Meet the Guy Bringing Japanese Dance Music and Hip-Hop to an L.A. Audience

Taku Takahashi’s Otaquest is a crash course in Japanese pop culture

DJ-producer Taku Takahashi was born, raised, and still resides in Japan, but he spent three years in Los Angeles for college. “I’m taking semesters off—for, like, 20 years,” he says with a laugh during a recent phone call. He was a student here in the ’90s when West Coast hip-hop was big, but he has a confession to make: “I love East Coast rap,” he says. A Tribe Called Quest is a favorite; then again, so is L.A.-reared the Pharcyde. Ultimately, it was a lot of American hip-hop, U.S. and British pop, plus Japanese dance music artists like Pizzicato Five and Towa Tei that made an impact on Takahashi in his formative years.

In the late ’90s, Takahashi co-founded the group m-flo. With an eclectic sound that incorporates hip-hop, R&B, and a variety of dance music styles, m-flo has had a long and active career. They’ve collaborated with artists including electronic music legend Ryuichi Sakamoto and K-pop star Taeyang. Outside of m-flo, Takahashi has remixed artists like the Ting Tings, Calvin Harris and Passion Pit. He’s also passionate about introducing people to Japanese music and pop culture, and those interests will come together with Otaquest Live, which goes down at the Novo on July 3.

The concert, now in its second year, aims to showcase Japanese dance music and hip-hop. The 2019 line-up features m-flo alongside Capsule (which features producer Yasutaka Nakata, who also works with Perfume) and singer Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, whose quirky and colorful video for “Pon Pon Pon” made her a viral sensation back in 2011. Also on the bill are singer Hiroomi Tosaka and rapper CrazyBoy. Following the concert is a club event with DJ sets from Takahashi and others.

Otaquest is a website founded by Takahashi and Eddie Lehecka that serves as a source for the latest in Japanese pop culture, from reviews of the latest anime series and films to music news. “We want to let the U.S. audience, or people outside of Japan, what’s really going on in Japan,” says Takahashi.

He did something similar in Japan with internet radio station, which Takahashi launched when he saw a lack of outlets for electronic music. “I just did it because no one else was doing it,” he says. “I presented it to radio stations, but they didn’t like my ideas, so I was like, I’ll just do it myself.”

As a DJ and producer, Takahashi inhabits different musical spheres that lend him the perspective to take on these projects. In addition to m-flo, DJ gigs, and his remix and production work, he’s also contributed music to anime series like Space Dandy and Panty and Stocking with Garterbelt. He says that, in the early ’00s, Japan’s animation world changed. Where once they relied on pop ditties known as anisongs, shows began to incorporate a more diverse range of music, including techno and hip-hop.

Plus, he explains, anime in Japan went through a metamorphosis similar to that happened with superhero comics in the U.S. They gained popularity with adults and the perception of anime as a nerdy pastime faded. ” It became a very natural thing and also connected to counterculture music too, some part of it at least,” he says.

In the U.S., anime also gained popularity in the early 2000s as shows began airing on cable networks like Adult Swim and conventions like Anime Expo swelled in size.

Since then, American fans have delved into more than Japanese comics and cartoons, and artists like m-flo have solid followings in the States. The response from crowds, such as at a recent show in Chicago, came as a pleasant surprise for Takahashi. He never expected to see an American audience singing in Japanese.

“That was an experience I would never expect,” he says.

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