the fact that disco and the overall “era of the 70s” even happened in Japan (bellbottoms, afros and all). I admit, before getting into J-pop and Japanese music in general, I never thought much about foreign influence in Japan’s pop music save for ACDC and The Beatles. Heck, I never knew about Michael Jackson’s “Motown” roots until I was much older (my latter high-school years, give or take), having before then only associating him with the 80s-on-up. So, it’s safe to say that the more I got into Japanese music, the more surprises I got.

“Ride On Time”

Take the man Tatsuro Yamashita, for instance.

TatsuroYamashita

Celebrating 40 Musical Years

Although I didn’t learn about him until college, I am NOT sorry. This man is FUNKY (in all the good ways ^^). He knows what he’s doing too. The first of his many famous tracks to ever hit me is the song “Love Talkin’.” Super upbeat and groovy, it just has this uncanny bounce and rhythm to it that just gives me that Motown vibe. Another slow song by Tatsuro-san is one of my favorites, called “Blue Velvet,” and is more of a ballad, with definitely a late-80s kind of feel. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I haven’t gotten into the real reason of why my young self gravitated towards the music of a man who roughly my parents’ age. My mother was a teen of the 80s, my father a teen of the 70s, so I have quite an old soul and have huge appreciation for singers of any culture whom are inspired by the same genres I grew up knowing.

That is especially the case, when said singers produce their sound RIGHT. By “right” I mean “the same or similar aesthetic.” This approach to their music and writing, tells me that the singer in question is a fan of what they do and of what they’re influenced by. It’s very humbling. Tatsuro-san performs with such confidence and love for his music, which is also evident even when he sings in English.

Over the years, I’ve noticed a pattern in my musical endeavors where my interest is piqued when a foreign singer performs or recites in English. At first I figured “maybe I’m biased?” But most of my playlist has consisted of a higher percentage in songs of a different language than my own, rather than vice versa, since I was at least 14. So I can’t be too biased. Then I thought, “the singer must be SAYING something,” and I’m not just talking lyrics. It’s body language. It’s stage presence. It’s confidence. And it’s personal, I think, for an artist in particular. That’s what pulls me: personality.

On Track to the Main Train

Tribeman

Your Friendly-Neighborhood 24Karat Hero

So, then one might imagine my surprise when I learned about a group called EXILE. Talk about personality! I wouldn’t be shocked if people referred to them as the Super Junior of Japan (Korea’s Tohoshinki, even). Super Junior, having swept the charts as veteran performers in Korea the past eight years at LEAST, consist of many members, all skilled in dance, singing, composing, you name it. They are also influenced by R&B. Japan’s EXILE boasts that same resume, almost triple that, in my opinion. The group originally has NINETEEN MEMBERS total (they are now roughly 13—STILL a big number). They perform mostly in a hip-hop style, R&B nuance and are extremely on point with their performances (Japan is a visual arts culture, after all). EXILE’s been in the music game since the mid 90s and boasts 3 generations of performers at least. What do I mean? My introduction to EXILE, again, started sometime during high-school. At this point, my generation is not only still being targeted as the main consumer demographic but Destiny’s Child hasn’t really retired yet, Missy Elliot is still more active on the front lines compared the producing she mostly does now, not to mention a lot of black musicians from the 90s are still active or collaborating at the very least. Heck Michael Jackson is STILL ALIVE upon my dive into Jpop. Japan’s EXILE manifests these influences and they’ve BEEN doing so.

That’s a real FEAT considering, the Japanese music industry is arguably not as accessible as Korea’s (especially if you’re a foreign fan). Before kpop blew up the internet—the whole INTERNATIONAL music industry—knowing about any other Japanese singer outside of say the Anime industry was hard. Breaking INTO the American music industry, some tried, was even more difficult for Japanese singers. One, I recall, went simply by Toshi (another R&B singer), recently considered an R&B music legend in Japan, he too struggled to break into the biz in the States only to grasp a brief appearance on MTV; where my eyes only saw him TWICE. His m/v featured a slower jam called “Breaking Through.” Thought I was seeing things, asked about him, searched about him, and found nothing (iTunes wasn’t even reliable at THIS point). American musical powers-that-be wasn’t aware or willing yet. So, I didn’t think EXILE’s taking refuge at home base was a bad move. (In fact, many Asian Americans even saw this opportunity, and started their careers eastbound).

Another reason EXILE’s still in the game: the group now doesn’t consist of the same members. I mentioned “generations” earlier. If the one I got into were influenced by the 90s, the most recent group (or sub-group) –now called EXILE Tribe, carries on the legacy of the members who came before. But they have their own STYLE of course. Since the early career of EXILE there has been sub units, solo gigs and other affiliated acts, such as: J-Soul Brothers, ATSUSHI’s solo, and not to mention acting gigs promoting various members. This group does a lot and that’s because the diversity of its members bring much to the table. Furthermore, EXILE began when R&B and hip-hop was still considered underground and associated with Japanese ghettos and black-music enthusiasts (not ENTIRELY of course, but mostly). Some might argue this association STILL exists. But EXILE, among other Japanese artists, helped bring these genres to the Jpop forefront regardless. And have blown up SINCE then.

Final Thoughts

I should specify, as a fan, Jpop has been known for its PR, highly-concentrated fanservice (which I think stems from the heavy rock influence in Japan. Maybe not?), and exaggerated performances that I can only vaguely describe as “stage-like?”….?? Basically there’s a lot of eye-contact IN TANDEM with sweeping of the hands and arms in the air; typical of cookie-cutter J-pop of the male performances (to see what I’m talking about, look up Johnny’s entertainment^^). They don’t have to even necessarily be STRONG vocalists, either. This style manifests a LOT in J-Rock and Visual Kei Rock. Female Jpop artists too. This isn’t to throw shade at Japanese POP at all. The pop artists over there know their audiences and use their established style very well. Their work ethic is also TOP NOTCH. Not to mention that they’re well-trained. But Japanese R&B and hip-hop had “sore-thumb” status in the mainstream until at least EXILE. I’ve noticed that since Kpop has blown up, many J-pop artists are taking on R&B/hip-hop influences (G-Drgagon and W-inds, anyone?). You know what? I ain’t mad.

The majority of this post is based off of my personal experiences with this topic. There are also still many things about Japan’s influence by black music that I didn’t cover. This doesn’t even BEGIN to dive into black musical influence in Japan. There’s much more information out there of FACT that are just as accessible as the nearest “rabbit hole” you can find (Youtube? That’s how I found Tatsuro-san ^^). I advice taking a jump. If hip-hop/R&B is RARE among Japan’s male performers, the female performances have almost been a complete opposite!  (i.e. Thelma Aoyama, Crystal Kay, Namie Amuro, Miho Fukuhara, Ayumi Hamasaki, to name too few). Male R&B soloists have also been largely successful at keeping their mainstream status in Jpop by lacing the “pop-side” with an R&B aesthetic via solid vocals, collaborations or a mix of both.


 

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**COA's, Disclaimers and ETC's**

All mentioned content is purely for entertainment/informative purposes. All links provided for each respective topic are of sites I find trustworthy (a.k.a. safe to browse) with any following content the property of those admins. Any unexpected roads to elsewhere are at the discretion of your own browser/internet provider’s security settings …annnd hopefully a good firewall.

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