May is here, and with it comes a J-Pop release from the artist tofubeats, a producer hailing from Kobe who has gone from message board lurker to well-known act in a little under a decade. His latest album Fantasy Club arrives on May 24, and is set to be one of the year’s highlights; a wonky long-player zipping between rap, house and string-accented pop. A few weeks out, so now is a good time to get familiar with him.
Hailing from a planned community just outside the major city of Kobe, Yusuke Kawai became interested in creating music via Japanese hip-hop artists, who could create tracks by themselves without instruments. He started making his own creations and sharing them via online message boards with other bedroom-based producers in the early 2000s. Eventually he shared original numbers, often taking samples from popular anime and slicing them into second-long bits. Through netlabels such as Maltine Records, he shared them under the name dj newtown.
Around the same time he started the tofubeats project, which often saw him incorporate his own voice into the music, albeit run through a heavy layer of electronic manipulation. With tofubeats, Kawai explored a wide variety of styles, touching on electro-pop, hip-hop, techno and much more. Lines weren’t just blurred, they didn’t exist, tofubeats opting instead to be a sonic omnivore. He became the standout from the netlabel scene, his music practically being a stand in for the internet entirely — everything is happening at once, and it’s up to you to pick out the parts you like.
Kawai’s URL-gone-IRL approach landed him on Warner Brothers Japan boutique label unBorde, home to Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Gesu No Kiwame Otome among others. This allowed him a chance to work with bigger J-Pop names, ranging from Bonnie Pink to ‘80s idol Chisato Moritaka to ‘90s mega-producer Tetsuya Komuro. The never-know-what’s-next vibe persisted, but now tofubeats had a wider range of voices to work with, including rappers and comedian Takashi Fujii, the latter for dizzying dance-pop cut “Disco No Kamisama.”
Over the last year, however, tofubeats seems to be turning back to see what he can do mostly by himself. The songs preceding the release of Fantasy Club have featured him, just him, whether delivering saliva-tipped barbs on rap number “SHOPPINGMALL” or longing on R&B-tinged “CALLIN.” Yet he also creates something lithe and sweet such as “BABY,” a violin-accented number that finds him tackling the lead vocal, and nailing the summer-day-stroll atmosphere it calls for. At one point, it seemed like tofubeats could easily slide into the background if he wanted and create songs for other J-Pop names. Yet Fantasy Club says that maybe he’s a name to know all on his own.
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