Yusaku Shigeyasu hears about the style behind a Japanese DJ hero.
As the founder of the fabled Future Terror parties—held in Chiba since 2001—Nobu's skills come from years spent closely observing dance floors. Drawing upon a vast collection of records, an ability to fluidly present a broad spectrum of music is what sets Nobu apart. Tough, deep, emotional and experimental, the Nobu sound is hard to define, yet its impact on the dance floor is undeniable.
I recently caught up with Nobu on a breezy spring night in Chiba city. Over beers and sake, we looked back on his continually evolving relationship with music and discussed some of the things he's learned throughout two decades of playing records.
How did you get into DJing?
In Chiba, where I grew up, there were a lot of cool older DJs. I was initially into punk and hardcore, which was a totally different scene from the scene I'm in today. I was more the kind of kid who hung out at live gigs. There was a party held at a warehouse that was part of Chiba harbour, where they played not just dance music records but also punk, psychobilly—music of any genre. And when I went there, I thought to myself, "I wouldn't mind giving DJing a try."
How old were you?
I was 18. There was a clothes store I liked going to where I met Shingo Kubota, the vocalist of the legendary Japanese new wave band 8 1/2. I ended up going to the place he was hanging out a lot, and immediately felt at home. I found the mix of people really fascinating—it was a place where chaos and peace strangely coexisted. That was my first party experience. US hardcore was big in my circle of friends at the time, which got me into skateboard culture as well. I ended up becoming friends with Inada, who was a pro skater and DJ for [the skateboard company] Black Label, and DJ Shinsaku, and we started to go out together. They taught me the ins and outs of DJing.
What kind of tracks did you start out playing?
My first attempt wasn't something you could describe as DJing. I was playing dance music versions of Japanese pop songs and Obake No Q-tarō soundtracks mixed with things like Murphy's Law and Run DMC's "Walk This Way." When I think about it, there might be some Japanese stuff that could be interesting to see reissued now.
There was also a skater party in Tokyo called Influenza, which I started going to with older friends. I saw how the DJ moved the crowd differently there, which I thought was cool. The first time I DJ'd in front of people was when I was 19. It was at Inkstick in Shibuya. Along with the kind of tracks I just mentioned, I remember playing Anthrax and Public Enemy's "Bring The Noise."
Pretty different from what you play now, then.
It couldn't be more different [laughs]. There was no beat-matching involved, so I'd count the beats, cue it, and dive right in. I started playing dub records around this period. At some point I became friends with this English guy, who I later realised was behind the Maximum Joy techno party in Tokyo. We got along well. One time when I was at his place he was playing some UK sounds—things on On-U Sound and The Pop Group, which I guess you can say he got me hooked on. I got more into dub, listening to Dub Syndicate, and started DJing with the delay connected to the mixer.
From then on I learned about acts like Augustus Pablo, Lee Perry, Burning Spear, which I began to play out. Through Cypress Hill I also got into hip-hop. In those days, the act of buying records itself was such a cool thing for me. This was the time when Shibuya record stores were buzzing like never before, and I went to them all the time. I started buying hip-hop records, and that's when I learned how to mix by matching the BPM. I practiced scratching, too.
Mixtape culture was thriving at that time. Were there any tapes in particular that influenced you?
I listened to DJ Kensei and DJ Kiyo mixtapes before I started to DJ. During that time there was a really nice mixture between the skateboard, band and DJ cultures—the Beastie Boys were a huge influence in my circle of friends. Nori, who was an older friend from my neighbourhood, and also part of a band called Nukey Pikes who were doing interesting stuff around this time, saw me messing around with a clarinet back stage one day, and asked, "Hey, that clarinet's pretty cool. Wanna play with us next time?" When he told me this, I thought, "What is this guy on about?" [laughs] but I actually ended up playing clarinet for his band. His punk lifestyle became a huge influence on me after that.
It's interesting that this led to your style today.
The English friend I mentioned earlier was actually the person who got me listening to techno. There was also a rave held in a camping site called Otakl Land in Izu. A friend I met at a party told me about it. All you were given was a map printed on some coarse paper. There was still no GPS in those days, so we'd often get lost along the way. I only started playing techno as a DJ much later. I didn't start taking DJing seriously until I saw Jeff Mills at Liquidroom, and was like, "Wow, this is amazing." I think that was the first moment that made me think about DJing with techno. Then I started going to Maniac Love around '96 or '97.
At that time, I was trying to mix other genres with techno—mixing it with abstract break beats, for example. But in those days it was hard to find a place to do it. Maybe it was a little too out there. I didn't really have much skill either. So I thought, "To hell with it. DJing isn't what it's cracked up to be," and for a period I stopped playing all together. But around the same time, the first Metamorphose festival took place, and I heard how freely people like EYE from Boredoms or Future Sound Of London played. And this kick-started my interest in the possibility of an alternative style.
Francois Kevorkian was also refining this kind of freedom, but presenting it in the form of house music. His Essential Mix came out during this time, and it blew me away. Free as well as stylish, it was an exceptional mix that influenced me a lot. It made me want to take up DJing again. It became one of the reasons I started Future Terror.
So were your sets around this time centred on house music of this nature?
I played things like Detroit techno as well. But I was also into electro, mixing "Sharevari," Drexciya or Metroplex with house. I also started to play disco tracks around this time, but the more obscure cuts with psychedelic synths. Then, Ukawa's Mixrooffice started, which is where I first experienced high-definition techno through Funktion-One. I was hooked on playing with this sound. From there, I shifted straight into techno. But I'd say my current style only started to take shape after I heard Marcel Dettmann at a Future Terror party held at a place called Queens in 2009.
What setup do you prefer when you DJ?
Turntables, CDJs and a mixer. I don't use effects on the whole. When I used to play a lot of house and disco I was using them a lot, but now not at all. Recently I've been enjoying the Rane MP2015, but most of the time I use the Allen & Heath Xone:92 as my mixer.
Why is that?
The quality of its sound and its usability. On the whole, the Xone:92 is faithful to the source sound, and flat. These days there are more superior mixers in terms of functionality, but I'm most used to the handling of the Xone:92. I like the combination of Urei and Dope Real isolator as well. But I generally don't mind which mixer I end up using, because each mixer gives a different kind of positive feeling when you mix two tracks together. Up until 2010, I mainly played vinyl, but with the release of the Pioneer CDJ-2000s I began using CDJs because the sound quality was noticeably better [than the older models].
Now I mainly use USBs but also play vinyl depending on the situation. Recently at Rainbow Disco Club I played a house set back-to-back with The Black Madonna—I used vinyl on that occasion. Sometimes it's tricky to DJ when the low-end travels inside the booth, but the foundations of the booth were solid, and there wasn't any interference from the outside speakers. Playing house tracks, I thought I could better create the groove I wanted with vinyl, so that's why I chose to play with them.
Why did you start using USBs?
It's down to convenience and efficiency. You can take a lot of tracks with you, and sometimes there are venues that don't cater properly for DJs who play vinyl—with USB you can adjust to most circumstances. I was a little hesitant about CDJs in the beginning, but as I said, with the arrival of CDJ-2000s the sound output was drastically different to earlier models, and I was satisfied with the sound quality. Also, up until then, I thought you could only create a groove with vinyl. I used CDJs before then and couldn't create the groove I had in my mind. This changed completely with the CDJ-2000. The CDJ-2000NXS2 has evolved even more, with better sound output and handling.
What do you need to consider when preparing music for a party?
I make a point of bringing a well-balanced collection of tracks so that I can respond to the crowd. And because I can take a lot of tracks on the USB, I divide the tracks into categories of my own—if something is more acid-like or deep and so on I can immediately find the tracks I want while I'm playing.
There will always be a difference in sound when you mix vinyl and digital tracks.
That's why the EQ is so important. I think it's important to remember how each track sounds when it's played out. How much you understand each track before you put your DJing into practice is key.
How do you approach mixing different genres together? Do different kinds of transitions come in handy?
When you play across a lot of genres I think it's more fun to do short mixes. But on the other hand, there's a fantastic feeling that comes from layering sounds. So I do long transitions when I play techno, focusing a lot on the layers between sounds. With the EQ, I listen to the sound output of a given space, decide how to control the EQ, and think about how it would feel the best. Of course, you should really understand the character of the two tracks you're mixing before you start to build satisfying layers.
What kind of set lengths do you prefer?
I recently played for around five hours in Hamamatsu and Okinawa. The longest set I've played is around 12.5 hours, but I think the three-hour mark is the best for me.
It's easier to shape the set and make it flow. I try to express myself—by doing things like steadying the groove or introducing a beautiful melody—while creating a narrative at the same time. But speaking of short sets, I recently played at Boiler Room for only an hour and I think I managed to build something within that time.
How do you react when the audience wants to move in a direction that's different from where you want to go?
I try and find the middle ground. You should think about your set in relation to the general mood of the night—you can't ignore the audience completely and start a set with a pre-planned track.
You also shouldn't be totally controlled by the audience, but even if you want to take it in a certain direction you should follow the vibe of the floor. Although sometimes you might end up in a situation where the audience is satisfied but perhaps you're not. But it's always a great feeling if you see happy faces in the audience at the end of the night.
I constantly check the facial expressions of the crowd in order to communicate with the floor. There are different expressions depending on whether people are tired or having a good time. I'm always observing the reaction of the audience when selecting tracks, then choosing whether to build it up or calm it down
How does the size of a venue change the way you read the audience?
It depends on the venue, but sometimes I check the reaction of the people around the sweet spot on the dance floor. And, of course, the expression of the people right at the front, too. The track selection changes depending on the size of the venue. It's absolutely crucial that you respond flexibly to each situation.
If you split the set into beginning, middle and end, what are your considerations for each segment?
Within the first four tracks, I'll try and grasp what the audience wants. If I get the feeling that I can follow the image I have in my mind I'll try that approach. But if I get the sense that it's not that kind of night I won't force that image onto the audience, and I'll switch to blend in with the situation—I don't want to ruin the atmosphere of the party. So usually I spend the half hour before my set assessing the atmosphere of the floor. For the middle segment, I'll try to build an atmosphere in which the dancers can really focus on the music and loose their sense of time.
And for the end, if I'm the last on the bill, I'll be thinking about how best to guide the audience to a steady landing. When everything clicks there's a certain harmony with the audience and I don't even have to think about the next track. If there's another DJ waiting to come on, I'll try and select an understated track to make the transition easier for them.
What can you do when the DJ before you is playing a completely different style of music to yours?
Normally I'll try and match the style or groove of the previous DJ as much as possible. But if it feels like I should bring my own personality to the fore I sometimes change the flow completely. I might even stop the sound before I start my set. In Japan I'm often billed at festivals after acts like [the hip-hop group] Tha Blue Herb. I get a lot of bookings from parties unrelated to techno, which I'm actually really pleased about. If I'm lucky enough to get booked for these kinds of events, it means there's an opportunity to show techno to a completely different audience.
I've also played alongside DJ Krush a number of times, but rather than select hip-hop tracks I thought about a selection based on what I think hip-hop audiences might find interesting.
Do you still make what you'd consider to be big mistakes?
Even if the BPM is out of sync when I'm mixing, for example, I'll try not to panic too much. The important thing is to make a quick recovery. And this ability to recover can only be learned through experience. I've made a lot of mistakes over the years, but have also developed the mental strength to recover quickly. There are definitely times when you completely misread the audience with a track you thought was right on-point. But it's important to make a recovery when this happens.
It's also nice to take risks because the tension you have in your fingertips when you're mixing, knowing you might fail, always translates to the audience. Like the time at Rainbow Disco Club I mentioned earlier—the wind was so strong but I still chose the risk of the needle skipping because I believed vinyl would be better for that situation.
Take the sync function on CDJs, for example. Don't use it because you can't mix or because you find it easier. Since these functions exist I think it's up to us to find new techniques that are only possible by using them. By doing that, you'll create tension.
The sound inside different venues can vary a lot. How do you respond to these differences?
I make adjustments to the EQ to match the sound output. The same goes for my use of the faders when I'm mixing. The most satisfying frequency range differs in each venue, so it doesn't mean you get more impact just by diving into the low-end. You sometimes have to subtract to make maximum impact. The use of the EQ in this way is fundamental to DJing, and I think the most important part. The ears must feel comfortable, even after a long period. Once I understand the characteristics of my tracks, and the way the venue sounds, I try to figure out the most satisfying way to mix. To understand this, I think experience is the most crucial factor.
How far ahead are you thinking while DJing?
Martial arts—which I was doing while I had a period away from DJing—has helped me a lot with this. In martial arts you're not only thinking about the reaction to an initial move, but also at least two steps ahead. This mentality has actually come in handy for DJing. I'm always conscious of what I'm playing up to around three tracks ahead, but also have an image of where I want to be in 30 minutes' time. But the situation of the audience and the space is constantly morphing, so I also don't force myself to push through with this image. There's of course no audience when I'm making a mix for podcasts or CD mixes, so I can bring together a set where my trajectory is steadily guided towards my goal.
In your opinion, what would constitute an ideal DJ?
My favourite DJs have a sense of rawness. You can impress as a DJ without having very much skill, or you can be technically precise but have no heart. A few years back the needle of Donato Dozzy's turntable jumped during a set at Labyrinth, and I was watching thinking, "Oh crap, the needle skipped. What are you going to do, Donato?" But he made a brilliant recovery. I'm inspired by these moments, too. And when you think about why that is, I think it's because there's a tension and physical immediacy to something that's being controlled by human beings. Other than that, it depends whether that person is able to acquire his or her own unique style. These are the most important points.
By mixing something as a DJ, you attempt to transform the enjoyment of a song beyond that of its original form. The strength in keeping this kind of personal approach close to your heart is what's important.