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Straight Outta Osaka

Nobukazu Takemura/It's All Hip-Hop to Him

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Hip-hop is a worldwide phenomenon these days, both in its own right and as a pervasive ingredient in contemporary pop music. But in the mid-80s, when Osaka teenager Nobukazu Takemura took up the wheels of steel as his instrument of choice, it was still underground in most of the United States, not to mention Japan. Working at a record store, Takemura got hooked on a mix tape by legendary New York DJ Red Alert, and by his senior year in high school he was spinning at a pioneering hip-hop nightclub called Life.

Few recorded examples of his DJ days exist, but on Era of Glitterring Gas [sic], the 1992 album by Audio Sports--a weird, short-lived hip-hop trio with Boredoms vocalist Yamatsuka Eye, a neighborhood acquaintance--his viscous, time-freezing scratches make clear that he was already taking the form in a new direction. "Because I didn't understand [American rap] lyrics, I perceived the vocals as just another sound," says Takemura, now 31, through a translator. With a limited understanding of the sociological significance, he ultimately came to see hip-hop as most interesting for its compositional potential.

Takemura makes his Chicago debut this weekend in support of his sixth and latest album, the all-electronic, entirely beatless, and oddly melodic Scope. (It's his first for the local Thrill Jockey label, which will also distribute his Childisc imprint in the U.S.) Nothing on Scope sounds remotely like a needle hitting vinyl--in fact, Takemura says he stopped listening to hip-hop not long after the Audio Sports album came out, disillusioned by the competitiveness and cliquishness among Osaka DJs. But he insists that it and the diverse catalog that precedes it are all hip-hop. "In my mind I used to be scratching with my hands," he says, "but now I make my own computer programs and use them to make those scratches." The computer allows a much greater degree of detail than the turntables: he dissects source material into the tiniest of specks--musical DNA--and then recombines it into gorgeously elaborate movements of theme and variation.

Though he would argue otherwise, Takemura did abandon the dice-and-splice MO for a time in 1993, writing for, producing, and playing keyboards, flute, and oboe in the lightweight but well-arranged ten-piece electric-jazz band Spiritual Vibes. "It may seem like my style has changed," he says, "but in my mind it's the same thing. Hip-hop was never just a genre of music to me, it was the whole idea of breaking down boundaries." But the following year he returned to the metaphorical decks with the studio-based but soulful acid-jazz project Child's View, recorded with help from dance-world heavies like Philippe Zdar of Cassius and Howie B.

Due to contractual problems with his Japanese label, Bellissima!, the follow-up to Child's View was three years in the coming, and by the time Child and Magic was finally released by Warner Music Japan, Takemura's sound had morphed again: newly naturalistic, nontraditional song structures mixed live instrumentation with electronics and music-box melodies with academic minimalism--and his drum 'n' bass programming makes Squarepusher sound quaint. Even the more recent Milan: Issey Miyake Men by Naoki Takizawa (also on Warners), a beatless, almost chamberlike recording of music Takemura composed and performed for the Japanese fashion designer's runway show this summer, can't be called linear. Though he played most of the instruments himself in the studio--"Since I was a child I was always into all kinds of different instruments...guitar, bass, drums, all kinds of stuff," he says, "but I'm not very good at any of them"--he still "scratches" the pieces into place via computer.

If Takemura had a reputation in the U.S. before Scope, it was for his rigorous remixes of work by Roni Size, Pizzicato Five, Coldcut, Tortoise, and perhaps most tellingly, Steve Reich. He was a fan of Reich even before he discovered hip-hop; as a young jazz buff he'd taken a chance on the classic Music for 18 Musicians, and it apparently made a lasting impression. His contribution to this year's Reich Remixed (Nonesuch), a dance-music reimagining of some of the composer's works, conveys a far deeper understanding of minimalism than those by contemporaries like DJ Spooky, Ken Ishii, and Tranquility Bass. Even as he breaks down the repetition of Reich's "Proverb" with electronic static and fractal arpeggios, he achieves a similar cumulative effect, building rhythmic and harmonic richness in tiny increments.

On Scope, the minimalist influence is more prevalent than ever. The 22-minute opening cut, "On a Balloon," shatters a single electronic tone, panning it between speakers, injecting it with manipulated digital errors a la German disc destroyer Markus Popp, and interrupting it with a gentle liquid swish or a jagged electronic burst a la Morton Subotnick. "Kepler" is the most strictly Reichlike, a fluctuating stream of hypnotic, shifting bell-tone riffs; "Taw" sounds like a heaving symphony for Geiger counter and Space Invaders. But Takemura exploits the minimalist palette for maximal effect, creating a work that in its own way is every bit as intricately orchestrated as his Warners releases.

While in town, Takemura hopes to record with Jim O'Rourke, Casey Rice, and Tortoise's John McEntire and Douglas McCombs. On their first Japanese tour, four years ago, Tortoise requested Takemura as an opening act, laying the groundwork for his current affiliation with Thrill Jockey. When the call came, he admitted in the Wire this summer, "I didn't even know their name. I ran to get their record at the music shop and was surprised to listen to it. Their form and style was quite different from mine, but I felt sympathy with them in a deeper sense."

For his performance Friday at the Empty Bottle, Takemura will be joined onstage by Aki Tsuyuko, whose sweet, childlike voice is featured on most of his records as well as her own album of spare, dreamy electronic drift, Ongakushitsu (Childisc), and possibly O'Rourke, who's been on tour with him these past few weeks. He performs Friday at the Empty Bottle and gives a free in-store performance Saturday afternoon at Dusty Groove. And if you're reading this on Thursday, November 18, you may be able to catch him in laptop duets with O'Rourke tonight at the Museum of Contemporary Art as part of the fourth annual Asian American Jazz Festival.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kunihiko Satake.

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