This Japanese label puts a hypnotic twist on classic club sounds. Matt Unicomb gets a rare interview with its founders, DJ Masda and So Inagawa.
Cabaret's roots lie in a party series of the same name. Launched by So Inagawa and his friends Keisuke Kondo and Sackrai at Club JB'S in the port city of Nagoya in 2002, it moved to Tokyo in 2008, bringing DJ Masda along with it. In the years since, Cabaret became one of Japan's best-loved house and techno nights, with guests like Daniel Bell, Vera, Cassy and Binh. Primarily held at Unit, a 500-capacity club in Shibuya, Cabaret's booking policy reflects the sound of its label: stripped-back, modern, free of big breakdowns or in-your-face melodies. It puts out the kind of tunes that can dazzle a dance floor, but only in the right DJ's hands. Place them among more brazen tracks, and their impact will be lost; drop them in an understated set at the right moment and they might be the highlight of the night.
No record typifies Cabaret's sound as well as its first. So Inagawa's Logo Queen, a three-track 12-inch released in August 2013, is a perfect example of modern deep house. Its sound is crisp, groovy and clean but packs a sense of warmth that often eludes such stripped-down tracks. Thanks to carefully chosen jazz samples, there's an emotional side to Logo Queen—no doubt part of why it's among the most-played deep house records of the past few years.
"I made those tracks far back in the past, so I don't remember much," So Inagawa told me over email. "The keys in 'Logo Queen' were sampled. I also don't remember a lot about the bassline, but I tried with various versions, adding or reducing different bits."
Most details of Cabaret's early days are hazy in the minds of its owners. They barely even remember how they met—"Too long ago," is almost all DJ Masda had to say. He was also tight-lipped about the inner workings of the label. "I believe the music is speaking for itself already," he told me early on in our email conversation. DJ Masda did, however, reveal that the idea for the label itself came in a particularly tumultuous period. "It was after the big earthquake," DJ Masda wrote. "It was a hard time. I was thinking about stopping the Cabaret party and starting a new chapter of my life—and starting a label. I didn't tell anyone, it was only in my head." Unbeknown to DJ Masda, So Inagawa—who'd already released a handful of 12-inches on other labels—also had plans for an outlet of his own. Naturally, the two friends joined forces.
Every act on Cabaret has mastered the art of reduction. The label's sound stretches from deep house to electro, but a thread of artful minimalism runs through its ten releases so far (11 if you count an ultra-limited mini-compilation released before the label existed in 2009). Its effect is obvious. "We like this hypnotic lock," DJ Masda writes. "In Japanese we call it hame. If someone asks me what's the mutual thing connecting our music, it's this."
This idea is nothing new, of course. Hypnotising clubbers has been the objective of stripped-down dance music since the style emerged in the late '90s. Yet very few contemporary labels or DJs put their focus squarely on hypnosis. Even among outlets specialising in subtle textures, there's an emphasis on party-rocking tunes that stand out from the rest, if only for their boldness. But beneath Cabaret's hame is the same warmth that made Logo Queen so charmingly effective. You can hear it in the moody electro of TC80's "Phrase" and the chugging minimal of Evan Baggs' "Blossom"—tracks with a sound far removed from So Inagawa's low-slung house, but sharing a sense of feeling that only comes with considered, artful production.
"I made 'Phrase' exactly two years ago," said TC80, a Berlin-based French producer who's released twice on Cabaret, including July's Vestiges Of Fools full-length. "At the time, I wanted to make emotional tracks with life, but still for the dance floor. The pads and the strange vocal elements in the background make the track mysterious. The beat, bass and guitar give a touch of funk."
Emotional funk. It's a sound central to every track on Cabaret so far, but none more so than Evan Baggs's "Blossom," a bass-loaded minimal cut that's among the label's most out-there tunes. "The beats for 'Blossom' were already laid out," said Baggs, a gifted DJ with just a handful of tracks to his name. "I then played the bassline live with a Yamaha synth. Perhaps that live aspect of the bass helped to breathe some life and emotion into the track."
Injecting a sense of feeling into a relatively skeletal framework is no easy feat. A producer can only rely on short snippets of melody—the aim is to use a little to say a lot. Minimal dance music's best-loved producers are those who are able to do just that—not least So Inagawa's longtime favourite, Thomas Melchior. And like Melchior, So Inagawa has done it with restraint and crafty sampling, as heard in Logo Queen and Sensibilia, and right across his six-track Integritithm album from last year. "I didn't mean to use a lot of jazz chords and samples," he said. "But I'll take in anything if it's cool."
This openness to new sounds is now one of Cabaret's most visible traits. Three years ago, most would have DJ Masda and So Inagawa's fledging operation down as an outlet for smooth and jazzy deep house. Today, thanks to TC80 and Ekbox (a collaboration between Evan Baggs and Katsuya Sano) it's got an electro side. Binh's Downtown and Buyout, 12-inches rooted in spacey textures, make it a minimal label as well. But whichever way you look at Cabaret, there's something significant to be found. A delicate touch can go a long way in club music, and few have an ear for those sounds like DJ Masda and So Inagawa, two hame masters.